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Thomas: 5 questions that will define Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class

| Friday, February 5, 2021

When recruiting classes become official, it’s almost like the earliest form of preseason rankings. Undoubtedly, many of the teams that reeled in the top recruiting classes will be national contenders in the coming years, with many familiar names atop the rankings. Alabama’s top-ranked 2017 class led to two national championships, and Wednesday they landed the highest-rated recruiting class in NCAA football history, according to 247Sports. 

However, we’ve seen quite the opposite of that tale as well. LSU won the 2019 national championship with one of the most dominant efforts in history, despite recruiting classes ranked fifth, second, seventh and 15th over the previous four seasons. While not shabby, the recruiting did not hint at the 15-0 season that was to come from the Tigers.

And then there’s the other side of the coin, as we’ve seen Texas gain a pair of top-3 classes in 2018 and 2019, yet they never sniffed true national relevance. Michigan and USC have also frequently boasted impressive classes, yet neither program has been able to break back into college football’s elite. 

All that is to say that while high recruiting rankings are nice, they don’t solidify a team’s final ranking for the next few seasons. So what exactly can we glean from Notre Dame’s No. 9 ranking (by 247Sports) in the 2021 recruiting classes. Here’s a look at five questions, the answers to which may determine whether Notre Dame can translate another impressive recruiting effort into sustained success, and maybe — just maybe — a drought-snapping national title. 

 

Is Tyler Buchner the answer at quarterback?

Ian Book took a huge step for the Irish at quarterback — he provided them with three seasons of 10+ wins, a level of consistency that Notre Dame hadn’t seen since 1991-1993. However, in two Playoff appearances, Book appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the moment. Between two CFP games and an ACC Championship appearance, the Book-led offense mustered a combined 27 points.

The offense needs to take the next step, as elite quarterback play is an absolute must-have for national championship contention. Incoming QB recruit Tyler Buchner offers hope that he may be the answer for the Irish under center. He’s a top-100 prospect and the No. 3-rated dual-threat signal-caller.

However, Notre Dame has had elite recruits at this position before. Phil Jurkovec, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush were all ranked within the top five of their position, yet none elevated the Irish to the next level. Jurkovec transferred to BC without ever starting a game, Wimbush transferred after Book took over the starting job, Zaire transferred after Deshone Kizer usurped him for the starting role and Kizer simply couldn’t get it done, going 12-11 as the Irish starter.

So what makes Buchner different? He put up jaw dropping numbers in California high school ball, but he also missed his senior season, along with most of another year with a torn ACL. Is Buchner the real deal? He certainly could be, but Notre Dame’s lack of an inspiring history at developing elite quarterbacks does not bring about a lot of confidence. His success is easily the biggest X-factor within this latest recruiting class for the Irish.

 

Is Lorenzo Styles or Deion Colzie another great Notre Dame receiver?

There are two parts to this question, to be quite fair. One is what is asked: Can Styles and Colzie step up and emulate the success of some former great Irish receivers? And, secondly, will Brian Kelly be willing to play them, if they prove to be electric talents for Notre Dame?

The Irish have had some dynamic receivers over the years, with speedsters like Will Fuller (now on the Houston Texans) and physical specimens like Chase Claypool (a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers) complementing their oft-bruising rushing attack and ever-plentiful stable of tight ends. This past season, the Irish struggled to generate production from receivers, as they lacked a consistent downfield threat which limited their versatility on offense.

This was clearly seen in the Rose Bowl against Alabama, in which Crimson Tide receivers racked up over 220 yards after the catch against the Irish, while Notre Dame receivers barely mustered 60. Tyler Buchner could be a world-beater under center, but if Styles and the rest of the Irish receiving corps are not making plays… elite quarterback play might not be enough in South Bend.

Last year, we frustratingly watched five-star freshman receiver Jordan Johnson barely touch the field all season, despite his tantalizing potential and the overall struggles of the passing game at times. Will that trend continue with Colzie or Styles, who both rate as top-20 receivers and Notre Dame’s fourth- and fifth-best recruits in their class, respectively? Notre Dame fans will cross their fingers and hope they bring some dynamic playmaking to this offense.

 

Can Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes solve issues at cornerback?

The secondary was the clear point of weakness on an otherwise very strong Notre Dame defense this past season. True freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis took over for junior TaRiq Bracy midway through the season, while graduate transfer Nick McCloud was solid, if not spectacular, in a starting role. As much as the Irish need more potency on offense, they need to be able to compete with the powerful offenses that Clemson, Alabama and the like bring to the table.

Notre Dame didn’t bring in a top-20 corner, as Riley (No. 25 at the position, No. 304 overall) is its best get at the position. Barnes (247’s No. 44 prospect) is the other Irish commit at the position, and the major question is what they will bring to the table in 2021 and beyond?

The Irish have an All-American safety in Kyle Hamilton, but they suffered from clear matchup issues on the edge all of last season. And, with their defense suffering a multitude of losses, most notably linebacker Jermiah Owusu-Koramoah — likely a first-round NFL Draft pick — the secondary needs to step up soon. Whether Riley and/or Barnes can answer the bell is a huge question that the Irish hope will be answered with a resounding yes.

Ken Ruinard | USA TODAY Sports
Irish rising junior safety Kyle Hamilton brushes by Clemson running back Travis Etienne after Etienne’s 44-yard touchdown run in the ACC Championship game on Dec 19. While Hamilton earned Third-Team All-American honors last season, he was often tasked with being the last line of defense and, as the Irish’s only elite defensive back, relatively neutralized when teams decided to go away from him.

How soon does the new offensive line gel?

The obvious strength of this recruiting class — as it often does — lies in the offensive line for Notre Dame. Offensive tackle Blake Fisher and guard Rocco Spindler represent the Irish’s top two recruits this season, while Caleb Johnson adds another four-star to this group.

Notre Dame is losing the majority of its star offensive line from this past season, which led to winning the time of possession battle in 10 of 12 games this season. Fisher, Spindler and Johnson bring immediate reinforcements, but how soon do they gel and become another dominant unit in the trenches for Notre Dame? The Irish have clear areas they need to improve, but they need to ensure they stay dominant where they already are strong, and the Irish took a good step towards doing that with this recruiting class.

 

Who succeeds Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree?

Considering they spent a majority of the recruiting period heavily chasing No. 1 all-purpose back Will Shipley, the Irish did a fantastic job in recovering to land two quality running backs, after they lost Shipley to Clemson early in the summer. Four-star Audric Estime leads the class, while deadline day commit Logan Diggs is an upper-level three-star that scouts are very high on, lauding his potential as a future Power-5 starter.

While Notre Dame has a fantastic tandem of backs right now in rising redshirt sophomore Kyren Williams and soon-to-be true sophomore Chris Tyree, the Irish face the very real possibility that both of those talented speedsters will be leaving after three years in South Bend. That leaves an uncertain third year, of which Estime and Diggs will have a definite chance to assume a workhorse role.

That third year, with a seasoned Buchner potentially under center, with Styles and Colzie — and maybe Jordan Johnson having some experience in the offense — with this fantastic class of offensive lineman, the Irish offense could be ready for a national title run, and having a running back ready for that is key. The Irish positioned themselves well in that last regard with Diggs and Estime.

These two players could both contribute in the next couple seasons, spelling Tyree and Williams on occasion, but they have the potential to take over as the starter without the Irish missing a beat. That ability will be key if Notre Dame wants to turn this No. 9 ranked 2021 recruiting class into its first national title-winning one since those leading up to 1988.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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