People way smarter than me about matters of recruiting say it’s wise to evaluate classes in two-year groups. After all, each incoming class doesn’t play in a vacuum — great teams are largely built off of the strengths of juniors and seniors reaching their potential after years developing in a program. If a two-year group of incoming players has more hits than misses and peaks at the right time, you might even have the makings of a playoff contender.
Looking ahead to what could be when the incoming freshmen of 2019 and 2020 become upperclassmen, it’s hard not to get excited. Brian Kelly has built one of, if not the best recruiting staffs of his career — add in a couple of seasons with double-digit wins and a trip to the playoffs, and you can make a strong case that the nation’s top players fit in South Bend. The results are finally starting to show. Both the 2019 and 2020 classes feature top end talent (gimme those stars) at premium positions. The 2020 class in particular is still growing, but it’s already shaping up to be mentioned in the same breath as the absurd 2013 class (Jaylon Smith and 18 other four stars, not bad) as one of Kelly’s best.
Let’s do a little thought experiment — what would a depth chart made up of only the 2019 and 2020 classes look like? Obviously the 2020 class is incomplete (and we’ll get to who might make the rest of it up later), but things already look pretty exciting.
The top end talent here is pretty absurd. Just looking at the skill positions, the guys at the top pop off the page. We’ve got a five star receiver in Jordan Johnson (Rivals bumped him last week so we count it); he’s a guy with game-breaking speed and a polished game. Johnson has the kind of freak athleticism that makes star receivers special, and enough physicality, route running savvy and ability catching the football to make you feel like he won’t bust (please note I’m knocking on wood almost the entire time I’m writing this). From Fuller to Floyd and all the EQs and Boykins we’ve seen in between, the Irish have had some talented receivers in the Kelly era. Johnson genuinely has the talent to be the best of the bunch.
But Chris Tyree might be the guy that takes things over the top. It’s a similar story to receiver — guys like Josh Adams, CJ Prosise and Dexter Williams have been serious weapons (and all might make it as NFL backs), but Tyree is another caliber of recruit. Remember, Adams and Prosise weren’t consensus top 300 players (300!), and Prosise wasn’t even recruited to play running back. Only Dexter was a top 100 player, and his issues off the field kept him from having the complete career in South Bend he arguably should have. Tyree is, by all accounts, a coach’s dream — high school coaches rave about his work, even from other teams — and all you really need to do is put on his highlights to see what he brings on the field.
Dude is faaaaaast. He could wind up a five star before he arrives on campus, and he’s the kind of player that you need on a championship-contending squad. Kyren Williams is another weapon, and he might have a shot to see the field this season.
Things look good at quarterback too — Drew Pyne doesn’t receive universal praise, but he was the coaching staff’s top guy. And you can’t not like him because he freaking loooooooves Notre Dame. Go scroll through his Twitter, he’s constantly hitting up other top players and doing his part to recruit. He might not be Trevor Lawrence, but he’s got the tools to be a successful player and get the ball to the truckload of talent around him. Brendon Clark looks the part of a depth option, but we probably all thought that about Ian Book at one point — you never know.
It’s easy to take great tight end recruiting for granted, especially when you’ve had two guys locked up for what feels like years in Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman, but we should appreciate what we’ve got. Mayer is the top tight end in the country, a huge kid who looks smooth running routes and catching the ball, and Bauman brings up the rear at…oh, just the number two tight end in the consensus rankings. Tight End U continues.
There’s also a lot to like on the offensive line. A quartet of 2019 freshman, all enrolling early, will be followed up by athletic, high-upside guys in Tosh Baker — who might be the best of the bunch — and Michael Carmody (brother of basketball player Robby). Baker is 6’8 with the kind of long frame and athletic ability on the move that helped Ronnie Stanley become a first round pick. He hasn’t even come close to tapping into his full potential yet — he’s got a massive frame, quick feet, athleticism to get up the field and a body that’s only a shadow of what he’ll become when he gets on campus.
Carmody checks a lot of the same boxes — he’s on the raw side as a tackle prospect, with only one year on the edge under his belt after moving over from tight end, but his physical profile provides plenty to get excited about. He’s big, he’s long, and he has a propensity for finishing blocks and planting dudes in the dirt.
Both are star basketball players, and their two-sport training has helped them both develop quick feet and kept them relatively light compared to some other top prospects along the o-line. That might seem like a problem, but it’s really a blessing in disguise — they’re already dominating at a relatively lower weight, and they can build up their bodies exactly the way the staff wants once they’re on campus. When they hit the weight room with Matt Balis, both could flourish. (Side note: with elite guys already on board for 2021 in Blake Fisher and Greg Crippen, I’m really tempted to keep ranting about how dominant this line can become, but that’s a topic for another story).
One note — I wasn’t sure who to plug in at right guard with the current commits, but someone will inevitably kick over when the time comes. This staff loves to recruit big, athletic dudes with tackle profiles coming out of high school and move them inside. Hell, this year’s starting center, Jarrett Patterson, was a tackle recruit. Carmody might be the perfect guy to fill that role — he’s a mauler with the requisite strength to thrive inside.
Appreciating this offensive group, especially regarding the 2020 commits, is easy — the Irish got their top targets at receiver, running back, quarterback, tackle and both of their top guys at tight end. This is the makings of an elite offense.
Weaknesses & What’s Next
There are serious depth questions at receiver, and to some extent at offensive line. Cam Hart and Kendall Abdur-Rahman both have potential, but neither was a highly-rated recruit and Abdur-Rahman has to learn an entirely new position after playing quarterback in high school. The staff needs at least one, probably two, more top receivers in the 2020 class to set themselves up for success. Xavier Watts is a name to watch — he’s severely underrated as a consensus three star, but the staff loves his speed and ability and wants to pry him away from in-state favorite Nebraska. He’s visited there three times recently, which is cause for concern, but will be part of the massive group of top recruits visiting on June 21 — time to lock him up.
Top-50 California receiver Jalen McMillan also has an official visit in October on the books, but the Irish face stiff competition in Washington and Oklahoma. Then there’s the murky case of AJ Henning — long thought to be an ND lean, it seems the explosive Illinois playmaker could now end up at Michigan. Gross. If Del Alexander and co. strike out on all of these guys, they’ll need to expand their board and find lower rated players to bet on. Keep an eye on Massachusetts three-star Jay Brunelle — he recently earned an offer after turning heads on campus at the Irish Invasion camp.
Look at that defensive line! There’s elite talent! There’s depth! We haven’t had a rotation on the edge like this since…. well, right now I guess. The way this class is shaping up is a testament to the new level Mike Elston and the crew have taken recruiting to along the defensive line. It really feels like they’re building something dominant and sustainable, pulling in high-upside prospects that fit the Notre Dame profile and setting up a consistent 2-deep rotation of dangerous players. Isaiah Foskey and Nana Osafo-Mensah were huge edge gets in the 2019 class — in nearly any other year they’d be pencilled in for playing time as freshmen. The interior is just as impressive, and unlike the edge there is 100% a need for depth and quality snaps from day one. Jacob Lacey enrolled early and impressed throughout spring ball — he’s going to play — and the staff likes Howard Cross as an early contributor as well. Hunter Spears would be firmly in the mix if it weren’t for an injury sustained in high school holding him back.
That 2019 class alone should be enough to make Irish fans’ hearts flutter, but adding in the 2020 class truly gets the blood flowing. Jordan Botelho, like most Hawaii recruits, is probably better than advertised as a four-star and can become an elite defender. Rylie Mills is a penetrating force along the line that could fit the Jerry Tillery mold and provide a bigger look on the edge. Aiden Keanaaina (I’ll get the spelling memorized eventually) is a space eater inside, and should provide a lethal pairing with Mills (and 2021 tackle Gabriel Rubio will keep it rolling the following year).
Alexander Ehrensberger is certainly an unknown coming out of Germany, but there’s a reason the Irish got him on board early — dude is massive. Even after missing out on Braiden McGregor to Michigan (that corny commitment video still burns), this defensive line class is elite. Elston would probably be content with solely the guys already on board — but why stop there? Mitchell Melton is a freak on the edge out of Maryland who can seriously move for a guy who’s 6’3, 235 — he takes snaps at freakin’ receiver. By all accounts he had a good official visit to campus recently, and the Irish are definitely in good position to lock him up. Another wildcard to keep tabs on is Phillip Webb, a borderline top 100 edge with offers from Alabama, Clemson and more. The Irish are playing from behind, but he just included ND in his top group and plans to make an official visit — it’s a long shot, but so was Foskey before we locked him up.
I’d also be remiss to talk about these classes without discussing the crown jewel so far — five star Georgia safety Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton checks all the boxes with prototypical size, elite athleticism and explosiveness, and a legit love of Notre Dame. He’s going to contribute this year, it’s just a matter of where. If it weren’t for future NFL guys in Elliot and Gilman starting, Hamilton would probably be on the field for the first snap of the season. But as it stands, he’ll probably be rotating in with those guys (hopefully alleviating the ridiculous snap count they handled last season) and could even see time as a bigger option at nickel to cover larger slot receivers and tight ends. No recruit is ever a sure thing, but Hamilton’s about as close as you can get.
Weaknesses & What’s Next
Secondary — oh, the secondary. It’s really the only thing to complain about across these two classes, but admittedly it’s a big one. Litchfield Ajavon, Isaiah Rutherford and KJ Wallace are nice pieces, but the depth is certainly a concern. Things got rosier with the pickup of 2020 corner Clarence Lewis — he’s a two-way player in high school (something the staff loves to recruit in the secondary) with size, length and speed — but they’re really patching holes in the class now. Corner Jalen Kimber was a top target that the staff got on early, but he blew up and committed to Georgia. Clark Phillips is one of the nation’s best corners and another priority, but he’s all but locked in to Ohio State.
With a few of these misses, the staff has had to expand their board, extending offers to low-four and three-star recruits with upside. You’ll see a consistent theme across their recent offers — size, length, and speed. Clark Lea wants big corners in his scheme, and the staff has put a premium on finding guys that also bring the requisite speed to compete at a high level. Keep an eye on corner Landen Bartleson, a guy the staff has been on for a while — he’ll be on campus this weekend and could commit — as well as Caleb Offord and Will Nixon (a guy who’s a receiver for every school recruiting him, except Notre Dame). There are clearly a few guys that the staff values similarly, so whoever follows Lewis’s lead and makes the jump might be the guy that gets a spot in the class.
There’s certainly a depth question at safety as well, and it’s a priority going forward. Lathan Ransom is the crown jewel, one of the guys who would take this class over the top — but his commitment is anything but certain. Texas safety Christian Gonzalez is a top guy that the staff finally locked in for an official visit, but Alabama has made a strong case as well. Cam Martinez out of Michigan is another target, but seems likely to never visit campus, and Texas prospect Jerrin Thompson has been connected to the 2020 class, but things seem to have slowed down on his recruitment.
You might also look at linebacker as a problem area, but it seems like the staff doesn’t. They’re engaged with NJ four-star Cody Simon (yes, Shayne’s brother) and are certainly in the mix, but it’s unclear if he’s a priority — it seems he might already be on board if the staff was pushing harder. The rationale stems from the linebackers already on campus — nearly all of the guys competing for a spot in the rotation this season have three or more years of eligibility left — and the four guys they bring in 2019. Jack Kiser, injury concerns this year aside, seems to be Lea’s prototypical rover, and Liafu, Bertrand and Ekwonu are all nice pieces. With the 2020 class being a relatively small one numbers-wise, it’s clear that they’ve focused their attention and open scholarships elsewhere (Jordan Botelho also plays inside for his high school team and could always kick in from end). Keep an eye on Simon, but don’t expect any surprise offers or reaches on linebackers for 2020 if he heads elsewhere. There’s always the possibility someone elite flips later in the season, but it seems the staff is happy with where they’re at.
Lest we forget special teams, it’s worth noting that the staff is excelling there as well. High school punters and kickers are always a gamble, but the Irish locked up top options in 2019 with punter Jay Bramblett and preferred walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard. Kicking camp-organizer and special teams recruiting powerhouse Kohl’s (they seem to be the only ST recruiting entity that anyone gives a crap about) ranked Bramblett the third-best punter in the 2019 class (#1 overall in 247 composite) and included Leonard in the top ten. Both will likely contribute early — with the graduation of Tyler Newsome, all eyes are on Bramblett to carry the load, and Jonathan Doerer’s continued inconsistency leaves the door open for Leonard to step in this summer and win the job. Fingers crossed these guys hit, because special teams are going to be a significant weakness if they don’t. The 2020 class keeps things rolling with the commitment of Maryland long snapper Alex Peitsch, Kohl’s top snapper in the class — give him five stars!