Blue and Gold Illustrated

March 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 21 of 83

22 MARCH 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2021 FOOTBALL RECRUITING ISSUE BY LOU SOMOGYI I n the college football landscape, Notre Dame has had one of the best-kept lawns the past four seasons with a 43-8 record, two College Football Playoff appearances and not finishing lower than 12th in the Associated Press poll. The problem is the grass remains greener at the "Big Three" comprised of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — especially when it comes to the edge work. The "edge" refers to game-break- ing wide receivers on offense and those most able to hold them in check defensively, the cover corners. That's where there is particularly huge sep- aration between the Irish and the Big Three (see sidebar). Along with finding a transcendent quarterback, they are the positions 12th-year head coach Brian Kelly has hinted at the past several years that have most prevented the Fighting Irish from bridging the chasm that exists between the Big Three and the rest of college football. Notre Dame has been attempting to rectify that in the past two recruiting cycles. Last year, the staff signed its first five-star receiver (Jordan Johnson) in 12 years (Michael Floyd in 2008). Joining him were three-star prospects Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts. This year, next to the offensive line, the single strongest position group recruited by the Fighting Irish staff was wide receiver. On paper, the trio of Lorenzo Styles Jr. (No. 55 overall recruit nation- ally per Rivals), Deion Colzie (No. 144) and Jayden Thomas (four-star) is the highest ranked since 2016, when the Irish inked the trio of Javon McKinley (No. 59 player nationally by Rivals), Chase Claypool (No. 109) and Kevin Stepherson (three-star) — who actually ended up with the best freshman sea- son by a Kelly receiver among anyone in the head coach's first 11 seasons at Notre Dame before getting dismissed from school as a sophomore. Claypool developed into a sec- ond-round pick who excelled this past season as an NFL rookie, while McKinley became a late bloomer in his fifth season (2020) that will give him at least a chance to get drafted. Meanwhile at cornerback, Notre Dame signed the quartet of Ryan Barnes, JoJo Johnson, Philip Riley and Chance Tucker. Per our research, this is the first time since 1990 the Irish signed four projected corners in one recruiting haul. The harvest from 31 years ago in- cluded Tom Carter, Willie Clark, Greg Lane and Marvin Robinson. RESTOCKING RECEIVER Not having enough at receiver and cornerback showed up again in 2020 when graduate transfers Ben Skow- ronek (Northwestern) and Nick Mc- Cloud (North Carolina State) had to take on starting roles at receiver and boundary cornerback, respectively, as stop-gap, one-year solutions to fill the voids there. Neither was necessarily a top pro prospect, but they were highly valu- able additions at positions of need. Notre Dame did sign a five-man re- ceiver group in 2018, led by top-100 re- cruit Kevin Austin Jr. and fellow four- star prospects Micah Jones and Braden Lenzy. Unfortunately, through three years there have been setbacks galore. Austin has five career catches be- cause of a 2019 suspension and foot surgery in 2020. The speedster Lenzy has had numerous health setbacks and could not shake a hamstring is- sue last year while ending up with only seven receptions. Jones has yet to catch a pass, although he did grad- uate in three years. The other two in the class, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Lawrence Keys III, finished with seven and five recep- tions, respectively in 2020. EDGE WORK Receivers and cornerbacks were prioritized in last two cycles, but will they be enough? Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie (above) and Jayden Thomas are all listed as four-star prospects by Rivals, giving the Irish its highest-rated trio of receivers in a single recruiting class since at least 2016. PHOTO COURTESY RIVALS

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