National Signing Day is here, bringing a crop of brand-new Notre Dame Fighting Irish into the fold. Let’s take a look at which players in this class jump out immediately as playmakers - and which ones will make an even greater impact than their rankings suggest.
It was hard to choose just three players here, as this class is loaded with talent at the skill positions. However, there are three players, all on offense, who stand out not only among this class but at the national level. Each is an elite athlete - the kind whose absence from this program fans have been bemoaning for some time.
Chris Tyree, RB
Tyree is the kind of running back Notre Dame has struggled to recruit for a long time. With a forty-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds, he is an absolute blazer (by contrast, recent Irish stars Josh Adams and Dexter Williams ran respective times of 4.48 and 4.57 seconds as they entered the NFL) with the vision and acceleration to find holes and burst through them. Check out his highlight tape - this guy can score from anywhere on the field. Tyree’s pass-catching ability out of the backfield will remind Irish fans of Theo Riddick circa 2012.
At 5’9”, 175, Tyree is on the smaller side, but is a natural running back with the range of skills - inside and outside running, vision, and patience - to be an every-down player, and he should be able to contribute right away. With a number of talented backs on the depth chart in 2020, we can expect the coaching staff to shield Tyree a bit, giving him an opportunity to bulk up and learn the offense in his freshman year. That said, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get significant action next year both as a runner and a receiver. He is too good to keep off the field.
Lance Taylor gets a massive shout-out here for securing Tyree’s commitment in his first few months on the job. We saw this year the stagnating effect the lack of a home-run threat of the backfield can have on an offense. Tyree doesn’t just fill that hole; he brings an elite level of playmaking ability which Notre Dame has lacked for a long time. You have to go back to Darius Walker in 2004 to find a Notre Dame running back whose recruitment was this much of a win, and even Darius didn’t have anywhere near the speed Tyree has. He is a potential generational player.
Jordan Johnson, WR
With the speed to beat corners deep 1-on-1 and the strength to win rip away contested balls, Johnson is what shows up when you look up “No. 1 receiver” in the dictionary. A lot of the nuances of the position - mastery of the sidelines and back of the end zone, concentration and timing with the ball in the air, etc. - are already there. In his highlight reel, Johnson also shows impressive quickness and YAC ability for such a tall receiver.
Johnson is a bit lean at 6’2”, 180, and ideally would get some time to develop before taking on a full-time role. However, with the Irish looking for playmakers at receiver, Johnson could be on the field quite a bit next year.
With his polished skillset and above-average size, Johnson is reminiscent of Rhema McKnight, and has all the makings of a multi-year impact starter on the outside. Like his counterpart at running back, Johnson is an elite athlete and a promising sign that the Irish are starting to recruit the talent they need to compete for a championship.
Michael Mayer, TE
The No. 2 tight end in 2020, Mayer isn’t a five-star recruit but probably should be. His size alone makes him a man among boys against high-school competition, but what really stands out about Mayer is his receiving ability. Mayer took home 7-on-7 MVP honors and was also named the “Alpha Dog” among wide receivers and tight ends at The Opening this July, going the entire set of one-on-one drills without dropping a single pass. He also shows speed and YAC ability for a guy his size, making him a bona fide downfield threat.
Mayer will likely need a year or two to develop as a blocker, which is perfectly fine with current starter and taker-of-souls Cole Kmet returning and leading a powerful tight-end triumvirate alongside Brock Wright and Tommy Tremble in 2020. Get ready to see Mayer rumbling all over the field and opposing defenses for a long time starting in 2021 at the latest.
Looking at Mayer, Irish fans should be reminded of Kyle Rudolph: a complete tight end who was both a third-down security blanket and a playmaker with the ability to beat defensive backs all the way down the field. “Tight End U” is alive and well.
Every year, there are players who surprise us with star turns at the college level. Whether it’s Miles Boykin going from fringe player to No. 1 receiver or Julian Okwara rocketing up the depth chart his sophomore year, these guys save their best days for the big stage. Here are some guys to watch who may not get all the hype they deserve.
Xavier Watts, WR
One of many L’s the Nebraska Cornhuskers took this year was losing Watts, a versatile athlete with great speed, ball skills, and football IQ (as evidenced by his ability to play both ways) to the Irish. A great route runner who is deadly in space and on screens (huzzah!), Watts is not only a big-play threat, but also excels at turning a five-yard route into a twelve-yard first down with his acceleration and instincts.
Watts’ versatility and playmaking ability mean there’s a good chance he gets on the field in 2020 as a return man or in four- and five-receiver packages. With the receiver depth chart relatively light on experience, the opportunity is there if he is ready.
Any lean, fast wide receiver who comes into Notre Dame for the next ten years or so is going to be compared to Will Fuller, and while Watts does not yet have the straight-line speed Fuller did, his route running and his ability to change speeds mid-route (which Fuller memorably used to burn Adoree Jackson) justify the comparison. Irish fans should be excited to see Watts step on the field.
Aidan Keanaaina, DT
Keanaaina’s tape advertises him as the “Big Kahuna,” which is both awesome and apt: at 6’3” and 305 pounds, he is a mammoth presence on the inside. Keanaaina is the kind of player who might not always make big plays himself, but makes a lot of them possible because his size and motor demand the attention of two or even three blockers. When he gets free, Keanaaina can use his reach and quickness to wrap up runners in the backfield.
The Irish have a solid two-deep on the interior defensive line coming into 2020, with experienced seniors in Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and capable backups in Jacob Lacey and Jayson Ademilola. They will give Keanaaina all the time he needs to keep get ready, but don’t be surprised to see Keanaaina’s gameday-ready frame on the field next year, particularly in games against run-heavy opponents like the Navy Midshipmen and Wisconsin Badgers.
A massive interior lineman with the self-awareness and sense of humor to give himself an amusing big-guy nickname screams Louis Nix to me. Folks who are struggling to pronounce his last name (KAY-AW-NAH-EYE-NAH according to his Twitter handle) better get ready, because they’re going to be saying it quite a bit.
Drew Pyne, QB
When it comes to pure pocket-passing ability, it’s hard to do better than Pyne. His touch and ball placement make him infuriating for opposing defenses, who often play good coverage and still surrender a first down on a perfectly thrown ball. His ability to move in the pocket and quick release also impress, and his proficiency on RPO (run-pass option) plays should satisfy fans who have been pining (sorry) to see the Irish run them effectively.
Pyne still needs time to develop as a downfield passer, which is just as well since Ian Book will likely return in 2020 and hot-take rumors to the contrary, Phil Jurkovec likely isn’t going anywhere. With talent stacked up above him on the depth chart (and below him in Tyler Buchner), Pyne will get all the time he needs to develop as a starter and face stiff competition when his time comes. I wouldn’t bet against a guy with his football IQ and pure passing ability starting for multiple years, and you can’t help but root for a guy who flat out loves Notre Dame as much as Pyne.
Don’t be surprised to see Pyne wearing No. 10 as he has stated he wants to emulate Brady Quinn (who doesn’t?). There’s more than a little of Quinn in Pyne’s playing style, particularly his pocket presence and intermediate passing. Pyne’s physical stature is more akin to Ian Book than the famously-jacked Quinn, as is his ability to extend plays. Pyne has the tools and instincts to be a solid multi-year starter, and fans should be excited to see him grow as a disciple of Reesus.
There are so many other guys in this class who could be in either category on this list, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and takes in the comments. Today’s a great day - go Irish!