This is the most unusual signing day/period I have covered or followed. Not because of any particular drama in the class for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but because - unlike past years when the early signing period occurred in the midst of bowl prep or in February - it coincides directly with a massive game week. The signing period hat and the team-coverage hat rarely have to be worn at the same time, but it’s 2020 so here we are.
In the spirit of Monty Python, the massive showdown with the Clemson Tigers is inbound - and now for something completely different. Let’s look at three things from Notre Dame’s early signing class - and more to watch from the 2021 class going forward.
Notre Dame keeps getting physical
The biggest thing we have seen that has separated this year’s Notre Dame team from previous ones is its overwhelming, crushing physicality. Where Irish squads in the past would have seen their offensive line struggle against the likes of Clemson or the defensive front wilt against a potent offense such as the North Carolina Tar Heels, this year it has been Notre Dame winning the battle on both fronts. Looking at this year’s prospects in the trenches on both sides of the ball, it seems that trend is going to continue for the Irish moving forward.
On offense, the top two recruits in the class are a pair of absolute units in Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler. Fisher’s athleticism, massive size and natural pass-protection skills make him a dream tackle prospect, while Spindler’s strength, toughness and consistently aggressive play scream premium guard. The Irish also nabbed a pair of massively underrated three-star prospects in Pat Coogan and Joe Alt (fists in the air: JOE ALT!) and capped off an outstanding class by flipping Caleb Johnson, a versatile athlete who could play anywhere on the line, from the Auburn Tigers. Hats off to Jeff Quinn for landing a massive, physical group that could anchor the Irish up front for years to come.
On defense, one prospect who I think doesn’t get enough love is Gabriel Rubio, a defensive tackle from Colorado who has quietly retained high-four-star status since his commitment to Notre Dame in the summer of 2019. A great find by Mike Elston, Rubio has earned praise from scouts for his massive size, violent initial push, and skillful moves on the inside. Get ready to see a lot more running games get completely shut down with Rubio plugging things up on the inside.
Rebuilding depth in the secondary
Although bolstered by the veteran presences of Nick McCloud and Shaun Crawford and the transcendent play of Kyle Hamilton, the Irish secondary has shown cracks at a few times this year. With TaRiq Bracy struggling and freshman Clarence Lewis seizing his starting role, while Cam Hart and other young players have had to long significant minutes, building depth in the secondary was a major priority for the Irish in this cycle.
While the biggest fish, Ceyair Wright, is still in the water and the Irish have an outside shot of landing him, they have already delivered on a slew of quality players in the secondary. The headliner is Philip Riley, a lockdown cover corner with natural playmaking ability, technical skills and physicality. The Irish secured his recommitment and signature after an outstanding effort by Mike Mickens to counter some grade-A underhanded negative recruiting BS by the USC Trojans.
Elsewhere on the back end, Ryan Barnes brings track-star speed to the secondary, while Chance Tucker brings outstanding coverage skills and aggressiveness. At safety, Notre Dame has a pair of physical, strong and hard-hitting downhill defenders in Justin Walters and Khari Gee. Tip your hat to Mickens and Terry Joseph for bringing in both quality and quantity in the secondary.
The offense’s future perimeter is elite
While running back remains an open question (as of this writing, Audric Estime is likely to sign later this afternoon), the Irish have an outstanding receiver class coming in 2021. With Deion Colzie’s monstrous size, strength and natural ball skills, and the blazing speed and YAC ability of Lorenzo Styles, Jr., the Irish an elite receiver pairing they haven’t seen in a long time. Throw in Jayden Thomas’ physicality and acceleration in space and you have the making of an outstanding downfield passing attack for years to come.
We’ve seen what the Irish have done through the air with a group of veteran, though relatively unheralded players in 2020. With Tyler Buchner coming in at quarterback and the aforementioned trio of receivers, there’s no telling where the Irish passing game could go in the future.