Well folks, we’ve finally made it. After the wacky and wild journey that it’s been with this 2023 recruiting class and the ever-evolving new normal of NIL being an unpredictable game-changer, it’s officially Early Signing Day for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program and all other FBS programs across the country.
Of course, this day doesn’t mean the craziness is done — plenty of recruits will likely choose to extend their decision timelines into the normal signing period in February, and we all know from examples like Eddie Vanderdoes and many others that signing an NLI doesn’t even GUARANTEE that a recruitment is locked up. But at least, for most players (and especially for the ever-growing list of prospects who want to enroll early), the war for their signatures is officially over.
Marcus Freeman’s first recruiting class that feels truly “his” is a very strong one. Yes, there have been some defections that took it from the wildly exciting class it was in the spring/summer and have reduced it to just a class that is still potentially better than Brian Kelly’s best-ever class in 2013, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that this 2023 class features more 4-stars and a higher percentage of 4-stars than any class the Irish have put together in a LONG time, and addresses a number of positions of need with some really promising guys who could end up being key leaders on a CFP team in a couple years.
But it’s still 2022, so I know the fans are just as laser-focused on the now (i.e. the 2023 season) as they are on Freeman’s ability to build a true contender over the next 3-4 years. So, the big question becomes: which of these signees should we expect to break through and see playing time as true freshmen in 2023?
This season gave us Benjamin Morrison emerging as the heir apparent to Julian Love, featured flashes from a few other true frosh, and would have showed us Jadarian Price as a future star if not for an injury in the pre-season. 2021 gave us Blake Fisher and Joe Alt establishing themselves as future NFL tackles, Tyler Buchner getting plenty of run as a ground threat at QB, and guys like Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Logan Diggs flashing their potential. 2020 was all about Michael Mayer and Chris Tyree with a splash of Clarence Lewis, and of course 2019 was the Kyle Hamilton show.
So in 2023, which of these signees will emerge and be immediate contributors? Let’s dive into the most likely, some potential others, and some longshots that would probably not be ideal to see much next year, as it would mean things probably aren’t going so great for Freeman and co. in his second season at the helm.
Very Likely to See The Field
In Memoriam: Peyton Bowen, Safety
We all knew heading into today that Peyton Bowen sticking with his pledge to the Irish was feeling more and more unlikely, considering the months of flirting with other programs, all the local pressure to choose Oklahoma, potential NIL bags being dropped, etc. So I don’t think any of us can claim to be TOO shocked or outraged here (although picking Oregon and not even having the Sooners as a hat on the table was pretty unexpected, so props to Peyton for keeping us on our toes).
BREAKING: Five-Star Safety Peyton Bowen has Committed to Oregon!— Hayes Fawcett (@Hayesfawcett3) December 21, 2022
The No. 13 player in the ‘23 Class was formerly Committed to Notre Dame.
He is the 2nd 5-star commitment in Oregon’s Top 10 Classhttps://t.co/yYPHEKtDOS pic.twitter.com/jWZo4Y0YZa
With that said, I felt it necessary to include him in this list either way, because that’s how great of a prospect the Irish almost had here. They’re still bringing in some really nice safety prospects in Adon Shuler, Ben Minich, and maybe Brandyn Hillman depending on where he ends up position-wise, but Bowen was a couple levels above all those guys and would have been a Kyle Hamilton-level instant impact player for the Irish.
He has good size, incredible speed, and just fantastic talent, and it wouldn’t have been a big stretch to imagine him earning the starting job opposite Brandon Joseph at the back of Al Golden’s defense in 2023. Even if he hadn’t, there’s no question he would have been part of the rotation on the back-end from day one, and also might have been involved on special teams as a punt returner and maybe a gunner.
I won’t dwell on this any further — we should be celebrating the kids who chose ND and who will be in gold helmets next season — but I just wanted to mention how Bowen would have been far and away the most likely freshman to play immediately had he stuck. Sigh.
Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James, Wide Receivers
Obviously the bigger issue for getting a real passing attack going in 2023 is getting a reliable and productive QB in there, hopefully from the transfer portal (or if not, hopefully with Buchner VASTLY improved from what we saw in the first two games of 2022). But even if that all gets figured out, Notre Dame still will need more from its receivers in 2023, especially considering Michael Mayer is moving on to the NFL. And with the depth issues they faced this year, it could be incredibly important for one or two of the 2023 WR signees to be able to contribute immediately, even if the staff is able to land a transfer portal guy or two, such as Kaleb Smith from Virginia Tech.
Luckily, Chansi Stuckey was BUSY in his first year as ND’s WR coach, reeling in an awesome first class. Of that group, I really do think all of them could end up being very good wideouts for the Irish, but Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James stand out as the two guys who look most ready to step in and start contributing from day one.
Greathouse has a college-ready physique and has produced at about the highest level a high school recruit can, as a 6’2” and 220-lb big-bodied wideout playing for Westlake in Texas, constantly dominating FBS-level DBs with all the top programs his school faced over the years. I know the Irish won’t be short on wide receivers with some size considering the emergence of Deion Colzie late in 2022, Tobias Merriweather’s size, and grad transfer Kaleb Smith’s size potentially being added to the mix, but Greathouse is polished, strong, and I think still brings something a little different than most of those guys.
Braylon James, meanwhile, brings the same height as Greathouse, but is a more svelte and streamlined and deep threat at 185 pounds, and could combine with Styles and Merriweather to give the 2023 Irish QB some nice options for taking the top off the defense at least on occasion.
Christian Gray, Cornerback
TaRiq Bracy is moving on, various reserves are expected to consider transferring after the Gator Bowl, and just as it’s way too early to say that Jaden Mickey can’t be a great corner for the Irish, it’s also too early to say definitively that he will be. Thus, considering injuries and how much opponents throw the ball these days, there’s always some reps to be had for a fast, polished cover corner who can come in and lock down opposing receivers on occasion.
We saw it this year from Morrison, as he went from a pleasant surprise as a contributing true frosh to the best corner on the team and a surefire starter by the end of the season. Could Christian Gray be something similar in 2023?
Yes, Morrison and Cam Hart — who announced a few weeks ago he planned to return for 2023 — will likely be the starting corners to begin next season. But could Gray take the Benjamin Morrison or Clarence Lewis 2020 route and immediately grab a spot in the regular DB rotation, and then potentially end up earning a starting role at nickelback or even as the starting corner opposite Morrison?
It’s a lot to ask of a true freshman, but Gray has tons of speed and good length, and from all reports could be good enough already in coverage to do some of the above very early in his career. It will be really fun to see what Mike Mickens can do with Gray and fellow signee Micah Bell, as they’re easily the highest-rated guys he’s had to work with since he came to ND.
Micah Bell, Cornerback
Bell is definitely considered a little more raw in terms of technique and coverage ability compared to Gray, so it seems like a much bigger stretch that he will see extended PT on defense in 2023.
But Bell’s one of the fastest 2023 recruits in the country, and so it seems ridiculous to think that Freeman and his staff won’t find a use for him immediately next season. Maybe it’s as a kick or punt returner, or maybe just as a gunner on punts, but Bell’s pure speed is a WEAPON and should allow him to do some things immediately, even if he will take some seasoning to get ready to be a starter opposite Gray in future seasons.
Might See the Field
Jeremiyah Love, Running Back
I know, I know — you’re probably saying to yourself that Pat Rick must be off his rocker with this one. Running back is one of the most stacked positions on the ND roster, and thus it seems unlikely that Love will be able to find much PT as a true freshman behind the potential lineup ahead of him of Audric Estime, Logan Diggs, Chris Tyree, Jadarian Price, and Gi’Bran Payne.
But if we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that positions that are seemingly “deep” can become very much not so in a short period of time, especially with a position that takes a beating on a regular basis like running back. Who’s to say that, by mid-season 2023, at least a couple of the above guys aren’t injured or even have already chosen to transfer out/move on to the pros/switch positions to see the field more? If that were to be the case, there could be some carries available for a guy like Love, who looks physically ready to contribute immediately.
Add in his home run speed and potential to help in the passing game, and Love could maybe even get some situational opportunities on passing downs or in the slot in general. Plus, like several others in this 2023 class, he could be used right away in the return game with the speed he has — so, it’s not that crazy to think he’ll play early, even with such a massive wall of great players ahead of him on the depth chart.
Adon Shuler, Ben Minich, and Brandyn Hillman, Safety/Athlete
Besides maybe Shuler, I don’t think any of these guys will be ready to play on defense right away. There are enough experienced safeties in the two-deep already and guys like Minich and Hillman, who have plenty of physical tools, will still need a couple seasons of development before they’re ready to contribute in Golden’s system.
But considering all three of these guys ARE very, very good athletes who like to hit, I see no reason why they can’t get involved all over special teams, immediately. Punt gunners, kickoff coverage, field goal and punt block, etc. could all be ways for these guys to get on the field, fly around, and make some plays early in their careers while they learn the ins and outs of their actual positions.
Boubacar Traore, Defensive End
I’d file this one under “probably not” since Traore is a very good prospect but not a Keon Keeley-level talent, which is usually what it takes to play right away as a defensive end/pass rusher. But I DO think Traore will be a fantastic defensive end for the Irish by the time he’s done — I would compare him to Isaiah Foskey, at least in terms of size/talent/ability, even if maybe not in production considering Foskey being the new ND sack king.
And thus, with Foskey moving on to the NFL and plenty of reps to be had at defensive end (and not many guys having yet grabbed the reins at the position as Foskey’s heir apparent to the pass rush throne), there’s a scenario in 2023 for sure where Traore is so impressive in camp that he gets some situational chances and maybe even grabs himself a few sacks as a true freshman in the rotation, setting himself up to start in 2024 and beyond.
SIGNED: Defensive end Boubacar Traore…— Kevin Sinclair (@KevinSinclair_) December 21, 2022
He kept a super low profile as a prospect which is why the hype around this pass rusher isn’t nearly where it should be. This could prove to be a very important pickup for #NotreDame.
Some top highlights below… pic.twitter.com/pk8FjZZUXb
Cooper Flanagan, Tight End
Flanagan doesn’t strike me as necessarily a physical freak or 6-star talent like Michael Mayer or even Eli Raridon, but with Mayer taking off for the NFL, Cane Berrong transferring, and plenty of injuries to several other Irish tight ends this year, we could certainly see a scenario where someone like Flanagan has to play in spots as a second or third tight end when needed, especially with Raridon now recovering from a second ACL tear.
Would I bet on Cooper Flanagan playing much, or at all, in 2023? Probably not. But we saw with Raridon and Holden Staes this year that sometimes the young guns are needed at a position like this, so Flanagan will hopefully be ready to potentially contribute if that happens.
Brenan Vernon, Defensive Lineman
This one is also a pretty big longshot, but Brenan Vernon is a huge man of a signee and at a position that’s seeing some attrition (Jayson Ademilola moving on, Jacob Lacey transferring, Chris Smith graduating, etc.), Vernon’s size could be needed in the rotation sooner rather than later, and maybe he sees the field a little bit in 2023.
Of course, that could mean some of the current freshmen/sophomores/juniors either haven’t developed or are injured or have transferred, which would not be great, but if Vernon is able to contribute early in his career, it could pay off down the road when he’s an upperclassman helping anchor a potential CFP defensive line.
I saw Brenan Vernon in person for the first time when he was on his official visit in June. He's is one of those "no way he's in high school" recruits. Manchild.— Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_) December 21, 2022
Let me also be the latest to say these signee announcement videos are phenomenal work by Notre Dame's creative team. https://t.co/PC8vL2gVvs
Could Potentially Play, But That Would Probably Be Catastrophic
Kenny Minchey, Quarterback
Listen, I will eat these words if Kenny Minchey comes in as a true freshman, is insanely good, and earns the starting (or even backup) job over Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli, and whoever the transfer QB ends up being, proving to be this program’s savior. But more likely, Minchey will enter the 2023 season as QB3 or QB4, and thus if he ends up seeing really any playing time, but especially any non-garbage playing time, then it means something horrible has happened to the depth chart — injuries, unexpected transfers or suspensions, etc.
I think Minchey’s future is super bright and he will quarterback the Irish to a CFP situation during his time with the Irish (even if C.J. Carr is more likely to be the guy who can WIN them a CFP), but him playing in 2023 would almost certainly be a really bad thing, even if it’s certainly possible at a position where depth can get really bad, really fast, and where he could conceivably come in and beat out Angeli for the QB3 spot, which means any injury makes him part of the two-deep automatically.
But let’s stop talking about that scenario, and keep crossing our fingers that Michael Pratt or Sam Hartman agrees to transfer to ND and stays healthy all year while leading the Irish to the playoff.