Recruiting: Locking Down 2020 Class Is Priority No. 1
From a timing standpoint, the Dec. 11 news that offensive coordinator Chip Long is leaving Notre Dame could be viewed as a big minus. The early signing period begins in less than a week, and this kind of move could really shake up a recruiting class.
Long was instrumental in putting together what is arguably the best collection of offensive skill talent in the Brian Kelly tenure. And while there are only two offensive line commits, it is two high-upside offensive linemen.
Finding a replacement for Long will be vital, and I'll have more on that in the coming days, but priority number one needs to be making sure the 2020 class stays intact. After spending all day on the phones, it's obvious Kelly, recruiting coordinator Brian Polian and the offensive staff understand that.
The arrival of Long and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander resulted in an uptick in recruiting on that side of the ball, and from a skill standpoint the 2020 class was as good as it gets. You have a precision passer at quarterback, the most explosive running back in the country, a trio of talented pass catchers and the best one-two punch at tight end in the nation.
It's the kind of class that can turn a program around, or in Notre Dame's case, if developed properly it could combine with the 2018-19 classes to put Notre Dame over the top. I'll touch on the development part in future articles, but the talent of this group is that special.
RB Chris Tyree — Tyree is an explosive running back that brings a speed dimension that Notre Dame simply does not have, and hasn’t had for a long time. The Chester (Va.) Thomas Dale back twice won the fastest man competition at the Nike Football The Opening Finals, and his elite track speed translates quite well to the football field.
Tyree is not a 20-plus carry back, and he’s not a guy that will hammer teams between the tackles all game, but those players are much easier to find, and he wasn’t recruited to do that. What he was recruited to be is a game-changer, and Tyree is a threat to score every single time he touches the ball. Tyree can do damage between the tackles when he needs to, he can explode to the perimeter and he is a legit weapon in the pass game.
For Irish fans, how do you not get excited thinking about a future offense that contains both Tyree and sophomore speedster Braden Lenzy. Notre Dame has not had a difference maker in the return game the last two seasons, and that is another area where Tyree can add an immediate boost.
TE Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman — Tight end Cole Kmet said during the fall that he would return for his senior season, but I remain skeptical about that. Even if he does return, both Kmet and classmate Brock Wright will exhaust their eligibility after the 2020 season. There is certainly a need in this class for tight ends that can make an impact somewhat early in their careers, and both Mayer and Bauman can do that.
It is a loaded year at tight end, and Mayer’s combination of size, power, athleticism and pass catching ability stacks up with anyone in the country at his position. Tight end is a position that is incredibly hard for freshmen at Notre Dame to earn playing time, but Mayer is not your normal prep tight end prospect. After evaluating his senior film I gave him the highest grade of any Notre Dame tight end commit in the last decade.
Bauman might need an extra year to develop, and with Wright (and possibly Kmet), Mayer and sophomores Tommy Tremble and George Takacs on the roster, Bauman should get that time. When he fills out his frame and improves his route running, the New Jersey native has the tools to combine with Mayer to form a truly elite one-two punch at tight end.
WR Jordan Johnson — Tyree isn’t the only five-star Notre Dame commit on the 247Sports composite rankings. Tyree ranks as the No. 25 player in the country and Johnson is ranked No. 28.
Johnson is a unique prospect in that he doesn’t have the elite speed or size of other top players at his position, but his all-around skillset is special. Johnson is athletic, long, has a natural feel for getting open and his ability to win one-on-one battles is impressive. Although he’s not a burner, Johnson builds speed in a hurry, quickly gets on top of corners and shows the burst to get over top of the defense.
The St. Louis (Mo.) DeSmet standout is ideally suited for the boundary position, and he and sophomore Kevin Austin could combine to form a potent combination at that position. Johnson and Austin both have the talent to play to the field as well, which means they can play together, and they can play with Lenzy and fellow sophomore Lawrence Keys III.
Johnson has impressive length and shows excellent timing when the ball is in the air, which makes him play bigger than his 6-2 listed height.
WR Xavier Watts — The Omaha (Neb.) Burke athlete isn’t ranked nearly as high as his classmates, but make no mistake, this young man can flat out play. Watts has an athletic body that hasn’t been developed yet, and being an early enrollee gives him a chance to get a jump start on filling out his frame. Watts is a strong runner and is a weapon with the ball in his hands. He shows excellent vision as a runner and has the burst to turn an open crease into a big play. But he does it with a bigger body than Lenzy and Keys.
Watts tracks the deep ball extremely well and he competes for the ball in the air. He’s a physical player on both sides of the ball, which should suit him well at Notre Dame’s. Watts is a strong blocker and can do damage on handoffs and in the screen game. Those traits make him a perfect fit for either one of Notre Dame’s field receiver positions.
A two-way standout in high school, Watts is still raw as a route runner, so the extra 15 practices this spring will serve him extremely well. Once that part of his game catches up to his natural ability, Watts will see his game explode, and I predict he’ll end his Notre Dame career with people asking, “How was this guy a three-star?”
WR Jay Brunelle — Brunelle is often overlooked when discussing the 2020 offensive commits, and it’s probably best that way. The 6-2, 200-pound wide receiver has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and I hope it stays there. He lacks the explosiveness of other top receivers, and his testing numbers don’t translate quite as well to the football field, but they do combine well with his size and ball skills to make him a potential playmaker in the Irish offense.
Brunelle is an aggressive pass catcher that is strong on sideline routes, will attack the middle of the field and impresses me with his ability to stay locked onto the football in traffic. Even though I’ve knocked his explosiveness and vertical speed, do not assume that means Brunelle isn’t a quality athlete, because he is.
He’s developed his route running over the last year, but there’s still plenty of room for development with this part of his game. The more he learns the nuances of the position, and better learns how to use his size as a weapon, Brunelle’s ability to thrive as a chain mover will take a big leap forward.
QB Drew Pyne — Pyne hasn’t even arrived at Notre Dame and he’s already being overlooked. Much of the focus for Notre Dame fans is on the incredibly talented Tyler Buchner from the 2021 class, but make no mistake, Drew Pyne can flat out sling the football.
Pyne lacks the size of Buchner and current sophomore Phil Jurkovec, and he lacks the powerful arm that those two - and freshman Brendon Clark - bring to the game. But Pyne is the kind of distributor that could make this whole thing go. Pyne has a lightning quick release, and when his footwork is on point his accuracy is top-notch.
When Pyne is locked in he can shred defenses, and we’ve seen him do that for his high school team and at camps. Pyne committed to Notre Dame back in April of 2018, so there was no reason for him to keep going to camp after camp, but that’s exactly what Pyne did. The young man loves to compete, and he’s not going to back down from Jurkovec, Clark, Buchner or anyone else Notre Dame signs.
Pyne isn’t a runner, but he’s a quality athlete that shows a good feel in the pocket, he can move the chains with his legs and his arm is stronger than current starting quarterback Ian Book when he was a senior.
OT Tosh Baker — Baker is a unicorn. You just don’t see offensive linemen that possess his combination of size, elite frame and athleticism. A starting center for a state-championship winning basketball team, Baker has surprisingly nimble feet for someone that is 6-8 and weighs over 275 pounds.
He is massive, but the scary thing is he’s not even close to maxing out his frame. His length, frame and basketball background reminds me a great deal of former Irish standout Mike McGlinchey.
Baker’s game, however, is much closer to former Irish All-American Ronnie Stanley, another prep basketball player. Baker isn’t as powerful as McGlinchey, but he competes in the run game and with more strength work it will become a strength of his game, like Stanley. What makes Baker so special is his upside as a pass blocker, which is truly elite, and is where Stanley shined at Notre Dame. Baker is quick out of his stance, shows good lateral quickness, changes direction with ease, and when his technique gets him trouble, or a player beats him off the line, he has the length and punch to quickly recover.
Baker is quite raw and will need a lot of good coaching, but he has every bit of the upside that both McGlinchey and Stanley had.
T/G Michael Carmody — Like Baker, Carmody has a basketball background and he’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential as a football player. As a junior, there were times when it looked like Carmody was struggling to handle the weight he put on to play football. He didn’t show quite the same foot quickness he did on the basketball court.
As a senior, however, Carmody showed far more comfort with the extra size, showed much better burst off the line, improved agility and his pass blocking was better. Where Carmody shines, however, is as a run blocker. He doesn’t look like a basketball player when he puts the pads on. Carmody looks like what you’d expect from a Western Pennsylvania lineman; he’s physical, he plays with an edge and he has some nastiness to his game.
Carmody could play both guard or tackle in the Irish system, and that versatility will serve him well at Notre Dame.