Ranking The Notre Dame 2021 Recruiting Class: Defense

Ranking and breaking down the 2021 Notre Dame defensive recruits
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Notre Dame wrapped up a quality defensive class in 2021, but just how good the class ends up being remains to be seen. Unlike the offense, which is filled with highly ranked recruits, the defensive class is more about upside and projection.

If the Fighting Irish staff did its job when it comes to evaluation, and if they are able to develop this group, the defensive class could end up far surpassing its recruiting rankings at most positions.

It's a deep class and there's a lot of upside. The fact a player with Chance Tucker's skill is ranked 11th in this class speaks volumes about the tools this class possesses on defense.

With the class signed, and many already on campus, it's time to rank the 2021 signees. The grades and rankings are a combination of the current grade and upside grade.

1. PRINCE KOLLIE, LINEBACKER

Hometown/School: Jonesborough, Tenn. / David Crocket
Size: 6-2, 210
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 100 caliber player)

Kollie is rangy and brings a lot of pop, but his combination of power and athleticism allows him to project as a space player or eventually an inside linebacker. Despite his lack of bulk, Kollie arrives at the football with force. He can play sideline-to-sideline, but he can also plant, drive on the ball and deliver punishment. His length and strong hands also make him extremely difficult to block on the perimeter.

Kollie has extremely long arms and is a fluid athlete. He's quick and has impressive top-end speed. All those traits give him exceptional range, and they are why he fits in so well at rover, assuming that position still exists at Notre Dame. Kollie was an outstanding receiver as a junior, and that experience as a pass catcher helps him as a pass defender. He knows what opponents want to do, and his range and athleticism allows him to cover a lot of ground.

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Kollie projects to be a top-notch space player in coverage, but he also has top-level run defense traits, especially on the perimeter. He was an effective edge rusher in high school, showing good timing, speed off the edge and closing ability. That kind of all-around skillset with that kind of athleticism for a perimeter player is extremely hard to find.

With his length and frame, I could see Kollie adding enough size to eventually play inside. Notre Dame doesn't need a 240-pounder inside, especially at the weakside position. Kollie could eventually get to the size where he could hold up inside. He certainly has the foot quickness, instincts and punch to play inside, and that is why he is so versatile. Kollie could certainly play in space for his entire career, but the fact he could play inside if need be adds to his value as a prospect.

This is a young man with star potential. 

2. GABRIEL RUBIO, DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Hometown/School: St. Louis, Mo. / Lutheran St. Charles
Size: 6-5, 285
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 100 caliber player)

Rubio is a high-upside player that has an impressive combination of size and power. The Missouri star has tremendously powerful hands, and his technique advanced in his final season. To top that off, he plays with a tremendous motor and great passion for the game. He shows a strong punch and powerful lower body, but he’s far from reaching his max in this department. He has above-average arm length, but his combination of height, length and leverage make this a strong part of his game.

The 6-5, 290-pound defensive tackle shows good vertical quickness off the ball, which allows him to be an impact playmaker at the prep level. He is hard to stay blocked due to his combination of physical tools and his block destruction technique. Rubio has good short-area quickness and closing speed, traits that allow him to dominate up the middle of the defense.

One of the first things that stands out about Rubio - who has been measured anywhere from 6-5 to 6-5 1/2 - is that he plays the game with impressive leverage. That can be difficult for tall players, especially when they are young, but Rubio thrives in that department. He plays against smaller competition, and in some ways that might be a concern, but it helps him from a technical standpoint because he has to focus so much on staying low.

Rubio could play either inside defensive line position, but he could be a special player at nose tackle, where he could add a disruptive quality to the position the Irish haven't had since Jerry Tillery manned it back in 2017.

3. RYAN BARNES, CORNERBACK

Hometown/School: Gaithersburg, Md. / Quince Orchard
Size: 6-2, 188
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 150 caliber player)

In my view, Barnes is the most underrated player in the entire class, and one of the most underrated defensive backs in the entire class. I'm not sure what others are missing, or what I see that maybe misjudges him in a positive manner, but when I watch Barnes I see a borderline Top 100 caliber player.

It's not just his size either, but that is certainly the first thing you notice when you pop in the film. Barnes is all of 6-2, and he knows how to use that length as a weapon at the line and when the ball is in the air. Even in the few occasions where a defender beats him down the field he uses his length and closing speed to play the ball.

Barnes has surprising fluidity and agility for such a long cornerback. He makes easy and clean transitions, and that will only improve as his footwork gets better. His instincts and run game potential are top notch. He isn't a burner by any means, but he has enough speed combined with his length and instincts to be a strong cover player, and one that will get his hands on a lot of passes.

He can play both the field and boundary positions, and he’s a more than willing tackler. Once he gets stronger you’ll see the ability to play the run and perimeter screen game become a key strength of his game.

4. PHILIP RILEY, CORNERBACK/SAFETY

Hometown/School: Riverview, Fla. / Bloomingdale
Size: 6-1, 190
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 250 caliber player)

Riley is a physically imposing football player that looks more like a college senior than a high school senior. His length and power shine on the football field every time I see him play. Riley needs technique work, but his strength allows him to bully opponents, and he plays top competition week after week.

The Bloomingdale standout lacks great speed, but he runs well and his long speed is good enough to thrive on the outside. You could see that in the multiple kick returns that he took back to the house for Bloomingdale. His foot quickness allows him to play fast, and his ability to plant and drive on the ball is excellent. His run game production is elite for a cornerback or safety.

Riley is extremely effective at block destruction thanks to his size, powerful hands and competitiveness. He takes good angles to the football, he’s a sound tackler and he is smart enough to sniff out quick throws and screens. Riley also shows the ability to jam wideouts as well as the long speed to cover posts. All those traits make him suited for the field corner position.

Riley has the traits that fit well at the boundary position and in the slot, but what makes him such an important pickup is that he projects just as well at safety. He could easily be a multi-year starter at both corner and safety.

5. KHARI GEE, SAFETY

Hometown/School: Atlanta, Ga. / Woodward Academy
Size: 6-3, 185
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 250 caliber player)

Gee has a tremendous frame, possessing excellent length and an impressive frame. He’ll get to be an easy 205-210 pounds. I view him as a safety, of that there is no doubt, but should he be needed to move closer to the box, he has the kind of frame that would allow him to get to 215-220 pounds in order to handle the rover position.

That versatility adds to Gee’s grade, and you know I love versatile players. But I like Gee at safety and believe he’ll get every opportunity to stick at that position. He shows the kind of length and range that Notre Dame loves on defense, and it’s something Notre Dame needs a lot more of at safety. Outside of sophomore Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame doesn’t have much length at the position, and Gee has plenty of that.

Gee is a strong tackler, showing the ability to deliver punishing hits, but also the sound tackling ability needed to thrive in the alleys and in space. Despite being 6-3, Gee shows the ability to quickly go low and drive through ball carriers. His form tackling is good and with more time in a college weight room his tackling will get a lot better.

Gee is a high IQ football player and a smooth athlete. He spends some time at corner, and you can see loose hips and quick feet when he’s in coverage. Gee’s length and athleticism should allow him to thrive as a cover player against tight ends and slot players, but his range also gives him the skills needed to be an effective centerfielder in zone coverage.

6. JASON ONYE, DEFENSIVE END

Hometown/School: North Providence, R.I. / Bishop Hendricken
Size: 6-5, 245
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 350 caliber player)

If this ranking was about current grade Onye would rank lower. He's played football for just two years, so his game and body needs a lot of work. The reason he ranks this high and earned a 4.0-star is his upside grade (see below). He has the natural tools of a much higher ranked recruit, and if he taps into his potential he'll be one of the steals of this recruiting class on either side of the ball.

Onye has a tremendous frame, and his power potential is outstanding. He has powerful hands, and when his technique is right he shows an impressive burst off the line. Onye is an aggressive player and a quality athlete for his size. I've been told that he's already around 260 pounds, and if he can get to 270 pounds he could really add value as a prospect. 

The 6-5 end shows a top-notch burst off the edge, especially when he stays low out of his stance. With his long legs he can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, which helps him with his get off and also allows him to close extremely well on the quarterback. His open-field speed is impressive for his size, and he shows the ability to explode to the sideline to chase runners.

Onye's game and traits remind me a great deal of Adetokunbo Ogundeji at the same age, except Onye is stronger, thicker and a bit more explosive. He'll need work, but if he taps into his full potential he could be an impact power end in the Irish defense. The motion from Clark Lea's defense to Marcus Freeman's could actually be a big benefit for Onye, who has the frame/power/athleticism potential to be the ideal power end that can play on the edge or slide inside and play some over the guard and be disruptive.

Onye didn't start playing football until his sophomore season, but in year two he was at the point where he registered 76 tackles and 15 sacks.

7. JUSTIN WALTERS, SAFETY

Hometown/School: Bolingbrook, Ill. / Bolingbrook
Size: 6-1, 175
IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 350 caliber player)

Not getting to play his senior season (due to Illinois canceling the fall season) cost Walters a chance to boost his stock. It also kept him from proving even more that he is a top player in this defensive class.

Walters is a long athlete that plays much bigger than his listed size of 175 pounds. He's an alley player that does his best work in the run game. Walters arrives at the football with outstanding force, and he's a sound tackler to go with that. He takes good angles to the ball and makes quick and accurate decisions.

Athletically, Walters isn’t a burner, but he shows top-notch initial quickness and good long speed, which allows him to cover effectively and makes him so effective closing on the football. He shows good foot quickness, excellent balance and loose hips. Walters is a very smooth and efficient athlete, which is important for a safety.

He'll need more experience in coverage, but he has the long speed, agility and instincts to eventually become a more than competent cover player. 

8. WILL SCHWEITZER, DEFENSIVE END

Hometown/School: Los Gatos, Calif. / Los Gatos
Size: 6-5, 205
IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 caliber player)

Anyone that has followed me over the years knows I absolutely love versatile players, and Schweitzer is a versatile athlete. On film he makes plays off the edge, from an inside backer spot, against the run, as a pass rusher and in coverage. As an inside linebacker, Schweitzer shows good downhill quickness, he's nimble for a player his size and he makes clean reads. His footwork in coverage is solid and he shows good in-the-box range. He's not someone who is going to dominate running to the sideline, but in the box he can be an effective linebacker.

Where Schweitzer really stands out is as an edge player. He shows an impressive first-step (burst) off the line. Schweitzer gets off the line in a hurry and he quickly eats up the gap between himself and the tackles he faces. He will need to fill out his frame and add a lot of strength to stick on the edge, but that is where his game is ideally suited. He shows strong hands, and the natural pop is there, but he must fill out, and he looks to have the frame to do that.

Schweitzer's range and experience in coverage makes him a great fit for the weakside position. He can run with tight ends and backs to the sideline, and he can run with tight ends up the field, something you don't often find with an edge player with his length.

There's a lot of projection to this pick up for Notre Dame, but there's a lot of impressive tools to work with for strength coach Matt Balis and defensive line coach Mike Elston. I like Schweitzer's frame and athleticism, he's a really smart player and makes a lot of plays. The only question is can he fill out enough to play on the edge and can he continue to enhance his pass rushing moves. If he does, he'll have a chance down the road to be a productive player in the Irish defense.

9. DEVIN AUPIU, DEFENSIVE END

Hometown/School: Oxnard, Calif. / Pacifica
Size: 6-5, 220
IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 caliber player)

Aupiu has impressive length and a great frame. He is like many of Notre Dame's recent edge players in that his upside is greater than his current ranking. Aupiu will need time to fill out his frame, but the raw tools are quite impressive.

What jumps out at me is how well Aupiu uses his length. In most instances he does an excellent job of keeping blockers off his body, and his block destruction potential is impressive. As he gets stronger this should become a major weapon in his arsenal against the run game.

Like most young linemen, Aupiu needs to add a lot of strength, but he has a solid punch. Aupiu will need to enhance his overall pass move repertoire, but he shows a natural feel for getting under the pads of tackles on the edge. His close is good, and as he adds more strength and grows into his body he should develop a better natural burst.

Aupiu's position fit in this defense is interesting. Right now his size would seem to project him as more of a weakside player, and he has a game that could handle that role. I also see a player with a frame that could allow him to get to 250+ pounds, which could allow him to play as a power edge player as well.

10. JOJO JOHNSON, CORNERBACK/ATHLETE

Hometown/School: Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville
Size: 5-10, 175
IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 caliber player)

I had a chance to see Johnson work out at Notre Dame’s summer camp back in 2019. He made my top performers list for his performance, and the first two traits that stood out to me were his foot quickness and competitiveness. Johnson has exceptionally quick feet, and in high school it shines most on offense, but that is because he has more experience on that side of the ball.

His agility and flexibility are ideally suited for the cornerback position, but he just doesn’t have much experience at the position. Watching Johnson on film as a senior, he looked like an athletic player that was still learning how to play that position. Johnson has a knack for coverage and his ball skills on defense are outstanding, which shouldn’t be surprising for a player with his experience on offense.

The issue for Johnson is he lacks the footwork and experience with the nuances and finer points of the position. In high school he was getting by on God-given athletic talent, and now he is going to a program that has a position coach that is an excellent teacher.

But that God-given ability is why Notre Dame went after Johnson. Remember, he was originally committed to Cincinnati when Marcus Freeman was still the defensive coordinator, and it was Freeman and that staff that convinced Johnson to play cornerback. Now he gets a chance to play for Freeman at Notre Dame, and he has a chance to far outplay his ranking.

11. CHANCE TUCKER, CORNERBACK

Hometown/School: Encino, Calif. / Crespi Carmelite
Size: 6-0, 165
IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 caliber player)

Tucker plays a lot of press and man coverage for Crespi, and he uses his length to shine at the line. His footwork needs improvement and enhancement, but his length and strong hands allow him to consistently get a good jam. Once his footwork improves he should be able to translate his length and experience in press into college success in coverage.

Tucker is an intelligent football player that shows top-notch route recognition. He reads the movement of receivers extremely well and he plays the ball incredibly well. Tucker is a quality tackler and is more than willing to throw his 165-pound body into the mix.

At times Tucker’s transitions are on the slow side because he’ll lunge a bit too much or he gets a bit too flat footed when he jams. Both are correctable technical skills and can be improved. Once he gets cleaner with his transitions he’ll be far more productive when he opens and runs.

His experience playing press and playing so much man projects extremely well to Freeman's defense, which wants more of that from its outside players. Tucker is said to be a 10.7 player in the 100-meter dash, and if that track speed translates to the football field in college he could end up making my ranking of him look really, really bad.

12. KAHANU KIA, LINEBACKER

Hometown/School: Kaneohe, Haw. / Punahou
Size: 6-1, 210
IB Grade: 3.0 (Top 500 caliber player)

Kia plays all over the field for Punahou. You will see him line up in space, on the edge and in the middle of the defense as a linebacker. That versatility is likely something that attracted the Notre Dame staff to Kia.

He is a smart and instinctive football player, he's fundamentally sound and he's a quality tackler. Kia knows how to play football, and it allows him to make a lot of plays at the prep level. He takes on blocks extremely well, plays with sound footwork and shows a knack for beating blockers to the football. I like how Kia drives through ball carriers, and he rarely stops moving his feet.

Kia isn't an overly explosive athlete and he lacks the ideal range to be a great cover player on the outside, but he's instinctive in coverage. As an inside linebacker, especially as a Mike linebacker, his length and feel in coverage should allow him to thrive.

Notre Dame Football Recruiting - Defense Upside

GRADE KEY

5.0 - Elite player
4.5 - All-American caliber player
4.0 - Multi-year starter
3.5 - Key role player
3.0 - Backup

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