2020 Class Grades: Defense

Bryan Driskell

Notre Dame’s 2020 class is signed, so now it’s time to hand out grades for the class.

Grade Key:

A — Elite / College Football Playoff caliber
B — Outstanding / Top 15 caliber
C — Solid / Borderline Top 25 caliber
D — Subpar / Not good enough
F — Disaster

DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: B+

Signees: DE Jordan Botelho, DE Alexander Ehrensberger, DT Aidan Keanaaina, DT Rylie Mills

Overview: This was an important class for Notre Dame, who needed another strong haul up front, but it needed one that complemented previous classes. From a pure recruiting rankings standpoint it doesn’t scream “Top 10 class,” but the talent is there and the needs for the class were met with high-upside players.

Notre Dame needed another impact drop player and needed to add size to the line, which has been mostly filled by athletic penetrators. This class met both needs in impressive fashion.

Drop end Jordan Botelho is the No. 64 player in the country according to 247Sports, and the high-motor defender is advanced for his age. Botelho has the versatility to line up on the edge or inside at linebacker, and he’s as good defending the run as he is at rushing the quarterback. Botelho plays the game with a similar fire and passion that we saw from former Irish All-American Manti Te’o.

While we are making comparisons, when I evaluate Rylie Mills as a prospect I can’t help but see the similarities between him and Jerry Tillery, another former Notre Dame All-American defender. Mills can play on the edge as a power player, but when he moves inside the potential is enormous. Mills has the size, power and length to develop into a stout run defender, but what really separates him from other players at his position is the potential he brings as a pass rusher.

One of the needs in the class for the line was adding more beef, and Mills brings that, but no one brings more beef than Aidan Keanaaina. At 6-3 and 302 pounds with a thick, stout frame, Keanaaina is a strong run defender that has the power to anchor against double teams and the quickness to shoot gaps. He brings much needed girth and run stopping skills to the Irish defensive tackle depth chart that is mostly made up of undersized penetrators.

Notre Dame had to beat Ohio State for both Mills and Keanaaina, which speaks volumes to their talent. While the recruiting services did not seem to appreciate Keanaaina’s talent - or even Mills to a degree - his offer list and how hard the Irish and Buckeyes pushed for him speaks volumes about how coaches view them. If Larry Johnson and Mike Elston both make a defensive lineman a priority the odds are he’s really good.

The wildcard is Alexander Ehrensberger. How he develops will go a long way towards determining just how good this line class will be. Ehrensberger is as raw as he is long and athletic. If he ends up being as good as Elston thinks he will be then this could end up being an A grade class. Ehrensberger certainly has the length, frame and athletic tools to become a rotation player for Notre Dame, but if he fully maxes out those traits could result in him being a difference maker.

Freshman Impact: Keanaaina has the advanced technique and size to push his way into the rotation, which has some injury questions heading into the spring. The fact he has a skill set that Notre Dame currently lacks, or at least lacks in regards to depth, only bolsters his chance to make an early push up the depth chart. Notre Dame struggled defending the run at times in 2019, so having a big, thick-bodied player like Keanaaina to play with Ja’mion Franklin and Jacob Lacey could alleviate some of those issues.

Botelho is an advanced player that also has the strength and athleticism to play right away. Climbing up the depth chart won’t be easy, but he has the tools to do so. Mills could also push his way onto the field next season, and in the first eight or nine years of Brian Kelly’s tenure it would have been a no-brainer that Mills would be playing as a freshman, but Elston has stocked the depth chart in a way that makes redshirting and developing a player like Mills much easier.

Barring injury we will at least see Mills, Botelho and Keanaaina in four games next season.

LINEBACKER

Grade: N/A

Signees: None

Overview: Notre Dame signed seven linebackers/rovers in the previous two classes, and all four of the 2019 signees redshirted. With overall numbers being tight, the staff decided to pass on the position in the 2020 class. I think that decision is worth debating, but it does tell me the Notre Dame coaches are quite confident in what the two previous classes bring to the roster.

SECONDARY

Grade: C+

Signees: CB Ramon Henderson, CB Clarence Lewis, CB/S Caleb Offord, S Isaiah Pryor

Overview: Notre Dame needed numbers at cornerback and it met its depth needs with three players that could start out at the position. Landing Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor solidifies the safety position with a starting caliber player. If Pryor isn’t starting for Notre Dame next year it means rising junior Houston Griffith has finally tapped into his upside and is prepared for a breakout season.

The loss of cornerback Landen Bartleson, who was released from his letter of intent following an arrest in January, really hurts this group. Bartleson was the top cornerback signee and was a player the Irish staff pushed hard for, and without him in the class the margin for error is much smaller.

But there is still potential at the group. Ramon Henderson has tremendous speed and a high ceiling, but he will need work. While he lacks the athletic tools that Henderson and Bartleson possess, I love the game of Clarence Lewis, who has starting caliber tools. The reason for the low grade is that as high as the ceiling is for Henderson, and as much as I like Lewis, their floors are also a bit lower.

Caleb Offord is a bit of a wildcard. He has tremendous length and shows good speed potential, but based on his high school film he'll need time to develop. There is also the question of whether or not he stays at corner, or will a move to safety eventually happen.

When you have high-upside players with lower floors the odds of one or two of them not panning out increases, and the Irish can’t afford for that to happen. If Henderson reaches his full potential and Lewis is the steady player I believe he can be this will be a high quality secondary class. 

But to circle back to the original grade, there’s a lot of “what ifs” with the cornerback class, which makes it as much of a high-risk group as it is a high-upside group.

Freshman Impact: He won’t be a freshman, but I expect Pryor to play a lot next season. He has a great chance to earn playing time at safety, either as the starter or as part of a three or four-man rotation. Pryor also has experience as a special teams player, and I would bet he’ll get every chance to win multiple starting roles on the coverage units next season.

All of the freshmen need time to develop their technique, but the lack of depth at cornerback could force at least one of them onto the field. Lewis is arguably the most advanced from a technique/feel standpoint, and Henderson is the best athlete. It would not be at all surprising to see at least one of the corners find a role next season in some capacity.

To read the offensive grades CLICK HERE.

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Comments (21)
Jamestulane
Jamestulane

Nice piece coach. A bit surprised your DB grade is as high as it is, but I enjoyed the explanation.

No. 1-6
ZonaIrish
ZonaIrish

I also thought you would grade the d lower than you did. But love the read. Thanks

Matt0315
Matt0315

Outside of Bartleson I'm skeptical of the rest of the freshman DB's that signed

Batman1989
Batman1989

I feel like, with Lea’s pedigree of coaching LBs, we should be swinging for the fences on some of the high end LBs. Still happy with the solid class though.

card44spf
card44spf

Bryan, what are your thoughts about Pryor at rover? I live in Ohio, so I get stuck watching them play all the time. He screams rover to me.

Irish Mike
Irish Mike

Excellent Breakdown!


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