Notre Dame Hit The Right Notes With Its 2021 Secondary Class

The addition of Philip Riley has Notre Dame on the verge of an outstanding secondary class
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Notre Dame needed an outstanding secondary haul in the 2021 class, and the Irish are one step closer to making that happen now that Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale standout corner Philip Riley is back in the class.

Notre Dame now has a strong four-man secondary class with three cornerbacks and one safety. A strong cornerback class was a must in 2021, and the Irish not only landed exactly that, it added more numbers than were needed. That should provide the staff with some flexibility in regards to moving players around if the staff can’t add another safety to the class.

This is a very long, athletic and versatile group of safeties, and it is a group that has shown a very high football IQ on film. There is some impressive physicality in this secondary class, and there are players that have a chance to make a push for action early in their careers.

Let’s take a look at the four-man haul, and afterwards take a look at whether or not the staff should add one more players to the class.


Size: 6-2, 180
Hometown: Gaithersburg, Md.
High School: Quince Orchard

IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 150 caliber player)
Upside Grade: 4.5 (Top 50 caliber upside)

Analysis: Barnes reminds me quite a bit of former Notre Dame cornerback Robert Blanton, although I would argue Barnes is more fluid and a more natural cover player. Barnes has truly elite size and length for a cornerback, and he knows how to use his length to excel. He has fast hands and is good at the line of scrimmage. As he improves his hand play in zone looks and when working vertically his cover skills will take off.

While Barnes lacks top-level speed, he has enough speed to be a top-notch cover player when you combine his length and instincts with the athleticism he does posses. He’s a smooth athlete, more than you’d expect from someone his size. Barnes has relatively fluid hips, quick feet and his transitions in coverage are easy. All of these traits allow him to maximize his speed in coverage.

Barnes is a willing tackler, and once he gets some time in the Notre Dame weight room I expect his physicality in coverage to become an even greater asset. He’s truly just scratching the surface as a player, and he is the highest graded cornerback in the class based on my rankings and evaluation.

Position coach Mike Mickens has thrived coaching tall, long cornerbacks at both Bowling Green and Cincinnati, and he’s gotten a lot out of Nick McCloud this season for Notre Dame. I’d argue he has never had a cornerback with the talent that Barnes possesses.


Size: 6-0, 190
Hometown: Valrico, Fla.
High School: Bloomingdale

IB Grade: 4.0 (Top 150 caliber player)
Upside Grade: 4.5 (Top 50 caliber upside)

Analysis: Riley is a physical and aggressive defender in both coverage and in the run game. Despite needing work from a technique standpoint, he’s a highly effective press player in coverage. Riley has been challenged by some of the nation’s best receivers the last two seasons, and he’s handled himself extremely well each time. As a senior, opponents have spent a great deal of time avoiding him, even five-star recruits like Mario Williams.

Riley’s length and physicality fits perfectly with the boundary position, but his range, tackling ability and cover skills also fit at the field position and in the slot. Riley is a dominant run defender that thrives at block destruction, and his strength and toughness makes him incredibly difficult to block.

Although not a burner, he gets to full speed immediately and shows more than enough deep speed to be a standout cover corner in college. Riley has impressive agility and change of direction skills. He can open and run just as effectively as he can plant and drive downhill. What he lacks in top-end speed he makes up for with length, strength and instincts.

Part of what makes Riley such an important recruit in this class is his versatility. If he sticks at cornerback I truly believe he has the tools to be an outstanding player for the Irish. He is a legit Top 150-200 caliber prospect as a pure cornerback, and if he enhances his technique and plays a bit more under control in coverage he could excel. But he also grades out just as well as a potential safety, and if the need arose I would not be surprised to see him move to the back end, where he could not only earn a starting role at safety, he could be a standout.


Size: 6-1, 170
Hometown: Encino, Calif.
High School: Crespi

IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 caliber player)
Upside Grade: 4.0 (Top 250 caliber upside)

Analysis: Tucker was a difficult player for me to evaluate, at least initially. His ability to make plays and his football IQ jumped out immediately, but his athleticism didn’t pop right away. It spent more time breaking down his film than any other defender in the class, but the more I evaluated Tucker, graded him and tried picking him apart the more I liked him as a prospect. He’s not a flashy recruit, but the young man makes a lot of plays.

Like the rest of the defensive backs in this class, Tucker has impressive length, and he’s an intelligent football player that shows top-notch route recognition. He reads the movement of receivers extremely well and plays the ball well. Tucker plays a lot of press and man coverage for Crespi, and he uses his length and strong hands to shine at the line. As he continues to enhance his footwork his coverage skills

At times Tucker’s transitions look slow, and that bothered me when I first evaluated him, because it seemed as though he didn’t have the agility and fluidity to handle this part of the position. The more I studied him I’d see flashes, and then when I went back and looked through the less impressive plays it became clear his issues had more to do with footwork, which is a positive. As that part of his game improves his ability to open and run as a cover player will improve, and that’s why I gave him a four-star upside grade.


Size: 6-2, 175
Hometown: Bolingbrook, Ill.
High School: Bolingbrook

IB Grade: 3.5 (Top 400 nationally)
Upside Grade: 4.0 (Top 250 caliber upside)

Analysis: I was really looking forward to seeing Walters as a senior, and felt he would see a big jump in his final season. We’ll have to wait to see that improvement until he shows at up Notre Dame.

What first jumps out with Walters on film is his playmaking ability as both a run defender and pass defender. It is in the run game, however, that Walters was most impressive in high school. He plays the alleys extremely well, showing a good initial burst, easy change of direction skills and top-notch closing speed. Walters also takes sound angles to the football and is a quality tackler from a technique standpoint.

Walters shows surprising power when he arrives at the football. I say surprising because you don’t expect an athlete that is listed at 175 pounds to play with such power and force. Even when he doesn’t get a full head of steam, Walters arrives at the football with ferocity, showing the ability to drive through contact. That kind of lower body explosiveness stands out, and it’s going to get better as he adds more weight room strength. His potential in the run game is outstanding, and it’s only going to get better as he fills out his frame.

Walters isn’t a dynamic athlete, but he’s smooth, fluid and changes direction with ease, something that you see on film with this entire secondary class. Those traits give him good playing speed and help him overcome the lack of truly top-end speed. Those physical traits combine nicely with his instincts and feel for the game to make him a strong coverage player. Walters makes smart reads in the pass game and much like he does in the run game, he takes good angles when attacking routes.


Notre Dame could end it with Riley and call it a day. The issue, however, is that it would leave the Irish short at safety. Walters is the only pure safety in the class, and Notre Dame failed to sign a safety in the 2020 class. The staff will almost be forced to move a cornerback from the 2020 or 2021 class to safety, and at that point it hinders the future numbers at cornerback.

An option would be to land one more secondary player in the 2021 class, whether it is a pure safety or another cornerback. Landing another corner might seem like overkill, but another cornerback would make it much easier to move one of the 2020-21 cornerbacks to the back end and still feel good about the numbers and future at cornerback.

A player like Merrillville (Ind.) High School athlete JoJo Johnson would be someone that I would like to see Notre Dame take a long, hard look at and ultimately offer. Johnson plays both ways in high school, and he could help out on either side of the ball, but it is on defense that his skills best fit and his upside is the greatest.

He could be the final piece to the 2021 secondary class, but as of right now he does not have an offer. Should that change I’d be surprised if he didn’t jump on board.

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