Notre Dame entered the 2022 recruiting cycle with a major need at linebacker, and with just two players committed at the position in the class the position remains a need. The good news for Notre Dame ... no, the great news for Notre Dame is that this linebacker class has a chance to be epic.
The "just" two players part of that intro only refers to the numbers. Notre Dame needs at least three linebackers in the class and four would be ideal, so "only" having two means the depth need hasn't been reached yet. Those two linebackers, however, are a great way to start the class.
Grand Rapids (Mich.) Catholic Central athlete Nolan Ziegler was the first player from the linebacker class to commit to Notre Dame. Ziegler is the lowest ranked defensive commit but he is a consensus four-star recruit that earned the grade of a Top 200 prospect on the Irish Breakdown board.
Ziegler is long and very athletic, so much so that some think he should get a crack at safety. Although playing closer to the line of scrimmage is the ideal for Ziegler, his range and instincts combined with top-notch athleticism and frame to make him a high-ceiling player that could fit in at rover or the Will linebacker position.
Notre Dame landed commitment number two in March when Traverse City (Mich.) Central linebacker Josh Burnham pledged to the Irish over the in-state Michigan Wolverines. Burnham added a Top 100 recruit to the class, both on the Irish Breakdown board and according to 247Sports, who ranks him as the No. 85 player in the country.
Burnham stands almost 6-4 and he has the kind of frame that should allow him to easily get to 235-240 pounds, but he's not a thumper. It's not that Burnham can't stick, because he can, but what makes him one of the nation's top linebackers is the athleticism he brings to the game. Burnham could play at least three different spots in the Irish defense.
Shortly after being hired, first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman - who will also coach the Notre Dame linebackers - expanded the board at the position. He already had Ziegler in the class and he made an immediate charge for Burnham, who had an offer from Notre Dame the year prior. Getting Burnham out of Michigan was no small task, and when he committed it gave the Irish an outstanding one-two punch to build around.
Freeman also set his sights on two linebackers who didn't have offers when he arrived. Freeman made Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany middle linebacker Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Hilton Head (S.C.) High School star defender Jaylen Sneed immediate priorities.
It's been obvious for months that landing those two players, along with the players already committed, was the priority for Freeman at linebacker. Doing so would not be easy and still isn't easy. Texas (Tuihalamaka) and Oregon (Sneed) both recently hosted these prospects, and those programs gave both a lot to think about.
If Notre Dame can add those two prospects to the class, however, it would give Notre Dame a haul that would likely go down as the best in the country and in my opinion would be Notre Dame's best linebacker class in well over a decade, maybe two.
Burnham, Tuihalamaka and Sneed are all Top 100 linebackers on my board and all three are ranked as a Top 100 player by at least one service. Sneed is a consensus Top 100 recruit, but it is Burnham that earned my highest grade, with Sneed just behind him, and Ziegler isn't far off from that kind of grade either.
On top of the high rankings, this group of four would fit quite well together. Ziegler could play anywhere from an alley safety position to rover early on, and with his frame he could easily grow into a Will linebacker. He could also play sort of a Sam linebacker position if Notre Dame went with a pure 3-3-5.
Burnham could play Mike or Will in the Notre Dame defense and he too could play that third linebacker role. His length, athleticism and power could also allow him to eventually grow into a situational edge rushing role as part of a Notre Dame sub package on top of his normal linebacker duties.
Tuihalamaka, in my view, is the best pure Mike linebacker in the class. He's a 6-2, 230-plus pound thumper with exceptional instincts. He too has some traits that could allow him to be an edge rusher in situational roles on top of his middle linebacker duties.
Sneed can play any linebacker position. Not only could he play the rover spot that he's being recruited to line up at initially, he could easily develop into a Will linebacker. That, in fact, is where I see his game best fitting. He could also play the third linebacker spot and Sneed is also the best pass rusher of the group.
If Notre Dame were to land all four linebackers, and should all four pan out, the type of defense Freeman runs would give the Irish defense the flexibility to make all four key players in the defense, and you can add 2021 signee Prince Kollie into that mix as well. This defense can certainly utilize five linebackers together and allow all of them to make plays.
But the key to making that happen is to recruit players with athleticism and complementary skills, and that's exactly what Notre Dame would be getting if it were add Tuihalamaka and Sneed to the current group of commits.
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