Building a championship roster requires stacking strong groups on top of each other. Notre Dame landed an outstanding defensive line class in 2022, and it needed to land another one in 2023. While much of the focus will be on what was lost, what Notre Dame landed was still quite good.
Let’s hand out grades, which consist of meeting needs from a numbers/depth standpoint, talent of the signees and fit into the system and culture.
Signs: Devan Houstan, Armel Mukam, Boubacar Traore, Brenan Vernon
Notre Dame needed a four-man class in 2023 and they got that group. Notre Dame needed to add length and size to the depth chart, and it met those needs. Notre Dame also needed to add impact talent, and that’s the part that drags the class down a bit.
It’s a good group, a group a lot of teams would want, but it’s not an elite group as it currently stands. I’m not as concerned about not landing an edge rusher due to what Notre Dame has from last year’s class, but there is a lot of boom or bust talent in the class. If some of the high upside players pan out this grade jumps up, but there’s also a chance it drops because they play closer to their floors.
This is a versatile group of players with a lot of length and tools. Brenan Vernon was in the class a very long time, and where he ends up will be interesting. More of a big end when he committed, Vernon has filled out quite a bit and could project as an interior guy in college. If he can stay healthy the Ohio native could be a standout for the Irish. Traore has exceptional tools, but he’s quite raw. Mukam’s ceiling is also very high, but he too is quite raw.
I’d argue the highest floor in the class is Houstan, whose game I really like. He could play anywhere from 5-tech to nose tackle. Houstan is longer than recent interior players, which is a need, and I see him growing into a disruptive playmaker up the middle.
Signs: Jaiden Ausberry, Drayk Bowen, Preston Zinter
For the second straight year Notre Dame has landed one of the best linebacker hauls in the country. The rankings drop that Ausberry and Bowen had after they committed to Notre Dame is one of the many examples of why the national rankings are flawed and relatively useless to use as a driver for evaluating this class. Both were Top 50 caliber players when they picked Notre Dame and both were even better as seniors than they were as juniors.
Bowen had a monster senior season and he projects at both Mike and Will, and it wouldn’t shock me if he played some on the edge as well. Bowen can run and hit, and he’s a leader of this class. Ausberry can also run and hit, and he’s a smooth linebacker with an incredibly high football IQ.
I’ve talked to sources that believe Zinter might have the highest ceiling in the class. That’s not how I grade it, but it speaks to how good this group is. If I had a knock on this class it would be that I don’t see it playing as well as a three man group (Rover, Mike, Will) as last year’s haul, but with Bowen and Zinter both having tools to play Vyper in some looks this group can get on the field together.
Depth needs met? Check. Upgrade in athleticism? Check. Impact potential? Check. Versatility? Check. I love this linebacker haul.
Signs: Micah Bell, Christian Gray
Notre Dame landed an A grade at cornerback for the second straight year, and Mike Mickens has quickly and completely overhauled his position. Very few teams in the country, if any, have out-recruited Notre Dame at cornerback in the last two years.
Gray is a long and smooth playmaker at cornerback with outstanding speed and athleticism. The St. Louis native has the tools to be an impactful boundary corner, but he also has the length and range to play the field spot in a manner that looks a lot like how Cam Hart plays it. Bell is a dynamic athlete and is arguably the fastest cornerback in the country. His game is a bit raw but his tools are outstanding beyond just his speed.
Gray and Bell could easily be on the field together, and they are both ideal scheme fits for the Notre Dame defense. Whether it’s Marcus Freeman or Al Golden running it, the Irish defense wants to play a lot more man coverage, and that fits both Gray and Bell. It’s hard to land pure cover players in today’s era, and Notre Dame landed two of the better pure cover players in the country in 2023.
Signs: Brandyn Hillman, Ben Minich, Adon Shuler
Notre Dame missed out on a chance for an elite safety haul, and that is something that will always be part of the narrative. But with Peyton Bowen out of the class you should now view Hillman as a safety, and that changes the narrative a bit for me.
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Notre Dame needed to land three safeties in the class, and talking to sources the plan was always to have Hillman be a guy that could play safety if they lost Bowen. If they landed Bowen then Hillman could project at safety still, or you could use him at other spots. But landing him late was big for the Irish in many ways, and it gave them protection in case Bowen did what he ultimately did.
This isn’t a group with the high end talent, at least not from a current grade standpoint, but it’s a quality group nonetheless. All three are four-star prospects on the Irish Breakdown board, all have room to get better and they fit well together. Minich has the range to play the alleys and centerfield, Shuler can be an alley guy or even a rover in a true 4-2-5, and Hillman can do that as well. This group can play together, and that’s the key.
It’s an athletic group, it’s a highly productive group and although it will be a unit that fans constantly say “what if,” there’s no denying the Irish staff improved the position by landing this group of defenders.
I battled back and forth between B+ and A- but I’m going to go with B+ because of the questions I have about the floor vs ceiling gap along the defensive line. This is a very, very good group of defensive players. Notre Dame met needs, it landed potential impact players on all three levels and it continues to recruit the cornerback position at an elite level. If you’re able to focus on what is and not what could have been it’s hard not to really like this group.
A — Elite / College Football Playoff caliber
B — Outstanding / Top 15 caliber
C — Solid / Borderline Top 25 caliber
D — Subpar / Not good enough
F – Disaster
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Notre Dame 2022 Roster
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Ranking The 2022 Signees – Offense
Ranking The 2022 Signees – Defense
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