One of the best ways to evaluate a team’s recruiting efforts is to look at how it stacked classes on top of each other. It gives far more context to how a team is building its roster, and Notre Dame’s defense has loaded up on big time talent in the 2022 and 2023 classes.
Position grades for the class are based on the player grades coming out of high school, not based on what the previous class has done, or not done, in college. Grades are based on how well Notre Dame meets its needs, the talent of the group and fit. One adjustment is that players in the 2022 class will be listed where they are currently playing.
Here are the two-year grades for the Notre Dame defense:
Signs (8): Josh Burnham (2022), Tyson Ford (2022), Aiden Gobaira (2022), Donovan Hinish (2022), Devan Houstan (2023), Armel Mukam (2023), Boubacar Traore (2023), Brenan Vernon (2023)
This is a very unique blend of recruiting classes for the Irish defensive line. The 2022 class, which now has Josh Burnham as part of the group, had three players that I gave Top 100 caliber grades too. That includes Burnham, Ford and Gobaira. The 2023 group brings a lot more side, equally high ceilings, but it’s also a group that adds a lot of size to the unit.
I’m very curious to see how Notre Dame plans to run the defense moving forward. If they start using more of the hybrid 3-3 that Marcus Freeman ran in 2021 as the DC, this grade would actually go up even more. You have a lot of big, power ends that would thrive in a 3-down look, but not a lot of pure edge players outside of Burnham, and potentially Junior Tuihalamaka, who right now I still have listed as a linebacker.
Speaking of Burnham, he has exceptional length and athleticism for the position, but obviously he is raw since he played quarterback and middle linebacker in high school. He has the athletic traits to be a star, but the question is whether or not the position will become natural for him. Gobaira is a long, twitchy edge player that has to fill out and Ford is a power player with a lot of upside. Hinish is a high motor player with better athleticism than his brother.
The 2023 class added a much-needed infusion of power and size. Vernon and Traore have extremely high ceilings, Houstan has a chance to be a standout inside either at 3-technique or the nose, and Mukam is another raw but toolsy player. I talk a lot about upside and potential with this class, and that’s what makes it exciting, but the fact I have to focus so much on potential and tools, and not as much on proven ability or the ability to help immediately is what drags this grade down a tad, as does the fact there isn’t a true nose player in the group.
Signs (6): Jaylen Sneed (2022), Junior Tuihalamaka (2022), Nolan Ziegler (2022), Jaiden Ausberry (2023), Drayk Bowen (2023), Preston Zinter (2023)
Notre Dame signed one of the two to three best linebacker hauls in the country each of the last two seasons. I had the 2022 haul as the best in the country, but that changes with Burnham moved to defensive end. It’s still one of the best, just not clearly the very best without him. But when you look at this two-year haul together you see versatility, tons of talent and a whole lot of athleticism.
Sneed is the most physically gifted player of this group, possessing elite athleticism and loads of potential. He’s not quite as nuanced at the position as most of the other players in the group, but his ceiling is exceptionally high. Ausberry and Bowen in the 2023 class are also exceptionally toolsy and grade out as Top 100 recruits on the IB Board. That gives Notre Dame three players to earn that grade, or better, and Ziegler wasn’t that far off. The amount of athleticism and range in that foursome is truly outstanding.
We will see if this group can emerge as impact players, but we won’t be hearing criticisms about the lack of athleticism at linebacker in the future the way the staff has recruited the position since Freeman arrived.
Tuihalamaka isn’t the athlete the other players are, but he’s huge, instinctive and a thumper. We’ll see if he sticks at linebacker, but if he does he brings a needed power profile to the group. Zinter is a sleeper pickup, and one that could surprise some people thanks to his length, strong all-around athleticism and versatility.
Signs (4): Jaden Mickey (2022), Benjamin Morrison (2022), Micah Bell (2023), Christian Gray (2023)
This had been a concern for the Irish program for years, but Mike Mickens has quickly turned it into a strength. Mickens has landed three strong cornerback classes in a row, but the 2022 and 2023 hauls are as good as we’ve seen at this position in decades. I even grade it out higher than the 2006-07 hauls that were the previous standard for cornerback recruiting.
Morrison became an immediate star at Notre Dame, but he wasn’t a surprise to IB, as the Arizona native earned a Top 100 grade and a 5.0-star upside grade on the IB board. Since it would look like I am speaking about how well he played this season, here’s a quote from the IB evaluation of him when he signed:
“Morrison is a very smooth and impressively fluid athlete. He possesses impressive foot quickness, fluid hips and his transitions are clean and quick. Morrison can change direction with ease, both when asked to plant and drive downhill and when asked to open up and run . His ability to quickly flip his hips, both with the initial stem and when handling double moves down the field is outstanding.”
“…. Morrison is the ideal Notre Dame cornerback. He’s long, he can play man coverage at a high level and he’s physical on the perimeter as both a run defender and against the screen game. As I mentioned above, Morrison has all the tools to be a strong boundary cornerback, where he can be a legit one-on-one player.”
This is what I wrote about the 2022 cornerback grade:
“If I’m right about Morrison this is an A class, if I’m wrong about Morrison this is more of a B to B+ class.”
The point of this is to show that the grade above is based on what we saw from Morrison coming out of high school, as well as our grades for Bell and Gray, who earned Top 100 grades, and Mickey, who earned a Top 150 grade . This is an outstanding haul of cornerbacks, as good as anyone in the country. This is no retroactive grade based on how brilliant Morrison was as a true freshman.
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Signs (3): Brandyn Hillman (2023), Ben Minich (2023), Adon Shuler (2023)
This is the group that drags the grade down a bit. Notre Dame completely struck out on safeties in the 2022 class, and it ended up moving Jayden Bellamy there last fall, but Bellamy isn’t included here because he has already left the program, so the Irish are back to having zero safeties in the 2022 class. I like the talent of the 2023 class, but it lacks the immediate impact player that it needed to have in order to overcome the depth issues that already exist on the roster.
That doesn’t mean Shuler and Minich can’t help as freshmen, but both would likely ideally need a year to get acclimated and build up their bodies before being thrust into prominent roles. They might not get that chance due to how limited the current depth chart is.
Having said that, the 2023 class by itself, taking needs out of the grade, was quite good. Hillman is a long, dynamic athlete who has a lot to learn about the position, but his tools are outstanding. I could see him playing deep at safety, or perhaps developing into a 3-3-5 type of safety that plays sort of a rover role. Shuler could do that as well, but I love the idea of him playing the alleys. Minich can do a little bit of everything, and he’s one of the headiest players in the class, but don’t let that fool you, he’s athletic as well.
It’s a good group, but the numbers issues and lack of top level talent drags the grade down.
The floor vs ceiling aspect of the defensive line and the depth issues at safety are what keep this grade from being in the A range. Notre Dame recruited linebacker and cornerback as well as any program in the country the last two years, and the upside of the defensive line class is such that if just 3-4 of those guys hit the front it will be outstanding. Safety needs to be addressed better in 2024, but the 2023 class helped salvage things by adding three really good football players. Notre Dame is closing the gap on defense, there’s no doubt about that.
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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Notre Dame 2023 Class Big Board
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Notre Dame 2023 Commits Board – Defense
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Ranking The 2022 Signees – Offense
Ranking The 2022 Signees – Defense
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