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Leftovers & Links: Safety commitment an absolute 2021 Notre Dame necessity

Justin Walters

It is fitting to begin the week of what should be a silent National Signing Day by looking ahead to Notre Dame’s next recruiting class. Consensus three-star safety Justin Walters (Bolingbrook High School; Ill.) committed to the Irish on Sunday after spending Saturday at an on-campus recruiting event, becoming the eighth pledge in the class of 2021.

Notre Dame signed 17 prospects during December’s Early Signing Period, securing the entire class before Christmas with no indications another will join the ranks this Wednesday. One of the perks of the accelerated recruiting calendar is coaching staffs can work ahead on the next class, such as chasing down a needed safety prospect.

“Coach [Terry] Joseph told me that he’s only taking two safeties in the class, and when two safeties do commit, they’re 100 percent committed to them and won’t recruit any more safeties,” Walters told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “So I thought I might as well jump on that opportunity and take that spot while I can and be done with it.”

Finding two safeties in the class of 2021 will be a necessity for the Irish, as both Houston Griffith and Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor will be out of eligibility after the 2021 season, and Kyle Hamilton will likely be heading to the NFL draft that same spring after his junior year. Notre Dame has two other safeties on its roster — rising junior DJ Brown and rising sophomore Litchfield Ajavon — but with none included in the now-concluding recruiting cycle, it will remain a shallow position.

RELATED READING: 2021 recruiting already off to a fast start

Quality is as inherent to restocking a shallow position as quantity, and Walters’ physical playing style and fundamental tackling form bode well for his future. At 6-foot-1 and growing, he should be up to the task along the backline, part of why eight Big 10 teams have already offered Walters a scholarship, including Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. To some degree, that offer list indicates more than anyone’s star ranking this early in the process, even for the No. 14 safety in the class, per

“Walters is a prospect we have only seen on film so far, yet he still starts off ranked among the top-15 prospects at his position,” Rivals Midwest analyst Josh Hemholdt said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The difference between where he is at and rising to four-star status is us getting a chance to see him live and answer a few remaining questions.”

The weekend’s updated projected depth charts, meant more for future reference as much as anything else, prompted only one question:

“You have [incoming freshman running back Chris Tyree] behind [rising senior Avery Davis]. If you think this will be a redshirt year for Tyree, do you think they will try to have his games be Wisconsin, Stanford, Clemson and USC? This will help him build strength, adapt his game/student life, be engaged and stay healthy all year. Otherwise, why not just play him as high-performance running backs haven’t been staying four years?” — naperirish

There are a few layers to unpack there, the first of which being naperirish must mean star running backs don’t stay five years, rather than four. That is broadly true, but here’s the catch: Tyree hasn’t established himself as a star yet.

Listing Tyree last among the running backs is as much a matter of protocol as anything else. Rarely should a freshman be assumed to be ahead of upperclassmen before they have practiced even once. Tempering expectations around Tyree is only an added benefit, one that should recur frequently the next seven months.

Will he play more than Davis at running back? Almost certainly, in part because — as stated Saturday — Davis “could spend the season at” defensive back or receiver. Will Tyree play more than four games? That will depend on how he fares in comparison to Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams. There are only so many touches to go around; if Tyree warrants only three or four on a weekly basis, getting him those against Arkansas, Western Michigan and Georgia Tech does what good?

On the other hand, saving a year of eligibility — which Irish head coach Brian Kelly has said he tries to do in all but the most obvious situations, like Hamilton’s in 2019 — is too easy a precaution not to take. As an example, if defensive end Daelin Hayes had injured his shoulder a week later into this past season, he would not have been eligible to return in 2020, though it would have been in the best interest of all involved. Protecting against that is a worthy reward if the only risk is depriving Tyree of a dozen or two carries in games in which Notre Dame should not need his dynamism.

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