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Notre Dame again set to enjoy a quiet National Signing Day thanks to active December

Audric Estime

If this is an eventful week for Notre Dame, it will add a grand total of one player to the recruiting class of 2021. Somehow, despite a pandemic crippling all usual recruiting tactics, the Irish signed their other 23 commitments and three surprises during December’s early signing period, leaving only consensus three-star running back Logan Diggs (Rummel High School; Metairie, La.) as a possibility tomorrow, National Signing Day.

But even if Diggs flips his commitment to LSU at the last minute, Notre Dame put together a complete class. Weighing its merits, with pandemic qualifiers or not, can wait until Diggs makes his decision, but until then, let’s refresh how thorough this class already is, hence the lack of consternation as this chaotic recruiting cycle concludes.

The 23 commitments were headlined by consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner, already enrolled and beginning classes tomorrow. Little more needs to be discussed about Buchner until he takes college reps, preferably in front of at least a small audience, but given the nature of the insatiable content machine, much more will be discussed about him before then. Those reps will be vital, given Buchner did not get a senior season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Spring football, learning the strength and conditioning program and getting all those things, the transition to college, they all get that,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during December’s signing period. “They’re very well-versed in understanding that.

“What are they giving up? Are they giving up a spring season? … They’re looking for that next challenge.”

Buchner’s decision to enroll early, much like the other 13 early enrollees including the other four who were deprived of senior seasons, is more about embracing that next challenge than about what he will miss. The possible regret, though, will dissipate the sooner he can get onto a practice field, something that may wait until as late as the end of April.

The three surprises were nominally (literally) headlined by quarterback Ron Powlus III and in a more pertinent respect, consensus four-star running back Audric Estime (pictured at top) and consensus four-star safety Khari Gee.

Both Estime and Gee signed after the early period’s initial flurry, adding to some of the drama and also giving Kelly a chance to be a bit of a prognosticator.

“We anticipate to bring in two more running backs in this class,” he said. “Within this class, we expect to sign a couple more running backs, and we expect to sign somebody that is going to help us in the back end of the defense, as well.”

If Diggs does indeed join Notre Dame, Kelly’s predictions will have gone 3-for-3.

If he does not, the Irish still wrapped up their pandemic signings by adding a legendary name, the No. 6 running back in the class and the No. 29 safety, the latter pulled away from LSU, unexpectedly unless trading on the inside info Kelly apparently had. They raised this Notre Dame class to No. 9 in the country, per, maybe not good enough to immediately knock off Alabama or Clemson, but of enough quality to keep that thought on the table with continued development.

A class with a five-star tackle (Blake Fisher) and 11 four-star prospects, with Estime right in the middle of them even as the No. 132 recruit in the country, is not one to ever scoff at. A class with a trio of four-star defenders going right up the middle — defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio, linebacker Prince Kollie and safety Gee — is not one to ever scoff at. A class with a trio of four-star receivers is not one to ever scoff at.

To pull in such a class while not able to show off gameday festivities or the campus as a whole is all the more impressive.

“Everybody had to deal with it in their own way,” Kelly said. “We are geographically in an area that makes it more difficult certainly. You want to use those opportunities to get them to gameday and things of that nature because it is so dynamic here. The pandemic definitely affected it in some regards, but I’m really happy with what we were able to do and construct because we have a great story to tell.”

This class will always be known as the one that signed during a pandemic, just as in Irish terms, the seniors who finished up their careers in the Rose Bowl — Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, along with their classmates lengthening their careers such as Kurt Hinish, Josh Lugg and Avery Davis — will forever be known as the class that signed with Notre Dame following the 2016 debacle. In time, it may be that the stressful stretch created a class bonded together, as it did four years ago.

For now, this grouping remains defined by its current No. 9 ranking and the various stars applied, as well as a few quotes from Kelly and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian on specific players …

Kelly on Kollie, primarily recruited by former defensive coordinator Clark Lea to be the next in line among Notre Dame’s playmaking rovers: “People always talk in terms of playmakers on offense. He’s a playmaker on defense. He wrecks your day on offense. We saw so many similarities with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Prince in terms of the way they play. The suddenness, just the natural fit at the rover position for us, which we’ll continue to employ in our defensive structure. To add a playmaker of his capabilities was so attractive to us and it was a natural fit.”

Kelly on the unexpected addition of Powlus, notably made before the Irish signed Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan: “Ron was somebody we were recruiting from the very beginning. He was an early take for us and we wanted him part of our program from day one. We felt we needed two quarterbacks. We were transparent with all of our quarterbacks. They knew we were taking two quarterbacks, so that wasn’t a mystery. We were pretty upfront with that and very clear with the fact we were taking a second quarterback. We felt like we needed a second quarterback. We like the fact there was a connection with the program with Ronnie. We’ve seen him quite a bit. It was an easy take for us.”

Polian on the addition of Powlus: “We could not go into next season with three scholarship quarterbacks. It’s just irresponsible. To set your roster up the right way, you got to have at least four scholarship guys, and we thought that Ronnie would be an ideal second quarterback in this class. He’s been snake-bitten a little bit. His junior year, he suffered an injury, not his fault, and then his senior year, they’re going in and out of COVID. It was just a crazy year. But we feel very confident in who we’re getting as a guy and as a player and we’re excited about it.”

Polian on underrated/under-recruited prospects: “I love (cornerback) JoJo Johnson. I know he’s not prototypical height, but he’s a feisty, feisty competitor, he’s physical and we know for a fact he can run because he’s put really good times on record here in our camp.

“I think (Hawaiian linebacker) Kahanu Kia, had he had the chance to play a senior year, would have had more than some of the Pac-12. I think (defensive end) Devin Aupiu, who was 205 at one point in his junior year, is now 6-4-plus, 225-ish edge-rusher athlete.

I think certainly (offensive tackle) Joe Alt, who in our own data that we were going to put out to the media today, at one point we had listed at 240 and was playing tight end as a junior. Now you see he’s up 40 pounds, he’s 280, he moves great.”

Polian on defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio with a quote this space will use frequently moving forward: “The first thing you notice about Gabe is that he’s as wide as a Volkswagen. He’s a big, big man and he’s really, really light on his feet. For a big man, he plays really hard. Sometimes those big guys can go two and three plays and then they tap out because they’re worn down. He works really, really hard.”

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