Starting spring practice this week offered Notre Dame not only a chance to begin work anew but also to launch Class of 2016 recruiting in earnest.
Four-star linebacker Curtis Robinson and four-star athlete A.J. Taylor made unofficial visits earlier this week. Dozens more prospects will descend on campus Saturday as Notre Dame puts on its first Junior Day of the campaign.
Offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer, a four-star commitment from Cincinnati, will be on hand to put in some recruiting effort. Irish Illustrated begins its preview with a look at who could join him in the commitment column before Saturday concludes.
Three-star cornerback Julian Love will arrive at the football facilities Saturday for his second visit of the offseason without a scholarship offer.
But it would surprise no one if that changed in short order. Love hit it off with defensive backs coach Todd Lyght during his last visit and met other coaches, save Brian Kelly. Sitting down with Kelly could yield an offer, which in turn could trigger a quick commitment.
“I made a decision that if they do I’m not sure of it yet,” Love said. “I don’t necessarily want to do it on the spot because I’m going back the following week with my whole team. That would be the best time if I decide to do it.”
Notre Dame would automatically stand out from an offer list that also includes Boston College, Buffalo, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Miami (Ohio), Northwestern, Rutgers and Western Michigan.
Notre Dame’s biggest need will be the biggest position group in town, at least that was the plan going into the weekend.
Auston Robertson (92), Josh King (102) and Khalid Kareem (239) are all ranked in the latest Scout300. Three-star Ron Johnson is highly regarded with offers from Alabama, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Rutgers, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin, among others.
However, Johnson appears out for the weekend due to travel complications with the East Coast weather, which figures to keep receivers Ahmir Mitchell and Brad Hawkins away too. The three planned to travel to South Bend together from New Jersey. King will reportedly not make the trip either.
Quarterback recruiting might come into focus this weekend.
Four-star prospect Dwayne Haskins will make his second visit and first since last summer. It will be his first time meeting new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford.
Haskins has one of the top offer lists for a quarterback in the Class of 2016 with Alabama, Arizona State, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Maryland, Miami, Michigan, Ole Miss, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas and UCLA already on board.
“Haskins' recruitment is hard to get a read on because he wants to decide in the next six weeks but he also has a bundle of trips he wants to make,” said Scout.com analyst Brian Dohn. “He has been at Maryland plenty of times and has a strong relationship to the staff there. The visit to Notre Dame is big because once kids get on campus and feel the history, and once the parents get there and learn about the academics, it usually shoots toward the top of a kid's list.
“The keys are if Haskins connects with the coaching staff and feels like he fits Kelly's system. Notre Dame will do well with everything else, so making Haskins feel comfortable and wanted are the most important aspects.”
Oden will be making the trip from Columbia, Tenn., with Louisville and Tennessee among his better offers. Peters recently announced a preliminary top five of Indiana, LSU, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Neither yet have scholarship offers from Notre Dame.
Notre Dame will bring in a power packed group of prospects from both traditional Midwest and East Coast recruiting grounds.
Headliners from nearby cities begin with in-state targets Austin Mack and Robertson, both from Ft. Wayne. Mack, a four-star wide receiver, comes from the same high school that produced star Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Linebacker Noah Burks and Peters round out the Indiana prospects.
Three Michigan players are all ranked in the Scout300: wide receiver Donnie Corley, offensive tackle Michael Jordan and Kareem. Love will make the trip from Illinois along with defensive tackle Naquan Jones, safety Kenney Lyke and long snapper John Shannon.
“The group is a really good one,” said Scout.com Midwest regional manager Allen Trieu. “You obviously have some guys who are top targets with offers, like Josh King, Austin Mack, Michael Jordan, Donnie Corley and Khalid Kareem. I think it's important to note that of the offered guys, I don’t consider Notre Dame to lead for any of them, so it’s a great opportunity for the Irish to gain ground on the leaders.”
Notre Dame draws from the East Coast as well as any program not based there.
“I am never surprised when Notre Dame pulls in kids from the East because the school has such a strong reputation and following here,” Dohn said. “Brown and Haskins are teammates, so travel is easier to coordinate for them. That said, grandparents of these kids grew up watching Notre Dame dominate and parents grew up watching Notre Dame play on national TV every weekend, so the Irish are constantly in everyone's mind here, which is why there is such a strong pull.
“I think Notre Dame will always do well in this region because of their long-standing tradition and their academic status.”
Notre Dame will dip its toe into the Southeast with Oden joined by four-star running backs Elijah Holyfield and Tony Jones. It’ll be a first up close look at the program for both the running backs. Jones, who picked up an offer just recently, will see two fellow Florida backs on the roster in Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
Notre Dame won’t settle to impress prospects in the Class of 2016 alone.
Four-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa headlines a quartet of players in the Class of 2017 slated to participate in Junior Day a year ahead of schedule. He’ll be joined by defensive end Corey Malone-Hatcher, cornerback Ambry Thomas and tight end Brock Wright.
“I think A.J. has a chance to be one of the very best in the country,” Trieu said. “We have him as an early four-star. He was really impressive last spring at the NIKE Camp in Chicago. He was arguably the best prospect there on the lines and he was a freshman going against juniors who had a multitude of offers.
“He doesn’t have a ton of game film available, so that is holding us back on his ranking some, and we like to be conservative on the early rankings, but I don’t hesitate to say he’s on the short list of guys we’ll consider for five stars in that class.”
Malone-Hatcher is no stranger to South Bend, coming from St. Joseph, Mich., about a 40-minute drive from campus. His offer list doesn’t yet include Notre Dame but has grown in recent weeks with Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Ohio State, Penn State and Tennessee all now on board.
Another return visitor, Thomas is a teammate of Corley at King High School in Detroit. Wright will make the trek from Cypress, Texas. He already holds an offers Texas A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma.