As Notre Dame’s recruiting campaign plows forward this spring and summer, Irish Illustrated will continue its individual focus on prospects the Irish will pursue for the Class of 2016.
Today, we take a broader look at the safety position, one of the most crucial of the entire recruiting campaign because of the dearth of players in the program, particularly after the 2015 season when Elijah Shumate and Cal transfer Avery Sebastian depart the program.
Junior Max Redfield is the talent upon which the Irish will build for 2016. Incoming freshmen Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta will help bolster the depth along with recovering (knee) sophomore Drue Tranquill, oft-injured (shoulder) Nicky Baratti, and senior (two years of eligibility) John Turner, who spent last season at outside linebacker.
These are safeties Notre Dame is pursuing that have the best chance – at least as perceived at the present time – to end up in an Irish uniform.
• Ikenna Okeke (Smyrna, Tenn.) – The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder is part strong safety, part outside linebacker with the frame to carry additional weight. This is a smooth, gliding athlete with more quickness than flat-out speed. Very light on his feet, which allows him to change directions and come out of his backpedal with ease. A quality athlete with long-term potential, Okeke is looking strongly at Tennessee, Notre Dame and Stanford.
• C.J. Pollard (Gardena, Calif.) – Pollard says he’s a safety who can play cornerback, but his skills jump out at the former more than the latter. Excellent run supporter who, when breaking straight north out of his backpedal, accelerates and really gets into the lower body of ball carriers and pass receivers. Shows balance in the open field and won’t over-commit to the tackle until it’s time to make the stop. Man-coverage fundamentals need development. Notre Dame recently joined his top six along with USC, Arizona State, Michigan, Oregon and Utah.
• Craig Watts (St. Petersburg, Fla.) – The highest-rated safety on Notre Dame’s board with the best chance to play for the Irish, although the competition remains long and stiff. Small but mighty. A big-time hitter. Run support is his top calling card. Solidly-built safety who keeps his tackling base and then lowers the boom. Plays the game with great enthusiasm. Shy on size for a safety at 6-foot-0, 180 pounds. A mid-July decision is expected among a long list of considerations that include Florida State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
• Kenney Lyke (Palatine, Ill.) – More of a free safety-type than the majority of the prospects on Notre Dame’s list. Still pretty raw in terms of safety technique. A rangy athlete at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. Needs strength to fully maximize his potential. Has a tendency to grab and pull as opposed to tackling through the ball carrier/receiver. Lots of long-term potential for the Midwestern-based prospect who likely is favoring Michigan State over Oregon, Baylor and Notre Dame, which came in later than the others.
• Chacho Ulloa (Corona, Calif.) – As tough as a three-buck steak. Loves to bring the hammer with excellent pad level, which is made easier by the fact he’s shorter than ideal for the safety position. Shows good strength using his hands to his advantage fending off blockers. Possesses “short power,” which allows him to stop ball carriers in their tracks while coming off a block. Size and pass-coverage range are the questions he’ll have to answer. Top competition for the Irish includes Michigan State, Arizona State and Stanford.
• D.J. Morgan (Bellflower, Calif.) – Morgan has yet to receive a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, which is a bit perplexing considering his tools. A pure free safety prospect with size (6-foot-3, 208) and pop. Shows good range defending the pass. Light on his feet. A savvy football player. Arizona State, Cal and Nebraska are the frontrunners. Irish may be too late to the party.
• Devin Studstill (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) -- The former high school teammate of early-entry Irish freshman Te’von Coney. Most lists include Studstill as a cornerback prospect; Notre Dame reportedly is thinking safety. Studstill is expected to make it to Notre Dame’s June Irish Invasion. He’s visited Miami and West Virginia. Son of former Mountaineer QB Darren Studstill may be deciding factor. Among the top schools on his offer list are Louisville, Miami, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
LONGSHOT LONG ON TALENT
Andrew Pryts (Hermitage, Pa.) is a more skilled Drue Tranquill. He’s great out of the backpedal with a battering ram mentality. A great finisher of tackles, driving through ball carriers. Nice size at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. Shows pass-coverage range of a safety, but Notre Dame likes him as a Sam linebacker. If Tranquill can play safety for the Irish, so could this kid. Would be an outstanding catch. Penn State the likely winner.