The Irish missed on their top defensive end targets last cycle.
Changing that outcome during this recruiting campaign started with identification of the kind of tall, long, explosive athletes Notre Dame wants coming off the edge. Then the Irish had to get those prospects to campus early and be able to showcase more than a game day weekend.
And that’s exactly where Notre Dame is with four-star athlete Thomas Booker of Baltimore, Md. Although the Irish are pushing hard for Tyreke Smith (Ohio), Andres Fox (Alabama) and Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), it appears Booker is the top priority and perhaps the best program match too. Booker visited Notre Dame during spring practice and could return for Irish Invasion on June 10.
Booker’s head coach Tim Holley broke down his star player with Irish Illustrated.
“He’s a special player and a special kid,” Holley said. “He’s been here since first-grade, so he’s going on 13 years. His dad went here. Gilman is the only school he’s ever attended. It’s a win-win for the school and for his family. They’re a wonderful family, they’re high achieving.”
Holley is an English teacher by trade and has been teaching in the area for 32 years. The veteran coach has seen many elite students come through Gilman and Booker is certainly one of them.
“He’s a fabulous student,” Holley said. “He could be an Ivy League student or a Notre Dame or Stanford, those caliber of schools, Northwestern, Vanderbilt. He could get into those schools if he weren’t a football athlete.”
For most, the first thing that jumps out about Booker is his sheer size at 6-foot-4, 280-pounds.
“He has been blessed with a huge frame,” Holley said. “His father is a big man, his father played at Wisconsin. But he’s worked at it. Last year, he weighed 265 (pounds), in-season. Now he’s up to 280 (pounds) and that’s all just sheer work. He’s got a strong work ethic inside the classroom and outside the classroom. He’s a high-achieving kid by his nature but he does have some natural gifts. He’s making the best of what he’s been given and he’s turned himself into a very attractive student-athlete to any school in the country.
“We’re certainly looking forward to watching him on film more this fall in his senior year.”
Given Booker’s size and combination of strong bull rush ability, honed pass rush techniques and speed to beat offensive tackles on the edge, the question of whether he will play on the strong or weak side defensive end, is on the table.
“He’s done both for us, depending on sets,” Holley said. “He’s a multi-faceted athlete. He plays on both sides of the ball as well, strong and weak sides. He’s a legit (defensive) end for us and also tight end. He’s also played some tackle. He’s our most highly sought after kid right now, in the class of ’17 or ’18.
“We played him at (defensive tackle) a bit last year, depending on what team we played. He’s comfortable playing (defensive end) where he’s been playing the last year or so. We don’t want to make things over-complicated. We have other kids, not necessarily as big as he is, who can fill those roles.”
Through competing in a variety of sports throughout his double-digit years at Gilman, Booker has acquired traits that have helped him shape important intangibles related to his football performance.
“He’s such a good athlete, I mean, his feet are good,” Holley said. “He’s a basketball player. He played basketball his freshman, sophomore years. This year he decided to do indoor track and throw the shot and discus and he’s doing spring track as well. He’s such a naturally gifted athlete. He’s been a tennis player in his life. He started off as a young kid doing tennis and swimming.”
Holley has enjoyed watching Booker take advantage of his God-given athleticism.
“He’s got ability,” Holley said. “He’s born with it and he’s taken what he was born with and worked himself into being an elite athlete. I don’t think we’re going to do a whole lot differently this year than we did last year.”
Before getting into Booker’s recruitment, Holley discussed the Booker-family dynamics.
“The (Booker) family is pretty well-rounded,” Holley said. “You’re talking about two highly-educated parents, very successful parents. His sister is in Duke’s law school right now as a graduate of Princeton University. I think what they want to do is really investigate where is the best academic and athletic place for Thomas.
“They’re less interested in the sensationalism of his athleticism. They’re really looking for a place, you know the cliché, they’re making a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. I think for them, the excitement that people have about him and his athleticism is less important than finding a good fit for him so he can live a good and productive life.”
Holley discussed Booker’s decision timeline.
“When I last talked to his dad about it, I think they hope to go out visiting a number of schools this June to get the list narrowed down a bit,” Holley said. “I would think before the start of his senior year, he’d want to have a final decision. He’d want to have it narrowed down to one or two, if not, narrowed down to one.
“He’s going to take the S.A.T. again and he’s going to go look at campuses and see how geographically things fit or how academically the fit or socially they fit and try to make a good decision. He’s got offers all over the country so he’s obviously interested in schools in the Northeast because he’s from the Northeast, so the Ivy (League schools) are schools he’s considering and there’s schools in the ACC, the Big-10, the Pac-10, you know, he’s got some offers.
“Right now, he’s open to any place that looks like it might be a fit academically and athletically.”
For Notre Dame, that could be good news in the end.