What Can Notre Dame Expect from Early Enrollees In Spring Football?

In the past, spring ball was a time for the freshmen of the previous class to make their mark. This was especially true for those who chose to redshirt the prior season. This is still the case to a large extent; of the 23 players who signed in 2019, only three burned a year of eligibility–Kyle Hamilton, Jacob Lacy, and Jay Bramblett. This is an incredibly important off-season for the remaining 20.

But, with the now commonplace trend of the incoming freshmen class having numerous early enrollees, spring ball takes on a whole new focus. With eight players from the 2020 class already on campus, that brings the total players with four years of eligibility on the roster to 31. That’s a lot of people with a lot to prove.

Let’s focus on the 10 from the 2020 class today. Who is mostly developmental? Who can make an immediate impact? Are there any potential starters?

Developmental

Of the eight freshmen enrolling early, I’ve got five who are almost certainly developmental. Meaning it is unlikely they will play at all in 2020, even in a four-game role, at most one or two against the bottom feeders of the schedule. Some are because of where they are as players, others because of roster situations.

Quarterback Drew Pyne

In theory, Pyne could challenge Brendon Clark for the backup role to Ian Book after Phil Jurkovec’s transfer earlier this year. Clark played a little bit last season and showed some nice ability, but he isn’t what anyone would consider a juggernaut with a clear path to the field. He isn’t a lock to move into the starting role once Book departs like Brandon Wimbush was to DeShone Kizer and what folks once thought Phil Jurkovec would be. Clark’s three-star status leaves the door open if nothing else.

For his part, Pyne looked good in the post-season all-star games, flashing his pinpoint accuracy and good anticipation. He could come in and turn some heads.

Most likely, Pyne will be considerably behind Clark physically, and Clark was named the scout team player of the year by the coaches at the team’s banquet. He’s certainly flashed for them throughout the season. Pyne likely finishing third means he’s more of a developmental player in the spring, barring injury.

Wide Receiver, Jay Brunelle

The three-star wide receiver out of Massachusetts faces an uphill climb at wide receiver, given the depth of the position. First, he’s going to play on the outside, probably to the field, so the lack of positional flexibility hurts him there. Second, with the addition of grad transfer Ben Skowronek, and the possible return of Javon McKinley, that’s two fifth-year seniors he’d have to beat for the job, not to mention Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and even fellow freshmen Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts.¬† To compound matters for Brunelle this spring, Irish Illustrated reported on Monday that the early enrollee is also recovering from off-season should surgery that will prevent him from participating in spring ball.

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Defensive Tackle, Rylie Mills

This is a classic roster situation because in other years it’s likely Mills is good enough to play snaps on defense. Mills is the #159th ranked player in the country, so he comes with some pedigree, but how does he break through a roster where every defensive tackle returns, and with Howard Cross, Ja’Mion Franklin, and Hunter Spears all ahead of him having seen action last season. He has to break through seven guys who play two spots. That’s…a task. The greatest benefit to him is he’ll get a head start on a college weight program and be able to learn from a bunch of guys who know how to do it. That a player of Mills’ caliber likely doesn’t sniff the field is remarkable.

Cornerback, Caleb Offord

Offord plays a position with a lot of uncertainty but will be done in by his need to develop his body, in my opinion. He reminds me a lot of Troy Pride when he first arrived, a skinny kid who needs to fill out, except Offord doesn’t have the 4.3 speed Pride did to accelerate his way to the field. Maybe the early introduction to the weight room mitigates this, but absent that, I don’t see Offord being a contender for the field this season.

Defensive End, Alex Ehrensberger 

The classic developmental player. Ehrensberger will be spending his time developing his body, getting used to living in America, and adjusting to the dramatic increase in competition. It will be quite fascinating to follow.

You’re Telling Me There’s A Chance

There are two who could maybe possibly see the field at least in a special teams capacity this year if things break right for them, the biggest factor being talent and physical maturity.

Defensive End, Jordan Botelho

The thing that stands out about Botelho is he appears physically able to step in and compete right away, especially with the jump in the weight room. The other thing is his athleticism. He projects as a defensive end, he already weighs 230, but he played linebacker in high school and has very good athletic ability. If he takes to the coaching right away and develops an elite skill to rush the passer, it’s certainly not out of the question for him to be thrown in the game right away. His athleticism also lends itself to special teams.

Cornerback, Ramon Henderson

People have thrown around the word raw with Henderson more than a few times, usually indicating he’ll need time to develop technique-wise. Henderson has two things that lend themselves to jumping people who are ahead of on depth chart: size and speed. Henderson comes in a 6-2, big for a corner, and with sub 10.6 speed. He can run unlike anyone else on the roster and has the size to go with it. With little to no experience behind top corners Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy, the two-deep is ripe to be taken by someone, and physical ability like that is hard to overlook.

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Instant Impact

Wide Receiver, Xavier Watts

Recruitniks have been high on Watts for so long, you forget he’s a three-star player and would be seen as a sleeper, but that’s where things stand. Watts was a high priority for the staff from the beginning, on par with players ranked much higher nationally. His intrigue comes from his versatility. He can play all three receiver positions, he also played safety in high school and he has the athleticism to play corner if need be. Given his talent, it seems to not be a question of whether he plays next season, but where? He’s not the type of player to just sit around collecting a redshirt.

The way the roster is constructed, the secondary looks to be the best bet, with only two proven corners, and Kyle Hamilton at safety, and question marks with Isaiah Pryor and Houston Griffith. Where ever he ends up, I’d expect Watts to see the field quite a bit next season.

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13 Comments

  1. Bullish on Botelho and Henderson. Not convinced any other freshman will be featured in a meaningful way, including Tyree and Johnson. Unless Watts gets moved to D.

    I predict some packages for Tyree/Johnson, but can’t wait to see a bunch of fans losing their minds when these players aren’t being utilized more.

  2. Bob, there is something good about not using freshmen unless the man actually gives us a reason that he should be on the field…i.e. gives us a significantly better chance to win. But at an academic institution like Notre Dame concentrating on freshman year of studies is a good thing for most of them. There’s enough pressure already.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  3. Greg , glad to see you got the ball rolling for up coming spring practice. It’s only weeks away–and for those of us who crave college football year round — spring , summer , fall practice is a fun time for us die hards. Early enrollees of Jordan Botelho , Ramon Henderson , Xaxier Watts — I agree with you — that playing time in 2020 is real possibility. 4 games for sure –then a red shirt. I’d spread that out to the Clemson game in November. I’m surprised — you don’t mention Ramon Henderson as an upstart in same category as Kyle Hamilton–perhaps Ramon is Kyle’s “Little Brother” talent wise ? Another topic heading into spring is the sophmore class on Defense. Those who hardly played as freshmen and might possibly matured to make a presence in 2020. They are Linebackers — JD Bertrand , Marist Liufau , E.Ekonu , Jack Kizer — Secondary — Ajavon , Wallace , Rutherford , Hart —- D line – Mensah , Spears , Cross. We know Hamilton , Lacey , Foskey (red shirt) got the most ink of that freshmen class. Hope to see surprises from the rest I mentioned of the sophmore class.

  4. Re: Instant Impact – Not those expectations for WR Johnson or RB Tyree?
    My way too early prediction: Ramon Henderson will develop into the third CB and become a surprise contributor.

  5. Why is it that Notre Dame freshmen quarterbacks are always developmental, when other freshmen are starting and winning at other schools?

    1. Its pretty simple Bob. Top Tier QBs are not coming to Notre Dame to play for Brian Kelly. This is the one position where BK has whiffed miserably while running the show at ND.

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