Fighting Irish will bring in a group with plenty of high-impact potential
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have built a legacy of sustained success over the years, relying heavily on a culture of attracting top talent and cultivating impactful playmakers as they develop within the program. Coming off its second College Football Playoff berth in three seasons, Notre Dame will see a significant portion of its starters on both sides of the ball go forward in hopes of pursuing a career in the NFL. That leaves some opportunities for incoming freshmen — as well as some who redshirted in 2020 — to contribute early and get a jump start on their Fighting Irish careers.
Here are some individuals who figure to make an immediate impact for Notre Dame in 2021.
Jack Coan, Drew Pyne, Tyler Buchner, QBs
Whoever takes the first snap from behind center when Notre Dame opens its season on Sept. 5 in Tallahassee will be a relative newcomer, with just six games of experience among returning Fighting Irish quarterbacks. Graduate transfer Jack Coan made the move from Wisconsin after missing the 2020 season with a foot injury. When Coan won the job in Madison in 2019, he threw for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns on a 69.6 percent completion rate. While rising junior Brendon Clark and sophomore Drew Pyne each have three games of on-field experience under their belt, the most intriguing name to watch in the quarterback room — after Coan — is that of incoming freshman Tyler Buchner. Buchner arrives as a consensus four-star recruit whose 6,084 total yards (4,474 passing, 1,610 rushing) in 2019 led the nation and marked the third-highest single-season total all-time. While Coan;s leg up on experience likely gives him an early edge, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has a range of options whether he elects to favor the experience of Coan or the heralded talent of Buchner.
Jordan Johnson, WR
Both Rivals and 247Sports tabbed Johnson as a five-star recruit and the No. 1 player from Missouri in his class, and with good reason. The St. Louis native brought in 29 catches for 587 yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season with DeSmet Jesuit in 2019, a key force in helping DeSmet win its first Missouri Class 6 State Championship since 2005. With the departures of graduate students Javon McKinley — Notre Dame's top receiver a season ago — and Ben Skowronek, who combined for 67 catches and 1,095 yards in 2020, there will be plenty of opportunities for new faces to make an impact on the outside, and Johnson's talent makes him a prime candidate to do just that.
Lorenzo Styles Jr., WR
Johnson will be joined in the wide receiver room by fellow incoming freshman Styles, a consensus four-star and top-10 recruit from Ohio. Styles made his presence known in all facets of the game in 2020, totaling nine touchdowns — three rushing, two receiving, three punt return, and one kickoff return — in his final season at Pickerington Central High School (in Pickerington, OH, a half-hour southeast of Columbus). Styles has a chance to be an immediate threat in the return game, and with his dynamic speed, he projects to be a key playmaker in the passing game for Notre Dame in 2021 and beyond.
Blake Fisher, OT
Helping to keep the offense making progress will be offensive tackle Blake Fisher, the consensus No. 1 player from Indiana in this incoming class who stands 6-foot-6 and checks in weighing 330 pounds. The 2020 Mr. Football Indiana (Offensive Line), IFCA First Team All-State, and MaxPreps First Team All-Indiana selection also received an invite to the 2021 U.S. Army All-American Bowl (before it was ultimately canceled), which speaks to how impressive and refined Fisher's talents have become in the trenches. Notre Dame's turnover along the offensive line from 2020 to 2021 leaves some questions as to where exactly Fisher will slot in, but all signs point to him being a big factor — literally and figuratively — wherever Rees elects to utilize him.
Prince Kollie, LB
A consensus four-star recruit from Tennessee, Prince Kollie figures to be an instant contributor for a Notre Dame defense that loses two of its top three tacklers from last season, including Butkus Award winner and unanimous All-American linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Kollie was invited to the 2021 Under Armour All-America Game before it too was canceled, while also being named the Tennessee Titans Class 5A Mr. Football in 2020. An explosive two-way player, Kollie finished his senior season with 109 tackles, two sacks, and an interception, adding 1,562 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns. Though it remains early to compare the incoming true freshman Kollie to his predecessors at linebacker including a likely first-round draft pick in Owusu-Koramoah, Kollie is an extremely talented piece who could compete for a starting role early in his Irish career.
BONUS: Marcus Freeman, defensive coordinator
While he's no longer making plays between the sidelines, the Fighting Irish's new defensive coordinator is already turning heads with his track record of developing talent plus the impact he's making on the recruiting trail. Freeman led a Cincinnati defense that finished third in the FBS in interceptions (16), eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points allowed per game), 10th in total takeaways (21), and 14th in rushing defense (111.1 yards rushing allowed per game). And Freeman now inherits a unit that contains — in addition to Kollie and fellow true freshmen Khari Gee and Philip Riley — plenty of experienced returning talent, including safety Kyle Hamilton, linebacker Drew White, and defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey. That combination speaks volumes, and when paired with Freeman's prowess on the recruiting trail that has already helped Notre Dame land defensive linemen Tyson Ford and Aiden Gobaira away from Oklahoma and Penn State it is clear that Notre Dame has secured one of the top assistants in the nation to lead an already high-powered defense in 2021.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.