After a valiant effort by head coach Marcus Freeman and the Notre Dame staff, the Irish have landed one of their top cornerbacks in the Rivals era (2002).
On Monday, four star Christian Gray from St. Louis De Smet Jesuit High announced his Notre Dame commitment. The Irish beat out finalists LSU, Ohio State and USC for Rivals’ No. 51 overall player, No. 8 cornerback and No. 4 player from Missouri in 2023.
Gray’s commitment is Notre Dame’s 19th in the 2023 class and fifth commitment in the past six days. He follows 2024 wide receiver Cam Williams, 2023 offensive lineman Charles Jagusah, cornerback Micah Bell and wide receiver Rico Flores Jr.
Gray’s extended Notre Dame’s (2,358 points) lead over Ohio State (2,307 points) as the No. 1 team in the 2023 Rivals recruiting rankings. The Irish hold the top spot in the 2024 cycle as well.
If Gray (6-foot, 174 pounds) maintains or improves his Rivals players ranking when he signs with the Irish in December, Freeman will have added the best cornerback since Darrin Walls (No. 51 overall, 2006). Gray is only the sixth Rivals100 cornerback — and first since 2015 (Shaun Crawford) — to choose Notre Dame in the last 20 years.
And it might have never happened without Freeman.
Since Freeman took over as head coach on Dec. 3, Gray visited Notre Dame four times — more than any other school. Freeman’s promotion from defensive coordinator turned the tide in Irish favor for Gray.
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“It was the best thing,” Gray told Inside ND Sports before making his commitment public. “I was like, ‘No. 1.’ That’s it, because me and my mom were cheering for Marcus to be head coach. We prayed about it. We were like, ‘Let this man be head coach.’ It was a blessing and wonderful.”
While Gray’s prayer for Freeman’s promotion was answered, LSU gave the No. 1 cornerback from the Midwest lots to consider.
Former Notre Dame and current LSU head coach Brian Kelly hired Gray’s former high school head coach — Robert Steeples — to coach cornerbacks for the Tigers. Momentum appeared to be trending toward LSU after Gray canceled his Notre Dame spring game visit to go to Baton Rouge instead the weekend of April 23.
To Notre Dame’s advantage, Gray still made an unofficial visit to campus on April 13 and began to sense his future home. However, he still gave LSU a long look on April 23 and during his official visit from June 3-5.
“I was not comparing (Notre Dame) to other schools, because if I did, that would just be wrong,” Gray said. “I looked at the aspects of how I will survive at these schools and how I will be when I come out of there. The person I am right now is the same person that’s going to develop into a greater version of myself.
“My faith in God and my mindset on academics and football — that focus will keep me straight.”
Gray found that combination during his Notre Dame official visit from June 10-12. The feeling was so strong that he informed Freeman that weekend of his intention to commit to Notre Dame. He also canceled his remaining official visits to Ohio State and USC.
“It’s a great feeling,” Gray said. “I was actually surprised (by it). I found out things I didn’t know about myself when I went (to Notre Dame). The school is just like my school, but I didn’t notice (at first). With the football aspect, my (high) school helped me get where I wanted to go, and I felt like Notre Dame can get me to the same place.”
Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has the task of developing Gray from one of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits into an NFL Draft selection. When Freeman became head coach, keeping Mickens on staff was another key factor in Gray picking the Irish.
“They told me I was a Notre Dame kid,” Gray said. “They said I check all the boxes and that they could develop me beyond what I want to achieve.”
Gray already achieved several accolades as a high school junior. Last season, he was named second-team All-Metro (St. Louis area) with 34 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. After the season, he garnered 12 offers, including from Alabama, Cincinnati, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Oregon and USC.
“Christian is an excellent athlete,” Prep Football Report recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “He’s got really good instincts. He’s got decent length, plays with much confidence and has big-time school speed.”
Leading up to his Notre Dame commitment, Gray totaled 27 offers. His commitment marks a milestone as the top-rated 2023 commit for Freeman since becoming head coach.
“It’s massive,” Lemming said of Freeman’s prowess on the recruiting trail. “It shows how the kids are considering Marcus. Not only does he have a great personality and is a knowledgeable guy, but Marcus was a five-star linebacker in high school. …
“It’s his sincerity and ability to identify with them, not as a coach down to a player but as a mentor. The kids love him. He has been the one constant in recruiting no matter what position you’re looking at.”
Now that Gray is Irish, he is eager to get on campus and prove his ranking.
“I have to make it more memorable,” he said. “My goal is to be a freshman All-American. I want to start, play and have fun with it — be myself and the person God made me to be. I am going to outwork others and compete all day. I want to keep competing my butt off to achieve where I want to be.
“Sometimes, I have been in the background. I don’t want to be in the background anymore. I’m in the background for God — he can take the mic. I am going to keep working hard.”
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