Notre Dame ends preseason QB competition, naming sophomore Tyler Buchner the starter

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech
Getty Images
5 Comments

As a new question pops up to plague the Notre Dame offense, the Irish at least finally answered an obvious one: Sophomore Tyler Buchner will be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback in three weeks at Ohio State, officially beating out junior Drew Pyne in a competition that always seemed headed for this resolution.

“An extremely difficult decision, one that me and [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] spent an enormous amount of time talking about,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday. “It’s not really a seven-practice decision. This is something we looked at last year, we looked at spring, we looked at the summer and the start of fall camp, an entire body of work.

“We just felt like it was time. It was time to give the offense clarity on who is going to be the starting quarterback.”

Pyne began last season as Jack Coan’s backup, but Buchner gradually moved into that role. Neither finished the year as a particularly efficient passer, but Buchner’s 46 rushes for 336 yards and three touchdowns offered a dual-threat aspect that Pyne’s laudable mobility still lacked.

“Those guys can both give us a chance to win,” Freeman said. “We just think Tyler brings an element, a dynamic element with his feet, the ability to extend plays, to have a QB-running game, that really added into this decision.”

That ability should only increase in the next three weeks now that this nominal competition is concluded. That was, in part, why the coaching staff wanted to make this decision after only one week of preseason practices.

“Part of this decision is to allow [Buchner] that platform to really not be apprehensive about every play, every decision,” Rees said. “It allows him the freedom to go out there and operate, knowing that this team has his back and we’re ready to move forward.”

But as Freeman and Rees informed Buchner and Pyne of this decision on Friday, they also emphasized a reality of college football.

“I can’t think of, in my years of playing football, in my years of coaching football, a time where you didn’t have two quarterbacks play throughout the season,” Freeman said.

Rees described Pyne as still one of the 15 most important players on Notre Dame’s roster. Buchner pointed to him as part of the reason Buchner has developed as he has.

“Every single day, [Pyne] pushes me to get better,” Buchner said. “He pushes me to spend more time in the building, watch film with him, compete every single day in practice. He’s worked unbelievably hard, and I couldn’t be happier to have him on this team.”

Both Buchner and Pyne have three years of eligibility remaining; by playing in only two games last season — against Wisconsin and Cincinnati — there is no advantage to holding back Pyne’s availability in 2022.

THE LOSS OF Avery Davis
Notre Dame announced early Saturday that sixth-year receiver Avery Davis will be lost for the season after tearing his ACL on Friday, his second ACL tear in less than a year.

Davis persevered through four positions and that initial torn ACL to be both a locker-room leader and a likely significant contributor in 2022. Instead, his collegiate career may be over.

“You’re not going to find a guy that’s more respected than Avery Davis, from his peers to his coaches,” Rees said. “The way he’s handled himself — you want to talk about heartbreak for a program, everybody has felt that for Avery.

“For him to fight through everything early in his career, to find a role, own that role, be voted a captain, tear his knee, decide to come back, and then for it to happen again. You can’t ever justify it, right?”

Freeman said the injury came on a jet sweep on Friday. When Davis planted to cut, he went to the turf, but the initial thoughts were nowhere near as concerning as a torn ACL. Thus, the Irish did not start pondering how to fill that void until late Friday night and early Saturday morning.

Freeman acknowledged moving a defensive back to receiver — the route Davis took, in part — could be an option, as could be utilizing some tight ends more like receivers.

“There’s a lot of guys that can help us, there’s a lot of different things we can do with the people we have on this team,” Freeman said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to utilize our personnel.”

NOW THE GOOD NEWS
There may be two more pieces available to the receivers than expected just earlier Saturday.

Sophomore Deion Colzie was seen out of pads and in a knee brace entering practice on Friday, but he has only a sprained PCL and Freeman expects Colzie back “soon.”

More surprisingly, Freeman moved fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins into the probable category to face the Buckeyes in three weeks. After a Lisfranc injury in the spring, it was presumed Wilkins would be sidelined into midseason.

“He’s ahead of schedule,” Freeman said. “That’s part of the discussion in terms of where do we want to go offensively in that wideouts room.

“We expect Joe Wilkins to be back for the Ohio State game, which I don’t know if I would have said that last week. He is ahead of schedule. As long as he continues to progress in the direction he’s going, we expect him back for week one.”

With Wilkins and Colzie, but without Davis, Buchner will be throwing to seven scholarship receivers, including one former walk-on.

Three of them, including Colzie, are sophomores like Buchner. Tobias Merriweather is a freshman. Fifth-year Matt Salerno is the former walk-on. Combined, those five have five career catches, including one for Salerno that was more akin to a four-yard rushing loss.

“We’ve got some young guys who have to step up,” Freeman said. “You’re going to have to see Lorenzo Styles, Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Tobias Merriweather step up. You’re going to have to see Matt Salerno step up.

“What it does is it creates more roles and a bigger responsibility for those guys in that room.”

Notre Dame loses last receiver depth with Avery Davis suffering a torn ACL on Friday

Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
7 Comments

Notre Dame has lost its last vestiges of receiver depth with sixth-year receiver Avery Davis suffering a torn right ACL in Friday’s practice. The second torn ACL in less than a year for Davis, the Irish now have six healthy scholarship receivers, including one former walk-on. Davis will miss the entire 2022 season.

Davis tore his left ACL in November and returned to action a bit faster than perhaps expected by being full-go at the start of preseason practices. Notre Dame needed him to be available in order to have enough receivers to fill a simple two-deep.

It took Davis three seasons to find his home on the Irish roster, bouncing around from quarterback to running back to defensive back before settling in at receiver. In his career he has 66 catches for 862 yards and eight touchdowns, highlighted by 27 snags for 386 yards and four scores last year.

A sixth-year veteran afforded the 2022 season solely by the 2020 universal pandemic eligibility waiver, perhaps Davis can petition the NCAA for a seventh season following this injury, but having played in nine or more games in four seasons — not to mention preserving a year of eligibility via a traditional redshirt as a freshman in 2017 — there would be absolutely no assurances the NCAA would grant that exemption.

Davis likely would have jumped to the NFL following last season if not for that November torn ACL. It was far from the first hurdle he needed to clear in his football career.

Notre Dame originally signed Davis as a consensus three-star quarterback. He never saw the field in that role, stuck behind Brandon Wimbush, Ian Book and then Phil Jurkovec. So he set aside his dream of starring behind center and sought a way to help the team.

He was buried on the depth chart at running back, and he was too far behind on the fundamentals at defensive back.

“I would be lying if I sit here and tell you it was sunshine and rainbows the whole time,” he said in March of 2021. “I definitely went through dog days and days where it was complete confusion, what’s going on, where am I going to be? It was a point where I’m playing in the fall and the spring in completely different positions. From a comfort aspect, you’re not really able to set fast and set your mind on a specific task and grow at it because it’s such uneasiness, so much uncertainty.”

As a junior, though, Davis fit at receiver, and in 2020, he made the two biggest catches of Notre Dame’s pandemic, one to set up the tying touchdown (above) against No. 1 Clemson and the other the tying touchdown.

Davis’ career to date:
2017: Did not play.
2018: 9 games; 22 rushes for 70 yards with 5 catches for 30 yards.
2019: 11 games; 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns with 6 rushes for 10 yards.
2020: 12 games; 24 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns with 3 rushes for 57 yards.
2021: 9 games; 27 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns with 3 rushes for 19 yards.

That team-first approach and eventual success established Davis as something more than a captain and a leader, though he was (and perhaps is) in position to be a two-time Irish captain.

“He’s been here six years, he’s played five positions,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said last week. “He’s made some plays in absolutely critical moments.

“He gets hurt, he’s back, ready to go for his teammates, makes the selfless decision to be here. … We’ve had a lot of guys that garnered respect over my last five-and-a-half years here, (but) he might garner as much respect as any player in that locker room that I’ve seen. That’s a testament to his character and who he is.”

(Davis tore his ACL on Nov. 6, 2021, in the play below. At the very start of the video, Davis comes from above the line of scrimmage to make a block, and as he pivots, he goes down.)

Without Davis, Notre Dame has only the following scholarship receivers available for action at Ohio State in three weeks: fifth-year Braden Lenzy, sophomore Lorenzo Styles, sophomore Deion Colzie, sophomore Jayden Thomas, freshman Tobias Merriweather and fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Lenzy and Styles are somewhat proven commodities, the other four combine for a total of four career catches, all by Colzie. Lenzy has openly admitted he was exhausted by the end of the Fiesta Bowl, when the Irish had only four scholarship receivers play while attempting 70 pass plays.

To avoid that fatigue on a weekly basis, Notre Dame will have to slow down its offense and lean on its tight ends and running backs to supplement the receivers. Star junior tight end Michael Mayer, in particular, may line up detached from the line all season, and once sophomore running back Logan Diggs is fully recovered from a labrum injury, junior running back Chris Tyree may spend more time at receiver than in the backfield.

Fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins may return during the season from a Lisfranc injury suffered in the spring, but the timing on his recovery remains vague.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 3 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver returning from an ACL injury
Counting Down the Irish — 20 to 16, highlighting the lack of offensive options
Notre Dame loses veteran WR Avery Davis for season to torn ACL
Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile
Letter is in: QB Avery Davis

Counting Down the Irish — 15 to 11, where Notre Dame’s defensive depth becomes too much to overlook

Wisconsin v Notre Dame
Getty Images
0 Comments

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden will face a tough decision right away against Ohio State. At some point, the Buckeyes will have a third down. That might take a drive or two, as Ohio State’s offense will be that good, but the third down will eventually arrive.

Presume it is a third-and-four, neither passing nor rushing specific. If presenting a four-linemen front, will Golden drop to only two linebackers to match the Buckeyes’ personnel? If so, who comes off the field?

Last year’s leading tackler, nearly doubling No. 2’s takedowns? A player with a knack for finding the ball and causing chaos? Possibly the most dynamic among Notre Dame’s linebackers?

If Golden opts for only three linemen, does he remove the widest body in favor of veteran end Justin Ademilola?

Those players by name, in order, are senior linebacker JD Bertrand, senior linebacker Jack Kiser, senior linebacker Marist Liufau and junior defensive end Rylie Mills.

On one hand, that is an embarrassment of riches for Golden. Multiple defensive looks could qualify as Notre Dame’s best. On the other, pinpointing the right combination will be vital against offenses like Ohio State’s and USC’s.

As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …

No. 15 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker — 96 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 6
Lowest rank: No. 25

In a vacuum, it is utterly nonsensical that a player would make 101 tackles in a season, 46 more than the next defender, and then finish No. 15 among expected impactful players the following year. Not in a vacuum, it is initially even harder to square Bertrand’s placement here.

He played the entire 2021 season with a wrist injury. The Irish training staff suggested surgery to Bertrand before the year, and he instead opted to play through the injury after being told he would not worsen it. Every time he made a tackle, he could feel the wrist.

“The biggest thing is the pain. It’s an annoyance. You feel it every time you punch,” Bertrand said Monday. “… For me personally, I just wanted to play no matter what. They said I was good to play, and it wasn’t going to affect my future long-term. From that point, I was ready to go.”

RELATED READING: Unbreakable JD Bertrand sets high bar for Irish

And remember, Bertrand made a lot of tackles. On a bit more than 700 snaps, he made the tackle on about 14 percent of the plays.

Yet, he is ranked No. 15 by the beat writers entering this season when predicting who will impact Notre Dame’s season, and that is because the defending leading tackler may not even start for Golden and the Irish.

Liufau missed all of last season after dislocating his ankle in August, the injury that moved Bertrand into the starting lineup. With Liufau healthy and fifth-year Bo Bauer a bit more versatile at the middle linebacker spot, Bertrand may become the backup to them both.

No. 14 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker — 120 points
Nine ballots
Highest rank: No. 5
Last year’s rank: No. 18

Then comes Kiser, an underrated recruit who started most of last season. He scored two touchdowns, able to watch himself on the Soldier Field video board as he broke loose against Wisconsin (above). He has had his hand in on five turnovers across the last two years and broken up eight total passes.

Kiser makes an impact on the field, yet he is not even the highest linebacker listed on this preseason ranking.

RELATED READING: Taking time to teach makes Jack Kiser a better LB for Notre Dame

At rover, Kiser has found a home that requires both sure tackling and diligent pass coverage. His recruiting ranking may have doubted his ability to excel in both those regards, but he has proven otherwise.

No. 13 Rylie Mills, junior defensive end, 125 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 9
Lowest rank: No. 21
Last year’s rank: No. 23

The third-down dilemma at Ohio State in 22 days (22 days!!) may not give Mills enough credit. He excelled as a pass rusher at Virginia in his spot start last season, making three sacks. Human beings should not be as quick as Mills is while being this large …

That combination may make him an ideal edge player on a third-and-four against a dynamic offense.

To frame this annual exercise in a preemptive retrospective manner — yes, that was quite a phrasing — if Mills impacts Notre Dame’s fall so much he belongs in the top 10 of these thoughts after the season, then the Irish defense will be among the nation’s best and will have a semblance of a chance against Ohio State and USC.

The way to beat those offenses is with a dominant defensive line. While that is Notre Dame’s best position group, asking it to turn those games on their heads is a different ask than its week-in, week-out charge of hassle the quarterback.

For the Irish to upset the Buckeyes — and remember, Ohio State is favored by more than two touchdowns — the defensive line will need to harass Heisman Trophy frontrunner CJ Stroud on more snaps than not. As much hype as senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey gets, he will not be able to manage that on his own. Mills will need to overextend the Buckeyes’ offensive line to help Foskey break loose.

And if he does so, then this No. 13 ranking will look low.

No. 12 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker, 149 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 17
Last year’s rank: No. 20

Some Irish fans undoubtedly cringed at the thought of a three-man defensive front. It did not go well for Notre Dame in last year’s season opener, though it gradually played much better as the season progressed, something not as well-noticed.

Losing Liufau just a week or so before the season threw that alignment into a bit of disarray. His return should only help it.

If Liufau was poised for a breakout season in 2021, he now brings a better awareness of the game after being forced to do nothing but watch, and Golden thinks Liufau has added some weight. (Indeed, Liufau is listed nine pounds heavier now than he was in the spring of 2021.)

“The sky is the limit for Marist,” Golden said. “I’m really hopeful that we’ll get there.”

The sky may be the limit, but thus far, Notre Dame is adding limitations to Liufau, also lowering his ranking here. (That is not opinion: Multiple panelists admitted Freeman’s hesitation with Liufau lowered their ranking.)

Liufau is fully healthy, according to both him and Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, but Notre Dame is setting a low ceiling on his snap count in preseason practices as he returns to football. By the sounds of it, it is a fitness thought more than anything else, but the possibility of anything else lingering from Liufau’s injury lends some worries.

No. 11 Chris Tyree, junior running back, 154 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 15
Last year’s rank: No. 10

As has been a theme with this year’s “Counting Down the Irish” series, this ranking once again underscores lowered expectations for Notre Dame’s offense in 2022.

To wit, lead Irish running back Kyren Williams ranked No. 2 in this polling last year.

Yes, Williams was a magnificent college running back with an energy that elevated his physical abilities, but the point remains the same: Notre Dame’s offense will take a step back in 2022, if not a couple steps back.

A year ago, four Irish skill position players were ranked in the top 10 of who would most impact Notre Dame’s season, with Tyree coming in at No. 10.

This year, only three skill position players rank in the top 11.

Comparing Tyree to Williams is unfair, but the Irish may need a Williams-esque showing from Tyree this season, and this ranking strongly suggests it will not be coming.

The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …

Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Mannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

Others Receiving Votes
No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points
No. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 points
No. 19 Tariq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 points
No. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 points
No. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 points
No. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 points

Counting Down the Irish — 20 to 16, led by Notre Dame’s defensive line depth and highlighting the lack of offensive options

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
Getty Images
2 Comments

Odd things jump out when looking at the rankings of the top-25 most expected players in Notre Dame’s 2022. Not too much time is spent comparing them to last year’s series, but when 10 of the top 20 were not ranked at all last season — and only safety Brandon Joseph because he was not on the roster a year ago — it raises an eyebrow.

When one of them fits in the exact same ranking as last season, but with some notable differences in how he got there, the difference between this year’s Irish and last year’s becomes quite clear.

Notre Dame was positioned to be driven by its offense in 2021. Scoring 35.2 points per game certainly fit that expectation.

There is every indication that will plummet this year, and the Irish defense will dictate the season.

As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …

No. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 points
Five ballots
Highest rank: No. 11

Once seen as the recruiting add-on needed to land his twin brother, tackle Jayson Ademilola, Justin Ademilola has now become a defensive leader. Finishing in this top 20 is even more noteworthy when realizing he is the third defensive end ranked.

It has been said here before and it will be said here again: The defensive line is Notre Dame’s best position group in 2022.

If anything is surprising, it is that five ballots left off Ademilola. The five that ranked him slotted him at an average of No. 16.4. That ballot with Ademilola at No. 11 — ballots will remain unnamed unless a panelist opts otherwise — had four defensive linemen in his top 11.

Rotating behind senior Vyper end Isaiah Foskey and junior “Big” end Rylie Mills may cut into Ademilola’s production, but most likely, it cuts into all their productions. If that means they are fresher in November, though, the long-term benefits should be astounding.

No. 19 Tariq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 points
Nine ballots
Highest rank: No. 15

Bracy finishing higher ranked than No. 23 Clarence Lewis counts as a surprise. Lewis looks earmarked for a starting-11 role, and while Notre Dame will turn to its nickel package more often than not, Bracy’s role as the nickel back should pull him from the field on at least 40 percent of snaps.

Furthermore, Bracy has been played off the field in three of the last four years. A ranking this high suggests that will not happen again.

Either that is faith in Bracy’s surge for his final season or it is confusion sparked by early-enrolled freshman Jaden Mickey perhaps challenging Lewis for that starting role.

Navy v Notre Dame
A shoulder injury has kept sophomore running back Logan Diggs from contact during preseason practices, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman is optimistic Diggs will be full-go for the season opener on Sept. 3 at Ohio State. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

No. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 points
Seven ballots
Highest rank: No. 9

These ballots were due after Notre Dame’s first practice and after Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s first media availability of the preseason, though most were turned in before that. The fact that the beat media expects Diggs to play enough of the season to have this level of an impact after suffering a labrum injury in April lends credence to Freeman’s optimism that Diggs may play in the season opener on Sept. 3 at Ohio State.

Until then, Notre Dame is toeing a fine line with its running backs in practices, having only three healthy enough for contact at the moment.

“Coach (Deland) McCullough has a huge challenge because he’s a competitor just like the rest of us,” Freeman said Friday. “He wants to put the best guys in there. He wants to put the guys in and he wants to make sure that we have success.

“We have to roll those guys. … But you got to get the work done. We can’t have all of our running backs in red and think we’re going to be prepared for the season.”

No. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 points
Eight ballots
Highest rank: No. 13

Four defensive linemen in the top 20 may be a surprise. Four offensive linemen in the top 20 is par for the course for the Irish.

As the summer progressed, murmurs became rumors, and they became a near certainty that Correll would move into Notre Dame’s starting lineup at center and move fifth-year lineman and three-year starter at center Jarrett Patterson to left guard. That assured Correll’s impact this season.

Swapping Correll out for Andrew Kristofic halfway through last season was one thing. Doing so now would require shuffling multiple positions, making it exceedingly unlikely aside from injury.

“Because of the spring [Correll] had and what he showed, we felt to get the five best offensive linemen on the field would be to move [Patterson] to guard,” Freeman said. “Obviously, he showed us a lot of value in the spring.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
A quarterback, then a running back, then a defensive back, and now a receiver, Avery Davis is one of Notre Dame’s most critical offensive pieces, partly because there are so few of them. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 points
Nine ballots
Highest rank: No. 11
Last year’s rank: No. 16

This slot last season held 97 points, also Davis. Right there, something can be learned: The best of Notre Dame’s roster is more distinct this season than it was a year ago.

There were five skill players yet ahead of Davis last season. A slight spoiler of what is to come: Only three skill players are ahead of him this year. The Irish offense will need the veteran coming off a torn ACL to deliver consistently in order to have a functioning offense, and even then, that offense has fewer options than it did last season.

Now let’s pull a bit more from last year’s entry …

“Davis finishing as the No. 16 player to keep an eye on leading into the 2021 season makes it clear what Notre Dame beat reporters expect from this offense with Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s arm leading it: More.”

The fourth skill player in the 2021 “Counting Down the Irish” series was running back Chris Tyree at No. 10. Davis being six spots below that makes it clear what Notre Dame beat reporters expect from this offense with sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner having few options to work with: Less.

The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …

Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Mannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

Others Receiving Votes
No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points

Counting Down the Irish — 25 to 21, already highlighting Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven

Wisconsin v Notre Dame
Getty Images
1 Comment

While trying not to spoil the top 20 of this countdown of the expected most impactful players for Notre Dame in 2022, it is nearly impossible to rattle off even Nos. 21 through 25 without realizing how talented the Irish defensive front-seven is.

Logically, this list should include most of the starting 11 on offense, most of the starting 11 on defense, and a handful of key backups. When two of those backups are running backs, one not even healthy enough for contact yet, the defensive reserves could go underrepresented.

Instead, Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven is over-represented with nine entrants in this top 25. This space often reminds readers the Irish defensive line is the best position group on the roster, and it landed five names in this top 25 — in the top 21, to be more exact — more than any other group. Not even the offensive line could get all five of its starters in the top 25, largely because of the defensive line’s expected impact.

If the ceiling on Marcus Freeman’s debut season as a head coach is higher than nine wins, it is because of that defensive line.

As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …

No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
Four ballots
Highest rank: No. 15

The third-string running back does not usually warrant such lofty praise, but Estime may still open the season as the second-string Irish back, behind only junior Chris Tyree. Sophomore Logan Diggs is partaking in practice, and Freeman has said he expects Diggs to be part of the plan at Ohio State on Sept. 3, but until his red jersey comes off, one must assume Diggs’ labrum injury will limit him in September.

Thus Estime’s inclusion in this top 25.

“Better feet, better hands than you probably anticipate for a guy that’s as rocked up as [Estime] is,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said this weekend. “To just label him as a one-dimensional back is incorrect. You look at that guy, I would say, he’s going to run people over, but he can do more than that, he really can.”

If three Notre Dame running backs deserve this placement at the end of the season, it will obviously bode well for the Irish offense as a whole. Given the thin nature of the receivers’ depth, a ground emphasis will both make sense and preserve Notre Dame’s potency deeper into the season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
Bo Bauer’s return for a fifth season gives new Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden an extra piece of depth in his front-seven. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
Six ballots
Highest rank: No. 18
Last year’s rank: No. 24

Bauer increasingly looks like he may be the Irish starting middle linebacker, allowing senior JD Bertrand the flexibility to back up both middle and Will (weakside) linebackers. Not to state the obvious, but Bauer’s age may be playing a role in that elevation.

Since Drue Tranquill laid a template in 2018, fifth-year players at Notre Dame have gradually realized the benefits of being so far along in school. An engineering major, the ease in workload resonated exponentially for Tranquill, but it applies to any such player.

“I don’t have as strenuous of classes, so I’m in the weight room extra every day,” Bauer said Monday. “I’m hitting those bikes. I’m trying to get to what my peak physical form that I can.

“I’m coming out just ready to leave everything out because it could be my last year. I don’t want to leave how I left last year.”

No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
Six ballots
Highest rank: No. 14
Last year’s rank: No. 13

Let’s step away from football analysis and consider the balloting for a moment. Of the 10 ballots submitted — and remember, the subjective criteria given is to rank the top 25 most impactful players to Notre Dame’s 2022 — only one included both Lewis and “Others Receiving Votes” finisher and freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey.

Mickey appeared on five ballots, compared to Lewis’ six. They were nearly entirely exclusive of each other.

Mickey received constant praise this spring and that has not slowed of late. The thought of him becoming the starting Irish cornerback along the boundary reduces the thoughts of Lewis’ third season as a starter.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
Notre Dame needed Braden Lenzy to run 70 routes in the Fiesta Bowl due to a complete lack of receiver depth, something only somewhat rectified entering 2022. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
Seven ballots
Highest rank: No. 16
Last year’s rank: No. 15

Counter to the dynamic between Lewis and Mickey, Lenzy and freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather did not split votes. Each of the five ballots that included Merriweather also featured Lenzy.

The running backs did not pull away from the veteran receiver, either. The three ballots that left him off each included only two backs, featuring either Esitme or Diggs, not both.

Thus, knocking Lenzy down this far, even as Notre Dame’s most proven receiver and an increasingly durable option, reflects the worries about the Irish offense as a whole.

No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points
Seven ballots
Highest rank: No. 15

Worries about the offense could also be seen as hype for the defense. Cross may be a starting defensive tackle on Sept. 3, but that was not the expectation just a week ago. After just one practice viewing, though, Cross earned this slot.

“Fast hands, fast hands Howard,” defensive coordinator Al Golden called him on Monday. “He is doing a great job with his get-off and getting his hands on the opponent. I wasn’t here last year, but he’s 275 now, so I don’t want to say he’s significantly bigger, but he’s definitely bigger and stronger than he was a year ago.

“That’s showing up. His ability to sit in there and take on a double (team) is showing up. He’s always had the ability to move, and he’s great at that, so we want to continue to allow him to do that because he’s got quickness. But his ability to sit in there and play a double (team) is definitely improved.”

Cross’ weight has hardly changed in the last year-plus. In the spring of 2021, he was listed at 6-foot ⅞, 275 pounds. Notre Dame added just one pound to that listing on the current roster.

So any development to Cross’ game in the face of a double-team has come via skill and muscle, not pure mass. Regardless, that development has pushed him into a starting role.

The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …

Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Mannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illutrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

As for the delay in continuing this series after the “Others Receiving Votes” piece on Monday, some of us are still taking care of preseason tasks, and that cost some writing time this week. Apologies.