After a pandemic furlough-forced year off, the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series returns this week, and any Notre Dame fan should already know who will come in at No. 1 on Friday, and they can probably guess No. 2.
That is all the foreshadowing to offer, though, as working through projections of the top-25 most impactful Irish players in 2021 is best done slowly.
As always, the rankings come from Notre Dame beat writers, 10 partaking in 2021. They are asked to ponder the subjective ways players contribute rather than purely objective stats. If asked a year ago they assuredly would have placed both quarterback Ian Book and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the top five, if not the top two, but they just as assuredly would have missed in predicting running back Kyren Williams would become an offensive catalyst.
By the end of the preseason, that concept may not have seemed far-fetched, but to start August 2020, few expected Williams to emerge as the Irish starting running back. At best, he would have ended up in the “Others Receiving Votes” tally of the polling, just as Kyle Hamilton was as a freshman in 2019, when he ended up with four interceptions and was a constant worry for opposing quarterbacks, and Book was in 2018 before he led Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff.
That is to say, someone among these 12 players will impact the Irish pursuit for a fifth consecutive double-digit win season.
That may start with senior safety Houston Griffith, who finished No. 26 in this preseason ranking. Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will still need to assess Griffith against classmate DJ Brown as they compete to start alongside Hamilton, but every indication suggests it will be Griffith, including Kelly lumping him in with the captaincy pool Saturday. (Kelly said he intends to announce captains today, Monday.)
“We like the spring that Houston had, we love his leadership,” Kelly said. “We love what he’s been about in terms of his makeup.”
More likely than Griffith impacting the 2021 season, though, would be junior Zeke Correll. He may have been bumped from his best position in the first practice of the year, with senior Jarrett Patterson reclaiming his role at center, but Correll still looks like a starting offensive lineman. In that respect, it is surprising to see him outside the top 25. In both 2018 and 2019, all five starting offensive linemen were firmly in the top 25. In 2017, all returnees with starting experience were.
Correll has started two games and played well. Yet this lower ranking may be more a reflection of the uncertainty around him than of unprecedented roster depth. Kelly may disagree with that assessment, though.
“He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s athletic,” Kelly said when acknowledging Correll may be arguably undersized to play left guard at 295 pounds. “The physical things that he brings relative to the guard position certainly outweigh the fact that he’s not 325 pounds.”
Correll will have a chance to earn the starting role at left guard this month, but if he does not impress the coaching staff, a name a few rungs further down the Others Receiving Votes list could be in line to benefit.
One writer slotted early-enrolled freshman guard Rocco Spindler at No. 18 in his rankings. (Individual rankings remain anonymous unless those writers choose to unveil them on their own.) For clarity: No, that writer did not rank Correll, but still no, if combining Spindler’s points with Correll’s, the latter would not yet crack the top 25.
Both kicking specialists ended up among this second tier, always an interesting decision for voters to make, weighing a kicker’s or punter’s impact a difficult task when compared to the center or the safety.
Most notably, 30 percent of the responses included early-enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles. One freshman cracked the top 25 — and who should be easy to guess — making Styles (pictured at top) the second-highest entry of the class of 2021, just as he was as a recruit.
Maybe those are suggestions of Styles’ potential as a punt returner, or maybe those are reflections of confidence in the abilities that made Styles such a prized recruit. Unlike the inclusion of early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner, Styles may find a chance to prove those three right.
As it pertains to Buchner, he did finish second among Notre Dame’s quarterbacks. It seems the media is convinced the ongoing quarterback competition is an exercise in little more than optics, so factoring in the backup quarterback is unnecessary. They also may think Buchner will get chances to flash in blowouts, although those are hardly impact moments.
Others Receiving Votes:
Senior safety Houston Griffith — 32 points, seven of 10 ballots, high of No. 18.
Senior linebacker Shayne Simon — 26 points, four ballots, high of No. 11.
Junior offensive lineman Zeke Correll — 21 points, five ballots, high of No. 21.
Fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer — 17 points, three ballots, high of No. 15.
Early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Rocco Spindler — 8 points, two ballots, high of No. 18.
Junior punter Jay Bramblett — 7 points, two ballots, high of No. 20.
Senior defensive end Justin Ademilola — 5 points, two ballots, high of No. 22.
Early-enrolled freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles — 5 points, three ballots, high of No. 24.
Early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner — 3 points, three ballots, No. 25 on each.
Senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy — 2 points, one ballot, No. 24.
Senior tight end George Takacs — 2 points, one ballot, No. 24.
Freshman cornerback Philip Riley — 2 points, one ballot, No. 24.
The voters, who deserve more thanks than this throwaway sentence at the end of a column. Maybe this year beers can be bought in appreciation. Ahhhh, drinks with pseudo-colleagues the night before a road game. Remember those? You’ve been warned, Chicago and/or San Francisco. Anyway, thanks, y’all …
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Jack Leniart, Slap the Sign
Mannion McGinley, The Observer
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down
Furthermore, none of them tried to sneak the Peacock app into their top 25, which from an orderly-scoring perspective was very much appreciated. NBC’s standalone app will not affect Notre Dame on the field, but it will be your only way to watch the home opener against Toledo on Sept. 11. Consider this the first of about 30 reminders.
Editor’s Note: Originally this was published with only nine submissions, but the 10th came in as Monday’s sun was still rising, so the above rankings were appropriately updated. Nothing of substance in the Others Receiving Votes realm changed, aside from Philip Riley receiving his first vote and both Houston Griffith and Shayne Simon receiving their highest nods.
There's a quote from #NotreDame distance running coach Matt Sparks to Molly Seidel that I can't pull up right now, from years ago, to the extent of, "Sometimes you gotta believe you can do something before you do it."
Always stuck with me, and WOOOOOOW
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 6, 2021
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Day ✌️#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/pA2sLqr0Rg
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 8, 2021
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