Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16, a linebacker glut and an indication Notre Dame’s offense could explode in 2021

Marist Liufau
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A defensive surge continues when moving into the top-20 most impactful Notre Dame players in 2021, as predicted by a panel of 10 beat writers. In the entire top 25, the offense/defense split is as even as can be: 12 offensive players, 13 defenders. But the top 15 has only six defenders.

The reserves and time-shares fill out these 16-25 slots, including two players in this subset who should probably just be lumped together, but to do so would abandon the countdown nature intuited by the name of the series.

20: Marist Liufau, junior linebacker, 54 points
High ranking: No. 12
Low ranking: No. 24
Six ballots total (out of 10).

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday he is not sure how defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will get his bounty of linebackers involved this season, just that he will. Liufau looks like a probable starter at Buck linebacker, formerly known as Will, often referred to as the weakside linebacker. But to start there, Liufau will need to hold off senior Bo Bauer’s demand for playing time.

If the since-dismissed speculation about sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho’s availability were to result in some limited time, Liufau could move up to Vyper end, where his length and ball skills would translate well into Freeman’s linebacker-end hybrid role. But for now, those Botelho thoughts are presumed to be nonsense, and Liufau is likely to remain at linebacker.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker

His ability to sow chaos best paid off for Notre Dame at North Carolina last November, when subbing Liufau in for Shayne Simon caught the Tar Heels off guard, Liufau’s ability to disrupt in the backfield costing Sam Howell any sense of rhythm.

If nothing else, that exact opportunity will arrive again in primetime this Halloween Eve, and the week beforehand, the Irish will need every ounce of coverage ability it can find against USC. Those will be the moments for Liufau to prove this ranking correct.

19: Josh Lugg, fifth-year offensive lineman, 67 points
High ranking: No. 12
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total (out of 10).

As one of the only two offensive linemen that Kelly would commit to as starters on Saturday, Lugg should probably be higher than No. 19. On the flip side, Kelly may have been dabbling in preseason coachspeak, and he knows quite well that Marshall transfer and All-American Cain Madden will start, making for a third established veteran on the Notre Dame offensive line.

Jarrett Patterson is the starting center, and Josh Lugg is going to play for us,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are the veterans on this offensive line that I can commit to right now. Everybody else has got to earn their way.”

Saturday was Madden’s first practice with the Irish. Making him earn a first-team role with a few more days of practice makes some sense.

Lugg coming in so low here, though, may also tie to his health. His back plagued him late in 2020, when Notre Dame needed him most. It was sheer mental fortitude that turned him from a stiff liability in pregame warmups into a quality starter at North Carolina and then against Clemson in the ACC championship game. But the pregame visual lingered.

Lugg lost 30 pounds between November and February, falling all the way to 291. He is now listed at 305, having put half his loss back on as healthier weight. Lugg spent the winter and summer working on his core, to take the stress of his back.

While standing 6-foot-6 ⅞ helps spread that weight around in the first place — and puts pressure on his back — he by no means looks thick in the gut.

If Lugg is assured four months of full mobility, this ranking will be considered too low. However, if his offseason work did not strengthen his core and back enough, then perhaps Kelly’s confidence in Lugg and Patterson will be only half valid.

18: Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, 71 points
High ranking: No. 11
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total (out of 10).

If senior Paul Moala had never torn his Achilles last season, he might be here rather than Kiser. Moala might be higher. But this is football, and injuries happen, creating opportunities for others. In his limited chances last season, Kiser impressed, making 20 tackles with one interception. As the successor to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at Rover, Kiser has a chance to double or perhaps triple those numbers.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker

But Moala looms. Kelly said he was full-go in the first preseason practice. As high as the coaching staff apparently is on Kiser — and these ranking should be taken as reflections of that, as many of them are based on offseason conversations — they have been high on Moala for years, as well. Achilles injuries can be extremely costly, but if Moala is truly full-go, then Kiser’s ascension may not be as unimpeded as expected.

17: Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle, 93 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven ballots total (out of 10).

A backup defensive tackle clearly so talented the Irish had no qualms moving the starter to a new position in the spring, expectations are high for Ademilola. Without him, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would undoubtedly still be on the interior instead of enjoying himself at defensive end. Without Ademilola, Notre Dame would have been doomed along the defensive interior when Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot early in 2018, thrusting the freshman Ademilola into a contributing role that led to 19 tackles in 12 games.

In other words, Ademilola has already been impacting the Irish defense for three years, but now he finally gets a chance to do so in a leading role. His career includes only half a sack. To prove worthy of those No. 17 ranking as far as an impact goes, that number will need to escalate quickly.

Clemson v Notre Dame
Avery Davis not only set up Notre Dame’s overtime-forcing, last-minute touchdown against No. 1 Clemson last season, he also caught the touchdown. Without Davis, the Irish almost assuredly would have lost to the Tigers. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

16: Avery Davis, fifth-year receiver, 97 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
Seven ballots total (out of 10).

Recruited as a quarterback, tried as a cornerback, dabbled with as a running back, Davis finally found his place of importance at receiver. By making the two biggest catches of Notre Dame’s season last year against Clemson, he established himself as arguably a top-10 key player in 2020, but this is not necessarily a step down. That top-10 thought comes in retrospect, not forethought.

And 2021 should feature some other receivers, something that could not be counted on in 2020.

Without spoiling rankings yet to come, Davis is the sixth-highest-rated skill player on the Irish offense in this annual exercise. If he ends the season as the sixth-most impactful, that bodes well for Notre Dame finally finding some explosiveness, long the difference between it and the top few teams in college football.

His reliability and consistency could position Davis for 40 catches and 500 yards, as suggested in his entry in the summertime Notre Dame 99-to-0 series. The idea of that stat line being fourth or fifth among Irish receivers is somewhat unexpected. In 2018, those numbers would have ranked fourth in Notre Dame’s passing game, but in the other years of the ongoing Irish renaissance, he would have ranked third twice and been the best receiver in 2017.

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.

COUNTING DOWN THE IRISH
25: Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, Vyper, 33 points
24: Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, 34 points
23: Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle, 34 points
22: Lawrence Keys, senior receiver, 42 points
21: Cam Hart, junior cornerback, 52 points

The voters:
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