Counting Down the Irish: 25 to 21, featuring four Notre Dame defenders, including one who probably should be ranked higher

Jordan Botelho 2021
Notre Dame Athletics
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The votes for this Counting Down the Irish series are due after Notre Dame’s first practice and head coach Brian Kelly’s first preseason media availability. This is done very intentionally, and it was very much necessary this season.

While there would be some worth to receiving all 10 rankings without anyone seeing a single practice and thus making this truly a preseason exercise in every way, that perk is outweighed by the drawback of the annual consternation about a player’s, or multiple players’, availability.

The first week of August saw many Irish fans irrationally convinced sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho would miss the entire season for some unknown reason that no report ever deemed necessary to outline. When reaching out to the 10 Notre Dame beat writers for this annual gimmick, more than a few of them said they had a list ready, it just needed to wait until after Kelly’s media session following Saturday’s first practice.

They did not want to rank Botelho only for that speculation to be proven true, despite uncertainty of its validity.

And thus, Botelho opens this year’s Counting Down the Irish, in terms of what players will be most impactful this season in media members’ prognosticating minds.

25: Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, Vyper, 33 points
High ranking: No. 14
Low ranking: No. 25
Six ballots total (out of 10).

Taking Kelly at his word when it comes to vague disciplinary and/or eligibility concerns can be a fool’s tactic, but his tone Saturday very much suggested as much confusion about the issue as the media members had while they waited for his insights.

“There was some kind of rumor that he wasn’t cleared to play,” Kelly said, “and that hasn’t been the case.”

With that, the Counting Down the Irish rankings flooded in, the “Botelho Hold” no longer necessary.

“This isn’t an academic situation, this isn’t a drug testing policy situation,” Kelly said. “So I don’t know where this came from, to be quite frank with you. He’s cleared to play and compete.”

More faith will be put behind those words as preseason practices continue, particularly if Botelho gets more second-team reps than third-team. He is undoubtedly behind junior Isaiah Foskey at the Vyper end, formerly known as the Drop end.

Senior Justin Ademilola may also rotate over to Vyper from “Big” end, and if doing so knocks Botelho down the depth chart, then some of the wondering about Botelho will continue.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 17 Jordan Botelho, full-speed at all times

This is a player who was already held out of a high school All-American game because of a confrontation outside a volleyball match and someone who Notre Dame sent home last summer to regain his focus before he came to practice. Vague glances about his participation will continue until Labor Day Eve.

But if he plays, the floor for Botelho in 2021 should be no lower than a few sacks and a few pass breakups, perfecting new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s end-linebacker hybrid intentions at Vyper. As long as Botelho does not match those numbers with an equal number of personal foul penalties, then this ranking will end up too low for Botelho, albeit one that would have been higher if August had not started with seeded misgivings.

24: Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, 34 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
Three ballots total (out of 10).

When ranking 25 impactful players in a sport that features at least 22 starters, the natural inclination is to start with that subset and build out a few more names. Bauer is not within those 22, thus artificially dampening his finish here.

Notre Dame has a bounty of quality linebackers, creating a cloudy uncertainty of how and where they will all play. Bauer may be the second-best of that group — though, a number of players could contend for that nod — but he is behind third-year starter Drew White. White will start at Mike, making Bauer’s way to playing time a complicated one.

His best chance may be to end up next to White at Will linebacker. Then again, that is true of a few others, as well.

“You’ve seen all those linebackers. We’re so deep at that position,” Kelly said Saturday. “If I’ve asked [Marcus Freeman] once, I’ve asked him 10 times, how are we going to get all these guys involved? …

“We’re deep there, so when you’re deep at a position, you’re trying to be creative. You’re trying to look at situations where can somebody play situationally, can somebody be in our three-down package, can we maximize them there?”

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog

If so, that will be Bauer, and he did a bit of it in 2020. As much a revelation as White has been, he does not excel in pass coverage. Bauer found a niche there last season, and that alone could give him a chance to shine, in addition to his long-held prominence on special teams coverages.

23: Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle, 34 points
High ranking: No. 14
Low ranking: No. 25
Five ballots total (out of 10).

Mills moved up the depth chart over the winter when fifth-year tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa moved to Big end, both out of Tagovailoa-Amosa’s own want and because the Irish knew they had Mills pushing for playing time on the inside.

Players standing taller than 6-foot-5 with a listed weight of 283 pounds will do that. Mills impressed in 2020, making seven tackles and never looking overmatched as a freshman while playing 141 snaps.

That may jump by 100 snaps this year, but his tackles may only tick up to 15 or so. Such is the unglamorous life of an interior lineman.

Yet, Mills’ role will be clear, and as good as senior Jayson Ademilola looks to be, Mills may increasingly cut into his playing time.

22: Lawrence Keys, senior receiver, 42 points
High ranking: No. 15
Low ranking: No. 25
Five ballots total (out of 10).

To believe Kelly on Saturday, this ranking will be too low. When asked about the quartet of senior receivers and the work they put in this summer, Kelly got hung up on one word.

“Transformational. Transformational, and I underline that word.”

For a group that arrived with much hype in 2018 and has yet to even ponder consistency, that came across as bold.

“I know that sounds strong in terms of when I use a word like that, sometimes it’s hyperbole, but these kids have changed their bodies, their commitment levels,” Kelly said. “What we’ve asked them to do, they’ve taken it to heart.

“Now they’ve got to go make plays, but they understand how important they are to our success, and they look it.”

Yet Keys has totaled 18 catches for 185 yards in the last two seasons. To warrant a ranking like this, not to mention a five-syllable word of praise, he will need to at least double that in 2021.

21: Cam Hart, junior cornerback, 52 points
High ranking: No. 11
Low ranking: No. 24
Eight ballots total (out of 10).

Some concern from the Irish fan base may be appropriate when it comes to ranking the upperclassman expected to start in the solitude of the boundary all the way down at No. 21. If Hart does not prove more impactful than that, then Notre Dame’s defense is likely to either be exposed or even more dependent on junior safety Kyle Hamilton than expected, and that latter thought is saying something.

Hart is a former receiver who saw minimal action last year partly because of a shoulder injury. He has not gotten a chance to show what he can do at boundary cornerback, and that leads to measured expectations from this panel.

Kelly wants to have six playable cornerbacks, both for depth concerns and as a reflection of modern college football, and Hart will undoubtedly be one of them. Given the current context, it warrants pointing out only two cornerbacks popped up in Monday’s “Others Receiving Votes” category, both of them receiving only one vote, and only one cornerback remains ahead of Hart.

He is expected to be a full-time player, but until Hart proves he can operate on his own along the sideline, suggesting massive things from him would be a move too bold for those watching the Irish program the closest.

Not doing so underscores Notre Dame’s need at cornerback.

RELATED READING: Others Receiving Votes

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