Counting Down the Irish: 15 to 11, including two Notre Dame offensive linemen and a speedy enigma

Blake Fisher 2021
Notre Dame Athletics

In the last decade of these rankings of Notre Dame’s expected 25 most impactful players, never has a freshman finished in the top 20, let alone the top 15.

The Irish beat writers did not expect that much of Aaron Lynch (No. 22 in 2011), nor of Jaylon Smith (No. 23 in 2013) or Kyle Hamilton (No. 29 in 2019). Maybe tight end Michael Mayer would have reached that high last season, but with Tommy Tremble still around and seen as a strong receiving threat, it is hard to envision two Irish tight ends in the top 20, even if pandemic events had not precluded this annual series.

Similarly, in Notre Dame history, only one freshman has started a season opener on the offensive line.

Left tackle Blake Fisher has secured that first honor, the lesser of these trend-breakers, because it is widely assumed he will join Sam Young in Irish history on Labor Day Eve.

15: Braden Lenzy, senior receiver, 103 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 20
Nine ballots total (out of 10).

If Lenzy finishes the season as Notre Dame’s 15th most impactful player, it will be reminiscent of his 2019, when he showed what his speed can do when healthy. If he does not, assume he is not healthy.

This write-up could be that simple. Clear-headed Lenzy with two full-strength hamstrings can average 20 yards per touch (18.9 yards per touch on 24 touches in nine games in 2019). Banged-up Lenzy struggles to reach half that (7.1 yards per touch on 10 touches in seven games in 2020).

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Lenzy finished in the top 10 percent of offseason workouts. If taking that at face value, a stronger Lenzy should trend toward that 2019 version, and that version could change Notre Dame’s season.

14: Blake Fisher, freshman left tackle, 112 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 21
Nine ballots total (out of 10).

No pressure, kid.

Kelly may continue to dance around naming Fisher a starter, at least for a few more weeks, but actions speak louder than words. While sophomore Tosh Baker could conceivably make a late charge to win the position, that possibility also existed in the winter, and the Irish still made plans to find a left tackle from elsewhere on the roster.

That was part of why Notre Dame worked through the early spring with the thought of moving senior Jarrett Patterson away from center. He was recruited to play tackle, and using him to bookend the line with fifth-year Josh Lugg seemed like the best-case scenario for the offensive line’s edges.

Then Fisher arrived in the spring and excelled from the start. Part of the surprise ties to Fisher’s sheer size: College freshmen do not usually stand 6-foot-6 while weighing 335 pounds. Part of it ties to his quick study, learning from each film session and applying it in the next practice, according to Lugg. All in all, Fisher changed the Irish plan, and that change makes it clear he will start at left tackle at Florida State.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?

“The [early enrollees] make this decision (of keeping Patterson at center) a lot easier,” Kelly said Saturday. “So we needed to assess that, so some of my comments (in the spring) were prior to knowing exactly what was going on there.”

In that respect, if Fisher proves successful, his impact will be amplified. His succeeding at left tackle will allow Patterson to remain at his own best position, thus improving the offensive line at two positions.

Right, no pressure.

13: Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, 118 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 24
Ranked unanimously.

Lewis surprisingly filled a Notre Dame need in 2020, as a cornerback that could handle himself in man coverage even against explosive offenses. Without Lewis, the comfortable 31-17 win at North Carolina may instead have turned into a 38-35 shootout, as one example.

Building on his debut campaign of 33 tackles and seven passes broken up will be a challenge, but there is every expectation Lewis will do so, as evidenced by him being the first of 13 players to appear on all 10 ballots.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Florida Atlantic at Marshall
A second-team All-American in 2020, Cain Madden never thought he would play college football in 2021, let alone at Notre Dame. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

12: Cain Madden, Marshall transfer, right guard, 121 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 18
Ranked unanimously.

Madden’s arrival in June finalized some of the changes to Irish intentions that Fisher had started in March. Even with Fisher at left tackle, Notre Dame lacked a right guard. Slotting Patterson there would shore up a weakness.

A second-team All-American is also a good way to shore up a weakness.

Perhaps aside from Alohi Gilman, Madden will be in a competition with Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan to be the most impactful transfer of the Kelly era. Gilman had a few seasons to change the Irish culture; Madden and Coan will have one year to leave their marks.

Madden’s will be hard to miss. If Fisher spreads 335 pounds across a 6-foot-6 frame, ponder how Madden’s dispersal of 310 pounds on a body standing 6-foot-2 ½ suitably earns him the nickname of “Dump Truck.”

Marshall’s loss will be Notre Dame’s gain in 2021, not to mention Patterson’s.

11: Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, 138 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 17
Ranked unanimously.

To claim someone should be ranked higher, someone else must also be ranked lower. It is hard to envision a spot outside the top 10 for a fifth-year defensive tackle, not to mention three-year starter, who is about to set the program record for games played at a level that should never be reached, literally speaking. But time will show it is also hard to knock down anyone in the top 10.

But it should be acknowledged some of the top 10’s success will tie back to Hinish. Spoiler alert: Two other defensive linemen, both ends, are in the top 10. Hinish’s ability to put a dent in the offensive line, thus taking away an escape route for an opposing quarterback, will make their lives easier. A certain middle linebacker is also in the top 10. Hinish’s constant handling of multiple blockers will keep him unencumbered when chasing a ball carrier.

Hinish’s stats have never been outlandish (55 tackles in 50 games), but he has always been effective (12 tackles for loss in the last two seasons). Defensive line rotations may keep those ratios the same in 2021, but that is hardly a criticism of Hinish.

“Our d-line room is extremely deep,” Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman said Tuesday. “In my years of being a coordinator, the most success I’ve had is when I’ve had a good d-line. The depth of our d-line is like no other. … The d-line might be the only one where we have to talk about three-man rotations, because there’s so many good players in that room.”

That luxury begins with Hinish, the Pittsburgh workman who will reach and exceed 60 games played presuming health. In the summer, this space suggested Hinish will make 10 tackles for loss this season, building on his 4.5 in 2019 and 7.5 in 2020. If that bold thought comes true, then keeping him outside the top 10 may be proven foolish, even if that top 10 is rightfully tough to crack.

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
20: Marist Liufau, junior linebacker, 54 points
19: Josh Lugg, fifth-year offensive lineman, 67 points
18: Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, 71 points
17: Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle, 93 points
16: Avery Davis, fifth-year receiver, 97 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