Counting Down the Irish: Beginning Notre Dame’s top 10 with a few players who usually would be top 5

Chris Tyree 2020
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The beginning of this top 10 makes sense. A speedy running back and a star defensive end should be considered among Notre Dame’s most impactful players in the coming season. But if you polled these 10 Irish beat writers a year ago, few of them would have included the next three in a look-ahead list.

A year ago, a particular upperclassman receiver had not played in two seasons and was already doubtful for 2020. A transfer quarterback was hardly on anyone’s radar, especially one who was injured at his former school in the 2020 preseason. And a linebacker who played well in 2019 was already an afterthought heading into 2020, hardly likely an impact player that far down the line.

Yet, among the three of them and the subsequent 30 possible rankings, only eight land times did they outside the top 10.

10: Chris Tyree, sophomore running back, 151 points
High ranking: No. 7
Low ranking: No. 16
Ranked unanimously.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly is often maligned for not playing freshmen enough. Exhibit A: See No. 8 below. Yet, Tyree enjoyed 81 touches as a freshman, averaging 5.7 yards per touch.

If he repeated that alone in 2021, maybe with another seven touches in a 13th game, and with four touchdowns again, Tyree would be worthy of top-15 status in this conversation.

Despite worries he may be too slight or may wear down in his debut season, Tyree was remarkably consistent. Otherwise, there could be thought of a dropoff this fall, but instead, more is expected from Tyree.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees spent the spring dabbling with lining up Tyree and junior running back Kyren Williams together. Doing so will increase their catches (Tyree had eight for 65 yards last year), as well as further confound defenses.

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As was said with freshman left tackle Blake Fisher’s big-picture effect on senior Jarrett Patterson, this becomes a chance for one player to positively impact others, furthering their impact. Williams would excel regardless, but if Tyree’s potency creates more opportunities for Williams in space, then the sophomore’s net effect is greater than his stats will reflect.

That intangible may be too vague to measure even in intentionally subjective rankings, but Tyree’s impact in 2021 should be well worth a top-10 slotting.

9: Isaiah Foskey, junior defensive end, Vyper, 155 points
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 16
Ranked unanimously.

One could be forgiven for expecting Foskey to end up higher in these rankings. Typically, when Notre Dame has an NFL draft-caliber talent at defensive end, the hype around said individual increases with each passing August day. Two such defensive ends (Kahlid Kareem, Julian Okwara) finished in the top five of these rankings in 2019. Ade Ogundeji undoubtedly would have in 2020 if this annual series had not been forced into a year’s hiatus.

Foskey’s 4.5 sacks last year were held down by the Irish offense’s run game, as well as by his five additional quarterback hurries. His impact will be felt in 2021.

But perhaps an unknown and a clear fact each keep Foskey out of the top five. First of all, new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman intends to use the Vyper position in a hybrid sense, sometimes masquerading as a linebacker. Throughout the spring, Foskey discussed his steep learning curve when it comes to covering a tight end or running back. If he falls short on those Saturday tests, Foskey may lose some playing time.

Secondly, those aforementioned top-five defensive ends were all entering their clear final seasons. Foskey may have another year at Notre Dame. That is, if he does not create a top-five amount of impact in 2021, his draft grade will not rise enough to jump to the next level, and he will then inevitably be a top-five thought should there be a 2022 version of this series.

Obviously, some of that will depend on health. Per Kelly, Foskey injured his pectoral during the summer, but, “He’s fine. He was cleared to go.”

Kevin Austin
Through three seasons, senior receiver Kevin Austin has totaled six catches for 108 yards. Notre Dame is counting on him to multiple that a few times over in 2021, finally both healthy and available to play. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

8: Kevin Austin, senior receiver, 160 points
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 19
Ranked unanimously.

He hasn’t played sustained football since his senior year of high school, in 2017. He is coming off a season lost to a twice-broken foot. Yet, Austin remains the tantalizing possibility among the Irish receivers.

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The fact that all 10 beat writers included Austin shows some faith in not only his abilities, but his ability to stay on the field in 2021. The fact that four of them ranked him outside the top 10, and two of them outside the top 15, shows that faith remains measured, just like Austin’s workload coming off those foot concerns.

“Kevin Austin has always been a physical presence, so he continued in that realm,” Kelly said after the preseason’s first practice. “There’s great optimism from that perspective.

“Answering the question further, we want to be measured with Kevin as we go through, and so we’re going to be very careful with him as we get him back to football shape. But there’s a lot of optimism right now about where that (receivers) group is and where they can go.”

With Austin, Notre Dame could enjoy a set of skill players that rival nearly everyone else in the country. Without him, the Irish may face a familiar problem. One way or another, that’s an impact.

7: Jack Coan, Wisconsin transfer quarterback, 171 points
High ranking: No. 2
Low ranking: No. 19
Ranked unanimously.

By the end of today (Thursday), Kelly Will Likely have publicly named Coan the starting Notre Dame quarterback. This lower ranking is not a reflection of any doubt in that respect, but rather a nod toward some of the top-end talent the Irish presently enjoy.

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Coan’s job will entail more than simply enabling that talent. For Notre Dame to enjoy its best 2021, Coan needs to push the ball downfield more than has been seen at any point during the ongoing Irish resurgence.

But in many respects, Coan should not need to be a Notre Dame star. His abilities to lead with composure (he led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl, after all) and understand Rees’ offense may be all that are needed to impact the Irish offense to a great degree.

6: Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, 185 points
High ranking: No. 2
Low ranking: No. 17
Ranked unanimously.

When asked to vote in these rankings, each beat writer is told this is intentionally subjective. “Impact” can be viewed in myriad ways; trying to shoehorn it into a singular definition diminishes the luxuries of an endless internet. Some often view it as irreplaceable. If a player gets hurt, how big of a gap is there between him and his replacement?

Despite having a known and capable backup in senior Bo Bauer, White may be one such version of impactful.

“Drew White has started a lot of games for us,” Freeman said Tuesday. “Well, if Drew White goes down, what’s the plan? Who’s the next best guy?”

White may lead Notre Dame in tackles. He is a front-runner to be named a captain. He will start as the Irish middle linebacker for three seasons. That is all rare company.

And Notre Dame genuinely does not know what it would do if he were injured, despite having all spring to figure out that exact question. Fortunately, White now has more time than ever to work on preventive measures, a tactic first really pioneered in South Bend during Drue Tranquill‘s fifth year.

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
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
15: Braden Lenzy, senior receiver, 103 points
14: Blake Fisher, freshman left tackle, 112 points
13: Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, 118 points
12: Cain Madden, Marshall transfer, right guard, 121 points
11: Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, 138 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