Counting Down the Irish: Notre Dame’s top 5, featuring at least four possible All-Americans

Kyle Hamilton Notre Dame
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If paying attention through this countdown, there will be no surprise who are expected to be Notre Dame’s five most impactful players this season, as voted on by 10 Irish beat reporters. What may be surprising, however, is how equally distributed these five are.

Notre Dame may not be offensive or defensive dependent in 2021. It may not lean on the country’s best offensive line to power the offense and protect the defense, either.

Instead, the Irish appear to be balanced for a change, with one of the — if not the — country’s best defenders playing centerfield on a defense with reason to believe it will also produce a pass rush, and a pair of offensive skill position players that should make for a more dynamic offense than has been seen the last four years, despite those years’ successes.

Oh, and one offensive lineman finishes in this top five.

If granting the likelihood that Notre Dame will still have a strong offensive line — four starters did end up in this top 25, two preseason All-Americans center it, and if any Irish position group deserves this benefit of the doubt, it is the offensive line — then this kind of even dispersal at the top of the roster bodes well. A second consecutive Playoff bid, and third in four seasons, may be unlikely, but if Notre Dame reaches that level, it will assuredly because most of this top five end up on All-American teams.

5: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive end, 197 points
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 9
Ranked unanimously.

Before getting into Tagovailoa-Amosa, his position change and the surprise of this ranking, something more important needs to be acknowledged. Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced Tagovailoa-Amosa is away from the team currently after the unexpected and tragic passing of his father.

When Tagovailoa-Amosa returns, he will do so as a defensive end, after four years as a defensive tackle. He originally intended to play end in college but enjoying Hawaiian food too much forced him inside. Though still enjoying, and making often even in South Bend, a spam musubi, Tagovailoa-Amosa has slimmed down to 268 pounds.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end

That svelte frame will come off the edge in 2021, and every spring review suggests Tagovailoa-Amosa has found a home at defensive end. This lofty ranking further supports that expectation.

4: Jarrett Patterson, senior center, 217 points
High ranking: No. 2
Low ranking: No. 6
Ranked unanimously.

These rankings were due shortly after Kelly’s first media availability of the preseason, which in turn came just after a brief practice viewing, so the panelists knew Patterson had returned to a position he never truly left, his best position. All winter, Notre Dame operated with the expectation that Patterson would move to a tackle position. When early-enrolled freshman Blake Fisher so impressed, all spring that expectation was Patterson would be a guard. But at no point did Patterson line up at either position, a foot injury sidelining him into the summer.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman

But his best position is center, and the preseason commenced with Patterson working there once again.

Regardless, Patterson would have finished this high in the rankings. While Marshall transfer Cain Madden logged a second-team All-American honor last year, Patterson is the best Irish offensive lineman.

Kelly keeping him at center both capitalizes on that and best sets up Patterson’s professional career.

Gauging a center’s impact is difficult, if not impossible. The subjective nature of the word makes it even more complicated, yet Patterson very well may end up an All-American in 2021 deserving of a higher placement on this list, difficult considering he may be behind three more All-Americans.

3: Michael Mayer, sophomore tight end, 231 points
One first-place vote.
Low ranking: No. 4
Ranked unanimously.

How good is Mayer? He is the comparison point for how good No. 1 on this list is. Successfully defending Mayer in practice is such an accomplishment, it warrants specific mention in post-practice interviews.

The first week of Notre Dame’s preseason raised hopes for the Irish receivers, with both Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy showing flashes of long-awaited brilliance. Still, Mayer will nearly certainly lead Notre Dame in all receiving categories.

Finishing his freshman season with 42 catches (tied for the team lead) and 450 receiving yards (second) set a high bar for Mayer’s follow-up campaign. That bar may now be near Tyler Eifert’s excellent 2011, a showing to the tune of 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns. That would certainly qualify Mayer for this amount of expected impact, and that is only the standard he is anticipated to clear.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon

Mayer may average five catches and 80 yards per game, considering how few teams will have the defenders necessary to cover him. If without a first-team All-American at safety, defenses will need to devote both a linebacker and a safety to Mayer; no single coverage will suffice. As Austin and Lenzy find consistency, that allocation of personnel will become more and more untenable for opposing defensive coordinators, which will increasingly allow Mayer to feast.

Eifert’s 2011 was a marvel, but a decade later, Mayer could render it an afterthought.

Notre Dame North Carolina
Kyren Williams‘ surprising 2020 ended up with 1,125 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, adding another score and 313 yards on receptions, all of which may have been just an opening act for 2021. (ACC Media)

2: Kyren Williams, junior running back, 234 points
One first-place vote.
Low ranking: No. 4
Ranked unanimously.

The challenge for Williams in 2021 is to simply improve upon a breakout season that featured not only arguably the most dramatic touchdown of the regular season, but also a shoutout from movie star LeBron James.

None of that was expected. If these rankings had existed a year ago, Williams would not have finished in the top 25. Only at the end of preseason camp did Kelly’s praise of his running back take on a more earnest tone, one that finally caught the ear of the beat. Less than a year later, Williams is as low as No. 2 in this ranking simply because a generational talent headlines the Irish defense.

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To some extent, it remains a mystery how Williams became an All-American candidate as a sophomore after a freshman campaign ended after one dropped pass.

“There’s probably a little bit of acclimatization to Notre Dame,” Kelly said Thursday. “Where they have things figured out here socially and academically, where football now becomes all in. They’re not distracted.”

Seeing that in Williams as a freshman gave Kelly advance notice to pay attention to him leading into 2020.

“Kyren was not distracted at all by the academics or socially with what’s going on here on a day-to-day basis, so he could really focus in 100 percent. When it’s football, it’s football.

“Then it becomes, ‘Oh, hey, it’s just like when I was back in high school. I can let it go. I don’t have to worry about all the other distractions.’”

If that was the mental hurdle Williams gradually cleared during a once-in-a-century global pandemic coinciding with once-in-a-generation racial unrest, then one is justified in wondering what headspace he has discovered heading into his junior year.

Boston College v Notre Dame
An ankle injury plagued Kyle Hamilton through most of 2020, yet he still finished with 63 tackles and seven passes broken up. Only more should be anticipated in 2021. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

1: Kyle Hamilton, junior safety, 247 points
Eight first-place votes.
Low ranking: No. 3
Ranked unanimously.

It is hard to argue with a voter looking at Williams’ potential for a 1,500-yard season and giving him the No. 1 spot here. And it is hard to argue with a reporter seeing Mayer leading the Irish in all receiving categories and ranking him at No. 1.

But someone can argue with them, since Williams and Mayer both play on the same team as a probable top-five draft pick, a safety the likes of which Notre Dame may have never seen.

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Consider Kelly’s description of Hamilton in answering a question that could have been shortened to, “So, Kyle Hamilton, good, huh?”

“He’s an eraser,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to get Mike Mayer the football when we go against him. … Kyle Hamilton is an eraser, so when you have that kind of player that can take a player like Mike Mayer away, imagine what he can do with others.

“He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s athletic, can fit the run. You don’t get many players of that caliber.”

To be fair, that was all known last year, as well.

“Here’s the good part about it,” Kelly continued. “He is so much more aware of where is in the big picture now than he was last year. What I mean by that specifically is, this is a big year and he knows that, so his focus, his attention to detail, all those little things, and he wants to be a leader on this football team. A lot of that wasn’t the most important thing to him. He is now locked into those things this year and we are the beneficiaries. Notre Dame football, we are the beneficiaries of that.”

Everyone watching will be the beneficiaries of that, perhaps aside from opposing offensive coordinators and particularly their tight ends.

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
10: Chris Tyree, sophomore running back, 151 points
9: Isaiah Foskey, junior defensive end, 155 points
8: Kevin Austin, senior receiver, 160 points
7: Jack Coan, Wisconsin transfer quarterback, 171 points
6: Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, 185 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