Friday at 4: Reacting to the ‘Counting Down the Irish’ rankings, what Notre Dame players were underrated? Overrated?

Notre Dame North Carolina
Getty Images
1 Comment

Criticizing the “Counting Down the Irish” ballots submitted by 10 Notre Dame beat writers in exchange for absolutely nothing would be unfair, poor form and in poor taste.

But can you believe two of them included early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner when predicting the 25 most impactful players in 2021? He’s on the third string. What fools.

And how did five rankings not include all five Irish starting offensive linemen? After the last four years of excellence, doubt that unit at your own peril. Admittedly, one of those who left out junior Zeke Correll, expected starter at left guard, instead included early-enrolled freshman Rocco Spindler. If thinking Correll will not have an impact, that substitution would be logical.

Bold, but logical.

How about the two polls who did not look at junior safety Kyle Hamilton and immediately expect he will be the straw that stirs Notre Dame’s drink this fall?

Criticizing them would be ungrateful, arrogant and clearly driven by nothing but a thirst for content.

Instead, they should be applauded. They did rank all seven (7!) of the Irish captains within the top 15.

Nope, wait, fifth-year receiver Avery Davis finished No. 16 because two panelists placed early-enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles into their rankings instead of Davis. Categorize that as another moment of bold but logical.

Even these jests have defenses. Kelly is repeatedly asked if Buchner’s mobility could lead to a situational role this year.

“I think there’s a difference between executing a package that utilizes his skillset versus where he’s turning down throws and running haphazardly,” Kelly said Thursday. “Once we get a better feel for that, I’ll be better prepared to answer that question. … If these are plays that are geared toward a run or read the pass-run, and that’s what he’s doing, yes I would say, but we’re not there yet.”

Buchner may find a chance to display his young dynamism, and it is within the realm of possibility that makes him more impactful than senior safety Houston Griffith, who finished No. 26 in these rankings anyway.

Griffith was one of two presumed starters, along with Correll, not to finish in the top 25, while defensive depth shined through in sophomore end Jordan Botelho, sophomore tackle Rylie Mills and senior linebacker Bo Bauer. Senior receiver Lawrence Keys and sophomore running back Chris Tyree joined them as reserves within this 25, two names that will get such a plenty of action to completely understand and expect them to make this polling. The depth as a whole made this annual exercise more difficult than in years past.

Nice job, 10 beat writers. You pushed past that difficulty and knew to highlight where the depth is strongest. Pointing out that was a layup would be condescending, unnecessary and a bit pompous.

Instead, let’s lean into the bit and tell you where this space would have deferred, if it had abandoned the post of election judge and instead cast a ballot. Three disagreements stand out.

Rating junior linebacker Jack Kiser as high as No. 18 in the aggregated poll risks erasure of senior Paul Moala, who was not ranked a single time by any of the 10 voters. Yes, Moala is coming off a torn Achilles, a devastating injury in a sport relying on explosiveness, but there is reason to think he is at or near full health already, only 11 months later.

“He flies around, he plays extremely hard,” Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman said Tuesday. “He’s getting a feel for taking that new playbook and kind of transferring it to the field. But he’s doing a good job. He’s playing fast and he’s soaking it all in. He’s doing a good job.”

If Moala is healthy, he may take the Rover job away from Kiser outright. More likely, they will split time. Either way, the two who slotted Kiser at No. 11 are essentially banking on that not happening. When healthy, Moala has proven up for the task. Assuming he is not anymore comes across as misguided.

Placing senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola at No. 17 might fit since Freeman is likely to use plenty of three-linemen fronts, but in those moments, Notre Dame will presumably worry more about a pass rush than run fits, and Ademilola has shown a better knack for harrying the passer than counterpart Kurt Hinish. In order to justify arguing someone should be ranked higher, others must drop, and in this instance, any of the next four names in the final 25 could fall a rung or two.

Davis and senior receiver Braden Lenzy (left off one ballot only after much debate, that reporter has assured) at Nos. 16 and 15 could see less action than expected simply because Tyree will demand more time with his outrageous speed (reportedly a 4.31-second 40-yard dash these days). That said, Lenzy’s first week of practices apparently could not have gone much better.

“We’ve needed him to be that big-play receiver, and if you were there today, you saw him go up and take a football away,” Kelly said. “That wasn’t part of his game last year for whatever reasons. He was injured, we didn’t give him enough touches, so we got to get the ball to him.

“He’s responded by changing his body. He’s got a whole different physique. He is in the best shape of his life, physically.”

Next, early-enrolled freshman left tackle Blake Fisher at No. 14 is already dealing with enough pressure, but either a slow start to the season as he adjusts or a slow finish as he tires would not be shocking. Lastly, sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis played well in his debut season, but not necessarily well enough to warrant a No. 13 ranking.

Boost Ademilola into that mix.

On a related note, literally, more than two submissions should have included his twin brother. Justin Ademilola may end up the No. 2 end on both sides of the line. Maybe he won’t end up among the top 25 impactful players in 2021, but No. 32 was too low.

One final nitpick, the one this space will commit to: With apologies to senior receiver Kevin Austin (No. 8), fifth-year linebacker Drew White (No. 6) and fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (No. 5), junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey should have been in the top five, rather than No. 9.

Austin has impressed already as much as Lenzy has, White is a third-year starter who may lead the team in tackles, and the emergence of Tagovailoa-Amosa at his new position may be something to truly enjoy this fall.

But Austin has stuttered for three years now, White comes off the field on third downs, and Tagovailoa-Amosa is at a new position.

Meanwhile, Foskey had 4.5 sacks last season as a backup, in only 282 snaps. He has blocked two punts in two years. If he has not shined in a practice yet this preseason, he has done so on Saturdays for a couple seasons now. If Foskey nears 400 snaps, that could come with 8-9 sacks. Add in another blocked punt, as Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian insists Foskey will continue to work on that unit for obvious reasons, and that No. 9 ranking will look foolish in retrospect.

But to describe those 10 kind beat reporters as fools would be disrespectful. How should we make it up to them?

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

COUNTING DOWN THE IRISH
25 to 21: featuring four Notre Dame defenders
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 to 16: A linebacker glut and an indication of an offensive explosion
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 to 11: Including two offensive linemen and a speedy enigma
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 to 6: With a few players who would usually be top 5
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

Top 5: At least four possible All-Americans
5: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive end, 197 points
4: Jarrett Patterson, senior center, 217 points
3: Michael Mayer, sophomore tight end, 231 points
2: Kyren Williams, junior running back, 234 points
1: Kyle Hamilton, junior safety, 247 points