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

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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

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

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.