Leftovers & Links: While Playoff hopes remain, Notre Dame’s 2022 recruiting takes on double the importance

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Notre Dame’s slim Playoff hopes aside — this space continues to maintain three Playoff spots are presumed to be held firmly by Georgia, Alabama and Cincinnati with the fourth destined for either the Big Ten or the Big 12 champion — the biggest question remaining in the Irish season may be about next season.

And yes, that is an indirect commentary on Stanford’s chances of an upset this weekend (8 ET; FOX), given the Cardinal are on a six-game losing streak in which it averages 14.3 points per game, all against defenses significantly worse than Notre Dame’s, per SP+. The No. 6 Irish (10-1) have not given up a touchdown in three weeks, after all.

While stretching that streak to four weeks would give this defense a claim matching 2012’s — the early-season stretch of at Michigan State, vs. Michigan, vs. Miami and vs. Stanford — it would have little effect moving forward, albeit an interesting data point for the College Football Playoff selection committee to ponder. What will have an effect is what pieces of that defense return to Notre Dame in 2022.

Namely, will junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey forgo a chance at the NFL draft this spring? As of last month, Foskey expected to seek an evaluation from the draft board and make his decision from there. Irish head coach Brian Kelly began his pitch for a senior season about then, too.

“We’ve already started that process,” Kelly said Monday. “That started about a month ago, and I’ve already met with the family.”

Foskey may be the most pivotal piece that has a stay-or-go decision to make, arguably even more so than junior running back Kyren Williams. Both could arguably better their draft stocks with 2022 returns, but both could also undoubtedly enjoy a healthy NFL paycheck next season. (Junior safety Kyle Hamilton has no stay-or-go decision to make. He will simply GO.) The difference in necessity between Foskey and Williams is that Notre Dame does not have another defensive end that can wreak as much havoc as Foskey and his five forced fumbles thus far this season, while the Irish do have three young running backs who would fill in where Williams left off.

Regardless, these decisions may start coming soon for Notre Dame, hence warranting mention before the exhibition of a season finale. Foskey and Williams might wait until those draft evaluations are formalized, but others will announce their decisions in December, regardless of if the Irish make the Playoff.

“I don’t know that we’re ready to publicly talk about it,” Kelly said. “… We’re going to make most of these decisions based upon where guys are going to find themselves here in the next week or so once the season wraps up.”

Kelly had been specifically asked about junior punter Jay Bramblett, announced as part of Saturday’s Senior Day festivities, something officially couched by those announcements recognizing players receiving their undergraduate degrees rather than simply “seniors.”

Bramblett has made a decision, though, per Kelly, one foreshadowed by Notre Dame getting a commitment on Sunday from punter Bryce McFerson (Metrolina Christian Academy; Indian Trail, N.C.), formerly a Wake Forest commit and now the 23rd commitment in the Irish class of 2022 which should put figurative pen to paper on Dec. 15.

The timing of the early signing period is not what expedites such decisions. Rather, the transfer portal’s practical capacity does. There are only so many spots to move to, and anyone thinking of moving does not want to get left without a new home.

That is not to say these players, like Bramblett, will not play in whatever postseason appointment awaits Notre Dame. Finding that balance will be part of the new status quo of the transfer market.

Looking ahead, Foskey and Williams are only two of about 10 players that could determine the Irish ceiling in 2022.

If Notre Dame can re-recruit half of those 10, then suddenly the talent pool on next year’s roster will receive much offseason praise. Those 10, in no particular order …

Foskey, Williams, defensive end Justin Ademilola, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, linebackers Isaiah Pryor and Bo Bauer, safety DJ Brown, center Jarrett Patterson, offensive lineman Josh Lugg, and receivers Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin.

Lugg, for one, may already be leaning toward a sixth season.

He then went on to add he would not necessarily remain at right tackle if he returned next season, not with freshmen Blake Fisher and Joe Alt both looking so good at left tackle this year.

In that scenario, if both Patterson and Lugg returned, the Irish could have more than 80 starts returning along its offensive line, compared to just 31 this year if not counting Cain Madden’s 31 starts brought from Marshall. The vaunted 2020 line had 114 starts returning before the season, for further context.

ANYWAY, A PLAYOFF REMINDER
Games this weekend that matter to the slim Irish hopes of reaching a third Playoff in four years …
— No. 4 Cincinnati at East Carolina, Friday, 3:30 ET, ABC.
— No. 3 Alabama at Auburn, Saturday, 3:30 ET, CBS.

There are others, but they play into scenarios contingent on next weekend. If either of those two games turns into an upset, that result alone would propel Notre Dame toward a postseason of note.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame wrecks Georgia Tech, wins on Senior Day for fifth straight year
Highlights: Notre Dame 55, Georgia Tech 0 — The Irish defense outscores the Wreck offense
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s raised ceiling, amid a rebuild, a result of both veterans and humble newcomers
At No. 6 in the Playoff rankings, Notre Dame’s hopes continue to hinge on Big upsets

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame lands All-American punter Bryce McFerson
Seriously, Notre Dame has shot at return to College Football Playoff
Eight teams, four spots. Who will make the Playoff?
Oregon’s loss to Utah opens up a wealth of Playoff scenarios
College football’s biggest Week 12 statements and what they say about the national title picture
Show-Me Saturday: The week college football finally started to come into focus
Former Notre Dame wide receiver Keys ready to catch on at Tulane
2022 NFL Mock Draft
2022 NFL Draft: At least three potential QBs viewed as first-round options
Troy needs a new head coach. Here are some candidates