Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden will face a tough decision right away against Ohio State. At some point, the Buckeyes will have a third down. That might take a drive or two, as Ohio State’s offense will be that good, but the third down will eventually arrive.
Presume it is a third-and-four, neither passing nor rushing specific. If presenting a four-linemen front, will Golden drop to only two linebackers to match the Buckeyes’ personnel? If so, who comes off the field?
Last year’s leading tackler, nearly doubling No. 2’s takedowns? A player with a knack for finding the ball and causing chaos? Possibly the most dynamic among Notre Dame’s linebackers?
If Golden opts for only three linemen, does he remove the widest body in favor of veteran end Justin Ademilola?
Those players by name, in order, are senior linebacker JD Bertrand, senior linebacker Jack Kiser, senior linebacker Marist Liufau and junior defensive end Rylie Mills.
On one hand, that is an embarrassment of riches for Golden. Multiple defensive looks could qualify as Notre Dame’s best. On the other, pinpointing the right combination will be vital against offenses like Ohio State’s and USC’s.
As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …
No. 15 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker — 96 points
Highest rank: No. 6
Lowest rank: No. 25
In a vacuum, it is utterly nonsensical that a player would make 101 tackles in a season, 46 more than the next defender, and then finish No. 15 among expected impactful players the following year. Not in a vacuum, it is initially even harder to square Bertrand’s placement here.
He played the entire 2021 season with a wrist injury. The Irish training staff suggested surgery to Bertrand before the year, and he instead opted to play through the injury after being told he would not worsen it. Every time he made a tackle, he could feel the wrist.
“The biggest thing is the pain. It’s an annoyance. You feel it every time you punch,” Bertrand said Monday. “… For me personally, I just wanted to play no matter what. They said I was good to play, and it wasn’t going to affect my future long-term. From that point, I was ready to go.”
RELATED READING: Unbreakable JD Bertrand sets high bar for Irish
And remember, Bertrand made a lot of tackles. On a bit more than 700 snaps, he made the tackle on about 14 percent of the plays.
Yet, he is ranked No. 15 by the beat writers entering this season when predicting who will impact Notre Dame’s season, and that is because the defending leading tackler may not even start for Golden and the Irish.
Liufau missed all of last season after dislocating his ankle in August, the injury that moved Bertrand into the starting lineup. With Liufau healthy and fifth-year Bo Bauer a bit more versatile at the middle linebacker spot, Bertrand may become the backup to them both.
No. 14 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker — 120 points
Highest rank: No. 5
Last year’s rank: No. 18
Then comes Kiser, an underrated recruit who started most of last season. He scored two touchdowns, able to watch himself on the Soldier Field video board as he broke loose against Wisconsin (above). He has had his hand in on five turnovers across the last two years and broken up eight total passes.
Kiser makes an impact on the field, yet he is not even the highest linebacker listed on this preseason ranking.
RELATED READING: Taking time to teach makes Jack Kiser a better LB for Notre Dame
At rover, Kiser has found a home that requires both sure tackling and diligent pass coverage. His recruiting ranking may have doubted his ability to excel in both those regards, but he has proven otherwise.
No. 13 Rylie Mills, junior defensive end, 125 points
Highest rank: No. 9
Lowest rank: No. 21
Last year’s rank: No. 23
The third-down dilemma at Ohio State in 22 days (22 days!!) may not give Mills enough credit. He excelled as a pass rusher at Virginia in his spot start last season, making three sacks. Human beings should not be as quick as Mills is while being this large …
Notre Dame junior DL Rylie Mills checking in at 6'5, 292 before the start of preseason camp. pic.twitter.com/Gqm3SUu47w
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) August 8, 2022
That combination may make him an ideal edge player on a third-and-four against a dynamic offense.
To frame this annual exercise in a preemptive retrospective manner — yes, that was quite a phrasing — if Mills impacts Notre Dame’s fall so much he belongs in the top 10 of these thoughts after the season, then the Irish defense will be among the nation’s best and will have a semblance of a chance against Ohio State and USC.
The way to beat those offenses is with a dominant defensive line. While that is Notre Dame’s best position group, asking it to turn those games on their heads is a different ask than its week-in, week-out charge of hassle the quarterback.
For the Irish to upset the Buckeyes — and remember, Ohio State is favored by more than two touchdowns — the defensive line will need to harass Heisman Trophy frontrunner CJ Stroud on more snaps than not. As much hype as senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey gets, he will not be able to manage that on his own. Mills will need to overextend the Buckeyes’ offensive line to help Foskey break loose.
And if he does so, then this No. 13 ranking will look low.
No. 12 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker, 149 points
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 17
Last year’s rank: No. 20
Some Irish fans undoubtedly cringed at the thought of a three-man defensive front. It did not go well for Notre Dame in last year’s season opener, though it gradually played much better as the season progressed, something not as well-noticed.
Losing Liufau just a week or so before the season threw that alignment into a bit of disarray. His return should only help it.
I know some ND fans will cringe thinking of ND playing 3 down because of what they did with it last season, but having guys like Botelho and Liufau gives them A LOT more flexibility to do it better in 2022 https://t.co/ohtMEPIWwu
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) August 9, 2022
If Liufau was poised for a breakout season in 2021, he now brings a better awareness of the game after being forced to do nothing but watch, and Golden thinks Liufau has added some weight. (Indeed, Liufau is listed nine pounds heavier now than he was in the spring of 2021.)
“The sky is the limit for Marist,” Golden said. “I’m really hopeful that we’ll get there.”
The sky may be the limit, but thus far, Notre Dame is adding limitations to Liufau, also lowering his ranking here. (That is not opinion: Multiple panelists admitted Freeman’s hesitation with Liufau lowered their ranking.)
Liufau is fully healthy, according to both him and Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, but Notre Dame is setting a low ceiling on his snap count in preseason practices as he returns to football. By the sounds of it, it is a fitness thought more than anything else, but the possibility of anything else lingering from Liufau’s injury lends some worries.
No. 11 Chris Tyree, junior running back, 154 points
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 15
Last year’s rank: No. 10
As has been a theme with this year’s “Counting Down the Irish” series, this ranking once again underscores lowered expectations for Notre Dame’s offense in 2022.
To wit, lead Irish running back Kyren Williams ranked No. 2 in this polling last year.
Yes, Williams was a magnificent college running back with an energy that elevated his physical abilities, but the point remains the same: Notre Dame’s offense will take a step back in 2022, if not a couple steps back.
A year ago, four Irish skill position players were ranked in the top 10 of who would most impact Notre Dame’s season, with Tyree coming in at No. 10.
This year, only three skill position players rank in the top 11.
Comparing Tyree to Williams is unfair, but the Irish may need a Williams-esque showing from Tyree this season, and this ranking strongly suggests it will not be coming.
The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Mannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down
Others Receiving Votes
No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points
No. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 points
No. 19 Tariq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 points
No. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 points
No. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 points
No. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 points