A shutdown corner, bookend offensive tackles and a young quarterback-receiver combination. Those are the building blocks of a strong team, and Notre Dame may have all of them this year.
The Irish may lack plenty — receiver depth, running back depth, receiver depth, certainty about its No. 2 cornerback, receiver depth, quarterback experience, receiver depth — but they have those building blocks.
As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster by the most expected impact this season …
No. 10 Cam Hart, senior cornerback — 158 points
Highest rank: No. 6
Lowest rank: No. 14
Last year’s rank: No. 21
Hart has so little experience at cornerback — relatively speaking for a senior starter — his ceiling may be higher than anyone has realized yet. But what most differentiates Hart from the rest of the Irish cornerbacks is how high his floor is.
Of the nine players ahead of Hart yet, two of them had lowest rankings that were lower than Hart’s, and another three matched his lowest ranking of No. 14. The beat writers may not expect Hart to define the season, but they all see him as an absolutely pivotal and reliable piece of it, something not as strongly said for just about anyone else not mentioned on preseason All-American teams or starting at quarterback.
Hart has only one starting season under his belt, taking more than 700 snaps in 2021. He broke up nine passes and intercepted two passes last year. That experience alone should raise expectations for Hart, not to mention his presumed development in the last eight months.
There are two ways those raised expectations do not yield more gaudy stats from Hart, one inherent to football and one bad. The inherent: The uncertainty at cornerback opposite Hart’s proven abilities could encourage opposing quarterbacks to target his counterpart, be that junior Clarence Lewis or early-enrolled freshman Jaden Mickey, and thus reducing the chances for Hart to knock down passes. The bad: A shoulder injury has bothered Hart twice now, in 2019 and toward the end of 2021. He had surgery in the winter, costing him the spring, but shoulder injuries are among the trickiest in modern football. If that shoulder bothers Hart again, that could sideline him by the end of the year.
Otherwise, Hart’s abilities may better every level of Notre Dame’s defense. To pull from his entry in the “Notre Dame 99-to-0” series …
Even if Hart only has a strong season, he should allow [defensive coordinator Al] Golden some flexibility. Hart worked at field cornerback for a chunk of last season. That interchangeability will help the Irish disguise some coverages, and that momentary hesitation from an opposing quarterback should be all the Notre Dame defensive line needs.
No. 9 Joe Alt, sophomore left tackle — 161 points
Highest rank: No. 6
Lowest rank: No. 20
Perhaps no one has more invested in Alt’s success than fifth-year offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson. His work starting at center for three years had Patterson well-positioned to be a second-round NFL draft pick. He might have been the best center in the country this season.
Instead, Patterson moved to left guard and senior Zeke Correll will start at center, an attempt by the Irish to get their five best offensive linemen on the field. Patterson will find success at left guard; he is simply too good not to. But to be at his best, he needs to work well in tandem with the young left tackle. Alt needs to keep Patterson accurately apprised as to what he sees on the edge of the defense, and they need to not literally trip over each other.
“He’s always been great at communicating,” Patterson said last week of Alt. “He’s always understood. For him, the same thing as me, just having that good footwork consistently every single play and he’ll get it down.”
No. 8 Blake Fisher, sophomore right tackle — 175 points
Highest rank: No. 3
Lowest rank: No. 21
Last year’s rank: No. 14
Those same concerns can apply to sixth-year right guard Josh Lugg and his new right-side partner. Lugg’s NFL aspirations may not be as distinct as Patterson’s, but a strong season from the versatile lineman could propel him onto a roster next summer. It will be only as strong a season as his tag-team abilities with Fisher.
“I can really count on Blake to make calls,” Lugg said last week. “I can really count on [Alt] to get the call all the way across the offensive line in a critical situation so I know to spike it across my face, and Blake and I can make the right play.”
After becoming just the second freshman to start on Notre Dame’s offensive line in a season opener ever, a torn meniscus cost Fisher the rest of the regular season. He then moved to right tackle heading into the Fiesta Bowl — as Lugg’s injury replacement — because Alt had so established himself at left tackle. Fisher remained there into the spring and this preseason both because of Alt’s success and because Fisher and Lugg should create a run-mauling duo.
As the Irish receivers become fewer and fewer, the run game should matter that much more. If Notre Dame’s running backs — so this is to exclude starting quarterback sophomore Tyler Buchner — exceed 2,000 rushing yards, then trust Fisher’s impact was more than even this ranking expected.
No. 7 Lorenzo Styles, sophomore receiver — 185 points
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 16
These rankings were submitted after one Notre Dame preseason practice, a week before Irish sixth-year receiver Avery Davis tore his ACL and lost the 2022 season. Following that injury, Styles’ may have been ranked in the top five.
This No. 7 ranking is a testament to Styles’ overall talent. Boosting him higher now would be a reflection of the dearth of other viable options. If Davis was set for 40 catches and 500 yards, that production needs to go somewhere. Some of it will be outright lost, undoubtedly, but of the remaining 30 catches and 300 yards, Styles may pull in 15 and 150.
That alone may be enough to push him toward 800 receiving yards this season, the usual number for Notre Dame’s top receiver. Paired with preseason All-American junior tight end Michael Mayer, Styles will form half of the best Irish downfield threats.
His Fiesta Bowl showing could serve as a blueprint for this combination of production and need. Notre Dame had only four scholarship receivers available. Styles played more than he had in any game all season, finishing with eight catches for 136 yards and his first career touchdown.
Four scholarship receivers in the bowl game may be practically similar to using seven scholarship receivers all season, including one former walk-on. They will all end up exhausted. They will all get more chances than ideal. Some will make a bit of lemonade out of those lemons.
One lesser drawback to the receiver attrition, Styles may be too valuable on offense to return punts anymore.
Notre Dame WR Lorenzo Styles. pic.twitter.com/YUcbl6zdJj
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) August 9, 2022
No. 6 Tyler Buchner (1), sophomore quarterback — 189 points
Highest rank: No. 1
Lowest rank: No. 12
In naming Buchner the starting quarterback on Saturday, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman explicitly cited Buchner’s “dynamic element” of his rushing ability. Among vague conversations about Buchner’s leadership, his dual-threat aptitude is the far more tangible reason Notre Dame will lean on the sophomore.
The last true dual-threat quarterback to start for the Irish was … Brandon Wimbush’s arm was never quite accurate enough to be deemed a dual-threat passer. Perhaps DeShone Kizer should qualify, averaging 6.18 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) in 2015 while completing 63 percent of his passes.
That was a season that briefly put Kizer into the content machine as a possible No. 1 draft pick in 2017.
Buchner’s rushing ability is far different than Kizer’s, more of a genuine runner than relying on size and physicality as Kizer did, but he is less proven as a passer than Kizer was out of the gates, partly due to the pandemic costing Buchner his senior season in high school after a knee injury had already robbed him of his sophomore season.
But those two metrics of six yards per rush and a 60 percent completion rate could still both be attainable for Buchner, and if he strikes that balance, he will not only prove Freeman’s choice the right one, he will also become the catalyst the Irish offense will need.
RELATED READING: How ND QB Tyler Buchner’s twisted journey is now powering his ascent
Seems #NotreDame has ended the nominal QB competition this preseason, naming sophomore Tyler Buchner the starter, as expected. https://t.co/tpcBiePzDw
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 13, 2022
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
No. 15 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker — 96 points
No. 14 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker — 120 points
No. 13 Rylie Mills, junior defensive end — 125 points
No. 12 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker — 149 points
No. 11 Chris Tyree, junior running back — 154 points