Counting Down the Irish: The top five, including four names on the Lombardi Award watch list for the best lineman in the country

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Trenches set the floor in college football, while the perimeter raises the ceiling. With those realities in mind, it is clear No. 5 Notre Dame should enjoy a high floor in 2022. The trenches provide half of the top 10 of this ranking of players with the most expected impact this season, including three of the top 5.

And that does not even factor in the best Irish player, who arguably works both in the trenches and on the perimeter. Including him, four of these top five were included on the Lombardi Award watch list, recognizing the best lineman in the country.

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. 5 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle — 189 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 3
Lowest rank: No. 14
Last year’s rank: No. 17

The last time two defensive linemen were ranked in the top five of this exercise was 2019, when ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem were expected to set the tone. An injury limited Okwara to nine games, but the duo still combined for 16 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks, part of 34 total sacks for that defense.

Ademilola and senior end Isaiah Foskey (keep reading) will form a different type of duo, but more to the point, with five defensive linemen in this top 25, it is clear the Irish will lean on the front to set the tone.

Ademilola may have been ranked higher, despite the two notable names upcoming, if he had been healthy throughout 2021. Then again, a more productive 2021 may have been enough to compel Ademilola to jump to the NFL.

He injured his shoulder early in the season, and while he never made an issue of it, that did plague him all year. Even after the season and surgery, Ademilola still downplayed the effects of the injury.

“It didn’t slow me down from playing throughout the whole season,” he said in January. “It was something that toward the end of the season, I knew I could get it cleaned up if I chose to, and I decided to get my shoulder cleaned up so I can move forward and be an elite player starting next season.”

If Ademilola viewed that surgery as necessary to be “elite,” then it is also fair to assume the injury bothered him during the season.

“Healthy” is a descriptor that has evaded Ademilola since his sophomore season in 2019, when he made 25 tackles with four for loss as a backup. A torn meniscus in 2020 slowed him before the shoulder did last year. Healthy, Ademilola could push toward 60 tackles with at least 10 of them for loss.

That’s worthy of a top-five ranking here.

No. 4 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year left guard — 194 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 3
Lowest rank: No. 14
Last year’s rank: No. 4

Patterson is unfazed by his move to left guard from center, where he started for three seasons. The biggest piece of his learning curve would have been applicable at center, as well, with Zeke Correll starting at left guard in that scenario. The footwork of one lineman impacts his neighbor.

“Nothing (to learn) as far as assignment-wise,” Patterson said last week. “I understood the playbook. Just technique-wise, basically working on combo blocks and getting consistent footwork so [sophomore left tackle Joe Alt] knows where to aim every time in the run game.”

If that is Patterson’s biggest worry at left guard, then he should make life easier for both Alt and Correll, now starting at center.

No offensive lineman’s contributions are easy to pinpoint — Quenton Nelson’s demoralizing highlight-reel-worthy blocks aside — but if Patterson betters the play for two other offensive linemen, that impact will help raise Notre Dame’s floor in 2022.

No. 3 Brandon Joseph, Northwestern transfer safety — 216 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 2
Lowest rank: No. 7

Any sophomore named to an All-American team will warrant notice for the rest of his career. Joseph was an All-American in 2020, yet he may have flown below most fans’ radars in 2021, a result of the Wildcats’ lackluster season, not of Joseph’s play.

From outside the Irish program, it may be hard to envision him being this good, but that is where these rankings hold merit. Notre Dame fans know Patterson’s talent, as a captain and three-year starter. When nine beat writers and one media member who doubles as a fan combine to rank Joseph’s expected impact as more than Patterson’s, that should raise any and all expectations for the safety.

He is a ballhawk. His interception in the Big Ten championship game in 2020 still deserves repeated viewings.

Joseph’s impact will go beyond getting his hands on the ball, but he should also still do that at least a few times this season.

No. 2 Isaiah Foskey (1), senior defensive end — 238 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 1
Lowest rank: No. 4
Last year’s rank: No. 9

Maybe every mention of Foskey this fall will not be immediately followed by a mention of Justin Tuck’s season sack record at Notre Dame of 13.5, but the vast majority of them will be. Sacks will not be the extent of Foskey’s contributions — his 99-to-0 entry pondered the thought of 60 tackles this season, far ahead of any defensive end’s norm, including Khalid Kareem’s notable 46 in 2019 — but the sacks will be the measuring stick of his season.

He had 11 sacks last year, tailing off a bit as the season went on. More impressively, he led the country with six forced fumbles.

Yet, improvement can be expected.

“There’s still a lot of things in his game that he obsesses over,” Irish defensive line coach Al Washington said Friday. “He’s a perfectionist, so I’m excited to see him continue to make those strides. He’s been all bought in.”

No. 1 Michael Mayer (8), junior tight end — 247 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 1
Lowest rank: No. 3
Last year’s rank: No. 3

The two weeks each summer when every postseason award announces its watch list are needless fodder. “Watch-list season” is barely more than a long listing of names still playing college football.

But when the same name shows up on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, given to the best receiver in the country, and the Lombardi Award watch list, given to the best lineman in the country, it piques intrigue.

Could Mayer actually be both? Almost certainly not, as he would need to have about 1,200 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns while staying attached to the offensive line often enough to draw excessive praise for his blocking.

Does he have the physical skills to do each of those separately? Yes. He’s that good.

He has put on 14 pounds since his spring weighing, though Mayer has said he is actually down a few pounds since last season, now at 265. That down-and-up pattern usually suggests a player lost “bad” weight and then put on muscle.

That will be bad news for opposing defenders of all positions, not to mention the Notre Dame record books. Mayer set the single-season tight end records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season. He should cruise past those marks of 71 catches for 840 yards and seven scores this year.

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
No. 10 Cam Hart, senior cornerback — 158 points
No. 9 Joe Alt, sophomore left tackle — 161 points
No. 8 Blake Fisher, sophomore right tackle — 175 points
No. 7 Lorenzo Styles, sophomore receiver — 185 points
No. 6 Tyler Buchner (1), sophomore quarterback — 189 points

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    Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Notre Dame at North Carolina
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    Just as everyone expected, a dynamic offense could not be stopped at North Carolina on Saturday. To everyone’s surprise, it was Notre Dame’s attack that won the day, the Irish beating the Tar Heels at their own game, 45-32.

    In every way, Notre Dame’s offense cruised in Chapel Hill, a 180-degree turn from the three weeks of ineffectiveness that had plagued the Irish (2-2). Five different players reached the end zone, led by sophomore running back Audric Estimé’s two one-yard rushes.

    Even with those two scores, and a third one-yard ease from junior running back Chris Tyree, lowering the average, Notre Dame ran for 6.21 yards per carry (sack adjusted, 298 yards on 48 rushes). Most notably, the Irish did not record a single pass attempt on a 12-play touchdown drive, ending early in the fourth quarter to give Notre Dame a 45-20 lead.

    “For an entirety of a game, we played really well,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “… It was a challenge to our offense to be able to run the ball, and it was a challenge to our defense to stop the run.”

    Two deep touchdowns from the Tar Heels in the final frame lessened the terrible optics of the Irish domination, but they were little more than window dressing for North Carolina, which gained just 86 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). Star sophomore quarterback Drake Maye finished with five touchdown passes and 301 yards, but much of that came late, after the game was decided. 182 of those yards came in the game’s final 20 minutes, with the Tar Heels trailing by four possessions and never getting within two possessions until the final two minutes.

    Notre Dame junior quarterback Drew Pyne finished with 289 yards on 24-of-34 passing, a completion rate of 70.6 percent and, more notably, 8.5 yards per pass attempt. Repeatedly looking downfield was a new development for Pyne, who a week ago attempted just three passes of longer than 10 yards.

     

    SCORING SUMMARY
    First Quarter
    9:53 — North Carolina touchdown. Josh Downs 4-yard pass from Drake Maye. Noah Burnette PAT good. North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (12 plays, 76 yards, 4:59)

    Second Quarter
    12:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 10-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 7. (8 plays, 83 yards, 3:48)
    10:01 — Notre Dame touchdown. Lorenzo Styles 30-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 7. (3 plays, 81 yards, 1:26)
    6:55 — North Carolina touchdown. Downs 3-yard pass from Maye. Burnette PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 14. (9 plays, 76 yards, 3:00)
    2:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 1-yard run. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 14. (8 plays, 75 yards, 4:18)
    0:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 40 yards. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 14. (12 plays, 52 yards, 1:52)

    Third Quarter
    12:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 29-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 14. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:42)
    10:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Estimé 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 14. (7 plays, 15 yards, 1:52)
    4:08 — North Carolina touchdown. Antoine Green 80-yard pass from Maye. 2-point conversion attempt no good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 20. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:11)

    Fourth Quarter
    13:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 20. (12 plays, 75 yards, 6:04)
    9:47 — North Carolina touchdown. Omarion Hampton 4-yard pass from Maye. 2-point attempt no good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 26. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:17)
    1:44 — North Carolina touchdown. Green 64-yard pass from Maye. 2-point attempt no good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32. (7 plays, 80 yards, 1:36)

    Notre Dame vs North Carolina: Time, TV, Preview & Prediction with the Irish as underdogs

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Cal at Notre Dame
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    After this afternoon, the Notre Dame Irish and the North Carolina Tar Heels will have met three years straight. Not bad for an ACC arrangement that should have those meetings come on an average of every three years.

    The 2021 and 2022 rendezvous were always scheduled, and the pandemic forcing scheduling on the fly led to the 2020 date. After today, they now will not meet until 2026, though that will be yet another Irish trip to Chapel Hill. Somehow this series will include four trips to the southeast (including 2017’s) around one trip to South Bend in 2021.

    Wherever it is played, this has been a one-sided series. Notre Dame has won the last four meetings and 20 of the 22 in history. Of course, only those last four have any pertinence presently.

    North Carolina may argue it has improved since some of those games, but the Irish roster could broadly claim the same.

    TIME: 3:30 ET, the rare afternoon game for Notre Dame on the road, something announced 48 hours after the Irish lost to Marshall. That timing was a coincidence, the 12 days of notice serving as the usual timeline for these announcements, but that upset may have changed the initial plan.

    TV: ABC has this broadcast with Bob Wischusen on the play-by-play while Dan Orlovsky provides analysis.

    PREVIEW: Let’s rattle off three North Carolina-specific facts.

    First of all, the Tar Heels offense has been astounding this season. That cannot be argued. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman did not outright compare North Carolina to Ohio State’s offense, the best in the country, but he did grant the premise of pondering the game plan Notre Dame used to slow the Buckeyes. The Irish would not lean into that clock-eating approach as aggressively, but Notre Dame also knows better than to get into a shootout with sophomore quarterback Drake Maye.

    In the first three starts of his career, the former five-star recruit has thrown for 11 touchdowns and rushed for another. He is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for the Heels, and as the offense is averaging more than 50 points per game, he is clearly stirring it quickly.

    Secondly, North Carolina has not faced a defense anything like the Irish will bring to Chapel Hill. While their rankings were, assuredly, damaged by simply facing the Tar Heels, Appalachian State and Georgia State rank Nos. 76 and 97, respectively, per SP+’s defensive considerations. Notre Dame is at No. 18.

    Set aside those intangible thoughts and simply recognize the talent disparity between the Sun Belt’s best and the Irish. Neither the Mountaineers nor the Panthers leaned into the transfer portal to find Power Five talent as Marshall did, and even against the Herd, Notre Dame’s defense had plenty more talent. The offense never produced to reward it.

    Lastly, the Tar Heels are coming off an idle week. That isn’t the fact. Well, that is a fact, but here is the intended third of these three facts: Idle weeks do not better a team’s chances of winning the subsequent week. They may help players get healthy, but only in so much as time passes. They may help a bit with rest, but hardly as much as many think, especially this early in the season.

    Consider Notre Dame’s plans for its off week following this game.

    “I hope after four games, we’re not tired,” Freeman said Thursday. “I don’t plan to rest them a lot. We gotta get better. We have to develop in that week. We’ll have three or four practices during that week to continue to find ways to develop as individuals, as football players. We’ll utilize that.”

    PREDICTION: After spending the week as the slightest of underdogs, somewhere between a pick’em and faded by 1.5 points, the Irish became 2.5-point underdogs on Friday. That minimal move stands out only in that if the spread reaches three points, obviously that will look more like a plausible football score. Anything less than three speaks more to a version of a lopsided pick’em.

    The combined points total Over/Under of 55.5 argues for a final score of 28-27 or so, and for Notre Dame, either one of those numbers would be a season-high in points.

    Of the two mismatches this afternoon, though, the wonder may not be about the Irish offense. Increasingly, offenses have the advantage in modern college football. When a lackluster offense (Notre Dame’s) meets a porous defense (North Carolina’s), it is valid to assume the offense will manufacture its way to a respectable showing.

    When a stout defense (the Irish) meets a dynamic offense (the Tar Heels), however, such scheming may not be enough. And in one particular area, Notre Dame will have an advantage today.

    North Carolina gave up 49 sacks last season. Think about how many that is. Nearly four times per game, Sam Howell was brought down for a loss when intending to pass. Returning much of that offensive line obviously would not bode well for the Tar Heels, and fortunately for them, only 1.5 of those starters still man that line, left tackle Asim Richards (two-year starter) and left guard Ed Montilus (six starts in 2020, eight in 2019). To supplement them, North Carolina found a Harvard transfer, a Miami transfer and is still trying to figure out its right guard situation.

    Nonetheless, the Tar Heels have given up six sacks in their last two games, and only one of those came on a clear passing down (a 3rd-and-5). The Sun Belt defensive lines did not have their ears pinned back to get to Maye. They just beat the North Carolina offensive line. One of those came on a 4th-and-2, when Maye needed to make a better read of the situation.

    Notre Dame’s defensive line should feast, particularly after racking up four sacks in the fourth quarter against Cal. More dramatically, when the Irish defensive line feasts, it does so decisively. Of the 10 sacks from the Notre Dame defense this season, the opposition managed to move the chains afterward on that possession a grand total of zero times.

    Sacks are somewhat underrated in today’s game. They not only cost an offense a down, they also obviously cost yardage. Duh. But what they do beyond that is turn an offense one-dimensional on any subsequent down, a dimension that has just been sowed with doubt.

    Of the 10 Irish sacks, only five were on clear passing downs. Five came in the flow of a productive or newfound possession. They then rendered those possessions all-but dead on arrival.

    If Notre Dame can merely match Appalachian State’s and Georgia State’s three sacks, those should be three possessions on which the Tar Heels do not score. A couple more possessions expiring by more natural causes, if you will, could be enough to bring North Carolina’s explosive offense down to a level the stagnant Irish offense can match.

    Notre Dame 27, North Carolina 23
    (Spread: 1-2; Over/Under: 1-2; Straight-up: 2-1)

    INSIDE THE IRISH
    Manti Te’o’s return to Notre Dame ‘always’ a comfortable one for him, long before recent Netflix doc
    Notre Dame’s Opponents: Boston College’s struggles make Irish worries look tame; Clemson faces first real test
    And In That Corner … The North Carolina Tar Heels’ explosive offense could set too strong a pace for Notre Dame
    Things To Learn: New-look Notre Dame offense needed against prolific North Carolina attack

    OUTSIDE READING
    Betting on a fast start at North Carolina today
    Notre Dame punter Jon Sot winning on and off the field
    Four-star OT Elijah Paige decommits from Notre Dame
    College football games are taking longer, and everyone, including TV, wants to fix that
    ‘I’m still here’ by John Wall

    Twitter | @statsowar

    Things To Learn: New-look Notre Dame offense needed against prolific North Carolina attack

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    As well as Notre Dame’s defense played at Ohio State, the Irish needed to risk opening up the game with their offense in order to produce enough to beat the Buckeyes. Hindsight makes both that fact clear and that Notre Dame did not have the offensive cohesion to trust it could do so.

    Unless the Irish defense is about to prove itself as undeniably one of the country’s best — as in, not far from Georgia’s, Clemson’s or what is coming together at Utah — then Notre Dame’s offense will need to find that cohesion at North Carolina on Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

    The Tar Heels offensive production defies some comprehension. No matter the opponent — in this case, FCS-level Florida A&M followed by two Sun Belt foes — putting up 51.3 points and 547.3 yards per game warrants respect. In his first three career starts, sophomore quarterback Drake Maye has completed 74.2 percent of his passes for 9.6 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns with only one interception, adding 146 rushing yards and another score.

    North Carolina (3-0) will score. Notre Dame (1-2) will need to manage more than its season high of 24 points, though by no means do the Irish want junior quarterback Drew Pyne trying to match Maye blow for blow.

    “We know they’re an explosive offense, and we obviously don’t want to get into a shootout,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t think anybody in our program wants to do that, especially not the defensive side of the ball. We have to find ways to stop them, not just limit them. We have to find ways to stop their offense and be creative in terms of our plan defensively.

    “Offensively, we have to be able to control the ball, but we also have to score some points. I don’t expect it to be a [10-7] game at the end of the third quarter like it was at Ohio State. This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to score some points.”

    Though the Buckeyes dominated that fourth quarter in the opener, the fact remains that the Irish forced punts on five of Ohio State’s nine possessions, standing up to force a missed field goal on a sixth. Marshall found similar success running the ball late, but anytime a defense gives up only 19 points, it should be lauded. Cal’s first touchdown drive came courtesy of a short field off a Pyne fumble, scoring just 10 points otherwise.

    Notre Dame’s defense has been up to the task. When the Tar Heels inevitably score — and it should be considered inevitable, especially with the possible return of star slot receiver Josh Downs and deep threat Antoine Green, neither of whom has helped Maye to this prolific start — that is simply a reality of modern college football.

    As long as the Irish keep North Carolina to fewer than 30 points, the onus will be on the offense to get the win.

    Neither the game plan at Ohio State (against the best offense in the country) nor the one vs. Cal (in Pyne’s first start) will push Notre Dame to a new season-high output. Something new will be needed.

    Freeman said the conservative approach against Cal was less about Pyne’s limitations and more about Cal’s scheme.

    “They were primarily a one-high team,” Freeman said. “One-high teams, a lot of the time, are built one, to stop the run, and two, to stop the vertical passing game. We missed a couple shots that we we took a chance on.”

    Couple may have been generous. Most notably, Pyne overthrew junior tight end Michael Mayer up the seam early in the game, prompting a brief conversation with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees that was assuredly not blunt or direct. (Note: Heavy usage of sarcasm there.)

    Pyne’s first touchdown pass to junior running back Chris Tyree did cover 18 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage, though. An outlier in many respects. Even the 36-yard throw-and-stumble to sophomore running back Audric Estimé, preceding Mayer’s touchdown grab, traveled just four yards past the line of the scrimmage before Estimé did the rest.

    “We’re going to throw some balls downfield,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to get way with running five-yard outs and [run-pass options] and running the ball the entire game, we know that. To be able to win the upcoming games that we play, you’re going to have to be able to complete some balls down the field.”

    Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t quite reached “Believe it when I see it” levels of doubt about a downfield passing game, but it is closer to that territory than anything belying confidence.

    What did inspire confidence late against Cal that could spur the downfield passing game moving forward ss the Irish rushing game. Estimé may have gained only 76 rushing yards, but combine his day with Tyree’s and Notre Dame’s backs averaged four yards per carry on 35 attempts. If told exactly when to run where, most of us could have gained more than half those yards.

    This is not the first time the Irish offensive line has needed time to gain momentum in a season. This has, in fact, become a Notre Dame pattern. A quick search of archives of this space pulls up a quote from then-fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg following the 2020 opener against Duke.

    “It’s one of those things, it’s the first game,” Eichenberg said. “I hate to say it, but it takes a couple drives to get up to game speed. …

    “One of the tough things is you practice something in practice or on scout team, and it shows up in the game as something completely different. It’s just one of those things, you have to adjust to personnel, to the players you’re playing against. It’s tough. I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”

    That offensive line eventually propelled the Irish into the College Football Playoff, sending three players into the NFL draft.

    Last season’s offensive line struggled so much in September, now-sixth-year right guard Josh Lugg essentially worked through film with the media during the month, and then in November, he was pointing to those lessons to show what had improved so much for Notre Dame to dominate the final month of the season.

    The Irish may have enjoyed a moment of truth against Cal, handing off the ball to Estimé on four consecutive plays, the exact same play call four times over, to get into the end zone.

    Freeman repeatedly pointed to that kind of success as an avenue for Notre Dame to open up its passing game. That will need to become proven fact on Saturday for the Irish to outpace Maye.

    And In That Corner … The North Carolina Tar Heels’ explosive offense could set too strong a pace for Notre Dame

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    The North Carolina Tar Heels may not score 51.3 points per game much longer this season, just logically speaking, but no matter who the Heels put those points up against, that prolific offense should worry Notre Dame this weekend (3:30 ET; ABC). The Irish (1-2) have barely scored that many points all season, managing just 55 points in three games.

    Then again, North Carolina (3-0) has given up 37.3 points per game against arguably inferior opponents in FCS-level Florida A&M (24 points), Appalachian State (61) and Georgia State (28). The Mountaineers managed more points against the Heels than Notre Dame has given up all season (57). In that fourth quarter alone, when Appalachian State scored an outrageous 40 points, North Carolina gave up more points than the Irish have to two Power Five opponents combined.

    To repeat a line that began popping up in the elevator at Notre Dame Stadium as soon as the Irish notched their first win of the season, an unstoppable force (that Tar Heels offense) meets an immovable object (Notre Dame’s defense) on one side of the ball while a stoppable force runs into a movable object on the other. To get a better idea of if North Carolina’s defense is weaker than its offense is strong, The News & Observer’s C.L. Brown lends some insight.

    DF: These first few games from North Carolina, do they have folks excited or frustrated? They were great wins, but they were closer than expected. The offense looks great, but the defense has not been able to compete against the Sun Belt.

    CB: “Defensively, it’s definitely been frustrating. They are up 41-21 in the App St. game, and App. St. comes back to tie it and had a chance to take the lead. They’re up 21-3 against Georgia State, and Georgia State scores 25 straight points to take a 28-21 lead.

    “On that side of the ball, it’s definitely been frustrating. They’ve been searching for answers because they felt like when they brought back Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, they were simplifying the defense, (they thought) they wouldn’t give up as many big plays as they did.

    “(Former defensive coordinator Jay) Bateman’s scheme was kind of complicated sometimes for the players with the amount of presnap reads they had to make. They never really clicked in that defense last year. Chizik was supposed to make everything better, and it hasn’t really been better so far.

    “From the offensive side, though, it’s been great. They’ve responded to every challenge. When App. St. came back, Carolina always had an answer offensively. Then against Georgia State, when they fell behind, the offense got it together and pushed ahead for the win on the road. … Quarterback Drake Maye definitely has been better than advertised.”

    Before we get into Chizik’s struggles or Maye’s stardom, solve a riddle for me: Why did North Carolina go on the road to App. St. and Georgia State? Personally, I love it for college football. All I really want from Notre Dame is to play a game at Annapolis rather than face Navy in Baltimore, San Diego and Dublin. But it was still unexpected. What convinced the Tar Heels to do that?

    “(Head coach) Mack Brown talked about wanting to build his schedule. Last year they started off at Virginia Tech, which was a tough season opener for them. They didn’t really feel like they got their legs under them, and then they go out and lose that game early. He wanted to make a schedule where they progressively play harder games.

    “Especially this year, coming in with the new quarterback, (Brown) wanted to give them a shot to work out some kinks, get some reps, get some experience, get better as the season moved on. He even moved the Florida A&M game from last Saturday to Week 0. One, so they could have a Saturday to themselves nationally without everybody in the world playing so they would get a little bit more publicity. And two, to have this weekend off before Notre Dame comes.”

     

    Smooth moves from Brown there, thinking big picture well before he knew entirely what this roster would be, but then there is the Chizik hire. Chizik hadn’t coached since 2016. In the last decade, he spent two seasons as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator under Larry Fedora and that was the extent of his coaching. What were the expectations for him this year? Where has he fallen short?

    “I don’t think anybody was expecting them to be dominant, but just be sound, be better, not have the mistakes. Last year was basically characterized by their communication breakdowns and just allowing big plays. They don’t allow as many big plays (now), but they’ve still given up more than they should have so far this year.

    “I thought the defensive line was going to be the strength of the unit, and they haven’t played up to par. They haven’t been terrible, but I was expecting them to be better than they’ve been, be able to pressure more, get quarterback pressure with their base four without having a scheme or a blitz with that kind of pressure. They have a good rotation now, they have the depth now, but they just haven’t taken that step forward as a defensive line.

    “And the secondary, Tony Grimes was injured the second series of the season opener and then he missed the App. St. game. He probably hasn’t played as well as expected. Storm Duck has battled injuries … They were expecting him to be a shutdown corner, and he hasn’t worked his way back into playing at that level on the corners.

    “Those are the areas that have been the biggest letdowns defensively, their coverages and the defensive line.”

    If spending that time criticizing Chizik and the defense, more time should be spent on sophomore quarterback Drake Maye. Let’s run through his stats real quick, as absurd as they sound: 930 passing yards on 9.6 yards per attempt with a 74.2 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns against only one interception while adding another 146 yards and a score on 26 carries. That’s quite the three-game start. He may be a former five-star recruit and a one-time Alabama commit, but did you see this coming?

    “I don’t think anybody really saw it coming. Expectations were he would perform well, but he’s just shown maturity beyond his years. He’s not a game manager. He’s shown he can win a game if they need him to. Honestly, I was kind of hoping App. St. would have converted that (first) two-point conversion because that would have meant Drake Mayer would have had the ball with a chance to have a game-winning drive. A couple timeouts and 30 seconds, let’s see what he can do.

    “He hasn’t been in that situation yet, but everything else, he’s shown he can make all the throws. He makes good decisions with the ball. … The main thing he needs to work on is he’s left his feet a couple of times. He got hit and did a bit of a helicopter flip against Florida A&M, and they definitely don’t need him getting injured for a run that doesn’t really mean anything in some of those early games.

    “But everything else, he’s shown to be as advertised.”

    Editor’s Note: C.L. Brown also made the point that Maye has enjoyed this success without star receiver Josh Downs or big-play threat Antoine Green this season. Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Green took 31 receptions for 612 yards and five scores. Brown thinks Green (shoulder) is likely to play this week, while Downs (knee) will be a game time decision.

    A year ago, this Q&A included you suggesting Brown thought 2022 would be North Carolina’s year, not Sam Howell’s final season in 2021. It may be early to claim he was right, but did he see Maye coming?

    I think he was thinking the defense would be a little better than it’s been, because on that side of the ball they stockpiled good recruiting classes and a bunch of talent, especially on the defensive line. He felt like they would have the depth they needed to really, if not be dominant up front, definitely hold their own against anybody. It hasn’t quite been like that.

    “He felt like Drake Maye could be good, could be this good. … Mack was looking at this as the year they would have the talent and could make some noise. Right now, the defense is what has held them back.”

    Will Maye be enough Saturday? As of Thursday morning, this is essentially a pick’em, with the Heels favored by a point. What do you expect?

    “Saturday is going to answer a lot of questions. If they pull out a win, there will be some more excitement about it. Right now, people just look at it as the same old defense. When the games get harder, when the opponents get tougher, are they going to be able to stop anybody? Are they going to have to win every game in some kind of 42-41 shootout? …

    “For football to keep anybody’s attention around here, the defense has to play better, and they’re going to have to win on Saturday for people to be like, Oh, this football team might be something.

    “I picked Carolina, because they are at home obviously and because I’m not sure Notre Dame’s offense is any better than Carolina’s defense. I definitely think it’s going to be a game where Notre Dame is going to have to score probably in the 30s to win. I’m not sure they can get that done.

    “So I’m taking Drake Maye.”