1. Running Backs – Notre Dame’s deepest and most talented position group heading into 2021 is hands down located in the running back room. 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams burst on to the scene this past season to set the tone for the offense. Williams is borderline infallible in the backfield and will be a candidate for an early NFL draft entrant if he builds on his 2020 success. Former Top 100 speedster Chris Tyree will only improve and will benefit from a full off-season in the weight room. 3rd string option C’Bo Flemister runs at defenders like they personally dishonored his family. This is all on top of talented incoming freshman Audric Estime, who will be crunched for playing time during his true freshman season.
2. Defensive Tackles – Notre Dame will return every player from its 3-deep at both DT spots in 2021, including 5th year senior Kurt Hinish (7.5 TFL, 2 sacks), who decided to exercise his free year of eligibility provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fellow 5th year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) was also a force in the middle this past season. Look for Jayson Ademilola to return to his 2019 form after a knee injury sidelined him for a portion of this past season and for rising sophomore Rylie Mills to continue to progress and push the upperclassmen for playing time.
3. Tight Ends – Rising sophomore Michael Mayer is coming off a record-breaking freshman season, in which he set the mark for receptions (42) and receiving yards (450) by a Notre Dame freshman TE. His physicality in the blocking game steadily improved throughout last season, and his rapid rise likely played a hand in physical bruiser Tommy Tremble’s early departure for the NFL. Although ND loses two key blocking cogs to departure in Tremble and Brock Wright, there are high expectations surrounding George Takacs, a 6’6, 245-lb “late bloomer” who has impressed each time he has seen the field in limited action. The coaching staff is also high on rising sophomore Kevin Bauman, who should provide the TE room with plenty of weapons in their defense of the “TE U” title.
4. Linebackers – The Irish will take a big hit in losing the 2020 Butkus Award winner, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who displayed his versatility in both the run and pass games. It’s safe to say that no one on ND’s current roster will be able to replicate what JOK provided to the Irish defense. On the other hand, ND does return a slew of talent and experience at LB. MLB Drew White finished 4th on the team in 2020 with 56 tackles and seemed to bring his best in ND’s biggest games. MLB Bo Bauer also provides great depth at the position and should see a good deal of playing time in 2021, especially on blitz packages, where he finished last season with 4.5 TFL and 1 sack. ND began the past season with a 3-player race at WLB between Shayne Simon, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser, and pretty much ended the season where it started. Each flashed signs of excellence throughout the season, but none seized hold of the position. I fully expect Liufau to emerge as the “go-to” guy in 2021. The Rover/Sniper role in Marcus Freeman’s defense will be a battle between Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor and rising senior Paul Moala. Pryor (who physically looks like he could put up a decent fight with Floyd Mayweather in the ring) struggled to see the field at safety last year before being moved to the “Rover” LB position following Moala’s season-ending Achilles tendon tear. Given the tricky nature of an injury like Moala’s, I predict that Pryor will emerge from spring practice as the first option at the position.
5. Safeties – Kyle Hamilton. That’s pretty much it. Hamilton led the Irish in tackles last year with 63, which is even more impressive when you consider that opposing teams try to throw the ball as far away from Hamilton as they possibly can. Hamilton covers essentially 2/3 of the field in zone coverage due to his length and speed. ND fans should enjoy Hamilton’s unique skill set as much as possible this upcoming season, since there is a good chance it will be his last in South Bend. On the opposite side of the field, Houston Griffith, who the coaches convinced to stay with the program, will compete with DJ Brown, who filled in admirably when called upon at both nickel and safety. I also expect incoming true freshman Khari Gee (a late flip from LSU) to immediately press for playing time.
6. Offensive Line – The OL takes the biggest hit of any position group heading into next season. ND loses 4 of its 5 starters on the OL, many of whom will likely find homes in the NFL, but the Irish have plenty of talent to reload. Jarrett Patterson is the lone returning starter of the bunch. Patterson, who PFF ranked as the #9 C in college football last season, is recovering from season-ending surgery for a broken foot and is expected to be moved to LT. I’m personally skeptical of the ability to move from an interior OL position to LT with extremely limited mobility in the spring and lean more towards Patterson ending up at LG, but either way, he will likely not return to center in 2021. That’s because the center position will be manned by rising junior Zeke Correll, who started in two of ND’s biggest games this past season (UNC and Alabama) and performed quite nicely. Josh Lugg will likely slide into RT, where he impressed while filling in for Robert Hainsey to end 2019. Outside of Patterson, Correll, and Lugg, it’s really anyone’s game. Players to keep an eye on include 5th year senior guard Dillan Gibbons, junior tackle Andrew Kristofic, 6’6 300-lb junior guard Quinn Carroll, and 6’8 300-lb sophomore tackle Tosh Baker, with Top 100 true freshman guard Rocco Spindler a dark horse.
7. Wide Receivers – The WRs flat out disappointed in 2020. Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek, and Avery Davis performed to the best of their abilities, but it simply was not enough. Blocking was never an issue, but the inability to make quick bursts in route-running really handicapped Ian Book and the offense last year. The WR room has nowhere to go but up in 2021. Although this seems to only exist in hope rather than reality, a fully healthy Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy should provide ND with the type of playmakers they need on the outside to compete with the “big boys.” Avery Davis (24 rec, 322 yds in 2020) provides a reliable threat in the slot and look for Lawrence Keys to really press Davis for playing time heading into next season. And of course, to the satisfaction of message boards across the country, I fully expect rising sophomore and former 5-star recruit Jordan Johnson to emerge and finish near the top of the team lead in receptions in 2021.
8. Special Teams – Although not *technically* a position group, I decided to include special teams in my position rankings given its unique impact as a unit. In 2020, the Irish special teams play started out incredibly strong before stumbling across the finish line. Senior kicker Jon Doerer began the season with a solid 11-14 (79%) FG mark while building off his incredibly strong 2020, only to see his confidence vanish amidst a 4-9 (44%) finish. I expect Doerer to land somewhere between his 2019 and 2020 performances heading into next season. ND should be able to carry over their success in both kickoff and punt coverage, which consistently ranked in the top tier from the season’s start to finish. I also expect incoming freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. to immediately compete for the punt returner role, with a quiet confidence that he will provide a significant threat at the position. ND will also return reliable pieces in punter Jay Bramblett and walk-on long snapper Michael Vinson, who had a quietly successful 2020. As the adage goes, you only notice the long snapper when something has gone terribly wrong.
9. Defensive Ends – Although ND does lose both starters from this past season in Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, I am really high on both Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola heading into next season and would not be shocked if the DE’s actually outperform their 2020 production as a unit. Foskey has flashed major NFL potential in his first two seasons at ND, including last season where he finished with 5 TFL and 4.5 sacks. At the other end, Justin Ademilola has displayed major progress each year with the Irish, and I am convinced that Mike Elston should tweak his DL rotation to only include rotations where the Ademilola twins play next to each other in order to maximize the twin telepathy. Rising sophomore Jordan Botehlo should get a ton of opportunities this season, and fans are excited to watch him translate some of the monster hits he displayed on special teams last year to opposing teams’ QBs. Depth will certainly be an issue at DE in 2021 following Ovie Oghoufo’s departure, but look for Nana Osafa-Mensah to step up or else Elston will be forced to look at a potential position conversion from the incredibly deep DT cupboard.
10. Quarterbacks –Ian Book will go down as a legendary player for the Irish who will perhaps best be remembered for the most important single statistic in team competition – wins. Notre Dame loses its all-time program leader in wins (30) with Book’s departure, but a potentially exciting future awaits. Grad transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin will step onto campus as the early favorite to win the starting job, and reports out of Madison are glowing for the Long Island native’s leadership and team-first attitude. Coan’s experience gives him a leg up on rising junior Brendon Clark, who is dealing with a lingering knee injury, and rising sophomore Drew Pyne, who similar to Book, is a bit undersized. The wild card in the QB race is true freshman Tyler Buchner, another Top 100 recruit who has the potential to be ND’s next game changer but missed his entire senior season in California due to COVID-19. Buchner finished his junior season at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, CA throwing for 4,474 yards to go along with 53 TDs and 6 INTs. Much has been written about the connection between the “next step” for the program and an elite, game-changing QB. Buchner can be that guy. In a perfect world, Coan would start the first chunk of the season next year, while gradually phasing Buchner into the game plans. There is a ton of uncertainty, but if Buchner is able to compete with Coan by the middle of next season, ND will have a really positive situation in their hands.
11. Cornerbacks – True freshman Clarence Lewis excelled in 2020 at the field corner position, finishing tied for 5th on the team with 33 tackles and 2nd on the team with 7 pass deflections. He solidified himself as the starter over Tariq Bracy, who should provide some great depth at the field corner position next season. On the boundary side, things are less certain. Rising junior Cam Hart should have an inside track in the spring, and coaches are hoping he can seize that role while utilizing his 6’3 frame. Other candidates for the boundary position include 6’2 early enrollee Ryan Barnes and 6’1 freshman Philip Riley. The corners will have plenty to prove.