1. Defensive Ends – Isaiah Foskey passed up an opportunity to enter the NFL draft this past year to come back to South Bend for his senior season and a shot at a CFP berth. He will also anchor one of the nation’s top individual units in the Irish defensive line. Foskey is coming off a monster junior season in which he racked up a team-high 11 sacks. He needs 9.5 more sacks this fall to pass Justin Tuck’s all-time Notre Dame record of 24.5. There is no talent drop-off whenever Foskey needs a breather, as 5th year senior Vyper end Justin Ademilola is coming off a huge 5-sack season of his own. On the other side, junior Rylie Mills follows the path carved out by Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa by moving from the interior to strong-side DE. Although a small sample size, Mills shined during his lone start at DE last season, where he posted 2 sacks at Virginia. Senior Nana Osafo-Mensah provides plenty of experience and depth behind Mills at SSE. In total, 7 of the top 8 defensive linemen on the depth chart are seniors or older.
2. Offensive Line – What a difference a year can make. The unit that served as the team’s Achilles heel during the first half of last season has a new look and (somewhat) new leader, as the Irish brought back OL coaching guru Harry Hiestand for a second stint with the team. Hiestand is widely regarded as one of the best developers of offensive line talent in the country, having coached previous Irish legends Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey, and Quenton Nelson, among others. He inherits a fully-stocked line, with 2021 Freshman All-American Joe Alt, Preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson, senior Zeke Correll, 6th year senior Josh Lugg, and 6’6 330-lb sophomore Blake Fisher rounding out the first team unit from left to right. Patterson moves to LG after 3 seasons as the starting center, where he did not allow a sack in 1,306 career pass-blocking snaps. Alt and Blake Fisher, who was the first Notre Dame freshman starter on the offensive line in a season opener since Sam Young in 2006, project as two of the top sophomore O-linemen in the country. Last year’s starter at LG, Andrew Kristofic, and sophomore guard Rocco Spindler should serve as the first two O-linemen off the bench.
3. Tight Ends – Similar to Foskey, junior TE Michael Mayer is a future first round NFL draft pick and coming off a record-setting sophomore season in which he set the program record for single-season TDs by a TE with 7. In what is almost certainly his final season in South Bend, Mayer is looking to further cement his place in the Notre Dame record books. He only needs 28 catches and 551 yards to overtake Tyler Eifert for the all-time Notre Dame TE records. He can similarly beat Ken MacAfee’s all-time program record for TE touchdowns by hauling in 7 more TD’s this season. Outside of Mayer, however, Notre Dame is a bit unproven but not without talent. Fellow junior Kevin Bauman has only 2 catches for 15 yards in his career, but he has the inside track for the #2 TE spot following Mitchell Evans’ foot injury. 4-star freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes could both have breakout rookie campaigns, as the offense should utilize numerous 2 and perhaps even 3-TE sets this season.
4. Defensive Tackles – In total, the Irish return 7 of the 9 rotation players from last year’s defensive line. 5th year senior Jayson Ademilola led the team in QB pressures last season with 43. Ademilola will be backed up by senior Howard Cross III. Although Cross is undersized, his lightning fast quickness serves as a major disruptor up the middle. At nose tackle, 3-year contributor Jacob Lacey will battle Harvard grad transfer Chris Smith for the starting role. Smith earned first-team All-Ivy League honors last season with the Crimson, posting 40 tackles and 5 TFLs. Depth and experience will be a major strength for this unit.
5. Linebackers – Depth and experience also serve as the standard when it comes to the Irish linebacking corps. Regardless of who starts at MLB, each LB position will be manned by a senior or grad student. Last year’s leading tackler, JD Bertrand, will battle hype man extraordinaire Bo Bauer for the MLB job. Despite whoever wins the starting role, both should see extensive playing time. Bertrand posted the first 100+ tackle season since Te’von Coney did so in 2018. Bauer had 47 tackles and 4 TFLs of his own in mostly a sub-package role last year. Jack Kiser returns as the starter at rover, where he became the first Irish player with two defensive scores in the same season since Julian Love in 2017. Kiser is very strong in run defense, but was typically subbed out last year in passing situations. Backing up Kiser this year is Jordan Botelho, who was moved from DE after struggling to find a role there. It will be interesting to see how new DC Al Golden utilizes Botelho in blitz packages this season. Lastly, the Irish get breakout candidate of the year Marist Liufau back after a leg injury sidelined him for all of 2021. Liufau has generated significant hype during the past two offseasons, and looks to be ND’s most complete linebacker. The LB room is also overflowing with young talent and should be well-equipped in the case of multiple injuries.
6. Safeties – Most teams do not get to replace a former All-American with another former All-American, but that is the fortunate reality for the Irish this season. No one will truly replace the impact that Kyle Hamilton had in the secondary, but Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph takes over at strong safety after an incredible 2020 season where he only allowed 8 completions the entire year to go along with 6 interceptions. Joseph did allow 26 catches this past season but still came away with 3 interceptions. The free safety spot will be a battle between 5th year seniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith and junior Ramon Henderson. DJ Brown looks to have the inside track, given his solid play after stepping in for Kyle Hamilton last year. Brown tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions in 2021. Once again, the Irish have plenty of depth at this position group.
7. Running Backs – The running backs experienced the biggest drop-off from last season’s #1 position group ranking, and that is mainly attributable to the loss of one player – back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams. Williams became the first Irish running back to rush for back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards since Darius Walker in 2005-2006. We will see how the Irish RB’s fare this season, but Williams did so many things for the Irish that don’t necessarily show up in the stat book. His pass-blocking, playmaking ability, and leadership on the field will certainly be missed, but with this offensive line, there should be plenty of opportunities for the running backs to pad their stats. Off-season injuries to sophomore Logan Diggs and freshman Jadarian Price bring depth into question, but junior Chris Tyree looks to step into the starting role this season after two years in a complementary role. Tyree was limited to only 222 rushing yards on 56 carries last season, but he will also be heavily relied upon in the passing game. Look for a role similar to last year’s Fiesta Bowl, where Tyree’s use in the screen game is utilized as an extension of the run game. If Diggs can bounce back from his shoulder injury, look for him to build on his 3 TD freshman campaign. The biggest X-factor is 5’11 230-lb sophomore Audric Estime, who looks and runs like a young Jerome Bettis. Here’s to hoping that his production similarly mirrors “The Bus” this season.
8. Quarterbacks –If you ask OC Tommy Rees, all is going according to plan with the quarterbacks. Jack Coan stepped in as a bridge QB last season and shined despite a very shaky offensive line for the majority of the season. Now that Coan has moved on, the starting job falls to sophomore Tyler Buchner, a former Top 100 recruit who has the potential to be ND’s next game-changing QB. Buchner was mainly utilized as a change-of-pace QB last season when the team needed to ignite the run game. Despite only 46 carries, Buchner actually finished as ND’s 2nd leading rusher last season with 336 yards, 3 TDs, and 7.3 YPC. Passing was a mixed bag with Buchner, as he completed 60% of his passes for 3 TD’s and 3 INTs. But again, Buchner was playing in a limited role, and it will be interesting to see his progression after an offseason with the full playbook. Behind Buchner, junior Drew Pyne could serve as a 2012 Tommy Rees type of relief pitcher who can be a spark plug for the offense if the run-heavy offense leads to an injury for Buchner. Inexperience will certainly play a factor this season with the QBs, but the ceiling is high with Buchner.
9. Cornerbacks – There is both good news and bad news for the cornerbacks. The good news? Notre Dame returns both primary starters at cornerback for the first time since bringing back Bennett Jackson and KeiVare Russell in 2013. The bad news? They are coming off an absolutely miserable performance after allowing an unimpressive Oklahoma State offense to throw for 371 passing yards and 4 TDs in the Fiesta Bowl. Is there some recency bias here? Perhaps, but the Irish secondary started to regress much earlier than the Fiesta Bowl last season. Junior Clarence Lewis returns as the starter at field CB after slipping mightily from a surprise performer in 2020. At the boundary corner side, 6’2 senior Cam Hart returns after a team-leading 7 PBUs to go along with 2 INTs. Graduate student Tariq Bracy will start in the nickel package. Outside of these three, it becomes a bit unproven. 6’1 sophomore Ryan Barnes brings similar length to the boundary side that Hart does, while true freshman 4-star Jaden Mickey has impressed the coaching staff and pushed Lewis in the offseason. All told, there are options here, and healthy competition can go a long way.
10. Wide Receivers – There is a lot not to like here. The most glaring is the fact that the Irish are down to only 7 scholarship WRs on the entire roster following the devastating news that team captain Avery Davis tore his other ACL in training camp. Of those remaining 7 WRs, one (Joe Wilkins) is coming off a bad foot injury, one (Tobias Merriweather) is a true freshman, one (Matt Salerno) is a former walk-on, and two (Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas) have 4 combined career receptions. As of now, it looks like 6’2, 215 lb sophomore Jayden Thomas will start at the boundary WR, 5th year senior Braden Lenzy will start at field WR, and Lorenzo Styles will start at slot WR. Lenzy is the fastest and most experienced of the bunch. He’s coming off a 32 reception, 350 yard, 3 TD season in 2021. However, Styles will be the go-to receiver of the group. He burst onto the scene as a freshman last year with 24 receptions, 344 yards, and 1 TD. The X-factor here is freshman Tobias Merriweather and whether he can push for snaps early on in the season. The reality here is a bad combination of lack of depth and experience. A lot will hinge on the health and performance of this group.
11. Specialists/Special Teams – Once again, I’m including special teams as a position group for evaluation purposes, but unfortunately they find themselves at the very bottom of our preseason rankings. ND will be replacing starters at both kicker and punter this year, and if the Blue-Gold game is any indication of what’s to come, we could be in for a long season with the specialists. Arkansas State grad transfer Blake Grupe beat out Josh Bryan for the starting kicking spot. Grupe performed well last year at Arkansas State with a very solid 20-25 (80%) FG mark and a long of 50, but this isn’t Arkansas State. Nothing truly mimics the pressure of major power 5 stakes. Harvard grad transfer Jon Sot likely takes over at punter, but true freshman and #1 ranked Bryce McFerson is battling him for the job. In a welcome pivot, the return game could be more dangerous than it ever was during the Kelly era. Chris Tyree will be back as starting KR after averaging 26.7 yards per return to go along with 1 return TD. Brandon Joseph is set to take over at PR, where he averaged 28.5 yards per return on 4 punt returns in 2021. On the coverage side, Notre Dame has not allowed a punt or kick return touchdown since 2018.