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Counting Down the Irish — 20 to 16, led by Notre Dame’s defensive line depth and highlighting the lack of offensive options

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Spencer Sanders #3 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys throws a pass while being pressured by Justin Ademilola #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the third quarter during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Odd things jump out when looking at the rankings of the top-25 most expected players in Notre Dame’s 2022. Not too much time is spent comparing them to last year’s series, but when 10 of the top 20 were not ranked at all last season — and only safety Brandon Joseph because he was not on the roster a year ago — it raises an eyebrow.

When one of them fits in the exact same ranking as last season, but with some notable differences in how he got there, the difference between this year’s Irish and last year’s becomes quite clear.

Notre Dame was positioned to be driven by its offense in 2021. Scoring 35.2 points per game certainly fit that expectation.

There is every indication that will plummet this year, and the Irish defense will dictate the season.

As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …

No. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 points
Five ballotsHighest rank: No. 11

Once seen as the recruiting add-on needed to land his twin brother, tackle Jayson Ademilola, Justin Ademilola has now become a defensive leader. Finishing in this top 20 is even more noteworthy when realizing he is the third defensive end ranked.

It has been said here before and it will be said here again: The defensive line is Notre Dame’s best position group in 2022.

If anything is surprising, it is that five ballots left off Ademilola. The five that ranked him slotted him at an average of No. 16.4. That ballot with Ademilola at No. 11 — ballots will remain unnamed unless a panelist opts otherwise — had four defensive linemen in his top 11.

Rotating behind senior Vyper end Isaiah Foskey and junior “Big” end Rylie Mills may cut into Ademilola’s production, but most likely, it cuts into all their productions. If that means they are fresher in November, though, the long-term benefits should be astounding.

No. 19 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 points
Nine ballotsHighest rank: No. 15

Bracy finishing higher ranked than No. 23 Clarence Lewis counts as a surprise. Lewis looks earmarked for a starting-11 role, and while Notre Dame will turn to its nickel package more often than not, Bracy’s role as the nickel back should pull him from the field on at least 40 percent of snaps.

Furthermore, Bracy has been played off the field in three of the last four years. A ranking this high suggests that will not happen again.

Either that is faith in Bracy’s surge for his final season or it is confusion sparked by early-enrolled freshman Jaden Mickey perhaps challenging Lewis for that starting role.

Navy v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 06: Logan Diggs #22 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium on November 6, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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No. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 points
Seven ballotsHighest rank: No. 9

These ballots were due after Notre Dame’s first practice and after Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s first media availability of the preseason, though most were turned in before that. The fact that the beat media expects Diggs to play enough of the season to have this level of an impact after suffering a labrum injury in April lends credence to Freeman’s optimism that Diggs may play in the season opener on Sept. 3 at Ohio State.

Until then, Notre Dame is toeing a fine line with its running backs in practices, having only three healthy enough for contact at the moment.

“Coach (Deland) McCullough has a huge challenge because he’s a competitor just like the rest of us,” Freeman said Friday. “He wants to put the best guys in there. He wants to put the guys in and he wants to make sure that we have success.

“We have to roll those guys. … But you got to get the work done. We can’t have all of our running backs in red and think we’re going to be prepared for the season.”

No. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 points
Eight ballotsHighest rank: No. 13

Four defensive linemen in the top 20 may be a surprise. Four offensive linemen in the top 20 is par for the course for the Irish.

As the summer progressed, murmurs became rumors, and they became a near certainty that Correll would move into Notre Dame’s starting lineup at center and move fifth-year lineman and three-year starter at center Jarrett Patterson to left guard. That assured Correll’s impact this season.

Swapping Correll out for Andrew Kristofic halfway through last season was one thing. Doing so now would require shuffling multiple positions, making it exceedingly unlikely aside from injury.

“Because of the spring [Correll] had and what he showed, we felt to get the five best offensive linemen on the field would be to move [Patterson] to guard,” Freeman said. “Obviously, he showed us a lot of value in the spring.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Avery Davis (3) catches the football during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2, 2021, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 points
Nine ballotsHighest rank: No. 11Last year’s rank: No. 16

This slot last season held 97 points, also Davis. Right there, something can be learned: The best of Notre Dame’s roster is more distinct this season than it was a year ago.

There were five skill players yet ahead of Davis last season. A slight spoiler of what is to come: Only three skill players are ahead of him this year. The Irish offense will need the veteran coming off a torn ACL to deliver consistently in order to have a functioning offense, and even then, that offense has fewer options than it did last season.

Now let’s pull a bit more from last year’s entry …

“Davis finishing as the No. 16 player to keep an eye on leading into the 2021 season makes it clear what Notre Dame beat reporters expect from this offense with Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s arm leading it: More.”

The fourth skill player in the 2021 “Counting Down the Irish” series was running back Chris Tyree at No. 10. Davis being six spots below that makes it clear what Notre Dame beat reporters expect from this offense with sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner having few options to work with: Less.

The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …

Michael Bryan, 18 StripesPatrick Engel, Blue & Gold IllustratedMatt Freeman, Irish Sports DailyTyler James, Inside ND SportsMannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The ObserverTim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fanTom Noie, South Bend TribuneTim O’Malley, Irish IllustratedPete Sampson, The AthleticJosh Vowles, One Foot Down

Others Receiving Votes
No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 pointsNo. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 pointsNo. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 pointsNo. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 pointsNo. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points

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