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Counting Down the Irish — 25 to 21, already highlighting Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven

Wisconsin v Notre Dame

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 25: Howard Cross III #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers at Soldier Field on September 25, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Notre Dame defeated Wisconsin 41-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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While trying not to spoil the top 20 of this countdown of the expected most impactful players for Notre Dame in 2022, it is nearly impossible to rattle off even Nos. 21 through 25 without realizing how talented the Irish defensive front-seven is.

Logically, this list should include most of the starting 11 on offense, most of the starting 11 on defense, and a handful of key backups. When two of those backups are running backs, one not even healthy enough for contact yet, the defensive reserves could go underrepresented.

Instead, Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven is over-represented with nine entrants in this top 25. This space often reminds readers the Irish defensive line is the best position group on the roster, and it landed five names in this top 25 — in the top 21, to be more exact — more than any other group. Not even the offensive line could get all five of its starters in the top 25, largely because of the defensive line’s expected impact.

If the ceiling on Marcus Freeman’s debut season as a head coach is higher than nine wins, it is because of that defensive line.

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

No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
Four ballotsHighest rank: No. 15

The third-string running back does not usually warrant such lofty praise, but Estime may still open the season as the second-string Irish back, behind only junior Chris Tyree. Sophomore Logan Diggs is partaking in practice, and Freeman has said he expects Diggs to be part of the plan at Ohio State on Sept. 3, but until his red jersey comes off, one must assume Diggs’ labrum injury will limit him in September.

Thus Estime’s inclusion in this top 25.

“Better feet, better hands than you probably anticipate for a guy that’s as rocked up as [Estime] is,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said this weekend. “To just label him as a one-dimensional back is incorrect. You look at that guy, I would say, he’s going to run people over, but he can do more than that, he really can.”

If three Notre Dame running backs deserve this placement at the end of the season, it will obviously bode well for the Irish offense as a whole. Given the thin nature of the receivers’ depth, a ground emphasis will both make sense and preserve Notre Dame’s potency deeper into the season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 23: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden talks to linebacker Bo Bauer (52) in action during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football Game on April 23, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
Six ballotsHighest rank: No. 18
Last year’s rank: No. 24

Bauer increasingly looks like he may be the Irish starting middle linebacker, allowing senior JD Bertrand the flexibility to back up both middle and Will (weakside) linebackers. Not to state the obvious, but Bauer’s age may be playing a role in that elevation.

Since Drue Tranquill laid a template in 2018, fifth-year players at Notre Dame have gradually realized the benefits of being so far along in school. An engineering major, the ease in workload resonated exponentially for Tranquill, but it applies to any such player.

“I don’t have as strenuous of classes, so I’m in the weight room extra every day,” Bauer said Monday. “I’m hitting those bikes. I’m trying to get to what my peak physical form that I can.

“I’m coming out just ready to leave everything out because it could be my last year. I don’t want to leave how I left last year.”

No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
Six ballotsHighest rank: No. 14
Last year’s rank: No. 13

Let’s step away from football analysis and consider the balloting for a moment. Of the 10 ballots submitted — and remember, the subjective criteria given is to rank the top 25 most impactful players to Notre Dame’s 2022 — only one included both Lewis and “Others Receiving Votes” finisher and freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey.

Mickey appeared on five ballots, compared to Lewis’ six. They were nearly entirely exclusive of each other.

Mickey received constant praise this spring and that has not slowed of late. The thought of him becoming the starting Irish cornerback along the boundary reduces the thoughts of Lewis’ third season as a starter.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Braden Lenzy #0 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the ball while being chased by Tanner McCalister #2 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the second 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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No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
Seven ballotsHighest rank: No. 16
Last year’s rank: No. 15

Counter to the dynamic between Lewis and Mickey, Lenzy and freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather did not split votes. Each of the five ballots that included Merriweather also featured Lenzy.

The running backs did not pull away from the veteran receiver, either. The three ballots that left him off each included only two backs, featuring either Esitme or Diggs, not both.

Thus, knocking Lenzy down this far, even as Notre Dame’s most proven receiver and an increasingly durable option, reflects the worries about the Irish offense as a whole.

No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points
Seven ballotsHighest rank: No. 15

Worries about the offense could also be seen as hype for the defense. Cross may be a starting defensive tackle on Sept. 3, but that was not the expectation just a week ago. After just one practice viewing, though, Cross earned this slot.

“Fast hands, fast hands Howard,” defensive coordinator Al Golden called him on Monday. “He is doing a great job with his get-off and getting his hands on the opponent. I wasn’t here last year, but he’s 275 now, so I don’t want to say he’s significantly bigger, but he’s definitely bigger and stronger than he was a year ago.

“That’s showing up. His ability to sit in there and take on a double (team) is showing up. He’s always had the ability to move, and he’s great at that, so we want to continue to allow him to do that because he’s got quickness. But his ability to sit in there and play a double (team) is definitely improved.”

Cross’ weight has hardly changed in the last year-plus. In the spring of 2021, he was listed at 6-foot ⅞, 275 pounds. Notre Dame added just one pound to that listing on the current roster.

So any development to Cross’ game in the face of a double-team has come via skill and muscle, not pure mass. Regardless, that development has pushed him into a starting role.

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 IllutratedPete Sampson, The AthleticJosh Vowles, One Foot Down

As for the delay in continuing this series after the “Others Receiving Votes” piece on Monday, some of us are still taking care of preseason tasks, and that cost some writing time this week. Apologies.

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