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

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Michael Mayer #87 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish dives to score a touchdown past Kolby Harvell-Peel #31 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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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. 3Lowest rank: No. 14Last 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. 3Lowest rank: No. 14Last 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. 2Lowest 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. 1Lowest rank: No. 4Last 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. 1Lowest rank: No. 3Last 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 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 pointsNo. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 pointsNo. 19 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 pointsNo. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 pointsNo. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 pointsNo. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 pointsNo. 15 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker — 96 pointsNo. 14 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker — 120 pointsNo. 13 Rylie Mills, junior defensive end — 125 pointsNo. 12 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker — 149 pointsNo. 11 Chris Tyree, junior running back — 154 pointsNo. 10 Cam Hart, senior cornerback — 158 pointsNo. 9 Joe Alt, sophomore left tackle — 161 pointsNo. 8 Blake Fisher, sophomore right tackle — 175 pointsNo. 7 Lorenzo Styles, sophomore receiver — 185 pointsNo. 6 Tyler Buchner (1), sophomore quarterback — 189 points

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