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Looking back on preseason expectations for Notre Dame’s best: Counting Down the Irish

Pro Football Focus breaks down the ideal landing spots for the top Notre Dame prospects at the 2023 NFL Draft.

It would be uncharitable to use hindsight to criticize two panelists from the preseason’s “Counting Down the Irish” rankings, but such disbelief may be deserved when two Notre Dame beat writers looked ahead to the 2022 season and failed to consider junior tight end Michael Mayer the surefire most impactful player on the roster.

In their defense, one ranked fellow consensus All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey as the most impactful player coming into the season, and the other granted that honor to the Irish starting quarterback, Tyler Buchner.

But when looking back on the 2022 season — and again, to those two’s defense, the annual rankings exercise was done before the season — Mayer’s 67 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns were the most impactful aspect of Notre Dame’s season.

The stats themselves do not do Mayer justice. If you cherry-picked the next three players in each statistical category, the combined stat line would be 70 catches for 855 yards and seven touchdowns. Mayer himself was effectively as productive as the next three Irish receivers.

The No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks certainly consider themselves fortunate they will not have to face Mayer in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC), the consensus first-team All-American and certain first-round draft pick opting out to begin preparing for the next step in his career.

That is the obvious piece of reviewing the preseason’s “Counting Down the Irish” series. Who else was ranked too low or too high?

Well, Buchner for one, coming in at No. 6 overall, but an injury dispensation can be considered, the sophomore quarterback missing 10-plus games to a shoulder sprain, though now expected back for the bowl game.

Safety Brandon Joseph also ranked too high, at No. 3. Maybe the Northwestern transfer was not a disappointment in 2022, as it is hard to consider anyone on the defense that much of a disappointment when it gave up only 21.2 points per game (adjusting for Marshall’s pick-six) and never more than 20 points when discounting garbage time up until the regular-season finale against USC and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. But Joseph entered the season with a ball-hawking reputation, and he instead intercepted only one pass and broke up just one more.

The absence of freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison leaps off the page in retrospect. He did not receive a single vote in the preseason exercise, spurned by all 10 panelists, with not only classmate Jaden Mickey receiving five votes, but a total of eight defensive backs receiving votes instead of him. With five interceptions in November, Morrison assuredly staked a claim to a top-15 ranking next August.

RELATED READING: Counting Down the Irish: The top five

Seemingly any player considered under-ranked, with the benefit of hindsight, should be returning for Notre Dame in 2023. That excludes former Irish quarterback Drew Pyne, but Buchner’s injury dispensation somewhat echoes here, not to mention Notre Dame’s continued intention to land an incoming transfer quarterback.

Sophomore running back Audric Estimé belonged in the top 10, not at No. 25. And in front of him, center Zeke Correll (No. 17), left tackle Joe Alt (No. 9) and right tackle Blake Fisher (No. 8) led the way to keep Pyne upright and the Irish averaging 182.8 rushing yards per game.

Right there, clear as day, is Notre Dame’s path into 2023.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman continues to hope for an “O-line and D-line driven program,” and Notre Dame should return 54 career starts from those three, alone. Senior guard Andrew Kristofic may add another eight.

For context, entering the 2021 season, the Irish had 31 career starts returning along the offensive line, not counting the additional 31 Cain Madden brought from Marshall.

Defensively, along with Morrison, the return of senior cornerback Cam Hart (No. 10 in the preseason rankings) and possibly of Joseph should lead to a defensive backfield emphasis next year, one that has been lacking for a few seasons, Kyle Hamilton aside.

That, of course, will hinge on Joseph not falling short of broad expectations again, if he does indeed return for a second season in South Bend. Repeating that is not meant as doubling down on diminishing Joseph’s play — Notre Dame gave up 17 passing touchdowns in 12 games and the passer rating against was No. 40 in the country — but to remind of the long-term purpose of these preseason rankings, to gauge how players performed compared to summer’s thinking.

Mayer delivered and then some. Foskey did, too, not to mention fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson (No. 4 in the preseason). Joseph may not have simply in that a No. 3 ranking carries with it lofty anticipations.

Those will again accompany the Irish defense moving forward, given it may return as many as 10 starters, but the summer hype likely will focus on Alt and Fisher. They were not given proper consideration in 2022’s preseason; that mistake will not be made again.

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