March 5, 2024

Counting Down the Irish 2023: 10 to 6, here comes Notre Dame’s offense

Will Notre Dame be more tilted toward its offense or defense in 2023? That is not a question in semantics; it very much impacts how the Irish will try to win certain games.

For example, Notre Dame knew its offense was not explosive enough to keep up with Ohio State in last year’s season opener, so the Irish tried to slow the game down and rely on the defense to keep the Buckeyes in check. Relatedly, in last year’s polling of media members of who they thought would be the most impactful players in the 2022 season, three of the top five were defensive, as were eight of the top 15.

This year, only two of the top seven are defensive players. But eight of the top 13 are defensive players.

It makes for a unique balance. Notre Dame may have a stout defense, but its strength will come from few weak links more than from stardom, one preseason All-American aside. Entering the top 10 of this year’s “Counting Down the Irish,” first up are a few of those veteran defensive starters …

No. 10 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle — 123 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 7.
Preseason hype can get carried away. Coaches are not likely to publicly criticize their players before a meaningful Saturday. Beat writers can gauge only so much from limited practice viewings, and even then, one player excelling will often come at the expense of his counterpart. A cornerback breaking up a pass reflects poorly on either the receiver or the quarterback as much as it reflects positively on the cornerback.

One thing is objective, though. Size.

And the preseason notes kept on a legal pad to the right of this keyboard say, quite simply, “Rylie Mills is thaät big.”

Notre Dame lists the senior defensive tackle at 6-foot-5 ⅛ and 306 pounds. In the spring, Mills was listed at 296 pounds. All 306 of those pounds, the newest 10 and the preceding 296, are more athletic than most 300-pounders, given Mills spent parts of last season working at defensive end.

A dynamic defensive tackle with that size can change an offense’s geometry. Usually now is when a defensive tackle conversation includes a disclaimer that his impact may not show itself in tackles, but Mills bucks that trend. With 24 tackles last year as a second-string tackle/end hybrid, he clearly can make a statistical impact. Mills notched 3.5 sacks in that role, and if he grows that to five or more this year, Notre Dame’s defensive line may have found its needed focal point.

No. 9 Jack Kiser, fifth-year linebacker — 135 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 6.
Kiser’s 2022 stats suggest he should play Rover, coming off the field less often. Classmate Marist Liufau’s overall athleticism and theoretical potential keep him at Rover. But to defensive coordinator Al Golden, there is little difference.

“They’re all interchangeable,” Golden said last week.

Kiser’s 2023 may require he rarely come off the field, despite a youth influx at linebacker. Since 2018, fifth-year players in South Bend have found new luxuries. Drue Tranquill pioneered much of the approach, embracing the differences in life between being an undergraduate engineering major and a graduate student with a minimal course load. Tranquill — with multiple season-ending knee injuries in his past — spent most of each week in treatment to keep his body as fresh as possible through the fall. He could focus on football first, second and third during that semester, rather than stay up late on a robotics project. (None of this is abstract. This all happened.)

A business major, Kiser’s class load may not have been that intense, but it still took away from his gridiron focus. Graduating with a 3.815 GPA will do that. But no longer. Non-degree-seeking grad students do not have those same worries.

“I’m able to mentally and physically devote 100 percent of my effort into where I’m at and where I’m going to be at on the field,” Kiser said. “It’s really changed a lot.

“Physically, I’ve been able to focus on nutrition, put on really good weight, get my body to where it needs to be. Mentally, it’s dive into the playbook more, look at future opponents for the season, pick up little tendencies so that the week of the game, I already have a head start to it.”

Quantifying those advantages is obviously a bit impractical, but they are tangible to the player and should elevate Kiser’s play in 2023, notable given he already led Notre Dame in tackles per snap in 2022.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – SEPTEMBER 24: Cam Hart #5 of the University Notre Dame disrupts Antoine Green #3 of the University North Carolina as he attempts to catch a pass during a game between Notre Dame and North Carolina at Kenan Memorial Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

No. 8 Cam Hart, fifth-year cornerback — 151 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 6.
Hart would be in the NFL if he had not suffered a shoulder injury in November. Would he be a starting NFL cornerback? Doubtful, but his length would give him a solid chance at landing on a 53-man roster in the next few weeks.

Instead, he is back in South Bend. Healthy, he looks like an NFL cornerback.

“You look at Cam Hart, the veteran, he’s made a huge jump in a year,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said last week. “I’m just saying, a guy that has been a starter, he’s made a huge, huge jump this summer, just in terms of his work ethic off the field. His film study, he’s made a huge jump.”

Mills put on weight to become an interior obstacle. Kiser can now focus more and more on football. And Hart knows this is his NFL audition.

No. 7 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver — 162 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 6.
Drew Pyne may find success at Arizona State, but he is not the deep passer that Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman is.

Nonetheless, Pyne connected with Thomas for 18 first downs last season, including eight on third down and another pair on second-and-long. When Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and tight end Michael Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most frequent beneficiary.

Now, both Mayer and Pyne are gone. So Thomas should be targeted downfield more often by a better quarterback. For example …

No. 6 Blake Fisher, junior right tackle — 180 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 4.
Maybe more than any other position group, offensive linemen like to sum up their approach to football in one sentence. Quenton Nelson could do it with just a glare. Sophomore left guard Billy Schrauth once famously said, “I just like to hit people.”

Enter Fisher.

“At all times, I know I’m better than the man across from me.”

Ohio State’s J.T. Tuimoloau will test that, as will his teammate Jack Sawyer. That matchup of Notre Dame’s two tackles against the Buckeyes’ two ends will be a matchup to focus on come Sept 23.

But aside from that, don’t doubt Fisher.

“I don’t ever have any doubts or any emotions that make me hesitant from the person I’m going against,” he said. “Because that’s just how I feel personally.

“I know I’m dominant. I know the level of play I bring to the table. There’s not ever a doubt in my mind that I’m going to go whoop the person across from me.”

RELATED READING: Counting Down the Irish 2023: Others Receiving Votes
25 to 21, led by examples of modern college football roster construction
20 to 16, featuring Notre Dame’s speed at its skill positions
15 to 11, a lower defensive line focus than in years past

COUNTING DOWN THE IRISH 2023
No. 25 Jaden Greathouse, freshman receiver — 18 points, four out of nine ballots, high of No. 17.
No. 24 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end — 21 points, five out of nine ballots, high of No. 18.
No. 23 Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State transfer defensive end — 26 points, five ballots, high of No. 17.
No. 22 Thomas Harper, Oklahoma State transfer safety — 33 points, five ballots, high of No. 16.
No. 21 Jaden Mickey, sophomore cornerback — 34 points, five ballots, high of No. 14.
No. 20 Jadarian Price, sophomore running back — 54 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 14.
T-No. 17 Marist Liufau, fifth-year linebacker — 72 points, eight ballots, high of No. 10.
T-No. 17 Mitchell Evans, junior tight end — 72 points, eight ballots, high of No. 9.
T-No. 17 Billy Schrauth, sophomore left guard — 72 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 15.
No. 16 Chris Tyree, senior receiver — 94 points, nine ballots, high of No. 6.
No. 15 Tobias Merriweather, sophomore receiver — 96 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 11.
No. 14 Zeke Correll, fifth-year center — 106 points, eight of nine ballots, high of No. 10.
T-No. 12 Howard Cross, fifth-year defensive tackle — 118 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 10.
T-No. 12 Xavier Watts, senior safety — 118 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 8.
No. 11 Jordan Botelho, senior defensive end— 121 points, unanimous inclusion, high of No. 7.

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

Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Greg Flammang, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Andrew McGuinness, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

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