The Irish may have lost some key players like K-Ham and Bellyman, but they’ve still got a number of guys who could be among the best at their respective positions nationally in 2022
There’s no better time than the next 4 months of college football off-season to blindly make predictions about the upcoming season and debate the validity of said predictions, considering there’s really no way for anyone to be “correct,” at least until the season officially kicks off on Labor Day Weekend. So, I’m here to make some quick predictions in terms of individual Notre Dame Fighting Irish players and their potential to finish the 2022 season with some sort of All-American accolades.
Last year, guys like Kyle Hamilton, Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, Jarrett Patterson, Michael Mayer, Cain Madden, Isaiah Foskey, and Joe Alt earned some sort of “All-American” honors (or in Alt’s case, Freshman All-American). So, with some of those guys gone but some of them returning, who stands as likely repeat honorees, and which other ND players could see themselves surge into the national spotlight in Marcus Freeman’s maiden season at the helm?
The Guys Who, If They Stay Healthy, Will Almost Certainly Be All-Americans
This is the coldest take in America. Michael Mayer is probably the best tight end that Tight End U has had in decades, and considering he’s a near-lock to be a first-rounder a year from now and has no trouble putting up great numbers in Tommy Rees’ offense (113 catches, 1290 yards, 9 touchdowns in his initial two seasons in South Bend), it’s unlikely he won’t be considered an All-American by just about every publication that names an All-American team.
His main competition to be the unanimous/consensus first team guy is Georgia TE Brock Bowers, who is admittedly pretty awesome himself — but considering how not-deep ND is at receiver, I think Mayer will be able to secure the stats he’ll need to go along with his elite reputation and get himself plenty of All-American honors this winter.
Patterson is coming back to ND for one last right, and considering he’s been considered one of the best centers in the country for the past two seasons, he essentially just needs to stay healthy and do his thing to three-peat as a center named in various All-American teams. I feel like offensive line especially is a position where once you’ve established yourself as one of the best, it’s pretty tough for the pundits to remove you from the postseason awards — especially as long as your team/unit performs decently.
Patterson managed to be a Phil Steele 3rd Team All-American last year, when the first half of the season featured the worst offensive line play of the Brian Kelly era. Imagine what he’ll earn anchoring a line that features a couple first-rounders at tackle and with Harry Hiestand back as coach, pushing the group back to the excellence that came to be expected under his tutelage.
Foskey was also named a Phil Steele 3rd Team All-American last season after racking up 11 sacks and 6 forced fumbles in Freeman’s first (and only) year as Defensive Coordinator. He’ll have more competition than Patterson for All-American honors, partially because there are more defensive ends out there but also because it’s a position where stats can really drive All-American awards, and we all know Foskey will now be an even bigger focus of opposing offenses in protecting their QBs.
However, Foskey’s good enough and should have enough talent around him that he should still be able to find plenty of big opportunities to make game-changing havoc plays, and if his performance against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl is any indication, he’ll continue to come up biggest when his team needs him. He’s got back-to-back All-American seasons written all over him.
The Guys Who Could Play Their Way Into All-American Status
Joseph could arguably be pushed up above, as he’s widely considered to be one of the better returning safeties in the country and has been placed as a potential first round pick in multiple too-early mock drafts for 2023. However, I have him in this category simply because after having a really strong 2020, he had a much quieter year last season for a bad Northwestern squad, and so he will need to re-prove himself a bit this year as he steps into Kyle Hamilton’s shoes a bit on the back end of the Irish secondary.
I could easily see Joseph using his coverage abilities and ball skills to take advantage of a lot of great opportunities his defensive front will help create for him, and he ends up racking up interceptions on his way to a fantastic statistical season and All-American safety honors. That would go a long way toward ND having a better-than-expected season, too.
Joe Alt and/or Blake Fisher
It’s so funny to think about how much the ND offensive line appeared to be in shambles in the first half of last season, compared to now, where everyone is talking about the two rising sophomores at tackle as likely 1st round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft. But that’s exactly where we are now, and not just because Hiestand is back (although that doesn’t hurt these young studs’ progression as tackles).
Fisher was already the starting left tackle as a true freshman, which is nearly unheard of in an Irish unit that is typically very old and experienced. And yet he earned that spot from the beginning of his career, and then his injury led to Alt developing way faster than expected to become a Freshman All-American of his own. Now, Notre Dame has two young, talented tackles who may be a year away from being the best tackles in the country — but I wouldn’t necessarily bet against one or both of them rising to the top of the crop this season, as sophomores. These guys are damn good.
This one is nearly a Dark Horse, if not for the fact that any Irish fan would tell you that one of the players they’re most excited to see next season is Liufau. He was primed to start and have a great breakout season in 2021, but a season-ending leg injury before the season delayed his coming-out party. Now, he’s healthy and flying around and looks like an absolute playmaker and game-changer at a position where the other experienced guys — Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand — don’t quite have the athleticism or speed to bring that kind of excitement or to make some of those types of plays.
Liufau, of course, is going from being a rotation guy in 2020 to a starter and key playmaker in 2022 after missing an entire season, so there could be some rust and/or some learning curve, especially with an early game against a very talented Ohio State offense. But I think by the end of the year, there’s a great chance for Liufau to have played his way into plenty of All-American conversations at linebacker, whether it’s just some quiet Honorable Mentions or if he’s become a certified stud at the national level.
The Dark Horse Candidates
These guys could still be a year away or never even really get to that All-American level, but I definitely think they have the potential and could be in a situation this coming season to really make themselves known on the national stage.
- Rylie Mills: Foskey will be the focus for all opposing offensive lines, and Mills is finally moving outside where he can do the most damage. I wouldn’t be THAT surprised if he ends up leading the team in sacks or QB pressures or something, because the potential is definitely there and he may benefit from other teams not really building their game plans to stop him
- Lorenzo Styles: He’s almost certainly going to the be the best wide receiver on the roster in 2022, and showed in the Fiesta Bowl how good he can be when he becomes a key target in Rees’ offense. Considering the lack of other great options and considering how good he was by the end of his freshman season, I think there’s a chance Styles puts up some eye-popping numbers if Tyler Buchner can get him the ball. Dude could be challenging for the Biletnikoff in 2023, if not this coming season.
- Jayson Ademilola: Jayson Ademilola is somewhat of an unsung hero for the Irish defense, considering how good he is from the defensive tackle position. The dude had 46 tackles and 3.5 sacks from the inside last season, and with guys like Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa moving on, Ademilola’s returning role could be critical for the success of this ND defense. I think he gets slept on a lot, and could really have himself a great year that maybe earns him a few 3rd-Team or Honorable Mention nods when it’s all said and done.
- Cam Hart: I’m not super optimistic overall for the Notre Dame cornerbacks situation in 2022, but Cam Hart looked pretty damn good for the majority of 2021 in his first season starting at CB, and he displayed a knack for making some big plays — especially in his awesome showing against Wisconsin. I could see Hart building on last season and becoming somewhat of a shut-down corner and maybe earning some national honors because of that. However, I’m also afraid that even if that happens, opposing teams will learn to target the other ND corners and Hart will end up being a guy who gave up nothing all year but had limited chances to make big plays. Here’s to hoping he’s able to use his length and ball skills to affect a lot of passes in 2022!
- Chris Tyree: We now know he can break loose on kick returns. And he also showed in the Fiesta Bowl how dangerous he can be as a receiver. So don’t sleep on the rising junior finding a way, with more touches now that Bellyman is gone, to maybe earn some All-American honors as an APB or Return Specialist or something, considering he will be heavily involved in multiple facets of the game for Notre Dame this season. Maybe this is the year he puts it all together and is that 5-star talent we’ve now seen LOTS of flashes of in the last two seasons.
Chime In Below
Let me know in the comments — is there anyone you think I’m missing who’s poised to not only have a great season, but to potentially earn national All-American-esque honors when the dust settles?