After an 8-4 regular season that perhaps didn’t match up to expectations for one of college football’s premier programs, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish head into year two with Marcus Freeman, with plenty to prove amidst some off-season change. Thankfully, our list of the Notre Dame top 10 returning players contains a ton of talent to give Fighting Irish fans confidence.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Top 10 Returners in 2023
Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes that were included on each team’s roster page to open fall camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.
1) Joe Alt, OT
There are lots of reasons why the Notre Dame offense may look a little different this fall. Gerard Parker replaces Tommy Rees as the offensive coordinator, and in Sam Hartman, the Fighting Irish have a proven leader under center for the first time since Ian Book left South Bend. However, there’s one very big reason why change can breed success, and that’s offensive tackle Joe Alt.
Alt isn’t just one of the Notre Dame top 10 returning players for the 2023 season, he’s comfortably one of the best offensive tackles in the nation. The 6’7″, 322-pound Fighting Irish phenom brings consistency amongst change, with an alluring and dangerous skill set to boot. The former TE is an exciting athlete who is simply soul-destroying in his ability to recover and win.
2) Audric Estime, RB
In an age where we’re consistently told that running backs don’t matter, don’t be fooled into thinking that Audric Estime is ranked too high on this list of Notre Dame’s top 10 returning players. Estime is a freak at the running back position who is as likely to hurdle you as he is to bulldoze you out of the way or stiff-arm you in the face. It’s telling that he sits alone atop the depth chart.
Estime is a 5’11 1/2″ enforcer whose all-around value is only enhanced by the pass protection capability he’ll afford Sam Hartman this season. Although he didn’t lead Notre Dame in carries last fall, he did lead the way with 920 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns. When given the opportunity, he’s also an adept receiver out of the backfield.
3) Benjamin Morrison, CB
Statistics are never a true yardstick for cornerback capability, but just for one second consider the 2022 stat line of Notre Dame cornerback Benjamin Morrison. 33 tackles, including one for loss. Four pass breakups. Six interceptions with one returned for a touchdown. Simply breathtaking. Oh, sorry, did we also forget to mention that Morrison was just a true freshman last fall?!
Throwing on the Fighting Irish this fall might be a futile endeavor. The sky is the limit for the 6’0 1/4″, 185-pound sophomore who is only likely to get better with another year of experience under his belt. Already elite in press coverage as a result of his athletic capability — including absurd body control — his feel for the ball and football IQ make him an all-around force.
4) Rylie Mills, DT
There have been some preseason concerns about the Notre Dame defensive line due to a lack of in-game experience and returning protection. Let me tell you that when you have a player as dangerous as the 6’5″, 306-pound defensive dynamo Rylie Mills anchoring the heart of your defensive front, everything that happens around him might prove inconsequential for the Irish.
A former 280-pound end who has historically been rotated inside and out, Mills is making the full-time transition to the interior this fall and is set to dominate from there. The senior lineman boasts alluring explosion and power from his lower body while being a dominant force with upper body strength. He’s comfortably one of the Notre Dame’s top 10 returning players for the Irish in 2023.
5) Cam Hart, CB
Reinforcing the notion that throwing on the Fighting Irish is futile this fall, cornerback Cam Hart sneaks into the top half of the Notre Dame’s top 10 returning players. He’s a standout at the position in his own right, and his spurning of the 2023 NFL Draft to return to South Bend is a major boost for the team’s chances of returning to national relevancy in the upcoming campaign.
At one of the game’s most difficult positions, athleticism is key and Hart is elite in this regard. Named to “Feldman’s Freaks,” he can reportedly jump a 38″ vertical and 11’2″ broad. Meanwhile, his GPS-recorded 23.01 MPH is a testament to his in-game speed. While his size and length are impressive, Hart’s leadership ability is another reason why he’s so important to this team.
6) Jordan Botelho, EDGE
“He’s a Firestarter, for damn sure.”
Those are not my words, but the words of Notre Dame defensive line coach Al Washington, who has spent more time around Fighting Irish senior Vyper Jordan Botelho than anyone else. After starring on special teams for most of his college career, Botelho is primed for a breakout season in 2023, building on some standout individual performances last fall.
When given the opportunity in 2022, Botelho was a game-wrecker. Just ask the Syracuse offensive line. He has a difficult-to-defend-against combination of speed and power that can leave offensive linemen in a blender. Despite limited action last year, he still finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks and is set to step up and replace NFL-bound Isaiah Foskey’s production.
7) Sam Hartman, QB
If this were a list of Notre Dame’s most important players rather than the Fighting Irish’s top 10 returning players, then quarterback Hartman would likely be sitting right at the very top. The fact that the former Wake Forest QB is preparing to lead the team while the two players who took snaps under center are on other rosters this fall speaks volumes about the need to improve at QB.
Hartman brings experience, leadership, and production to the table for Notre Dame in 2023. He can run an offense, he can drag a team to victories in closely fought contests. The Fighting Irish QB might not boast the strongest arm, but he can zip short-area passes with velocity and has impressive short-to-medium accuracy. That should be enough to excite fans and WRs alike.
8) JD Bertrand, LB
Notre Dame has a rich heritage of producing top-tier college football middle linebackers, and JD Bertrand is another impressive Fighting Irish player at the position. Bertrand led the team with 82 tackles last fall, showing his ability to penetrate the offensive backfield with 8.5 tackles for loss (second on the team) and two sacks while breaking up three passes in coverage.
No list of the Fighting Irish’s top 10 returning players would be complete without the Notre Dame Defensive Player of the Year. Bertrand’s ability to impact the game in all phases is a testament to his explosive athletic profile, his football intelligence to understand and key in on the play, and a general violence as a tackler that wouldn’t look out of place on a 1980s NFL field.
9) Jayden Thomas, WR
Michael Mayer has been the main focal point of the Notre Dame passing offense for the past two seasons, and his departure leaves a plethora of targets for others to scoop up. While emerging tight end Mitchell Evans should be a factor, Jayden Thomas is likely to be the most substantial beneficiary of Mayer’s departure and Hartman’s arrival in South Bend.
The now-junior WR finished second on the team in 2022 for receiving yards and touchdowns, leading all pass-catchers who had double-digit targets in yards per catch. At 6’1″, 221 pounds, Thomas has the frame to be physical at the catch point but also has deceptive speed relative to size that made him a mismatch out of the slot last fall.
10) Michael Vinson, LS
Hello, it is I, renowned special teams advocate Oliver Hodgkinson, telling you that one of the Notre Dame top 10 returning players for the 2023 college football season is actually a long snapper. No, you didn’t read any of that wrong. The Fighting Irish have become a bastion of special teams brilliance in recent seasons, and that success doesn’t come without their LS.
Michael “Milk” Vinson has become something of a cult figure for Irish fans, earning All-American honors for his on-field play. Vinson is credited with not having fumbled the snap on 117 attempts last fall. His ability in kick protection helped the Irish go the entire season without a single kick or punt being blocked. Do not underestimate the value of his return for 2023.