Notre Dame Football's Top 25 Most Important Players For 2021, No. 7: Marshall Grad Transfer Guard Cain Madden
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Notre Dame’s Top 25 Most Important Players, No. 7: Cain Madden

Throughout July, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff in 2021.

This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to help Irish reach that goal.

Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)?

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football offensive guard Cain Madden
Madden started 31 games at Marshall from 2018-20 and was an All-American last year. (Marshall Athletics)

The players and their rankings were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com staff members.

Next in the countdown is incoming graduate transfer guard Cain Madden, who collected 85 points in our poll.

Why Madden Is Ranked No. 7

Excluding Madden, Notre Dame’s offensive line has 14 scholarship players. Only three have started a college game, and they have 31 combined starts. Seven are freshmen or sophomores.

There’s much uncertainty and room for uneven play.

Enter Madden, a graduate transfer from Marshall with 31 starts himself. He’s a 24-year-old who has started for three years and improved in each one. His Thundering Herd career culminated with a second-team Associated Press All-America selection in 2020. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best run-blocking guard in college football last season.

He is experienced. He has performed well at the college level. He is old.

A retooled offensive line with four new starters could use all three of those traits.

“We were in the market to add a veteran guy and we found one that really fits,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “Anytime you can add a presence to help the youth, to have a presence up there and help solidify some of the communication up front, that’s an added benefit.

“We wanted to make sure we had more presence in the room with guys who have done it. We have a young group, an unproven group, that’s very talented. We have to make sure we do everything we can to get the most out of everybody in that group.”

Madden’s June arrival puts less pressure on freshman Rocco Spindler to be ready to start at guard in the season opener at Florida State Sept. 5. If Spindler is ready but tackle Blake Fisher isn’t, Notre Dame can put senior Jarrett Patterson at tackle with Madden and Spindler at guard.

Notre Dame’s offensive identity won’t be a copy of last season’s run-heavy attack that leaned on an elite offensive line. At the same time, though, the Irish have two standout running backs they want to involve in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. The run game will remain prominent because of them. Adding a run blocker like Madden to help it is a wise move.

Madden’s Status Entering The Season

Despite the experience and high-level play at Marshall, Madden isn’t walking into a starting job. He’s still an up-transfer making the leap from Conference USA to the highest level of the Power Five. That’s never a sure thing.

But Madden should be viewed as a projected starter unless he falters in camp or gets passed up. On paper, he’s arguably the most accomplished player on the offensive line. Spindler’s strong first impression was a good start. Will it be enough to have the edge over Madden entering camp, though? That feels like a reach.

Juniors Andrew Kristofic and Quinn Carroll are also competing at guard. They’re former four-star recruits — Carroll was a top-100 prospect — but have not played in high-leverage spots in college. As is the case with Spindler, adding Madden gives them another year to develop if they need it.

All but eight of Madden’s 2,139 snaps have come at right guard. He figures to play there if he earns a starting role.

What Would Be A Successful Individual Season?

Up-transfers are rarely locks. The baseline expectation should be that he handles the competition level bump in training camp well enough to earn a starting job.

The expectations when inserting a sixth-year senior are strong communication skills, assignment-sound play and physically holding up against most defensive linemen.

If Madden (6-2½, 306) can handle those aspects, starting every game while providing strong run blocking would provide a notable boost and consistency Notre Dame might not have otherwise had.

Madden’s pass protection numbers at Marshall were sound as well. In fact, run blocking became a strength for him after pass blocking did. He has allowed two sacks and 23 pressures in 31 games, per Pro Football Focus.

If he’s blocking for Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan — the favorite to start at quarterback — being a plus pass blocker becomes even more important. Coan is best when throwing from the pocket and isn’t the improviser or escape artist Ian Book was.

Behind The Ranking

The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. Five BlueandGold.com staff members submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.

Individual rankings

Patrick Engel: 13

Tyler Horka: 3

Mike Singer: 14

Todd Burlage: 11

Steve Downey: 4

Prior Top 25 Rankings

No. 25: Jonathan Doerer

No. 24: Marist Liufau

No. 23: Drew Pyne

No. 22: Braden Lenzy

No. 21: Jayson Ademilola

No. 20: Chris Tyree

No. 19: Avery Davis

No. 18: Josh Lugg

No. 17: Houston Griffith

No. 16: Cam Hart

No. 15: Zeke Correll

No. 14: Blake Fisher

No. 13: Kurt Hinish

No. 12: Jack Kiser

No. 11: Drew White

No. 10: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa

No. 9: Kevin Austin

No. 8: Clarence Lewis

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