Pregame Six Pack: For all the marbles

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — We are finally inching closer. After forty days of waiting, Notre Dame and Alabama will go to bed tonight and wake up on game day. An eternity for football teams that thrive on the day-to-day process and structure a season provides, the layoff adds just another variable into an equation already riddled with uncertainty.

For Notre Dame, those unknowns are well established. Can the Irish move the football against the mighty Tide defense? Can they stop a power run game unlike any they’ve seen? Can somebody finally topple the SEC? The answers to all these questions will be apparent on Monday night. But until then, the waiting is the hardest part.

With head coach Brian Kelly running his team through their final prep work, let’s break out one final six pack. Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame and Alabama get ready to play for all the marbles.

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1. In a match-up of strength versus strength, Notre Dame’s size might be it’s biggest asset.

The last time Notre Dame had a team that harbored true national championship aspirations, Brady Quinn, Tommy Zbikowski, and Travis Thomas were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In Quinn and Zbikowski, the Irish had the skill players needed to make a run. But Thomas, a 212-pound running back turned outside linebacker, exemplified Notre Dame’s biggest issue: A glaring lack of size.

That 2006 team was exposed in their date with the SEC, when LSU overpowered the Irish on their way to a dominant Sugar Bowl victory. But in Brian Kelly’s three seasons, a lot has changed. And when Alabama’s stout offensive line takes the field on Monday night, they’ll be facing the biggest defense they’ve seen all season. And one of the biggest in all of college football.

From a sheer tonnage perspective, the Irish will trot out 1,928 pounds in the front seven when they take the field on defense in their base 3-4 alignment. Of the top ten rushing defenses in the country, no other front seven cracks 1,900 pounds. It is likely the biggest front seven in all of college football.

Size is only one part of the equation. But as Notre Dame’s defense has shown all season, their ability to play physically at the point of attack has been truly elite this season.

“This is as good of a front seven as we’ve seen,” Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.

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2. With a stacked trio in the Notre Dame backfield, the Irish coaching staff will need to successful juggle touches one last time.

In Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame has a trio of running backs that defenses need to account for. It’s a challenge that Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spoke candidly about, as the long layoff gave the Alabama coaching staff time to analysis the Irish running game.

“You try to find tendencies,” Smart said. “You try to say, what do they run with this guy, run with that guy?

“When you bring Notre Dame down, they run a lot of the same plays with the same backs, so there’s not a true tendency unless you get to bead on one during the game.”

That type of versatility is a headache for a defensive coach. But it also creates problems for the Irish coaching staff. Namely, how to find enough touches for everyone.

“Truth be told, they all could be a feature back,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “But there’s only one football.”

Down the stretch, Kelly and Martin decided to ride Riddick, utilizing the senior back’s versatility to create mismatches. But on Monday night, giving all three backs a shot at catching fire will be important, with Wood and Atkinson true wildcards for the offense.

In a season where finding carries for all three guys was difficult, pulling the right strings one last time with be critical.

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3. Notre Dame’s most miraculous win of the season shocked an Alabama player, too.

During a week where every reporter was searching for a unique angle, credit CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz for finding a good one.

Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri thought his brother had pulled off the upset of the season when he turned off the Pitt-Notre Dame game. Prepping for a battle with LSU, the Tuscaloosa native didn’t know the Irish charged back to victory until that evening, making for a tough conversation with his brother, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri.

“I was like yeah, this one’s in the bag,” Alabama’s Sunseri told CSNChicago.com on Saturday.

Sunseri didn’t get to watch the rest of his brother’s game, seeing as Alabama was in the midst of its biggest game of the season to date at LSU. But when he got back in to the locker room at halftime, he noticed Notre Dame won in triple overtime. Later, he called Tino to talk about the game.

“He just said it was a perfect storm kind of thing,” Sunseri said. “It wasn’t just the missed field goal, he said, he said ‘I could’ve made more opportunities’ — he tried to put all the pressure on himself. The missed field goal was a big part of it, but he tried to put it all on himself saying he could’ve done more, he could’ve done certain things to put themselves in better situations.”

The Sunseri brothers are part of a big football family, with father Sal a former Tide linebacker and coach and now the current defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Vinnie, a sophomore that’s made 52 tackles this season and starts in the Tide’s nickel and dime formations, will look to get a modicum of revenge on behalf of his brother.

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4. For the Irish to have a shot at victory, Everett Golson and the offense will need to continue their ascent.

Far from hard-hitting analysis, Notre Dame’s offense needs to play well to win. And that’s a fact that’s not lost on Chuck Martin, who spent some time over the layoff keeping his offense humble by popping on the Purdue game tape.

“It was almost mind-numbing pathetic how bad we were,” Martin said, when thinking back to the Irish’s ugly 20-17 victory.

And while Martin acknowledges that this will be the toughest defense they’ve faced all season, he’s confident that the work put in over the past 40 days has done a great deal to help keep the unit improving, and building up young quarterback Everett Golson. It’s been a process where the offense went back to the basics, brick by brick looking for ways to improve.

“We looked at our run game,” Martin said. “We looked at all parts of red zone, and particularly since they don’t give up many opportunities.”

“It’s execution, it’s playing physical, it’s in the run game, carving out some space for our running backs, and then obviously in the pass game, giving Everett some time and then him making sure he figures out that coverage and where to get the ball and put the ball in the right place.”

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5. The similarities between Alabama and Notre Dame extend to the recruiting trail as well.

There are a ton of similarities in the recruiting philosophies of Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. And as Notre Dame fans have been finding out, that’s a really good thing.

With two programs that both subscribe to “the process,” and two head coaches that keep in-house details out of the media, hearing Kirby Smart open up about Alabama’s recruiting philosophy was surprising. And it also mirrored some of the things we’ve heard out of Notre Dame coaches, particularly as they seek a certain profile of players.

“We certainly have player descriptions, player profiles that we want. If guys don’t fit that certain description, they may be a five-star great player,  we’re just not interested because we recruit to a certain standard,” Smart said. “We say we want the guy to be this tall, this big. Does that mean there’s not exceptions? Sure, there’s exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions. So we’re trying to get six corners that are all 5-11 or bigger, we want D-linemen that are all 6-2. There’s criteria for those positions that we want to recruit to.”

Smart’s words might as well be clipped from those said by Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco back in August. When discussing recruiting philosophies, Diaco talked about the Irish recruiting profiles, specifically their search for height and size.

“We really don’t like small players, in general,” Diaco said this summer. “We believe that if we have a big defense, we’re going to have a chance to have a good defense. How good? We don’t know. But when we come off the bus, if we’re as big or bigger than our opponent, we believe we’ll have a good chance to have a good defense.”

Notre Dame fans might remember a few eyebrow raising recruits that the Irish didn’t chase. Specifically, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, who took offense to the Irish passing on him.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden said. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Bolden contributed 31 tackles to the Wolverines defense as a true freshman, playing up to his recruiting ranking. But as Smart and Diaco both pointed out, these are two of the best defenses in the country because they bring a tremendous amount of specificity to the recruiting process.

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6. While they might be mighty Alabama and the defending national champions, the Crimson Tide was a group of over-achievers as well.

It may be tough to call a team that started the year ranked No. 2 and is in the middle of what looks like a college football dynasty over-achievers, but Nick Saban all but did it today.

“To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,” Saban said. “If you look at all the players that we lost last year, the leadership that we lost, the injuries that we’ve had, the scheudule that we played, the adversity that had to be overcome, the new roles that so many people had on this team, the young players who had opportunities to really kind of show what they could do and how quickly they would mature to be able to do their job in a way that would give us a chance to be successful as a team, I’m really proud of what this team actually was able to accomplish together as a group.”

All of those factors weigh into why Notre Dame could spring the upset Monday night. While this Alabama team is a great one, they aren’t the 2011 squad, a team that had five of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft. They’re also a team that’s seen its depth chart hit with injuries, including ones to several key contributors that still may be lingering.

After building a juggernaut that can simply reload instead of rebuild, Saban has done so, relying on a new crop of veteran leaders as well as dynamic young players.

It’s been a strong enough team to get to the biggest stage in the sport for the second consecutive season. We’ll find out if it’s good enough to win it Monday night.

 

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL