Pregame Six Pack: Streaking into the Spartans

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In an era where spread offenses and up-tempo attacks seem to have taken over college football, the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State probably looks a lot like a game played a generation ago.

“You might as well just play it in the parking lot,” Kelly cracked earlier this week. “It’s a fight. Roll up your sleeves.”

With the stage set for another physical brawl between two teams that have plenty of history together, the Irish will face their stiffest defensive test yet with the Spartans putting up some very impressive numbers (even against some not-so-impressive competition). With four defensive touchdowns and opponents gaining only 177 yards a game against Michigan State, the Notre Dame offense will have its hands full a two weeks of very slow starts.

As the stage is set for the Megaphone Trophy, let’s dig into some details before the game airs this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Michigan State do battle.

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1. After practicing for the first time on Thursday, Sheldon Day looks like a game time decision.

After playing one of his most complete games of the season, Sheldon Day rolled an ankle late in the victory against Purdue. The Irish medical staff kept the sophomore defensive end’s foot in a boot until Thursday, when he gave it a test at practice.

Brian Kelly updated us on Day’s progress Thursday evening, with Kelly optimistic but still uncertain about his status for Saturday.

“He can play Saturday. We’ll see. He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but he’s available to us,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he responds. It’ll be a game time decision. He practiced today, looked pretty good.”

The drop off after Day is significant, with sophomore Jarron Jones and freshman Isaac Rochelle next in line. After that, it’s likely a mix and match of guys like Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams and little used seniors Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton.

“A little bit of everybody,” Kelly said. “All hands on deck.”

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2. With his confidence in place and play improved, if Tommy Rees continues at this clip he’ll be having a great season… against an even more impressive schedule. 

After taking command of the offense against Purdue, Tommy Rees went out and played what was probably his best half of football in his Notre Dame career. Rees has started off the season quickly, throwing for 969 yards through three games, seventh in the FBS, and first among quarterbacks that haven’t played a FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent.

Just as impressive, Rees has created big plays down the field, completing seven passes of 32 yards or more, compared to just 11 plays of that distance all year. While his physical attributes still leave something for many to desire, Rees continuing at this clip — especially against the defenses he’ll face — is quite an impressive feat.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet of highly rated defenses Rees will face, starting on Saturday.

No. 1 Michigan State
No. 4. USC
No. 14. Oklahoma
No. 15. Stanford
No. 21. Arizona State
No. 36. BYU

It’s the beginning of quite a stretch for Rees, who will face four Top 21 defenses in a row before facing off against Air Force and Navy. It’s also likely to be the defining stretch of the season for this team.

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3. Finding touches isn’t the only hard part for a committee of running backs. Keeping your mindset plays a part as well. 

Over at the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen tracked down Randy Kinder this week to talk about what it’s like to be a part of a running back by committee. Kinder, who played during the final four seasons of Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, was part of multiple backfields that got the ball to a wide variety of players.

“When you’re a young guy coming in, it’s a lot easier than when you’re an older guy,” Kinder told Hansen. “We knew when we got an opportunity, we had to make the most of it.”

Kinder did talk about the mental battle you wage as you fight to keep your confidence high. While we continually wonder about what this is doing to freshmen Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston, it could be making things even tougher on junior George Atkinson, who has looked really tentative and struggled breaking tackles.

“The flip side of that for me is going into my senior year, we had a young guy behind me who kind of blew things away,” Kinder said of Autry Denson. “And I found myself struggling to get as much playing time as possible. It’s a difficult thing. It’s something where you have to be very strong of mind and look for your spots. We were lucky because we had a good group who were very supportive and tried to keep us all focused on the team winning more than anything else.”

In ’93, Kinder, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton all got at least 89 touches, with Becton leading the team with 164 carries. In ’94, it was Kinder that led the team in carries with 119, while Becton got 100 and Zellars got 79. Kinder led the team again in ’95, with 143 carries to Marc Edwards 140 and Autry Denson’s 137. But in ’96, Kinder only had 53 carries and a career worst 4.7 yards-per-carry, a full yard below his previous season.

Talent is a champagne problem. But sometimes too much of it makes it even harder to utilize the personnel on your roster.

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4. Another year, another injury plagued Michigan State offensive line. Let’s see if the Irish defensive front can take advantage of it again. 

After three home games against underwhelming opponents, the Spartans will play in an opposing team’s stadium for the first time this year. That could be a very big test for another offensive line that Mark Dantonio has had to patch together.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward,” Dantonio said this week. “It’s going to be exciting to see that.”

Up front is where the biggest challenge lies for the Spartan offense, with three starters only underclassmen, as well as half of the two-deep. This year, one of Michigan State’s best offensive lineman, right tackle Fou Fonoti, has been hobbled by injury. Center Travis Jackson missed last week with an injury and is listed as a co-starter. Neither will be at 100 percent on Saturday.

Sophomore left tackle Donovan Clark, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has himself quite a match-up with Stephon Tuitt this weekend. Redshirt freshman Jack Conkin has slid over to right tackle to make room for Clark. The Spartans had already lost likely starting right tackle Skyler Burkland after he retired this summer after multiple injuries.

Like in years past, it might not be an optimal group, but the edict is firm from the Spartans head coach.

“The best guys are gonna play, that’s all I can say,” Dantonio said this week. “The best guys are gonna play, and you’ve got to be able — especially as we move into our schedule — you’ve got to play firm at the tackles. You’ve got to pass protect and do the things you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to play with power as well.”

This looks like it could be the match-up of Saturday, with Tuitt and Prince Shembo likely liking their chops.

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5. Let’s not get too worried about Notre Dame’s ability to self scout just yet. 

After many people (me included) worried about the Irish’s predictability when playing in certain formations and personnel groupings, Kelly was asked about the halftime comments from Darrell Hazell last week about formational giveaways.

He didn’t sound overly concerned.

“We lined up in the same formation twelve times, eleven times on the last drive,” Kelly said Thursday. “They knew exactly what we were doing, and we had the ball for 7:22. It’s still about execution.”

Still, he didn’t dismiss the need for the Irish to be diligent self-scouting.

“I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been self-scouting a long time,” Kelly said. “We know what our tendencies are. We have that self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants.”

Expect to see a new set of wrinkles this Saturday against a Spartan defense that’s going to challenge the Irish aggressively, especially quarterback Tommy Rees.

“(Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a great job with the scheme. They are a team that’s done a great job of forcing turnovers,” Kelly said earlier this week to SiriusXM’s Jack Arute. “They force you to protect and if you don’t the quarterbacks are throwing under duress and you know what happens.”

A more thorough self-scouting evaluation will happen over the bye week, just in time for the Irish to face off with USC.

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6. Maybe Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a home field advantage after all. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame Stadium isn’t quite the visitors’ paradise that it once was. The Irish are close to matching their longest home winning streak in 15 years, with a victory on Saturday potentially making it ten straight games.

After watching both Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggle at home, Kelly’s Irish have seen things turn around, maybe not coincidentally after they started piping music into the stadium. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that fateful night against USC, when Crazy Train became a prelude to impending doom.

Kelly hasn’t been shy tweaking the home game weekend schedule, moving things like the team mass or the players walk to the stadium. It’s all been in a quest to focus his team properly for the task at hand.

“I just think the way we’ve spaced out the day, Friday and Saturday, has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.”

As for the game environment, Kelly talked about the added benefit piped-in music has brought to Saturdays at Notre Dame, with the players and student body being the primary beneficiaries.

“Those are all little things that have been worked through the team, and they enjoy it and they like it,” Kelly said. “Those are all little pieces where they feel like they are part of that, and part of the tradition is great, and then having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Still, winning at home isn’t just about a few new songs and a change in the weekend schedule.

“I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of levels,” Kelly said. “We’ve learned how to play the game. I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games.  We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.”

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills