Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Navy 34

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With the game on the line late and Midshipmen facing a critical fourth down with four yards to go, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper rolled the dice, hoping to catch the Notre Dame defense over-committing to the option that haunted them all afternoon. But Keenan Reynolds headed around the right side only to pitch the ball back to wide receiver Shawn Lynch heading the opposite direction, and a foot race to the wide side of the field ensued.

First on the scene was reserve safety Eilar Hardy, who cut beneath the block of Navy lineman Bradyn Heap and dove at Lynch’s feet, slowing him up and stretching him wide. Then came cornerback Bennett Jackson, who got a hand on Lynch before Jaylon Smith cleaned up the mess, putting the finishing touches on Notre Dame’s 38-34 victory and ending Navy’s upset bid with just 1:08 remaining.

“We had a chance. I think we were one block away from breaking it,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game.

After executing almost flawlessly all game, it was the Irish that made the game’s most important play, with Notre Dame surviving on Saturday, keeping their BCS hopes alive as they move to 7-2. After two straight 40-point victories over Navy, the Midshipmen made a sweep a Notre Dame’s option opponents hard work. And while the Irish got the victory, the win came at a price, with injuries piling up and the Irish stretched to their limits.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s wild 38-34 victory.

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After getting killed by the option in the first half, Bob Diaco and the Irish defense did just enough to make adjustments in the second half and pull out the win.

Heading into half down 20-17, things looked ugly for the Notre Dame defense, especially with Navy starting the second half with the football and an opportunity to extend the lead to a two-score game. The Midshipmen had run for 207 yards in the first half, averaging over five-yards a carry on a stunning 40 attempts, while going a perfect three for three in the red zone with touchdowns.

But with the body count piling up, the Irish came out and broke Navy’s serve, stopping a 3rd-and-6 and getting a much needed punt out of the Navy offense, the one stop the Irish defense got until their last stand.

After the game, Brian Kelly all but tipped his hat to the Navy offense, acknowledging how well quarterback Keenan Reynolds piloted the option attack.

“They executed flawlessly today. Hats off to them,” Kelly said. “Shorten the game, no penalties, no turnovers.

“If you look out at option teams, especially Navy, I’m ecstatic about getting out of here with a win. They were flawless in terms of their execution.”

That execution utilized a lot of counter option looks, with Reynolds turning away from his original read and running the option to the back-side. That look made it difficult for Notre Dame’s secondary, and a week after the cornerbacks had a field day tackling, nobody had more than KeiVarae Russell, who made just four stops.

With the Irish unwilling to commit to a single-high safety, Notre Dame was continually at a numbers disadvantage in the box. But when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had his safeties shoot the alley on the way to the pitch man, Navy caught the Irish with a well designed pass for a 34-yard touchdown.

“It’s just one of those deals where they’re difficult to defend. We just scored more points than they did today. And we got a win. I’m happy about that.”

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In a wide-open running back race, freshman Tarean Folston took advantage of his opportunities.

With Notre Dame needing to score every time it touched the ball in the second half, Brian Kelly leaned heavily on freshman running back Tarean Folston and the youngster responded with 140 yards on 18 carries, including the game-clinching touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.

Folston’s 100-yard day was the first time an Irish freshman running back went over 100 yards since Robert Hughes did in 2007 against Stanford, and effectively catapulted him to the front of the line in a running back race that seems to change every week.

Kelly talked after the game about Folston’s contributions, doing his best to measure his words, while ultimately happy about the performance from the talented Florida native.

“I don’t know if he’d have made that many carries early in the year, he wasn’t conditioned well enough,” Kelly said. “He always had the mental makeup, we felt that from the very beginning. I think this is more about his physical conditioning. And really just having the hot hand.”

Folston was far from the only back to have a field day against the Navy defense, with Folston, Cam McDaniel, and George Atkinson all averaging more than 7 yards per carry. But with the game on the shoulders of a powerful Irish running game (all the more impressive with Notre Dame playing without Chris Watt), it was Folston that heard his number called.

And Folston delivered.

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Notre Dame’s defense is hurting in a very bad way.

If there’s a worry after Saturday afternoon’s win it’s the injuries that are piling up on the Irish defense. Coming into the game already short on bodies, the Irish lost Sheldon Day with another ankle set back, Ben Councell to what looked like a serious knee injury and Kona Schwenke to an undisclosed lower-leg injury as well.

When asked after the game if the Irish depth chart had reached a point of concern, Kelly was quick to respond.

“We’ve reached it and surpassed it. We’re past it,” Kelly said.

Sundays medical update will likely give us a better idea of the type of toll Navy’s option attack took on Notre Dame’s defense. But it’s easy to see just how deep Notre Dame had to dig into its roster when little-used fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton is playing with the game on the line.

“They’re all banged up. They all will require some attention that I’ll have to get further information,” Kelly said. “It was a triage in there.

“We’ve got some guys that didn’t play today and we’ve got more guys that are banged up.”

***

In a game where the Irish needed to be efficient, turnovers and missed opportunities nearly cost them the game.

There were varying degrees of mistakes made by Notre Dame, but all of them played a key factor in Navy nearly pulling the upset.

There were opportunities missed, like the touch pass Tommy Rees missed to Troy Niklas in the end zone that forced the Irish to kick a field goal instead of get seven points. There was the sloppy playing surface that took down TJ Jones in the middle of a route and resulted in an interception. There was a “holding” call on Troy Niklas that likely took seven points off the board, and a bizarre personal foul called against Justin Utupo that gave Navy a critical first down, keeping alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown.

For Navy, they needed to play not just a near-perfect football game, but they also needed the breaks to stay in the football game.

“For us to beat them, that’s what’s got to happen,” Niumatalolo said after the game. “They had a couple turnovers, we didn’t have any. We didn’t have any penalties. We’ve got to play almost perfect to even have a chance.”

As Navy kept the game within reach throughout the afternoon, Niumatalolo felt like the game was playing exactly by the script he had envisioned when he plotted Navy’s upset bid. And after a second big kickoff return by Marcus Thomas, the Midshipmen had the ball at midfield with the game there for the taking.

“I thought we had a perfect scenario. We got the ball at the 50 yard line, all of our timeouts left,” Niumatalolo said. “I didn’t want to give them the ball back. So if we were going to score, I wanted to score with nothing on the clock. We had a chance.”

Ultimately, the Irish defense made the plays when it needed to, helped out by a poor pitch by Keenan Reynolds that stacked Navy into a crucial 3rd-and-long that they converted to get to 4th-and-4. But Notre Dame’s defense made the play when the game was on the line.

“It wasn’t good enough though, we didn’t win,” Niumatalolo said. “We struggled against Notre Dame the last couple years. I thought our kids played well, but it still wasn’t enough.”

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Ugly wins are part of the evolution of a football program now on very solid ground.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to apologize for winning a close game against Navy. And don’t expect the Irish to celebrate any less after squeaking out a victory against a service academy.

“We haven’t made any excuses about guys being out of the lineup,” Kelly said. “We just went out and battled the best we could.

“There are no asterisks next to this one. This is a W, and we’re excited about it. We’re going to have our 24‑hour rule. We’re going to take all 24 hours on this one.”

While there was plenty of griping among fans that fail to understanding how difficult it is to win every week, seeing Brian Kelly’s team continue to find ways to win has to be encouraging. That’s ten straight victories for Kelly in games decided by a touchdown or less, matching some guy named Knute Rockne for second-most in program history.

There will be a full calendar year for the Irish to work on playing against the option. But when the chips were down and the game was on the line, it was a full team effort to pull out the victory, with talented freshmen emerging next to unheralded veterans.

The Irish move to 27-4 over their last 31 regular season games. Only Alabama and Oregon have gone on a better run, putting into context just how strong this program is after Kelly took it over from Charlie Weis.

“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. I think it’s always about blending in some true freshman,” Kelly explained. “It’s really nice to see some of those young players, because they’re extremely skilled, it gives you a glimpse of some of those guys that are going to be here for the next three-and-a-half years.”

The Irish don’t win the football game if Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston don’t play big down the stretch. But they also don’t win if Eilar Hardy and Kona Schwenke come up big, as both did on Saturday.

Niumatalolo talked about the weekly challenge Notre Dame faces, a target on their back courtesy of the rich tradition that turns a .500 opponent into hopeful world beaters.

“I think Notre Dame goes through this every week. Everybody gets up for Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “For everybody that plays Notre Dame its the Super Bowl for that team. For us to come to the mecca of college football, our kids were excited about it. We played really really hard.”

This Saturday, playing hard wasn’t enough, as Notre Dame used almost their entire roster to hold off Navy’s charge. And in doing so, they kept their postseason goals alive.

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