NFL Draft

Getty Images

Monday’s Leftovers: Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers


Last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named three captains for the 2018 season. He also said he would hold a team vote for a fourth captain by the end of spring practice. That naturally leads to some speculation as to who could prevail in that balloting.

Kelly indicated “six or seven” players were in the mix after the first tally this spring, the one that made captains out of fifth-years Drue Tranquill, Sam Mustipher and Tyler Newsome. Considering which seniors stand out as productive playmakers, which fifth-years were invited back to contribute and thus create a roster crunch, and who led the offseason “SWAT” teams, a few frontrunners emerge.

The Irish have long had multiple leaders along the offensive line, and fifth-year right guard Alex Bars could join Mustipher as a team-wide captain. Similarly, fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar returned despite not yet being a vital piece of the passing game — instead, Kelly has often cited Weishar’s influence within the tight end group and the offense as a whole.

Te’von Coney (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The returns of rising seniors Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery, each opting to forgo the NFL draft, certainly made Notre Dame’s defense a force to be reckoned with as far as paper is concerned. Usually, when a player up the middle comes off a strong junior season and opts to return, a captainship may soon follow, but both Coney and Tillery have faced disciplinary issues during their Irish careers. Such could jeopardize a captainship from an administrative standpoint, no matter how a player vote turns out.

Rising senior cornerback Nick Watkins is leading one of those spring SWAT units. Watkins may otherwise be off the possible captain radar, but that position of leadership has been an indicative piece of data the last two years. Exhibit A: Newsome led a group each of the last two years, bringing him to a more prominent role in the locker room than a punter may usually have.

Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush heads a SWAT team, as well, as a co-leader with Weishar. Naming Wimbush a captain coming out of spring would create some level of expectation of him being the starting quarterback, something Kelly does not intend to establish before August, at the earliest. Of course, Wimbush’s play, or rising junior Ian Book’s subpar play, could force that issue before then.

That makes six candidates. Rising junior cornerback Julian Love (pictured above) could be a seventh. Love has comported himself well both on and off the field in his two years as a starter, and he may not be around to be a captain as a senior.

This is nothing but idle speculation, but it is spring break and the conversation is intriguing, at the least.

Mustipher on new o-line coach Jeff Quinn
The verdict on Quinn’s promotion to fill the void left by Harry Hiestand will not be returned until November, at the earliest. Until then, the opinions of Mustipher and the rest of the offensive line are the best clues to Quinn’s interactions with the offensive line. When asked about Quinn on Tuesday, there was no chance Mustipher would offer anything but praise, but some insight can be gained by what praise Mustipher provided.

“He brings a motivational and inspirational energy to the offensive line room,” Mustipher said. “He understands the way the standard needs to be set.”

That is pretty generic to start. Mustipher then spoke of the “privilege” of being part of the interview process, along with Bars. It would seem the two made it clear to Kelly they wanted not only consistency in message and system, but also some investment in that approach.

“We understand that standard of excellence,” Mustipher said. “We wanted a guy that wanted to be here and wanted to coach, and that it meant a lot to him to be here.”

Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer completed 53.6 percent of his passes in his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Kizer to the Green Bay Packers
Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer was traded to the Green Bay Packers from the Cleveland Browns on Friday for a cornerback, per the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Without a doubt, getting away from the Browns will be good for Kizer, but do not presume he will ever throw many passes on the shores of Lake Michigan.

In trading oft-injured cornerback Damarious Randall, the Packers not only received Kizer, but they also moved up in both the fourth- and fifth- rounds in next month’s NFL draft. That alone may have been enough incentive to move on from a defensive back who publicly feuded with an assistant coach last season.

Securing a contract-controlled backup quarterback solidified the deal, and it is likely Kizer is never more than a backup for the Packers. Starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers is only 34. He should have another four or five or even more years left in his career. Kizer’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2020 season.

If he minds his manners, learns from Rodgers and makes a few cameos in the next three seasons, then perhaps an opportunity elsewhere will await Kizer. Knowing the NFL and its preference for the newest inventory, though, this may be a step toward a career as a backup for the 2017 second-round draft pick.

Kizer finished his rookie season with 2,894 yards, 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions on 255-of-476 passing in 15 games. He added 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 77 attempts with nine fumbles sprinkled in.

(Off-topic, but near to the heart: Quarterback rushing statistics do not need to be adjusted for sacks in the NFL.)

Kudos to Oklahoma
With the Sunday night reveal of the NCAA men’s basketball bracket, Oklahoma continued a rather impressive streak. The Sooners athletic department is the only one in the country that can claim AP Top-10 finishes in football and men’s basketball tournament teams in each of the last two years. For that matter, Oklahoma actually managed the double in 2015, as well.

‘Inside the Irish’ March Madness Pool
Every online community has a bracket pool. On good days, this space is an online community. Thus, applying logic, it should have a bracket pool.

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

For the sake of being different, the group will utilize a Fibonacci scoring sequence (2-3-5-8-13-21) with a seed-difference upset bonus throughout the Tournament.

At least with Notre Dame out of the bracket, the group’s results will not be skewed by unrealistic Irish hopes.

Speaking of Notre Dame not making it …
The Irish did not have much of a résumé, injuries or no injuries. Looking at analytical measurements, though, Notre Dame appeared to have a much better chance than Syracuse, who squeezed in as the last at-large team. The Irish were the first team left out.

The differences between the two? Well, aside from Notre Dame winning at the Carrier Dome while without their two best players? The Irish have the nation’s No. 28 offense when adjusted for efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. The Orange have the No. 128 offense, offsetting it with the No. 11 adjusted defense.

It was indeed that difference that helped Syracuse to a 55-52 win over Clemson in its March 3 regular-season finale, a credentials-boosting victory the likes of which Notre Dame did not have.

Monday’s Leftovers: Spring begins, a 2019 QB de-commits from Notre Dame & NFL Combine results
Position changes, weight loss and quarterback questions welcome Notre Dame’s spring
Notre Dame names three captains: LB Drue Tranquill, C Sam Mustipher … and punter Tyler Newsome
With two captains gone, only natural another pops up on Notre Dame’s offensive line
Tranquill’s move to linebacker should benefit both him and Notre Dame

— What a hospital stay sparked inside new Notre Dame captain Tyler Newsome
Damonte Ranch’s Cade McNamara de-commits from Notre Dame
AG Lobo probe expands to football rape case

Monday’s Leftovers: Spring begins, a 2019 QB de-commits from Notre Dame & NFL Combine results

Associated Press

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will meet with the media today at 2 p.m. ET to preview spring practice, which will begin tomorrow morning. Typically, this will include a positional change or two, some strength and conditioning praise, and positive remarks about the early-enrolled freshmen.

In those respects, it seems likely someone or other will join the three scholarship running backs already on the roster. The Irish will want at least one more body working through that rotation from Tuesday’s outset. Kelly’s thoughts about the early enrollees could be longer than usual, considering seven joined the roster this semester.

One area Kelly will likely not delve into much, if at all, is the options at punt returner and kick returner. Of the “Spring Outlook” series the last couple weeks, special teams was not addressed. Kicker, kickoff specialist, punter and long snapper will include no drama, with rising senior Justin Yoon, rising sophomore Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year Tyler Newsome and rising junior John Shannon respectively holding each of those positions. The return duties, though, should be up for grabs. The outgoing transfer of receiver C.J. Sanders will especially create a vacuum at kick return.

That progress of that competition will not be much seen by the outside world during the spring, and the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) typically does not include any returns whatsoever. Furthermore, the speedster duo of incoming freshmen receivers Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys could insert themselves as possibilities in the summer.

In the meantime, keep that question mark in mind. It had to at least be mentioned to consider the “Spring Outlook” breakdowns complete.

Cade McNamara decommits
Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) de-committed from a seven-plus month pledge to Notre Dame on Friday. Recent offers from the likes of Alabama, Georgia and USC certainly influenced McNamara’s thought process. He did not completely rule out reconsidering the Irish in comments to a local Nevada news station, but such certainly sounds unlikely.

“I believe [Notre Dame] might still try to recruit me,” McNamara said. “As of right now, I cannot see myself playing for Notre Dame just because I feel it’s not the best fit for me. That’s where I stand right now.”

This de-commitment sparks two thoughts pertaining to incoming freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec. First of all, Jurkovec spoiled Irish fans in his recruitment. He never wavered, seeming to hardly care about the recruiting process at all. That was the exception — McNamara’s step backward is more akin to the norm.

Secondly, it is likely Jurkovec’s presence discouraged McNamara as much as those new scholarship offers opened the high school junior’s eyes to other possibilities. When McNamara committed to Notre Dame in mid-July, Jurkovec had not yet put together a senior season in which he greatly elevated his standing in many views, even if his refusal to partake in recruiting gimmicks capped his ratings. Whomever Notre Dame signs at quarterback in the class of 2019 will walk onto campus one year behind a top-flight quarterback, one who will quite possibly still have four years of eligibility remaining. For anyone with aspirations of making a collegiate impact in the next two or three years, following Jurkovec onto the Irish roster may not be the best decision.

Remember Braden Lenzy’s wise words
In his recruitment, Lenzy committed to Notre Dame, flipped to Oregon and then flopped back. In that process, he saw the irrational nature of many fans obsessing over the decisions of high schoolers.

“It got to where I would cringe every time my phone buzzed,” Lenzy wrote in an essay for “The Players’ Tribune.” “… I wish I could say I just brushed off the negative messages, or that I was big enough to just ignore them entirely. But that wouldn’t be true. I did read them, and I thought about them a lot.”

Don’t be that guy.

Quenton Nelson (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

NFL Combine Results
Led by left guard Quenton Nelson, five former Irish offensive cogs took part in the NFL Combine the last few days. Nelson cited a tweaked muscle in not doing the 40-yard dash, because obviously that is a necessary metric when evaluating an offensive lineman, but he did put up 35 reps on the bench press, the second-most among the offensive linemen. He entered the combine already a top-prospect, and Nelson only enhanced that image.

Left tackle Mike McGlinchey managed 24 reps on the bench press, and running back Josh Adams reached 18. Neither of them ran the 40, either, both likely to do so at Notre Dame’s Pro Day on March 22.

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (pictured at top) ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash after getting to 20 reps on the bench press, while tight end Durham Smythe notched a 4.81-second dash and 18 bench reps.

Of the 11 receivers who ran faster than St. Brown, none stood as tall as his 6-foot-5 frame, making his performance one that may catch draft evaluators’ eyes. Similarly, in a year with a weak tight end class, Smythe seems to be in the process of playing his way up draft boards.

Monday’s Leftovers: Guessing Notre Dame’s win total over/under along with some Michigan math
Notre Dame’s receivers, now without both St. Brown and Stepherson
Notre Dame’s defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties
Notre Dame’s offensive line, a search for a fifth starter
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, a competition between Wimbush and Book … and Davis?

Ranking the OT prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft (led by McGlinchey)
Ranking the interior OL prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft (led by Nelson)
Guard Quenton Nelson an enticing draft option
Jeff Samardzija reflects on choosing MLB over NFL
Don’t kid yourself, ‘Field of Dreams’ is a bad movie

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands a 2019 CB; Auburn hires an Irish AD

Sanity is a commodity worth preserving. Thus, this space generally keeps any Notre Dame recruiting updates limited to the current recruiting class. Otherwise, two-thirds of these words would revolve around various offers, commitments, subsequent de-commitments, 16-year-old’s decisions and the other endless minutiae of the internet’s third-favorite niche industry.

In other words, discussing high school juniors today is 10 days earlier than usually allowed. Consider this an exception not setting a precedent, but rather granted because of a commitment so closely following this question submitted Sunday morning:

“Big junior day this weekend. Do you think any in attendance may be on commit watch? It seems last year the class of 2018 was already mostly in place, but there are only two commits thus far. Will that change soon?”

— William from Cypress, Texas.

Indeed, William, at least one junior at Notre Dame on Saturday was ready to commit shortly thereafter, with three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett High School; Atlanta) making that decision Sunday afternoon. Wallace chose the Irish over offers from Auburn, Penn State and Stanford, among many others.

“Honestly, I expected to commit at the beginning of [his senior] season, but I know this is the place for me,” Wallace told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “… I loved everything about the campus and the coaches. We met a few players and I like their strength and conditioning program, too. I couldn’t find much wrong about it.”

Securing a cornerback’s commitment so early in the class continues Notre Dame’s recovery from not getting any cornerbacks in the class of 2017, with three signed this cycle and another yet possible before next Wednesday.

William’s memory of a year ago is a bit inaccurate. Of the 21 players who signed with the Irish during December’s early signing period, only five had committed by this point a year ago. Broadly speaking, there tend to be a few key periods for recruits to commit. The earliest do so before their junior football season. Then there is typically a lull until the winter. For the majority of high school juniors, that silence lasts until after National Signing Day, at which point schools finally make the juniors a priority.

For example, Notre Dame secured three commitments the two weeks following National Signing Day 2017. December’s early signing period may have skewed that rush forward a few weeks, leading to decisions like Wallace’s, but it is too soon to gauge that effect of the new recruiting timetables. Either way, a handful of commitments coming to the surface in February would be logical.

— Bet you weren’t expecting to think about Auburn basketball this morning.

With a 25-point win over LSU on Saturday, the No. 19 Tigers won their third straight and 17th of their last 18. The winning streak coincides with the hiring of former Notre Dame baseball star Allen Greene as athletic director. Obviously, the hiring has nothing to do with the winning streak except the spot at the top of the SEC standings underscores the biggest challenge Greene will immediately face at Auburn.

Tigers head basketball coach Bruce Pearl appears to be more than tangentially-involved with the FBI investigation into basketball recruiting tactics, meaning Greene may soon face the unenviable prospect of pondering a coach’s future even as he wins the SEC and gets a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Greene is one of 10 Irish graduates serving as athletic directors somewhere in the Division I realm. Two others just made changes with head football coaches, neither necessarily voluntarily, but the Pearl dilemma will likely be a whole other type of ordeal.

Those other nine:
Gene Smith at Ohio State.
Stan Wilcox at Florida State.
Jack Swarbrick at Notre Dame.
Bubba Cunningham at North Carolina.
Mike Bobinski at Purdue.
Tom Bowen at Memphis.
Danny White at Central Florida.
Bill Scholl at Marquette.
Boo Corrigan at Army.

— Let’s turn to another reader question … “I miss the days when ND was Tight End U. Any chance of rekindling that? — nmmargie

An undeniable return to being considered “Tight End U” in 2018 will likely hinge on current Notre Dame junior Alizé Mack. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Yes, there is a chance. Notre Dame will have six tight ends around in 2018, and based off last season, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does genuinely prefer to include tight ends as often as possible. If current junior Alizé Mack can finally realize some of his physical potential, then he should certainly join the four Notre Dame products at tight end already in the NFL.

That number should even rise to five this spring. Durham Smythe caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown in this weekend’s Senior Bowl, and would appear to be trending upward as far as NFL draft thoughts may go.

That is not to say Smythe will be drafted, but, at the very least, he will get his shot in an NFL training camp of some variety.

Smythe and Mack combined to lead an under-the-radar productive season for Irish tight ends in 2017. The position group may have been inconsistent, but so was every other aspect of the passing game. The tight ends as a whole caught 45 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns. They were certainly a part of the offense, even if not featured as expected entering the season.

Admittedly, nmmargie’s point holds merit. Notre Dame essentially abandoned the position in 2015 and 2016, much to Smythe’s detriment. However, the stretch of Ben KoyackTroy NiklasTyler Eifert – Kyle Rudolph – John Carlson – Anthony Fasano does stretch from 2014 back to 2003. Two years of relying on Will Fuller and Equanimeous St. Brown does not ruin that reputation by any means.

— Get ready for a Brian VanGorder defense in 2019.

The former Irish defensive coordinator landed that position at Louisville over the weekend. Notre Dame opens the 2019 season at Louisville on Labor Day.

— Need Tuesday night plans? The St. Brown Master Plan:

— Further mailbag questions are welcome at

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

Getty Images

Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

Getty Images

Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)