After four years and nearly a byline per Notre Dame point, here’s to four more

Clemson v Notre Dame
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It’s been four years.

No, I’m not referencing that. I’m referencing this.

I took over these duties from Keith Arnold exactly four years ago today. Nothing else historical happened that same afternoon, nothing at all.

Four years of Notre Dame going 43-8, reaching double-digit wins each season. Four years of the Irish defense raising the floor and the offense determining the height of the ceiling. Four years of middling writing with — searches within the content management system/no, no that can’t be right/that’s far too many — 1,603 articles under this byline. Make that 1,604.

401 stories per year, and to think, I felt like I let my duties slide this weekend as I spent time with my niece and nephews for the first time since February.

Four years of conversations with readers. Four years of debates on if DeShone Kizer was NFL-ready (he wasn’t), if Brian Kelly should remain Notre Dame’s head coach (he should have and should still), if the Irish ever have a chance in big games (see: Nov. 7, 2020). Four years of vague references to a woman supposedly named Claire, of late Friday afternoon drinks and of appreciated exchanges highlighted in the annual “40 Thanksgivings,” more often than not with Highly Suspect serving as the soundtrack to those more honest keystrokes, including on vinyl currently as this outline becomes paragraphs.

There was Mike McGlinchey’s missed block in the final minute against Georgia and Chase Claypool’s not-quite-high-enough leap at Athens. There was a woeful trip to Miami and another to Michigan. There was Clemson, Clemson again and then Alabama.

There was Chris Finke’s over-the-back touchdown against the Wolverines and an unbeaten season clinched at USC. There were three wins against the Trojans and two against Stanford, including Kelly’s first win at The Farm. There was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah combining with Ade Ogundeji to sack D.J. Uiagalelei and Daelin Hayes then sacking Uiagalelei again.

Notre Dame outscored its opponents 1,732 to 985 across these four years, large numbers intended to emphasize that four years in college football is a long time. (That averages to 34.0 to 19.3, as you were assuredly wondering.) The Irish were never shut out (that last happened at Boston College in 2008), though they blanked an opponent in each of the last two seasons. Claypool led Notre Dame with 19 touchdowns, barely beating out Dexter Williams’ 18 and Ian Book’s 17 rushing scores. Kyren Williams should blow by all of them in 2021, having found the end zone 14 times this past season.

It wouldn’t be fair to count Book’s 72 passing touchdowns in that conversation, perhaps his prayer to Miles Boykin in the 2017 Citrus Bowl still the most notable among them, well, aside from his final-minute scamper against Virginia Tech in 2019 or his dart to Avery Davis to reach overtime against No. 1 Clemson this past November or … 89 total touchdowns creates a long list.

Te’von Coney racked up the most tackles, a mere 239 in his final two seasons. His late-career development then matched and exceeded by Owusu-Koramoah’s, making 24.5 tackles for loss these last two seasons. Kyle Hamilton will not break their takedown numbers next season, but the safety may end up the best defender of this entire stretch.

Mike Elko came and went. Clark Lea came, got promoted and then joined Elko in the SEC, albeit in a vastly different role. Tommy Rees returned, got promoted and remains.

Those 1,604 articles are starting to seem like they were not enough, not to keep up with five recruiting classes, soon-to-be five NFL drafts and a fifth offseason that is already down to only 258 days until the Irish head to Tallahassee to face Florida State on Labor Day Eve.

That first recruiting class was previewed from a hotel room in Florida, getting up at 5 a.m. the morning of a cousin’s wedding to be sure Owusu-Koramoah’s debate between Notre Dame and Michigan State was properly discussed, not to mention Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s late arrival onto the Irish recruiting scene. In retrospect, arriving at brunch better-rested would have been acceptable if it came at the expense of pondering the possibilities of cornerback Russ Yeast (Louisville, now to Kansas State), safety Evan Fields (Arizona State then and now) and defensive lineman Jalen Harris (Arizona then and now).

When the then-San Diego Chargers drafted defensive tackle Jerry Tillery with the No. 28 pick in the first round in 2019, that boilerplate draft story was published from the main bar at a Rival Sons concert, the rarest of moments when yours truly properly and successfully worked ahead.

May the future hold more weddings and concerts, and fewer furloughs. That byline count would at least be approaching 1,800 if not for those idled five months.

The last four years have not been all bad, present turmoil notwithstanding. A few readers have bought drinks, one a meal, and during that furlough, many provided welcomed encouragement.

My debut column here, exactly four years ago, set goals of being “readable, reasonable and realistic,” and it quoted a past boss and present friend (not to mention new father) setting an Inside the Irish task:

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective. … We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

Admittedly, his infant-induced sleep-deprivation this fall led to some knee-jerk texts, but perhaps that served to reinforce the purpose of this space, to avoid those reactions.

I only hope I have been readable, reasonable and realistic these last four years. I will continue to strive for those meager benchmarks.

Thank you all for reading. Here’s to four more.

Notre Dame’s opponents lose more talent than Irish to early NFL draft entries

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Notre Dame at Boston College
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The oddities of unprecedented eligibility scenarios could yet see a few more names join the list of NFL draft entrants, but with Monday having served as the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the April draft, the vast majority of entrants should already be known, if not all of them.

By the usual standard, Notre Dame lost only junior tight end Tommy Tremble to early entry into the professional ranks, though left guard Aaron Banks and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah each would have had eligibility remaining even without the NCAA’s universal pandemic eligibility waiver.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s not delve too far into which players could have returned next season thanks to that waiver but have opted not to, as that would essentially be a replication of last season’s rosters, and for the most part, players followed through on what they had presumably planned on in the preseason — Irish defensive tackle Kurt Hinsh and kicker Jonathan Doerer the exceptions proving the rule.

In losing only Tremble, Notre Dame fared better than most of its most notable 2021 opponents. Even if including Banks and Owusu-Koramoah, it can be easily argued the Irish lost no more than USC, North Carolina or Stanford did, and Notre Dame should theoretically be in a better position to reload at those positions.

Florida State — The Seminoles will need to replace both defensive ends thanks to Joshua Kaindoh heading to the NFL, formerly a heralded recruit and recently an injury-plagued playmaker. He finished 2020 with only 14 tackles but returned an interception for a touchdown to highlight the possibilities of his 6-foot-7 frame.

Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. also declared for the draft, a 2019 third-team All-ACC honoree and 2020 leading defensive vote-getter as he earned first-team All-ACC recognition. Notre Dame fans may remember hearing his praises sung even after Javon McKinley caught five passes for 107 yards against Samuel in September, the defender’s known prowess establishing McKinley’s performance as more substantial than his previous flashes against New Mexico and Bowling Green.

Purdue — Of the many things 2020 took from us, one of the bigger college football disappointments was losing the final season from Boilermakers star receiver Rondale Moore. He did play in three games, catching 35 passes for 270 yards, but that was only after initially opting out of the season and then returning under a cloud of uncertainty that kept him sidelined into late November.

Moore could have been one of the season’s biggest stars and would have been in 2021 if returning.

Wisconsin — A shoulder injury cut short cornerback Rachad Wildgoose’s final collegiate season, limiting him to two games, six tackles and one broken up pass.

Cincinnati — The Bearcats lost first-team All-AAC offensive tackle James Hudson to the NFL draft, but more importantly, they held onto quarterback Desmond Ridder, one of the greater questions in this conversation as the regular season ended. With him still behind center, Cincinnati may end up Notre Dame’s highest-ranked opponent in 2021.

Virginia Tech — The Hokies mess of a season began with first-team All-ACC cornerback Caleb Farley opting out and it ended with offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw joining Farley in heading to the NFL. Darrisaw kept Irish right tackle Robert Hainsey from receiving first-team All-ACC recognition.

USC — Of Notre Dame’s opponents, the Trojans lost the most to the NFL draft, as would usually be expected. Offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker joins star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown on that side of the ball. In six games, he caught 41 passes for 478 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020, one of the better receivers in a stocked draft class for pass catchers.

Defensively, USC may have lost even more. Cornerback Olaijah Griffin and safety Talanoa Hufanga both leave the secondary shorthanded, while defensive tackle Jay Tufele followed through on a 2020 opt-out and is joined by defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu in chasing the NFL.

Tuipulotu made 23 tackles in 2020, with 3.5 of them for loss, numbers that were arguably enhanced by Tufele’s absence, given he had 6.5 tackles for loss in 2019.

North Carolina — While the Tar Heels will have quarterback Sam Howell directing their offense for at least one more season, he will have to do so without running back Javonte Williams (1,140 yards in 11 games with 19 touchdowns and 7.26 yards per carry) and receiver Dyami Brown (55 catches for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns). North Carolina has other offensive skill players poised to step up, but losing Williams and Brown will create more of a learning curve for Howell’s third go-round.

Stanford — The Cardinal never got to enjoy possible first-round picks cornerback Paulson Adebo and left tackle Walker Little in 2020. Quarterback Davis Mills, center Drew Dalman and receiver Simi Fehoko will join them in worrying about 40 times and 225-pound bench press reps.

Toledo, Navy, Virginia and Georgia Tech lost no players to early entry into the NFL draft.

Losing Tremble to the NFL draft may change Notre Dame’s base offensive package in 2021, but Tremble cannot be faulted for his decision, despite modest career stats. He finishes his Irish tenure with 35 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns, not too different from Troy Niklas’ 37 receptions for 573 yards and six scores (2011-13) before he jumped to the NFL after his junior season in a mild surprise.

Niklas did not match those numbers in five NFL seasons, but he did earn more than $4.3 million, per Spotrac. His NFL decision may have been unexpected, but it worked out for Niklas, and there is little reason to think he would have made more if he had returned to South Bend for the 2014 season.

Tremble enters the NFL draft with more receiving talent and proven blocking abilities, so that career track could logically be his floor, at which point, taking home biweekly paychecks is a shrewd decision.

Marcus Freeman flexes his recruiting muscle with Notre Dame commitment from four-star defensive end Tyson Ford

Tyson Ford
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Notre Dame found its first defensive lineman in the recruiting class of 2022 with Monday’s commitment from consensus four-star end Tyson Ford (John Burroughs School; St. Louis). In choosing the Irish over Oklahoma, Georgia and homestate Missouri, Ford made it clear new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has hit the ground running in recruiting, just as Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated would be expected in his statement upon hiring Freeman.

“He is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks,” Kelly said 10 days ago. The evidence already agrees.

“I really think the Marcus Freeman situation changed things a little bit,” Ford said to Carter Karels of The South Bend Tribune. “I’ve been talking with him ever since he got there really. He was telling me it was a great opportunity to study, get a degree and play football at a school as prestigious as Notre Dame, that it was an opportunity that you can’t turn down.

“After that conversation with him, we talked for a long time. I thought about it, I made pros and cons of each of my schools, I realized Notre Dame was the best choice.”

In addition to those finalists, Ford received scholarship offers from Michigan, Texas and Texas A&M, among others.

The No. 64 overall prospect in the class and No. 5 defensive end, per rivals.com, Ford’s strong arms keep offensive linemen from establishing their hands inside his pads, giving him space to deploy an impressive set of pass rush moves for a high school junior. He likes to pass rush from an upright position, suggesting Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston will have some work to do on Ford’s fundamentals, though that upright approach also emphasizes Ford’s quick first step, which should be an asset regardless of his pre-snap posture.

The Under Armour All-American stands 6-foot-6 with 250 pounds of muscle stretching across his long reach, giving him an on-field look similar to Irish rising junior end Isaiah Foskey (6-foot-4 ⅞, 257 pounds), and not just because they both wear No. 7. There is every reason to think Foskey may have an impressive enough 2021 to head to the NFL early, meaning Ford may be able to keep his high school digit at the next level, and if so, it will confuse Notre Dame fans given the similarities between the two.

A high-floor, high-ceiling prospect, Ford is the fifth Irish commitment in the class of 2022 and the second defensive pledge, joining three-star linebacker Nolan Ziegler (Catholic Central High School; Grand Rapids, Mich.). As programs navigate the NCAA’s universal pandemic eligibility waiver, they may sign smaller classes in 2022 to accommodate players with an unexpected extra year to play while the NCAA returns the scholarship limit to 85.

Notre Dame’s class of 2021 is still expected to add consensus three-star running back Logan Diggs on the traditional National Signing Day of Feb. 3, completing a 27-player haul, but otherwise all attention has already turned to the 2022 class.

Leftovers & Links: Handing out Notre Dame’s annual awards

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game Semifinal Game - Notre Dame v Alabama
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With no break between the regular season and Christmas, let alone the Playoff semifinal, Notre Dame did not hold its annual awards banquet (ECHOES) in mid-December like usual. Since the players will not return to campus for another couple weeks, it is quite possible there will not be an awards banquet at any point, even a spaced-out, team-only event.

Of course, that makes complete sense given the peak of the coronavirus pandemic may have (hopefully) finally arrived.

That does not mean some awards should not be given out. The Irish may yet do so, particularly as the social media content machine always needs to be fed, but until they do so …

Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, Special Teams Player of the Year, Walk-On Players Union Award: The lack of an awards banquet may actually hurt most here. There is no chance at speculating on the appropriate recipients, but those revelations usually inform future successes. Exhibit A: Linebacker Bo Bauer was named the 2019 Special Teams Player of the Year, hinting at how the coaching staff appreciated his all-out efforts, even if they sometimes came with the expense of exuberance. A year later, Bauer was an underrated piece of Notre Dame’s passing-down sub-package.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Freshman tight end Michael Mayer finished the season tied for the team lead in catches with 42, second in receiving yards with 450 and tied for third in receiving touchdowns with a pair. As senior right tackle Robert Hainsey said after the Rose Bowl loss, “Mike, seeing you step in as a young guy, I did the same thing. It was a blast, and seeing you excel and do that stuff is what made this season so much fun.”
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud exceeded any and all expectations from his pandemic-delayed arrival from North Carolina State. He was always a presumed starter, but his becoming Notre Dame’s top cornerback and a possible draft pick was a key piece to making the 2020 defense tick.

Offensive Impact of the Year: Fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley’s 42 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns — all three coming in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium in a 45-21 win against Syracuse — were all that kept the Irish offense from becoming too one-dimensional to survive the regular season unscathed. Not to mention, his fingertips catch to vault Notre Dame into scoring position just after Clemson tied up the November game will long remain one of the most unexpected clutch plays in recent history. (If the possession had not ended in a fumble through the end zone, the 45-yard snag would be better remembered yet.)

Javon McKinley Clemson
(ACC Media)

Defensive Impact of the Year: Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton led Notre Dame with 63 tackles including 51 unassisted tackles, adding six pass breakups. The only reason he did not lead the Irish in that latter category, or build on his one interception, is that opposing quarterbacks knew to throw away from him more often than not. Finishing his sophomore season as a first-team All-American sets lofty expectations for Hamilton’s final season in South Bend.

Next Man In: In a season defined by a pandemic, Notre Dame was relatively healthy throughout. So as to not draw much attention to the pandemic on a night of celebration, it is likely the Irish would not have handed this award to sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser for his showing against South Florida, when he went from scout team-to-starter just hours before kickoff due to pandemic protocols.

Instead, the only traditional injury that befell a starter was a foot injury to center Jarrett Patterson, at which point sophomore center Zeke Correll only impressed.

Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Consensus first-team All-Americans Aaron Banks and Liam Eichenberg would likely have split this honor at an ECHOES ceremony, and fittingly so, being they manned the left side of the Notre Dame line in a way befitting a growing tradition.
Defensive Lineman of the Year: Leading the Irish with seven sacks gives this nod to fifth-year defensive end Ade Ogundeji, conveniently so as part of the blueprint for the awards ceremony is to not honor players twice in a year and to focus awards on outgoing seniors. With both defensive tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa returning in 2021 — Hinish taking advantage of the pandemic eligibility waiver while Tagovailoa-Amosa fits in an expected fifth year to make up for losing 2018 to a broken foot — only Ogundeji needs to be singled out here.

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Part of why only Ogundeji needs to be acknowledged in the previous category is fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes would assuredly receive this honor, the result of both a driven athletic career capped off with a solid final season as a response to 2019 getting cut short with a shoulder injury and a motivated off-field career, particularly leading Notre Dame’s Juneteenth rally and furthering that needed voice all season long.

Daelin Hayes Juneteenth
(Fighting Irish Media)

Offensive Player of the Year: Sophomore running back Kyren Williams could have won the Offensive Newcomer of the Year designation if not for the impetus to avoid handing two awards to one player, and this is the recognition most appropriate for the breakout ball carrier who gained 1,125 yards in 12 games and ran for 13 touchdowns.
Defensive Player of the Year: Is there any question? The best linebacker in the country, arguably the best defensive player in the country, a unanimous All-American, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Monogram Club Most Valuable Player: Just like the Heisman, quarterbacks should not always win the MVP, hence receiver Chase Claypool winning it in 2019, but Ian Book should win his second Notre Dame MVP award (2018). In the literal sense, without Book, the Irish would have turned to an unheralded freshman to helm their offense. In the records sense, Book goes down as the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame’s 133 years of history.

“He’s a winner, he’s won more games than any quarterback in Notre Dame history, period, end of discussion,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the New Year’s Day loss. “The guy’s a winner and we’re going to miss him. He just wins football games, and there is no other story, just a winner.”

If there is an award that will almost assuredly eventually be dispensed, it is the Monogram MVP. The rest, well, again, social media’s content hole needs to be filled these next few weeks and naming a player each day may end up filling that gap.

INSIDE THE IRISH:
The redeeming value in Notre Dame’s Rose Bowl loss; on transfers and All-Americans
Things We Learned: In 2020, Notre Dame reaching a disappointing football end was a success
Things We Learned: Freeman hire underscores Kelly’s run of success in building Notre Dame’s staff

OUTSIDE READING:
For epidemiology experts who are college football fans, this season often was painful to watch
A ruthlessly exploitative college football season finally draws to a close
Was the 2020 college football season worth it?
As college football reaches finish line during pandemic, was it all worth it?
The Invisible Championship
Season grades for every college football team in 2020
NFL scouting combine to be drastically altered due to COVID-19
2021 NFL Draft: PFF’s top 100 big board
13 non-conference games to look forward to in 2021

Things We Learned: Freeman hire underscores Kelly’s run of success in building Notre Dame’s staff

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 04 UCF at Cincinnati
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Drew White and Kyle Hamilton put their trust in Brian Kelly when it came to hiring Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator. Their trust was understandable, given Kelly’s hires the last five years have consistently found success with the Irish.

White arrived at Notre Dame with the first of those, signing his National Letter of Intent weeks after Kelly brought Mike Elko and Clark Lea on board as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.

“Coach Kelly has done a great job in his hires through my four years here,” the senior linebacker said after the 31-14 Irish loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal. “I have full trust in him to pick the right candidate.”

Kelly hiring Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati may matter more for White than anybody else. While Kelly’s 11 years and 100+ wins have largely secured his legacy at Notre Dame, White has one more year to impress NFL front offices. After making eight tackles for loss in 2019 and nine in 2020 (in one fewer game), his play diagnosis abilities may make him an intriguing prospect for some at the next level, but not yet, clearly, since he is returning for one more season with the Irish.

Enter Freeman.

“He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers,” Kelly said upon Notre Dame’s announcement of the hire. “Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.”

Much has rightfully been made of Kelly luring Freeman away from LSU’s trappings, not to mention Texas’ interest, Michigan’s vacancy and presumed heir apparent status at Cincinnati, but the value in the hire goes beyond the University cutting a bigger check.

Kelly getting his top priority at a coaching position has led to success after success since the 4-8 debacle in 2016.

First, there was Elko and then Lea at defensive coordinator. Not much more needs to be said about either’s work, one parlaying his Irish season into a massive paycheck at Texas A&M (after Notre Dame matched an initial offer) and the other building up his coaching stock for three seasons to such a degree he landed his literal dream job.

“Coach Lea’s shoes are big to fill,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to do great at Vanderbilt. I believe that with my whole heart. He’s a great guy, great coach, and I think coach Kelly knows that we respond well to that.

“He’ll try to find a guy that’s as cerebral, as dedicated and as focused on making us better football players as well as better men.”

Only time will tell if Freeman and his aggressive defensive approach are up to those steep charges, but Kelly’s focus on player development should continue with Freeman. Just as Elko sparked Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, and Lea spurred Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and White, Kelly’s hires involved with the program reboot have taken middling recruits or questionable positions and turned them into strengths.

In his first season, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens unearthed a potential four-year starter in Clarence Lewis. The other 2020 hire, tight ends coach John McNulty positioned Tommy Tremble for an early entry into the NFL draft while also prioritizing freshman Michael Mayer.

The most notable 2019 staff addition, Lance Taylor took a running backs room without any clear playmaker and made Kyren Williams into a freshman All-American a year later, Williams now possibly a dark horse Heisman candidate in 2021.

These are not the exceptions held aloft. Kelly’s hires since 2016 have nearly had a 100 percent hit rate, as Tommy Rees created an offense that averaged 33.4 points in 2020, a number pushing 38 before the Irish stumbled in their final two games. That only came after (and as) Rees found the talent within a hardly-noticed quarterback recruit in Ian Book.

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has matched nearly peerless recruiting with on-field performances warranting constant Joe Moore consideration. A storyline to trot out a few times in 2021: Jarrett Patterson was Quinn’s first recruit, arguably the best Notre Dame lineman in a year when two others were named first-team All-Americans.

If any assistant coaches have fallen short during this four-year stretch of double-digit victories, it has been safeties coach Terry Joseph, now reportedly off to Texas, or receivers coach Del Alexander, but the former turned a 2017 liability into the defense’s backbone in 2018 and 2019 while the latter created NFL prospects from the rough in Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and now perhaps Javon McKinley.

When those are the mistakes, that highlights the strength of the coaching staff and the reason the players trusted Kelly to make another solid hire.

If Kelly had needed to move down his shortlist, perhaps that trust could be called into question, but in bidding for and landing Freeman, Kelly and Notre Dame made it clear they intend for the current trend to become status quo.

Now to see if they can apply that thought process to finding a new safeties coach. Of course, Freeman will have a say in such.

Editor’s Note: Truth be told, the intention was to hold this column until said safeties coach would be hired, but the content churn must carry on, even in this momentary calm period, perhaps the first such stretch for the Irish in about 50 weeks. Make no mistake, the calm is welcomed.