How we got here: Injuries

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There’s a tricky line to draw when you write about injuries. They are a certainty in football (not unlike death and taxes off the field), but there is also a line where you’ve got to take injuries into account when adjusting your expectations for a team’s ability to perform.

There’s a school of thought that argues (probably successfully, I’d add) that regardless of injuries, Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to Navy or Tulsa. A simple look at the star-ratings and offer list of Notre Dame’s second string would support that claim, though it doesn’t take into account the development that happens after you’ve arrived on campus.

If there was a No. 1 knock on Charlie Weis as a collegiate head coach, it was probably his ability to develop his roster. Elite offensive talent seemed to thrive under Weis’ tutelage, but the middle of the roster — the long-term development of players in years three, four, and five of the program are the players that determine whether or not you’ve got a BCS team or a team filled with NFL prospects. (We’ll get to this later, I promise.)

As we saw plainly in 2007, Charlie Weis did little to develop the second level of his roster in the early years of his tenure, and his career never recovered when his teams in 2008 and 2009 failed to get better than mediocre results, struggling to replace veteran offensive and defensive linemen, safeties, or linebackers.

Brian Kelly entered Notre Dame with a reputation for developing talent, and he quickly set about implementing a practice system and approach that tried to strengthen and ready the depth on the roster. That approach has been put to the test this season, as Kelly not only had to implement new offensive and defensive systems, but also had to instill in his team a “Next Man In” attitude that was often preached by Weis, but never truly implemented.

Kelly started his first spring practice with only two players in “protected” status: Quarterback Dayne Crist, who was recovering from a torn ACL and running back turned wide receiver Theo Riddick, who was recovering from shoulder injury. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was also battling to stay healthy, being monitored by his position coach as a “restricted” player in Kelly’s training system. The Irish excited the Blue-Gold game without a major injury, getting Dayne Crist through every snap of spring practice even while he was less than five months removed from knee surgery.

From there, it was practically all down hill.

Nine games into the season, the Irish have lost a litany of players to injury. Major injuries have ended the seasons of starting quarterback Dayne Crist, senior tailback Armando Allen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph on offense alone. The loss of Rudolph robs the Irish offense of an All-American, the loss of Allen robs it of one of its most productive, and the loss of Crist removes the most indispensable players on the Irish roster. Three catastrophic losses any way you slice it.

Offensively, the Irish also lost presumed starter Dan Wenger for the season before it ever started, inserting first-timer Braxston Cave into the lineup at center. After finding his form at the slot receiver, Theo Riddick finds himself in the midst of a major ankle injury, robbing the Irish of it’s second most explosive offensive threat, and a player absolutely instrumental to Kelly’s spread attack. Starting right tackle Taylor Dever missed significant time, forcing redshirt freshman Zack Martin to flip over to the right tackle position, and pushing senior Matt Romine into the left tackle position, a spot he’s taken limited snaps in during his four years on campus. Running back Jonas Gray also has missed a significant portion of the year with an injury, turning a four-headed position that was the deepest position on the roster into a 1-2 punch of Cierre Wood, playing his first football since his senior year of high school, and Robert Hughes, a jumbo-sized back that’s a square peg in the round-hole mold of spread running backs needed for Kelly’s system. Finally, wide receiver Michael Floyd, the Irish’s best offensive player, battled hamstring issues of his own before sitting out the Navy game, watching from the sideline the Irish’s ugliest loss of the season.

On the flip side of the ball, no injury took a greater toll on the defense than the strained MCL of senior nose tackle Ian Williams, who could’ve player his last game in a Notre Dame uniform after being injured against Navy. The Irish battled depth and injury issues at middle linebacker from the beginning of the year, losing senior Steve Paskorz to a knee injury and Anthony McDonald to a variety of ailments, paving way for Carlo Calabrese, who suffered a major hamstring injury of his own. A position that was already incredibly thin forced the Irish to counter with true freshman Danny Spond and Prince Shembo in the middle, but Spond’s been out with injuries for the past few weeks and Shembo suffered a concussion Saturday afternoon. The Irish plugged senior Brian Smith in at inside linebacker, a move Kelly would barely concede to during spring ball unless it was an extraordinary emergency situation.

In the secondary, the Irish safeties have been decimated by injury. Both Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy have struggled to stay healthy all season, with Slaughter injuring an ankle that’s been incredibly slow to heal and McCarthy having a nagging leg injury that robbed him of the speed necessary to cover the back-end of the defense. With two of the four scholarship safeties on the roster sitting out, the Irish were forced to play the odd couple of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta in the defensive backfield, two maximum effort players that leave some coverage skills on the table.

Irish fans have likely been spoiled during the transition years of the past two regimes, where a veteran roster stormed out of the gates quickly. Kelly wasn’t dealt the same hand, playing with a deck of cards short some very important faces. For all the struggles the Irish have faced along the offensive line since Charlie Weis took over the program, the line play has been decent considering three new starters at the positions most vulnerable and two veteran guards who have hardly taken the leap to elite that many had hoped. Defensively, outside of the game against the Naval Academy, the Irish have played a much better brand of football than they did last season, limiting explosive plays by the opponent and surviving with a more structurally sound, bend, don’t break, defense.

On the road to a 4-5 record through nine games, the Irish can easily look back at losses to Michigan and Tulsa and wonder if a healthy Dayne Crist couldn’t have gotten them through two opponents that had sizable flaws. And since losing Riddick and Rudolph, the Irish have lost every game not played against Western Michigan. It’s the ultimate game of “what could’ve been,” but the Irish are likely playing it after seeing their training room filled with some of the most important players on the roster.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.