If Irish fans were hoping Urban Meyer’s departure meant the Florida Gators would get rid of any insider information on the Notre Dame football program, they’re out of luck, as former Irish head coach Charlie Weis is leaving the same coordinator job he had in the NFL and joining Will Muschamp’s Florida coaching staff. He’ll be joined by former Irish offensive line coach Frank Verducci.
“Charlie was a perfect fit for what I was looking for in an offensive coordinator,” Muschamp said. “He has both college and pro experience and has been a play-caller in the NFL. He has four Super Bowl rings and his accomplishments and his ability to develop quarterbacks speak for themselves.”
The news that Weis was leaving the Kansas City Chiefs after one season sent shock waves through the football world last week. Most attributed the departure to a rift between Weis and Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, who at one time worked under Weis in the Jets organization. Weis will stay on through the Chiefs playoffs run and he denied any rumors that his relationship with Haley had soured.
“I almost get offended when people say that,” Weis said. “People always want to look for a different angle for why you’re doing this. Scott (Pioli), Todd (Haley), Clark (Hunt), they brought me in to Kansas City when I was sitting at home in South Bend. I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to come here as the offensive coordinator and I’ll always wish them well.
“This decision had absolutely zero to do with relationships in Kansas City.”
What this decision did have something to do was Weis’ son, Charlie Jr., who will join the Florida support staff as a student assistant, enrolling next year as a freshman at the University of Florida.
“This is one of those unique situations where I can go to a great institution where my son goes to matriculate and be able to spend the next bunch of years watching my son grow,” Weis told the Kansas City Star. “He wants to coach. It took us a very long to try to find a place where he could be involved with the football program in a student assistant capacity. When I finally did talk to Will, we chatted about that and then we talked about me. I had to really reflect on that, spend time with my wife and Charlie. We talked about a whole bunch of things and at the end of the day, I don’t think anybody could understand how wonderful an opportunity it would be to be able to work at a place and see your kid on a daily basis.”
Muschamp is known as an excellent recruiter, but this has to take the cake as far as combo deals go. Give a freshman son a job in the football office cutting tape and getting coffee and get Weis to walk away from a coordinator job in the NFL, where he just helped a 4-12 NFL team turn into a 10-game division winner, and salvaged Matt Cassel’s career.
Florida running an NFL-style offense will be the ultimate experiment. Under Urban Meyer, they utilized the athleticism of elite recruits and Tim Tebow, running a system that did nothing to improve offensive players pro-readiness, but obviously won a lot of football games. With the rookie head coach Muschamp vowing to change the offense to a more pro-style system, there’s nobody better suited to focus solely on one side of the football and help improve a young quarterback.
Weis himself is no slouch on the recruiting trail, and you’ve got to wonder if his inside knowledge of what Notre Dame offers versus what students will experience at Florida will end up being a thorn in the side of the Irish as they battle for some of the same blue-chip recruits. While many tagged Meyer and then Gator defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s negative recruiting against Notre Dame as reasons for the flipping of a handful of Irish targets, Weis has been open about his love and respect for Notre Dame, and Verducci raved about the experience as well.
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest
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.
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 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
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
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
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.