IBG: And on to Air Force

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We’re back with another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. If you’ve missed the last few, you’ve missed me comparing the Irish quarterbacking depth chart to TV’s leading ladies, Little Mac’s journey to beat Iron Mike, and other answers to questions that I’ve retro-fit to keep this blog family friendly and  my job safe.

This week’s questions are presented by the godfather of the IBG, the Subway Domer himself. I’ll do my best not to step in any bear-traps he’s left for me, and get us ready for the pregame six pack, coming sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Alright, let’s get to the questions:

1. So, uh, the defense has looked pretty good. Give me a stat that most exemplifies what this defense is all about. Are we really as good as we think, or are we inflating the results?

Wait — I feel like I’ve done this multiple times. (Here and here.) The Irish running defense is good. Just ask Troy Calhoun.

““They are exceptional,” Calhoun said earlier this week. “Nobody’s been able to run the ball on them. Flat out, have not.”

Here’s the think with this Irish defense. It isn’t set up to dominate statistically, but rather to win games. When defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was asked about trying to generate more turnovers, he hinted at the fact that this defense was good enough not to need to engineer results.

“It seems like it should be the case every week, ‘Get turnovers, get turnovers’. Well, yes and no,” Diaco said. “There’s a particular style of calls that create more turnovers, and whether that will be functional to the team winning or not, you have to see. There is definitely a style of play that is more disruptive, but it could also end up being feast or famine.”

If you’re looking for something that exemplifies how good this Irish defense is, just consider that two years after Jon Tenuta thought he needed to bring blitz pressure on practically every down to keep the defense from imploding, the coaching staff thinks they’ve got a system and personnel good enough to not risk things by even bringing blitzes.

2. What concerns you the most about Air Force? How will ND be able to ease your fear?

The Falcons’ offense. While I just got done praising Diaco for his ability to stay committed to the foundation of the defense, the commitment to reading and reacting against Air Force could spell doom — Navy style, 2010.

Tim Jefferson and the Air Force offense is incredibly multiple. And Calhoun is a pretty incredible coach for Air Force to have on the sidelines. This guy was an NFL offensive coordinator, coming up under Mike Shanahan in Denver and then coordinating Gary Kubiak‘s offense in Houston. That’s pretty impressive.

As for easing my fear? Well — I’ll be just fine if I see the Irish defensive front dominating Air Force’s offensive line, blowing up the inside option game and forcing the Falcons to work the pitch and throw the ball. As for regular Irish fans? I don’t think there’s any ability to ease their fears. It’ll be white-knuckled panic until the final whistle, and once that happens, most likely a lot of complaints that it wasn’t a truly dominant victory.

3. You’re the long snapper. You get into a bit of a fracas on the field and break your hand… just how dumb are you feeling right now?

Like 2+2=5 dumb.

There is really nothing quite like getting dressed down by a coach for doing something stupid and undisciplined. I can vividly remember all the high-decibel lectures all the way back to grade school and through college and your tail stays pretty firmly tucked between your legs for a few days.

If Cowart isn’t able to snap because he decided to throw a right hook into a football helmet, well — he’ll be feeling pretty low for quite some time.

4. FYI: Tommy Rees will have 2 more years of eligibility after this year. How is Notre Dame’s QB situation going to shake out over the next couple of years?

I guess this is the million dollar question. Is Rees Matt LoVecchio or… well — that’s really the question. Assuming Rees continues to get better and start for the next two years, it could be Rees sitting at the top of Notre Dame’s passing records.  something that reminds me of the fact that Autry Denson is sitting atop Notre Dame’s rushing record books.

I’m not fully comfortable making assumptions, but you’ve got to think that Dayne Crist might choose to explore other options after this season. That’ll leave Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson to battle with Rees (and potentially Luke Massa), and that three-way race would almost have to favor Rees if he continues to handle his business throughout the second half of the season.

Good question and an admittedly bad answer. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

5. Subway Domer has always championed a “People’s Champion” if you will. This year, however, I just couldn’t make the call before the season began. We dig great hair, tattoos, and at least some playing time.  Who would you name as the Subway Domer People’s Champ? Keep in mind, at no point in time were guys like Te’o or Floyd eligible and that should help guide you.

I’m not sure that I completely understand the question, but that’s never stopped me before. People’s champion? I’ll throw out some nominees:

Jonas Gray, RB — It’s not a coincidence that after Gray dominated Screech in stand-up comedy, his confidence and running game exploded.

Trevor Robinson, RG — He’s quoted Billy Madison in an official UND.com video. Even though he said Entourage was his favorite TV show, he’s still a People’s Champ candidate for dropping a “Business Ethics” line.

Robert Blanton, CB — After waiting his turn to start, Blanton has brought some serious swagger to the field corner position. He’s a talker on the field and keeps it clean off. My kind of guy.

I’ll let you choose from there.

6. OK, talk to me about Saturday. Give me:

  • 2 reasons we lose — Turnovers and Special Teams.
  • 2 reasons we win — Better Talent and Air Force’s defense.
  • Any prediction you might have for the game — They will serve hot dogs in the press box.

7. I love hardware. There is no hardware on sale this week… bummer. Give me your thoughts on Notre Dame’s “rivalry trophy” situation, and would you change anything about it?

When the players don’t even known about some of the rivalry trophies, I think we’ve already said enough about their importance.

I’m a huge fan of rivalry games — and trophies like the Little Brown Jug, Floyd of Rosedale, and Paul Bunyon’s Axe are just awesome. (Can you tell I’m from Minnesota?) But maybe it’s because Notre Dame plays for shillelaghs, that it’s tough to get too excited about it.

But really, it’s Notre Dame. You really don’t need trophies to get up for that game. So what would I change? I’m not sure anything, but I agree with what I think you’re asking — there’s a way to probably do more with them.

BONUS: If the 4 Notre Dame scholarship quarterbacks could be quantified as a present or former country in the world; who they be?

I think my head is going to explode trying to even consider this question. If anybody here wants to take a stab at it, do so in the comments.

 

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.