How we got here: A look at the Irish secondary

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What we know is that presumed starting field cornerback Lo Wood is out for the season after rupturing his achilles tendon in a non-contact drill. What we don’t know is who’ll replace him in the starting lineup.

But maybe Brian Kelly does.

“I’m absolutely sure who’s going to replace him,” Kelly said yesterday when he addressed the media. “It’s just a matter of where and when that decision is going to be made. We know we’ve got four corners outside of Bennett that are going to compete, and we know all of them can play that position.

“Now they’re on stage, they get an opportunity over the next 10 days to determine who that’s going to be.”

For those just getting up-to-speed on Notre Dame football this August, the candidates for the job are sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, and freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Combined, they’ve played a total of three defensive snaps. Three. All taken by Atkinson in mop-up time against Air Force.

The loss of Wood undoubtedly hurts the Irish and weakens a position that already had a magnifying glass on it. But before we clear the deck chairs, it bears mentioning that Wood only played 11 percent of the snaps last season and only saw more than 10 in comfortable wins against Purdue, Air Force, Navy and Maryland, before playing 19 snaps in the defensive slugfest against Boston College.

Still, Kerry Cooks‘ cornerbacks now have little margin for error. Even if Cam McDaniel stays full-time at cornerback, the Irish have little depth and none of it is tested.

How’d we get there? Glad you asked. Let’s turn back the clock and check out the defensive back recruiting classes:

2008 (fifth-year players): Three DBs recruited. 
Robert Blanton — Played four years. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings to play safety.
Dan McCarthy —  Fifth-year reserve safety. Looked as if his career was finished until surprise 5th year.
Jamoris Slaughter — Hybrid player, multi-year starter for Irish at safety.

2009 (seniors): Two DBs recruited.
E.J. Banks — Left Notre Dame after one season. Now a walk-on DB at Pitt.
Zeke Motta — Starting safety for Irish.

2010 (juniors): Five DBs recruited
Chris Badger — Left on Mormon mission. Now a freshman safety.
Spencer Boyd — Academic and personal issues had Boyd depart before ever taking a snap.
Austin Collinsworth — Torn labrum will likely cost him 2012 season.
Lo Wood — Torn achilles tendon will cost him 2012 season.
Bennett Jackson — Former WR. First year starting cornerback.

2011 (sophomores): Four DBs recruited
Matthias Farley — Spent 2011 as WR. Fighting for time at safety.
Josh Atkinson — Spent 2011 on special teams. Fighting for starting CB job.
Jalen Brown — Redshirted freshman season. Fighting for CB job.
Eilar Hardy — Knee injury cost him freshman season.

2012 (freshman): Six DBs recruited 
Nicky Baratti — Getting strong reviews at safety.
KeiVarae Russell — Moved to CB first day of practice.
CJ Prosise — Playing safety and outside linebacker.
Tee Shepard — Left school in spring after early enrolling.
Elijah Shumate — Shifted from safety to cornerback.
John Turner — Developmental safety prospect.

How the Irish got to where they are is a product injuries, Brian Kelly’s recruiting choices, and the roster management of Charlie Weis. Holes in the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, where the Irish only signed five total defensive backs and zero true corners, have come back to bite Notre Dame, with the situation only exacerbated by Banks and Boyd leaving the program and a rash of injuries.

While missing out or losing key cornerback recruits like Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard, Yuri Wright, Bennett Okotcha (now transferring from Oklahoma after a redshirt season) and a handful of others, the shuffling of the roster — and recruitment of versatile players like Farley, Russell, and McDaniel (who will also spend more time in the defensive backfield) — has helped the Irish weather the storm as well as they can while they’ve put their focus on filling other noticeable roster holes (defensive end, outside linebacker, and wide receiver, to name a few.)

If you expected Brian Kelly to cry poor in preseason because of his untested depth chart, you don’t know anything about the third-year Irish coach. But if you listen carefully, you get the sense that Kelly knows what he has in his defensive backfield. After expressing how terrible he feels for Wood, who had an incredible offseason and put himself in a position to perform well this season, Kelly spoke of his confidence in the untested depth behind the injured junior.

“I feel really good about the other five corners that we have as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve got five scholarship corners that we believe can play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful. So we’ll move forward at that position. I think we have enough depth there to play very good football.”

In the past Kelly has talked about how he evaluates his roster. There’s a three-pronged rating system that he uses to evaluate players on his roster. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

Digging deeper into that quote, you get the feeling that the five cornerbacks might not garner many threes, but their ability to “play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful,” lets you behind the curtain on the internal evaluation process, and gives you a clue of what to expect out of the Irish defense as they protect their liabilities, something defensive coordinator Bob Diaco talked about on Media Day.

“The biggest thing that’s going to impact the style of defense that we play is the secondary and who’s in there,” Diaco told Jack Nolan at UND.com. “If particular guys are in there, we may need to manage the game which will create a different pattern of calls.”

Diaco made these comments before the loss of Wood, giving you an insight into the thought process even before the junior went down. But with one less hand on deck, it’ll be the defense’s ability to protect the secondary not just by coverage choices but by pressure in the front seven, that’ll determine whether the Irish defense can withstand its difficult 2012 schedule.

Until then, Diaco, Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have some work to do.

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 79 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 275 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Incoming freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Largely due to signing four offensive linemen a cycle ago, Notre Dame’s line reserves are well-stocked. Junior Liam Eichenberg will start at left tackle with sophomore Robert Hainsey at right tackle, and some combination of those now-sophomores backing them up. Thus, Mabry is a ways down the depth chart presently.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Mabry chose the Irish over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana and Memphis when he committed a year before he expected to sign. If he had not been so firm in his commitment, it is conceivable he would have been chased by the likes of Arkansas, where his grandfather played and his uncle was an All-American offensive tackle.

QUOTE(S)
If Mabry has slipped below anyone’s radar, it is only because December’s early signing period feels so long ago already. Back then, recruiting coordinator Brian Polian spoke of the development awaiting Mabry in a collegiate weight program.

“I think Mabry and [fellow early-signee John Dirksen] in terms of their length and their size [are underrated],” Polian said. “These are going to be really big men that can move their feet. He weighs 270 right now, is he going to get big enough? We have a great strength staff — the world is filled with big guys. Big and can move their feet and bend with athleticism. You recruit that and hand them over to [strength coordinator Matt] Balis and his staff and let nature take its course.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN MABRY’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Bringing in Mabry helps counteract the effects of losing two linemen to transfer in the 2017 offseason. He may not be a contributor from the outset, but the practice depth he provides is a value on its own, let alone the future possibilities he offers.

“… Mabry would enhance his future possibilities by becoming a utility knife of a lineman, a la Hunter Bivin. At some point, one of those can then become his specialty.”

2018 OUTLOOK
The only non-injury-related way for Mabry to find himself playing time this season would be to make an unexpected jump a la Hainsey a year ago, perhaps combined with Eichenberg regressing in preseason practice. Even then, Irish offensive line coach Jeff Quinn would likely be inclined to give Eichenberg time to improve before then turning to sophomore Josh Lugg.

Hainsey will stand as this generation’s exception to the rule of Notre Dame not starting freshmen offensive linemen. Not even Quenton Nelson saw playing time as a freshman, after all.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mabry joins the Irish a year after two touted tackles arrived, meaning he will have to outright impress Quinn and Kelly to earn a first-team role in the next few seasons. Just in discussing who might be the next man in along the offensive line in 2018, Quinn praised all three sophomores not named Hainsey.

“I would say the next group coming in would be [senior] Trevor Ruhland, Josh Lugg, another young man who has really gained a lot of confidence,” Quinn said in mid-April. “You look at guys like Aaron Banks and Dillan Gibbons, all those guys are in the mix. As their development continues to improve, their opportunities will come.”

Even if/when Mabry moves past those sophomores, Eichenberg and Hainsey each have three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Mabry will need to wait until 2021 to have a clean shot at starting at tackle, barring an early departure for the NFL from one of the current starters.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Freddy Canteen announces another transfer, leaving Notre Dame at 86 scholarships

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The hook when receiver Freddy Canteen transferred to Notre Dame was he would get a chance to face his former school to open the 2018 season with Michigan visiting Sept. 1. That storyline will go unfulfilled after Canteen announced another transfer Friday afternoon.

Canteen graduated from Michigan in only three years, leaving him two seasons of eligibility when he joined the Irish. A torn labrum ended his 2017 season after only three games, meaning he could have hopes for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA and retain that year of eligibility wherever he lands. He finishes his time at Notre Dame with one catch for seven yards.

A shoulder injury also truncated Canteen’s 2015 season and eliminated his 2016 while with the Wolverines. The former consensus four-star prospect hoped to be healthy enough with the Irish to showcase his speed, the primary allure he immediately brought to the roster.

His most-recent injury allowed the likes of Chase Claypool and Michael Young to move well past Canteen on the depth chart, while senior Chris Finke’s reliability served as a direct foil to Canteen’s injury history. Without this newest transfer, it is unlikely Canteen would have seen much competitive action in 2018.

Notre Dame now has 86 projected scholarships for the fall, one above the NCAA maximum allowed.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson first reported Canteen’s pending transfer.

FREDDY CANTEEN 99-TO-2
No. 11
Listed Measurements:
6-foot, 192 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year graduate with two possible seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, depending on the NCAA’s view of his injury history.
Depth chart: Currently a second-stringer behind sophomore Michael Young, Canteen could have fallen further down the depth chart quickly this summer with the arrival of four highly-touted freshmen receivers.
Recruiting: Canteen first chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014, as the No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com.

CAREER TO DATE
2014: 10 games, two starts; five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start before an injury ended his season; one reception for no gain.
2016: No action.
2017: Three games, one start; one catch for seven yards. Again, injury-shortened.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen’s if-healthy speed and experience made him an easy player to praise for receivers coach Del Alexander this spring.

“Freddy is playing fast,” Alexander said in late March. “He’s coming off an injury, but at the same time, he knows what to do. Freddy is also the guy that had limited mistakes when you count them over the last couple practices. He knows what to do, it’s just a matter of where he is and how he uses his strength and the strength to keep separation. … We’ve got to do something to use our hands and our arms to create separation because there is some hesitation there because he is still recovering.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“He should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) [Former Notre Dame receivers Kevin] Stepherson or [Cam] Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

“That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Canteen’s future depends more on his health than on where he opts to transfer. No matter where that is, the last line of his announcement rings loudly. “My primary focus will be to prepare for a career that expands beyond football.” Perhaps Canteen realizes there will not be much waiting for him at the next level of the sport.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 208 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: It would be quite a reach for Jones to crack the receiver rotation this season. It is not necessarily a deep position group, but there are four somewhat-established options in seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, junior Chase Claypool and sophomore Michael Young. Rather than give Jones spot minutes behind them along with junior Javon McKinley and sophomore Jafar Armstrong, it is more likely the Notre Dame coaches opt to preserve a year of Jones’ eligibility.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 36 receiver in the country, Jones committed to the Irish in February of 2017, a full year before he expected to be able to sign. That choice included looking past offers from half the Big Ten and both participants in the Egg Bowl.

QUOTE(S)
Enrolling early gives any player a head start, but that does not mean adjusting to the demands of college football is inherently easy, especially considering the somewhat isolating nature of being one of only seven freshmen rather than one of 27 and the sole receiver instead of one of four.

“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander said in late March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. His advantage won’t show up until we get to [preseason] camp.

“So for him, we’re not going to slow down, because we have a veteran group. He’s chasing his tail and trying to chase everybody out in front of him.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN JONES’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Jones’ size and strong hands made him a priority for Notre Dame. In today’s version of football, no team can have enough receivers, but Jones is more than simply a fill-in.

“… One of [Jones or fellow-signee Kevin Austin] is likely to spend 2018 preserving a year of eligibility, just given Irish coach Brian Kelly’s track record. Looking at Boykin and Claypool as comparable to Jones, at least in size, it seems likely he spends the year on the sideline.”

2018 OUTLOOK
The best chance for Jones to find playing time this fall is to earn it on special teams. He is not much of a speed threat yet, but he is far from slow and has the size to serve a role on the kickoff coverage unit.

If Jones does see competitive time at receiver, that will almost assuredly be the result of injuries further up the depth chart. Otherwise, if he is partaking in special teams, he may as well also get some work in mop-up duties and perhaps notch a handful of catches for a few dozen yards.

DOWN THE ROAD
Jones arrives as part of a stellar receiver class, one of four who cover every angle of the position from size to speed. While Boykin, Finke and Claypool each will have only one more year of eligibility after this fall, a bit of an eligibility and experience gap exists between them and this freshman class. Only McKinley, Young and hybrid-running back Armstrong fill out that interim, a byproduct of former Irish receiver Kevin Stepherson’s exit.

Thus, Jones will be competing with Austin and, to some extent, Lenzy to become the next sideline and red-zone threat. Even in 2019, one of the trio should emerge as the primary back-up to Boykin and/or Claypool, if both in fact return to Notre Dame for their final years of eligibility.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 227 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: The combination of a memorable Citrus Bowl showing and a strong spring set up Boykin as Notre Dame’s top receiver, presumably starting isolated on the boundary.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit from the greater Chicago area, Boykin chose the Irish over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin’s career stats do not precipitate an undisputed top receiver. Nonetheless, his New Year’s Day showing clearly illustrated why Boykin will probably start 2018 in that role. Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book targeted him six times with both Kevin Stepherson (suspension) and Chase Claypool (shoulder) sidelined. Boykin caught three of those passes, all first downs, for 102 yards and a 55-yard game-winning touchdown in which he displayed jumping abilities, strong hands and quick acceleration.

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games; six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
2017: 12 games; 12 catches for 253 yards and two scores. Named Citrus Bowl MVP.

QUOTE(S)
March and April were filled with praise of Boykin from both Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and receivers coach Del Alexander. Even when discussing the Irish secondary, Kelly’s focus turned toward the troubles Boykin gave those defensive backs.

“I want to defend Miles Boykin better,” Kelly said following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, a day in which Boykin caught three passes for 132 yards and one touchdown. “He was obviously an issue. … If we were playing against a Miles Boykin, we would play a little differently, and he would get a lot more help.”

Throughout the spring, Kelly insisted Boykin was on a different level than the rest of the receivers, even on days when Claypool was at his best.

“They’re not in the same category,” Kelly said in late March. “[Boykin] is a guy who can defeat one-on-one coverage and get you out of a loaded box by just throwing a fade to him. Those guys don’t have that and we’re not asking them. We didn’t recruit them for that purpose. We recruited Miles for that and he’s giving that to us.

“If you drop an eighth hat [in the box] and you’re going to leave him one-on-one into the boundary, you’re going to have to deal with him going up and getting the football. We think he can take it away from anybody.”

In Alexander’s mind, Boykin’s progress started in the offseason immediately following the highs of the Citrus Bowl.

“He’s using his quickness, he’s using his size and length, he’s using his explosiveness,” Alexander said. “That comes from his conditioning and his experience in the offense.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Boykin’s [2017 spring] rise to the top of the depth chart was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

“If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable.”

2018 OUTLOOK
One catch does not a career make, no matter how dramatic and well-timed it was. Before Boykin’s winning play, he had largely disappointed in 2017, to such a degree it cannot be traced entirely to Notre Dame’s inconsistent quarterback play. If 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns was the expectation, then Boykin only came near it due to others’ absences in the bowl game. Otherwise, his season likely would have finished with only nine grabs for 151 yards and one score.

Finding the balance between those lackluster numbers and another touted spring is a difficult line to toe. The top Irish receiver should end up with an absolute minimum of 35 catches, 500 yards and half a dozen touchdowns, and that would be within a very balanced offense. Kelly made it quite clear this spring, he expects Boykin to be his top receiver. Thus, those should be the projected minimums for his senior year.

If sophomore Michael Young or Claypool excels in the fall, combined with Boykin again underwhelming, then those numbers will be but a pipe dream. As much as Boykin’s third career touchdown should be remembered for a long time, it does not guarantee great things will quickly follow. Nor does springtime excellence. Only fall Saturdays determine such.

DOWN THE ROAD
It is within the realm of possibility Boykin’s improved bench press maximums and quicker burst lead to a distinguished 2018. At his height and with that speed, he could opt to test the NFL waters. More likely, Boykin will return for a fifth year, which the coaching staff will certainly be grateful for.

Even with the likes of junior Javon McKinley, Claypool, early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones and incoming-freshman Braden Lenzy threatening to become the preferred big target of whomever is throwing passes for Notre Dame, having a veteran who has dealt with NFL-quality cornerbacks is a luxury not to be passed up, and Boykin already fits that description thanks to LSU’s secondary. That aspect of Boykin’s résumé will be further bolstered from the outset of 2017, considering the overall strength of Michigan’s defense.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior