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’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.