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And In That Corner … The Georgia Bulldogs, led by freshman QB Jake Fromm

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Notre Dame does not often play SEC teams. Georgia’s arrival this weekend will be the first regular season game against such an opponent since the Irish hosted and beat Tennessee 41-21 in 2005, outscoring the Volunteers by 20 points in the fourth quarter.

To gain a better look into an SEC title contender, welcome Marc Weiszer. Marc has covered the Bulldogs for the Athens Banner-Herald since 2003.

DF: Let’s start with the big question. From your conversations in and around Athens, are as many Georgia fans making the trek northward as has been widely reported and advertised?
MW: Sure seems that way. Georgia’s allotment of 8,000 tickets (plus another 400 for the Redcoat Band) could hardly meet demand. With the Falcons playing in Chicago Sunday and the Cubs slated to have a Friday day game (since moved to night), thousands are making it a big sports weekend.

The week has been dominated by talk of freshman Jake Fromm stepping in for sophomore Jacob Eason at quarterback due to Eason’s knee injury. To my often-faulty memory, there were some rumblings of Fromm being a factor this season even if Eason was healthy. Was that just idle offseason speculation or was there something to that possibility?
Probably somewhere in between. Coach Kirby Smart set the scene of a competition this spring with Fromm pushing Eason for the job, but that was more about the freshman showing good leadership and having off-field habits of being a film room maven that I’m sure coaches would love any quarterback to emulate. Smart acknowledged Eason was the guy in July, but Fromm gave Georgia a more than capable backup and could be turned to if Eason faltered. Or, as we saw in the first quarter of the opener against Appalachian State, if injury knocked him out of the game.

Georgia sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason’s knee sprain will keep him out of action this weekend. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Has the injury to Eason drastically altered the mood around the program? Certainly no one on the team would ever admit such, but losing your starting quarterback must dampen expectations.
There’s been no noticeable “woe is us” type response. If anything, the way Georgia’s offense was energized after Fromm came in the game — three straight touchdown drives after punting on the first series — showed he could be more than just a placeholder until Eason comes back. Eason had a pretty good freshman season — 14 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, late fourth-quarter drives to win at Missouri and Kentucky — but his 55 percent completion percentage and not quite living up to the five-star hype left many looking for more this season from Eason.

From what you have seen of Fromm in practices and in Saturday’s 31-10 victory over Appalachian State, what are his distinct strengths? What about weaknesses, aside from being a true freshman suddenly thrown into the action?
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Fromm doesn’t have the size or probably the big arm that wows like Eason, but he showed last week his quick release can be effective and the Bulldogs used tempo with success in the 31-10 win. He seems to have the respect of his teammates and he’s more fiery than Eason who was encouraged to become more vocal. It’s a small sample size so far for Fromm so we’ll learn a whole lot more about him after Saturday night on that stage. Then again, he hit three home runs in the Little League World Series as a 13-year old playing for his Warner Robins, Ga. team. (See Fromm introduce himself at 0:13 in the below video.)

Against the Mountaineers, senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel split the carries almost exactly evenly. Chubb finished with 96 yards on 15 rushes and Michel took 16 chances for 87 yards. Was that distribution a symptom of a blowout or has offensive coordinator Jim Chaney already found the balance between the two heralded senior running backs?
There’s never really been any issue of a competition for carries. That’s probably because due to injuries to both during their careers, they’ve each had time as being the featured back.  They’re also roommates and best friends. Chubb is more of a workhorse, a pound-it, downhill runner. Michel may be more in the Reggie Bush or LeSean McCoy mold. Georgia will try to get him in the ball in space or line him up in the slot. They certainly give Chaney a chance to keep one fresh by turning to the other without skipping a beat.

The Bulldogs lost a majority of their offensive line from a year ago. Can that give Notre Dame fans some hope of stymieing the Chubb & Michel rushing attack?
Certainly. Even with Chubb and Michel, Georgia’s ability to run the ball rests on its offensive line getting push in the trenches. That’s not something they did often enough last year.

Georgia senior running back Nick Chubb. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Georgia lost three starters — including left tackle starter Tyler Catalina who made the Redskins’ roster as an undrafted free agent — but its best lineman remains in senior Isaiah Wynn, who shifted from left guard to left tackle. True freshman Andrew Thomas (6-5, 320) from Lithonia, Ga., won the starting right tackle job. Georgia has been rotating guards and should have first-time starters this week in sophomore Solomon Kindley and junior Kendall Baker.

Few teams can claim the return of nearly their entire defenses, especially all of their front-seven. Georgia can. What holes in the Bulldogs’ defense might the Irish look to exploit?
Look to the secondary. Georgia lost Alabama graduate transfer Maurice Smith who started at the star nickelback last season. Malkom Parrish, a senior who is arguably their best cornerback, is expected to miss his second straight game with a foot injury. Senior cornerback Aaron Davis is battling a hamstring injury but may play. The Bulldogs had some transfers that thinned its depth and now rely on inexperienced players as backups. There is young talent in five-star freshman safety Richard LeCounte.

If you will allow me a catch-all here, what other notes should Notre Dame fans be aware of or what particular players should they be on the lookout for this weekend?
Some Georgia defensive players appeared to have motivation for the Irish being picked as favorites in this game — opening at 6 ½ — and talk of all the Notre Dame tradition. Senior safety Dominick Sanders talked of “punishing them from the start,” and junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said the team is ‘ready to prove a point,” going up against Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. On offense, wide receiver Riley Ridley — brother of Alabama star Calvin Ridley — is coming off a one-game suspension and is a big-play threat. So is receiver Mecole Hardman, a sophomore converted from defensive back who players raved about this preseason for his speed and playmaking potential.

How do you expect Saturday to play out? I often use spreads as evaluation metrics and was surprised to see Georgia as that 6.5-point underdog. I did not expect a freshman at quarterback to sway the line that much. Would you expect a closer game than that?
This is a hard one to pick to a certain extent. How much should we make of a strong showing against Temple after the 4-8 season last year for Notre Dame? I can see either team winning by more than two touchdowns or the game going down to the wire. Georgia’s defense is a legit top 15 nationally and has a terrific run-stopper in junior tackle Trenton Thompson, but Fromm’s first start is a wild card.

Dare I ask for a score prediction? It seems I do.
Without much conviction, I’ll say Notre Dame 28, Georgia 24. Don’t call your bookie in Vegas based on this.

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.