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Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future

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We learned the working definition of a modern record is anything after the start of World War II. Why is such a designation necessary? Well, the Irish modern record for rushing touchdowns in one game is 10, set against Dartmouth in 1944. The actual highest number? That is the casual 27 rushing touchdowns Notre Dame scored against American Medical in 1905.

We learned this rendition of the Irish will not fold at the first sign of adversity, last week’s defeat, or the second, Saturday’s subpar first half.

We learned it will be a long, long season in Chestnut Hill as Eagles head coach Steve Addazio has to worry more and more about his long-term employment prospects.

What else did we learn from Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory?

If the Irish passing attack is to find any consistency, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush must first find some accuracy. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

The Irish passing game is nowhere near ready to win a game.
Throwing for only 96 yards on 27 attempts cannot be explained away on any one player’s or position’s shoulders. Neither Wake Forest nor Northern Illinois have threatening or dynamic offenses, yet they threw for 151 yards and 203 yards, respectively, against Boston College. Neither figure is astounding, but both show just how dismal the Notre Dame aerial attack was.

Wimbush was never sacked, and Eagles senior defensive end Harold Landry never truly threatened him, so perhaps the offensive line should be excused from this conversation this week.

Rather, the questions now surround both Wimbush and the receivers. He was not accurate Saturday, but even if he had been, his playmakers were not getting open.

“Our passing game will have to be better, and I think that means not necessarily just from the quarterback position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re going to have to make some catches that are contested. We’re going to have to step up and make some big plays at the receiver position and assisting our quarterback.”

Wimbush finished 11-of-24 with one interception off a deflected pass, tipped by junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. On that route, St. Brown was open downfield and Wimbush missed his target. That said, it could be argued St. Brown could have made the play. What’s that old saying? If you can touch it, you can catch it.

Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown finished with only one catch for three yards on at least eight targets. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

That trope is not entirely true, and perhaps applying it on that particular play is being overly-critical of St. Brown. That pass was a reach, but as a whole, the sentiment rings true. Supposedly the offense’s best downfield threat, St. Brown finished with one catch for three yards, a second-down screen midway through the second quarter. A quick look through the play-by-play shows at least seven more passes intended for St. Brown. Some of those tie to Wimbush throwing the ball where his guy can catch it. Some of those tie to his guy, well, catching it.

“There’s a couple catches out there that some of those guys need to make for him,” Kelly said. “There’s a little bit of inaccuracy there, where [Wimbush is] a little rushed at times, where he’s just got to settle into the game.”

As a unit, the receivers made three catches for 11 yards, sophomore Chase Claypool providing the other two for eight yards in his first career start. A receiving corps accounting for three receptions on any given night is as much a sign of poor route running, a lack of separation and a subpar performance as it is of a quarterback’s accuracy issues.

For his part, Wimbush shouldered all responsibility. To be clear, he should have, both because that is what a mature leader does and because a good amount of Saturday’s inabilities to pass trace to his performance.

“The offensive line did a [great] job again, and the receivers of getting open, and the backs,” he said. “They all did a great job. I’ve just got to understand that I’ve been playing quarterback for a very long time now, and it’s natural to me, and understand that and get these guys the ball.”

The lone bright spot in the passing game may have been junior tight end Alizé Mack. He entered Saturday with four catches for 58 yards on the season. Against Boston College, Mack was the closest thing to a safety valve available to Wimbush, catching five passes for 43 yards.

While waiting on the passing game, Notre Dame can lean on its rushing game.
Especially in the next three weeks, the Irish should be able to keep games close enough to not need to resort to a desperate two-minute offense or need to score three times in one quarter. If those games are not close, it would logically be because Notre Dame finds itself a lead as it did against the Eagles.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush

If Boston College is routinely lauded for its habit of playing the Irish tough, then next week’s matchup against Michigan State should elicit similar conversations, perhaps underscored with a touch of, “Weird things happen in Spartan Stadium.”

Turning to the running game should again help Notre Dame limit the physical opponent’s ability to dictate the game’s terms.

“Our endurance, mental and physical endurance, was just a little bit better than [Boston College’s] today,” Kelly said. “… We were able to exert ourselves today longer and come up with some big plays.”

For that to continue to be the case, it will be done by the Irish running game.

Nice to meet you, Mr. Crawford.
When recruited three years ago, junior cornerback Shaun Crawford was one of the highest-rated defensive back prospects to land at Notre Dame in recent history. Though only 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds these days, he remains one of the Irish defenders with the highest ceiling.

When healthy.

Crawford lost each of his first two seasons to injury. The second of those, a torn Achilles, could hamper an athlete’s explosiveness for a long time to come. That possibility tempered expectations of Crawford this offseason.

His performance against Boston College may warrant those expectations to again be uninhibited. Two interceptions and a recovered fumble fit the playmaking hopes the Irish coaching staff always had for Crawford, tracing back to that recruitment.

His reemergence may allow sophomore cornerback Julian Love to chip in more often at safety. Between Crawford and senior Nick Watkins, Notre Dame has two viable cornerbacks in addition to Love.

Field position is a problem. Special teams are not holding their own.
Notre Dame’s punt return unit might as well be non-existent. Junior Chris Finke returned four for all of five yards, fair catching three more. The Irish did not return any kicks.

Looking at possessions beginning off an opponent’s foot — as in, not turnovers or turnovers on downs — Boston College started its average possession at its 28.5-yard line. Notre Dame started eight yards further back than that.

That may not seem like much, but it essentially means the Eagles needed to gain one fewer first down every trip down the field toward pay dirt.

Field position matters. The Irish special teams are not helping that cause.

The defense’s future is bright.
There are nine games left in 2017. With bowl eligibility, 10 more games. Let’s skip the pipe dream of 11 more games and get to the point here.

Any discussion of 2018 is not to look past those 10 remaining games. It is simply an acknowledgement of the seasons to come. In the next of those, all of Notre Dame’s defensive line will be eligible to return with the exception of current-senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. These days, Trumbetti is part of a three-man rotation filling the two end spots along with sophomore Daelin Hayes and senior Jay Hayes, no relation.

Led by its youth, the Notre Dame defense limited Boston College and Eagles running back Jon Hilliman during the Irish 49-20 victory Saturday. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sophomore Julian Okwara has cracked that rotation and, more pertinent to this conversation, will be a promising complement to the younger Hayes in 2018 and 2019. Okwara finished Saturday with three tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. His quickness and nose for the ball will continue to make an impact these next few months. More than that, they should readily fill the void left by Trumbetti next season.

Similarly, junior linebacker Te’von Coney has exceeded expectations to this point. Unlike Okwara, Coney is doing it in a primary role, rather than in limited, supplementary spots. Entering the weekend, he trailed only senior linebacker Nyles Morgan in tackles. With 13 takedowns of Eagles, compared to Morgan’s nine, Coney now leads the Irish with 25 this season.

His role will only expand, both this year and next.

Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart, a touch lighter with D.J. Morgan’s intended transfer

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With the Wednesday announcement of current junior linebacker D.J. Morgan’s intention to transfer this summer as a graduate with two years of eligibility remaining, Notre Dame’s roster drops to 87 scholarship players expected this coming fall. Included among them, at least 12, possibly 14 linebackers. Before explaining that …

Morgan finishes his Irish career with two tackles in two 2017 appearances as a safety. He moved to linebacker during 2018’s spring practices, but never came particularly close to playing time. It remained difficult to see him cracking into the rotation moving forward given the quality of recruiting classes at the position in the last two cycles.

“I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame for everything they have done for me,” Morgan wrote on Twitter. “When I decided to come here, my main goal was to get my degree from this prestigious University, and I am proud to see that I will be completing that goal this summer!

“During this time I will be searching for a new school to attend as a graduate transfer to finish off my last 2 years of eligibility.”

(@deundraymorgan)

Before facing Louisville on Labor Day, the Irish will need to be down to 85 scholarship players. At 87 now, that does not include incoming freshman J.D. Bertrand, who had a recruitment handled in a deliberate fashion so as to make him eligible for an academic scholarship. Notre Dame also continues to chase two defenders — consensus four-star linebacker Asa Turner and consensus four-star defensive end Isaiah Foskey — who could balloon the roster count further.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason

Keep that necessary attrition in mind as realizing how many players are at certain positions.

DEFENSIVE END (9)
Julian Okwara — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Khalid Kareem — Senior — 1
Daelin Hayes — Senior — 1
Ade Ogundeji — Senior — 2
Justin Ademilola — Sophomore — 4
Jamir Jones — Senior — 1
Kofi Wardlow — Junior — 3
NaNa Osafo-Mensah — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Howard Cross — Incoming freshman — 4

If not for Ademilola’s impressive 2018, it would be easy to presume a four-man rotation next season, but appearing in the Cotton Bowl all-but guarantees Ademilola will be in the mix.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE (6)
Kurt Hinish — Junior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3
Jayson Ademilola — Sophomore — 3
Ja’Mion Franklin — Sophomore — 4
Jacob Lacey — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Hunter Spears — Early-enrolled freshman — 4

Lacey will need to be ready for at least four games next season, especially with three of these six returning from injury: Tagovailoa-Amosa with a broken foot, though he did at least take some snaps against Clemson; Franklin from a torn quad that will limit him through the spring; and Spears from a torn ACL that could conceivably cost him 2019.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
Asmar Bilal — Fifth-year in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Jordan Genmark-Heath — Junior — 2
Jonathan Jones — Senior — 2
Bo Bauer — Sophomore — 3
Jack Lamb — Sophomore — 4
Drew White — Junior — 3
Jack Kiser — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
J.D. Bertrand — Incoming freshman — 4

It was always going to be a long-shot for Morgan as soon as Bauer and Lamb arrived.

ROVER (5)
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3 years of eligibility remaining.
Shayne Simon — Sophomore — 3
Ovie Oghoufo — Sophomore — 3
Marist Liufau — Incoming freshman — 4
Osito Ekwonu — Incoming freshman — 4

Owusu-Koramoah lost 2018 to injury, making this something of a toss-up between him and Simon for a spring competition chasing the starting role, presuming Bilal does indeed move inside as expected.

Alohi Gilman’s 18 tackles in the Cotton Bowl loss should set him up for an offseason of further development and possible captaincy. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

SAFETIES (8)
Alohi Gilman — Senior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Jalen Elliott — Senior — 1
Devin Studstill — Senior — 1
Houston Griffith — Sophomore — 3
Derrik Allen — Sophomore — 4
Paul Moala — Sophomore — 3
Kyle Hamilton — Incoming freshman — 4
Litchfield Ajavon — Incoming freshman — 4

CORNERBACKS (8)
Troy Pride — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Donte Vaughn — Senior — 1
TaRiq Bracy — Sophomore — 3
Shaun Crawford — Fifth-year — 1, with possibly another after that if the NCAA grants a medical waiver.
D.J. Brown — Sophomore — 4
Noah Boykin — Sophomore — 4
Isaiah Rutherford — Incoming freshman — 4
K.J. Wallace — Incoming freshman — 4

Someone needs to be Notre Dame’s second cornerback, be that Vaughn, Bracy or a healthy Crawford. Someone also needs to be the Irish nickel back, perhaps Bracy, Crawford or a converted safety.

The questions at cornerback have multiple talented answers, if unproven or uncertain. They should prove to be the most pivotal to Notre Dame’s 2019 success or failure.

 

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

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.