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And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

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Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …

DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.

From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.

Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.

Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.

Then-junior receiver Austin Proehl caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, but a left arm/shoulder injury ended his 2017 after only four games with 16 catches, 270 yards and one touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.

It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.

Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has rushed for four touchdowns to complement his five scores through the air. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?

The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.

With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.

North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.

The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.

Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.

This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.

So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.

The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.

Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.

It will likely take more heroic efforts like this for the Tar Heels to challenge Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, this is just a cool photo. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.

I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame brings back the most important NFL possibilities in Kareem & Okwara

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This is not to diminish the losses of receiver Miles Boykin and consensus first-team All-American cornerback Julian Love. Notre Dame will miss both of them, Love in particular. But looking at the Irish depth chart, there are avenues to survival without both.

Notre Dame will return two starting receivers in rising senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year-to-be Chris Finke (speaking of which, see below). A number of options exist to replace Love, though obviously none will match his shutdown abilities. Either rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy will put on the necessary muscle to compete with receivers at this level or rising senior Donte Vaughn will return reinvigorated with health after recent surgery to repair a torn labrum surgery or rising sophomore Houston Griffith will move from safety to get his talent on the field or fifth-year Shaun Crawford will recover from an ACL tear quicker than expected or … or … or … If one of those pans out, the Irish defense should be comfortable in its coverage, buoyed by the stalwart safety combination of Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. (Imagine sincerely saying “stalwart safety combination” just six months ago.)

Look again at the depth chart, and such luxuries do not exist at defensive end. If rising seniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara had not opted to return, Notre Dame’s 2019 dreams would have hit a lowered ceiling nine months before the season began. By no means were they certain high-round draft picks, but the allure of athletic and talented defensive ends may have easily led to some outsized draft hopes.

Their backups are certainly more than capable — rising seniors Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji — but a talented second-unit is as important at defensive end as dangerous starters are. To replace the latter with the former is to diminish the entire enterprise outright.

The Irish could not have recovered from losing both Kareem and Okwara, at least not to the extent where Playoff talk would be viable again. Lose one and it would have still been dubious, at best.

Take a look at the teams expected to be in the mix for the Playoff. Using current championship odds … Clemson at 2-to-1, Alabama at just less than 3-to-1, Georgia at 6-to-1, Ohio State at 8-to-1, Michigan at 16-to-1 and then Oklahoma also at 16-to-1. Those first five have been known for their defenses more than anything else in recent years. Bookmakers put some faith in their ability to reload on the fly.

Notre Dame has not earned that trust, and its roster does not indicate it should have. As well as Justin Ademilola performed as a freshman in four games, inserting him into a pivotal role in 2019 would likely be a recipe for a mediocre season. He is another year of development away from being ready for that role, barring a Matt Balis-induced excellent offseason.

The Irish will need Kareem and Okwara to survive the losses of defensive tackles Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner, but if they play as they did in 2018, that is a reasonable ask. If they continue to develop, it becomes a probability more than a Notre Dame leap of faith.

The Irish will miss Boykin’s back-shoulder reliability and everything about Love, but Brian Kelly and his coaching staff coaxed back the two most-pivotal pieces from NFL draft consideration.


Speaking of Finke, he confirmed his intent to return for his final year of eligibility Thursday evening. And he did it in a way only befitting a man comfortable in his own skin.


And for the sake of context: Notre Dame is currently listed at 25-to-1 for the 2019-20 national championship, tied with Florida and Washington, just behind Texas at 20-to-1.

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.