Notre Dame filled a hole left over from the previous recruiting cycle with consensus three-star cornerback Joe Wilkins, Jr., (North Fort Myers High School, Fla.) committing Monday and becoming the first cornerback in this class after none signed in 2017.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound recruit also plays receiver these days, but his eyes are on Notre Dame’s defense, he told Blue & Gold Illustrated after his visit to see the Irish beat Wake Forest this past weekend.
“They don’t have any freshman corners right now,” Wilkins said. “I’m definitely going to get a chance to play early and to compete for a spot.”
Indeed, Notre Dame has four productive cornerbacks all with two more years of eligibility after this season, but no one stands between them and Wilkins. With that in mind, projecting next season’s depth chart is a simple task and quickly includes Wilkins.
Soph. Julian Love — 2 years eligibility remaining after 2017
Senior Nick Watkins — 1 year eligibility remaining after 2017
Junior Shaun Crawford — 2 years (nickel starter)
Soph. Donte Vaughn — 2 years
Wilkins — 4 years
Troy Pride — 2 years
The 19th commitment to Notre Dame in the class of 2018, Wilkins chose the Irish over offers from Michigan State, South Carolina, North Carolina State and a litany of others. He joins two safeties in the class, consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.)
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Dabo Swinney paid tribute to the late Tyler Trent in his speech while Clemson visited the White House 🙏
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.
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 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
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.