Friday at 4: This isn’t ‘Catholics vs. Convicts.’ It hardly ever was. But it already matters again.

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Notre Dame at Miami was not supposed to matter this year. It was merely going to be a chance to once again — for the fourth time in eight years — reminisce about the good ol’ days of the ‘80s. Perhaps the Irish or the Hurricanes could bolster their Camping World Bowl résumés, if not even catch the Citrus Bowl’s eyes. That would be an exceeding of expectations.

Miami finished 2016 with a victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl — formerly known as the Champ Sports Bowl and now the aforementioned Camping World Bowl. Mark Richt’s first season quieted the few doubters of his hiring, but it did not quite prove right those who believed from the outset in his return to his alma mater.

Notre Dame’s players spent December individually meeting with head coach Brian Kelly to discuss how to recover from a dismal 4-8 season. Many fans wanted to know only how Kelly still had a job.

This game was not supposed to matter. Publications were going to save on travel and cover it remotely. The few beat writers who made the trip southward could spend more time on the beach than preparing for the game. The talk of “Catholics vs. Convicts” would be soon followed by talk of how far away those years seemed from a football perspective.

Clearly, that is not the case. This is, quite literally, the greatest hurdle remaining for the Irish in the chase for a bid to the College Football Playoff. A loss would similarly dispatch the Hurricanes from those conversations.

Such a reversal is not usually this quick. Even if fans exercised the patience Kelly suggested they could have just earlier this week, that patience would have been considered short-tempered if it lasted through only this season.

Richt took over a program that had gone an even 16-16 in ACC play over the last four years. Contending for a conference crown, let alone a national title, in his second year seemed an outlandish proposition.

Take a look at Nebraska. Mike Riley would jump at these turnarounds. He hired Bob Diaco — yes, former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — to take over his defense with hopes similar to Kelly’s ideal scenarios with newly-hired Mike Elko. Elko is now a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. Diaco is belittling the tackling techniques taught by his predecessor.

This game was not supposed to hold any of the importance of those late ‘80s matchups. It was not supposed to further the spread of that lore. Yet, this matters as much as those “Catholics vs. Convicts” tilts did.

But this is not Catholics vs. Convicts. This is not a rivalry rekindled. This is not a return to a few raucous evenings three decades ago.

Notre Dame and Miami met every year from 1971 to 1990 except for 1986. The Irish went 13-6 in that stretch, though only 3-6 from 1981 to 1990. By the time that legendary 1988 game rolled around, the two teams could not stand each other. Familiarity really did breed contempt. Their successes came to be defined by each other.

“Who are you without your fierce rivals?” Patrick Creadon will ask rhetorically. Creadon is the director behind the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” released about a year ago. “You’re boring. You’re just some small program that doesn’t matter. Your heated rivals really are what define you as a program.”

Both independents, it made sense for Notre Dame and Miami to see each other every year. There was a rivalry, but it derived solely from the frequency of engagement, not actually from a perceived difference in cultures. The “Catholics vs. Convicts” angle was a catchy t-shirt phrase that caught attention because some considered it edgy.

“The thing about the film I’m really proud of, frankly, is I thought the t-shirt was awful,” Creadon said. “I really didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now. I think it smacks of bad sportsmanship and it’s very judgmental and it’s kind of hypocritical. All these awful things are kind of emblazoned across that shirt.”

Courtesy of Patrick Creadon.

There is an understandable irony to the director of the film criticizing the very catchphrase his documentary uses as its title. What was he supposed to call it? What if I told you Notre Dame and Miami played a football game in 1988 … just doesn’t set your DVR for you, does it?

Then the Hurricanes joined the Big East in 1991. They no longer needed the Irish to both bolster and fill up their schedule. That’s when the rivalry died. It didn’t die in a scuffle in a tunnel. It didn’t go over the edge when a special teams unit of only 10 men managed to block a punt. It died as everything dies in college football, with conference realignment.

It did not come back to life in the 2010 Sun Bowl. Held in El Paso, Texas, that event is absurdly, even bothersomely, close to both Juarez, Mexico, and New Year’s Eve. With snow outdoing the game’s namesake and Miami lacking a head coach, the Hurricanes looked so lackadaisical a spectator could have been forgiven for wondering how much the Dos Equis must have cost across the border the night before. (It was 75 cents a bottle, and the ‘Canes were nowhere in sight.)

Catholics vs. Convicts did not materialize in Solider Field in 2012 amidst a 41-3 Irish victory.

Aside from the premiere of Creadon’s work, the ethos of the late ‘80s was nowhere to be seen last year when Notre Dame bumbled its way to a 30-27 triumph, Miami’s last defeat to date.

This rivalry will not be renewed this weekend, not when the two teams are not scheduled to face off again for another seven years.

This is not Catholics vs. Convicts. It hardly ever was.

Thirty years ago, this was an annual game with many national implications. Somehow, that is what it is already again.

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.