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As a National Signing Day primer, some mailbag questions

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Notre Dame knows its figurative floor for the class of 2018. Thanks to December’s early signing period, and the success the Irish had in that three-day span, adding a mere three commitments to the class tomorrow would make National Signing Day a success. With eight possibilities remaining on the board to varying degrees, reaching that mark seems rather likely.

Anything further would make it a banner week and the cycle as a whole a strong one for Notre Dame’s coaching staff. Pulling that off is even more notable when considering seven of the 10 assistant coaches were not yet with the Irish when the scholarship offers began flowing to the class of 2018.

In many regards, the early signing period rendered this February stretch relatively anticlimactic. While that may not be the case in each and every year to come, this first rendition sets a precedent.

With that in mind and few updates (read: none) to offer in the 24- to 48-hour window preceding the close to the recruiting cycle, let’s knock out a few broad recruiting questions.

RELATED READING: Whom might Notre Dame add to this recruiting class?
The pros, cons and math of Notre Dame signing more than 25 recruits

“Can you identify five-year transfers available for the Irish to sign? Any QBs?” — Kevin from Pasadena

“Regarding grad transfers, are we in the mix for Calvin Anderson and are we recruiting Tre Watson at all?” — The Dude

With just three commits signing along with consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) tomorrow, Notre Dame would reach 87 rostered players slated for the fall. Losing more than two to transfer, career-ending injury or dismissal is realistic, but expecting four or five begins to stretch the norms. Yet, the Irish may need exactly that to occur if Wednesday sees five new commitments.

Thus, do not expect any graduate transfers to arrive this summer. This is not like last year, when Notre Dame already knew its offensive line reserves may be in flux after spring practices and some roster spots could open up. This is, in fact, a first for the Irish. If being honest, it is a welcome first. It is also a nationwide norm.

“You just look at the culture of college athletics in general right now, people are transferring at a much higher rate than they did 10 years ago,” Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said in December. “… Let’s go under the assumption that there is going to be a little bit of turnover this year, and sometimes you don’t know who they are. Guys come in and surprise you.”

That absence of a graduate transfer at quarterback may seem like the abandonment of a possible bandage, but that would ignore two facts. First of all, there are not a plethora of bona fide quarterbacks looking to parachute in for one season. Secondly, the Irish do not lack quarterbacks. There are options — four, to be exact.

The same could largely be said of Anderson, a Rice tackle with transfer plans. While Notre Dame did touch base with him, he was not an inherent need and he has narrowed his focus to Michigan and Texas, with Auburn, Oklahoma and TCU on the fringe of his considerations.

Watson, a Cal running back, declared a want to transfer only two weeks ago. If he had been in the market the first week of January, perhaps the Irish would have chased him to fill the void in the depth chart left by the dismissals of sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes, but since then Notre Dame has aggressively pursued Georgia Tech commit C’Bo Flemister. Presuming Flemister flips to the Irish tomorrow, that would salve those issues well enough.

“What’s the story with Daniel Cage? Last I remember hearing, Kelly was going to reassess this January. Is he just done?” — NDIrishCO

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Cage’s return was always doubtful. If a concussion forces you to take off a season, then the long-term decision has somewhat been made for you.

Notre Dame’s hopes of North Carolina State-commit Derrick Eason finding his way to landing with the Irish is a symptom of that conclusion. If Cage had found unexpected health in September yet still spent 2017 on the sidelines, then he may have been a piece of the puzzle in 2018. Instead, finding another body like Eason’s to plug into the defensive line can provide some depth.

Admittedly, the return of current junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery already bolstered that depth to rather excellent levels. A healthy Cage at his best would have struggled to find much playing time amid Tillery, current senior Jonathan Bonner and freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, not to mention the latter’s two classmates, Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell.

“How come Notre Dame automatically does not get the best players in Indiana every year? There’s always only a handful of elite talent every year and you would think the flagship school in the state will automatically get them.” — ND16

Simply enough, you answered your own question. There are only so many players in Indiana that the Irish should be outright pursuing in the first place. In looking at both the current cycle and the class of 2017, only four players each year exceeded the average of Notre Dame’s signed players if measuring by ratings on rivals.com.

Last year, those four landed at Clemson, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Louisville. The last of those was cornerback Russ Yeast, and the Irish very much would have liked to reel him in, but he actually chose a school 50 miles closer to him.

This year, those four players have committed to Alabama, Michigan, Iowa and USC, not exactly shoddy football programs.

Even if bothered by the inclusion of Cincinnati and Iowa in those two lists, the sample size invalidates the argument. To point to one recruit’s decision each year as an indictment on Notre Dame’s recruiting is to completely disregard the natures of recruiting in general.

Further questions are always welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com

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.