Associated Press

Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster


It is simple: Between now and kickoff against Michigan on Sept. 1, Notre Dame’s roster will lose at least four players. The Irish coaches knew they were creating that situation when they signed six recruits on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, bringing the expected roster’s total to 89, four more than the NCAA maximum allowed in the season.

“We’re comfortable where we are,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’d go into this blindly without a plan, and so we feel pretty comfortable about where we are at this point.”

Logic says the Irish should feel pretty comfortable. The average summer includes a couple transfers (ex.: offensive linemen Parker Boudreaux and Tristen Hoge in 2017), a medical hardship (such as tight end Tyler Luatua) and, far more often than not, at least one dismissal from the team due to an academic or legal infraction. None of those situations would be influenced by roster size or coaching pressure. They are simply the realities of dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds.

If there is reason to think that attrition rate will slow this summer, it is only because it sped up this winter. Notre Dame has already logged a few transfers in receiver C.J. Sanders and defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, and Kelly promptly dismissed four players due to transgressions. While that transfer rate may still be within the norm, removing four bad apples from the mix now would, theoretically, indicate there are fewer to worry about moving forward.

To speculate about exactly whom the four (or more) to go may be is an exercise in futility. The peanut gallery does not know players’ academic standings, internal disciplines or personal thoughts. If, however, considering which players may want to look elsewhere for playing time considering the current Irish depth chart, Notre Dame would appear to have more bodies than available snaps at both linebacker and safety.

That competition will sort itself out during the spring and perhaps give a few players pause about their football futures with the Irish, and that is somewhat by design.

“Returning an experienced roster, wanting to solidify depth, [we wanted to] secure players that were going to be able to come in and compete and push that middle part of your roster forward,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said Wednesday in discussing the needs met by a defensive class of 14 early-enrolled or incoming freshmen.

“The only promise we make is the chance to compete, because we know at the end of the day, each player needs to be driven.”

Pushing that middle part of the roster was the impetus behind creating the roster crunch and expanding the recruiting class in hopes of finding a few more impact players. Kelly spoke of improving from “that 65th scholarship to the 85th scholarship.” Doing so should help prop up a tired team in the latter third of the season.

“This will strengthen our football team at that area, which sometimes goes unnoticed in the length of your season,” Kelly said. “We have to play better football in November, and that’s my job.”

To be sure, Notre Dame does need to hold up better in November. Over the last four seasons, the Irish are 23-8 in the season’s first two months, but only 7-10 in November. The injury-riddled season of 2014 and its 1-4 finish in November may skew that figure, but even a 6-6 rate pales in comparison to going 17-7 in the first two months the last three years.

Kelly’s “65 to 85” is more a catchphrase than necessarily an accurate expectation. A total of 80 players saw time in 2017, but if removing the 13 who appeared at the end of a blowout or two, 67 makes more sense. (The most notable member of those 13 is then-sophomore safety D.J. Morgan’s two appearances in September.)

In 2016, 70 players saw time, but only 64 saw legitimate time, even including then-sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford’s two games before an injury ended his season.

In 2015, 74 players took the field, but 64 is again the more accurate number, and that includes the likes of running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire and safety Drue Tranquill, all of whom played in fewer than three games due to season-ending injuries.

Admittedly, a more talented roster would likely see more players see competitive snaps, but by no means would that approach “65 to 85.”

For example, with 13 offensive linemen rostered, the hope would be to play no more than seven and if injury absolutely demands it, then eight. Those remaining five or six would not be asked to contribute on special teams, either, unlike the reserves at linebacker, safety and receiver. Two more names likely join such a list at quarterback, although which two that will be is a question for another day. Undoubtedly, some of the freshmen will preserve a year of eligibility outright. It may be a nit to pick, but “65 to 75” would be more accurate and, frankly, the concern is likely “55 to 70.”

Improving those 15 players will coincide with a stronger finish to 2018. As Notre Dame’s roster shrinks over the next six months, a want to improve the talent of the middle of the Irish roster will be forcing such attrition.

2017: 7-1 in September and October; 2-2 in November.
2016: 3-5 in September and October; 1-3 in November.
2015: 7-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2014: 6-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 1-4 in Nov.
2013: 6-2 in Sept. and Oct.; 2-2 in Nov.
2012: 8-0 in Sept. and Oct.; 4-0 in Nov.
2011: 5-3 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2010: 4-5 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-0 in Nov.

Brian Kelly at Notre Dame: 46-18 in Sept. and Oct., a .719 winning percentage, and 19-13 in Nov., a .594 winning percentage.

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.