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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, a competition between Wimbush and Book … and Davis?

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Notre Dame will hold a quarterback competition this spring. That much is clear, and necessary. Given it is only spring practice, though, the odds are extremely slim any result comes from the competition before August.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Brandon Wimbush, rising junior Ian Book and rising sophomore Avery Davis.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec.

Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s playmaking abilities or ease in creating with his legs have never been points of concern, but if he does not improve as a passer, he could find himself leading the second-unit by the end of this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Come Monday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly may indicate it is a three-man spring competition, including Davis, but it is more likely Wimbush and Book get the focus. The depth chart possibilities are rather obvious: One will be the starter and the other will be his backup.

For these concerns, Jurkovec is not factored in much. This is a spring outlook, after all, and he will not join the mix until the summer. Even then, it will remain unlikely a freshman takes the reins by the start of September.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Obviously the QB battle will be the most-watched story of the offseason. Much of the narrative seems to focus on Wimbush, Book and Jurkovec. Where does Avery Davis stand? Can he force his way into the conversation? — Taylor G.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Kelly praised Davis during bowl preparations, citing his multi-faceted attack making life difficult for the defense.

“He’s efficient with the football, [a] very strong runner,” Kelly said in mid-December. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

If willing to open the quarterback spot up to a competition, even if expecting it to be open to only Book and possibly to Jurkovec, then Kelly has already opened the door for Davis. That first decision was the more difficult one to reach. It mandates change, and as we all know, change is hard. If change is on the table, Davis is a possibility, just not as likely a one as Book considering Davis didn’t get to offer Citrus Bowl heroics.

Avery Davis (rivals.com)

It seems that most people have forgotten about Avery Davis. In most of the articles I’ve read, everyone talks about Wimbush, Book or Jurkovec, but nowhere has there been mention of Davis potentially pushing for the starting job. I seem to remember hearing or reading somewhere that he was tearing it up while running the scout team, which I realize doesn’t mean much, but he received some high praise from coach Kelly during the season. Considering he now as a year in [offensive coordinator] Chip Long’s system under his belt, why do you think he’s been the forgotten one in this situation and do you think he has a realistic shot to push for the starting job? — Ron M in South Bend, Ind.

Davis has been forgotten because it has been so long since he was seen in a competitive environment. Wimbush dazzled throughout September and October. Book proved himself more than competent at North Carolina and in the Citrus Bowl. Even Jurkovec spent the fall putting up gaudy numbers in the WPIAL.

Davis was busy challenging Notre Dame’s starting defense, learning opponents’ offensive schemes and remaining a practical fourth on the depth chart behind former walk-on Montgomery VanGorder due to the goal of eligibility preservation.

“When you’re a quarterback and you have to redshirt, it’s hard for a lot of guys, because when you’re used to being the guy and you have to sit him down for a little bit, it’s tough,” Irish quarterbacks coach Tom Rees said Feb. 7. “He did a great job mentally getting himself reading for those practices in the winter. He was able to go out there and execute the offense and move the team and play at a high level.”

Could that become a contributing role in 2018? It is not impossible, but it seems unlikely. Davis was never considered as a challenge to Book in 2017. If he was, that season on the sidelines would not have been as assured from the outset as it was. Much like outstanding defensive linemen, a quarterback challenging for a spot in the two-deep from the first day of his freshman year is not likely to stay in college for five years anyway, so preserving a year of eligibility is a pointless cause. A quarterback behind two others, however, might end up needing that fifth year.

Davis does some things well: He is another athletic option, possibly the mid-point between Wimbush’s big-play running ability and Book’s knack for getting a first down with his legs when available. Nonetheless, Davis still needs to develop, and unless that occurs much quicker than expected, his role in 2018 will likely be a minimal one.

“When you watch him work out this winter, he’s taking another step in his comfort level,” Rees said. “… I’m really excited to see what he can do when he’s given more reps. I think he does a great job of moving the offense. He understands, here’s my easy throw, I’m going to take it and we’re going to get a completion and keep going. He has a great understanding of how to run the show.

“Now it’s let’s develop these other characteristics. Let’s develop these other traits, this deeper understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

In an effort to get the best athletes on the field, do you start Book, move Wimbush to some sort of jack-of-all-trades offensive player and let Davis be the backup? — Philip Q.

No.

Let’s rephrase the question: In an effort to get the best athletes on the field, do you move the only quarterback with experience to a role he has never played before, risk alienating him as a senior, not to mention more of the locker room, and hand the offense to two players with almost no experience and certainly lower ceilings?

Perhaps that is being dramatic, but it is an attempt to underscore the logical issues with the thought experiment. Arguing to move Wimbush to running back or receiver is something of a lazy approach. He has never played either position. Book has hardly played, and in his time has thrown an interception once every 18.75 attempts. Context: Wimbush threw an interception once every 45.83 attempts last season.

Frustration with Wimbush’s accuracy issues and overall progression as a passer is well-founded, but there has been little evidence Book is a significantly option in those regards. Even in yards per attempt, Book averaged 6.09 yards while Wimbush averaged 6.8 yards.

The only passing statistic in which Book outshines Wimbush is in completion percentage, 61.3 percent compared to 49.5 percent, but a sample size asterisk must be included with that note, as Book attempted only 75 passes last year, a full 200 fewer than Wimbush.

Again, Wimbush needs to improve as a passer, but moving him to a skill position away from center does not necessarily improve Notre Dame’s passing game. Book is not a proven commodity.

Thus, the risk of Wimbush not fitting at running back or receiver, of Wimbush becoming upset over the move, and/or of Book’s inexperience showing itself makes the concept of such a positional move an extremely flawed one.

One more note:
Again, today’s thinking does not much include Jurkovec. This space will likely maintain skepticism a freshman will take the reins on day one of Kelly’s ninth season, but if both Wimbush and Book fail to complete 50 percent of their passes in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, perhaps that thinking will change.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Wimbush: 1,870 yards on 136-for-275 passing with 16 touchdowns; 944 yards on 112 rushes with 14 touchdowns (sacks adjusted).
Book: 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing with four touchdowns; 207 yards on 37 rushes.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson
Defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties
Offensive line, a search for a fifth starter

As always, further reader questions are welcomed 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.