Getty Images

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 22 Asmar Bilal, first-year starting rover

1 Comment

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Bilal has two seasons of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Bilal remains the likely starter at rover thanks to fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill’s move inward to Buck. There are other possibilities at rover, namely sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Isaiah Robertson, and if Bilal stumbles, either/or will be given a chance, especially since both have profiles more typical of defenders needing to deal with both the run and the pass, as is expected of the rover.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Bilal chose Notre Dame over Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, among many other offers. A U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rated him the No. 17 linebacker in the class of 2015, the No. 4 prospect in Indiana and the No. 246 overall player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Bilal saw consistent action in 2017, but never extensive time thanks to Tranquill’s reliable play. Similarly, Bilal’s 2016 was spent largely on special teams until the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder a third of the way into the season. At that point, Bilal saw more time, highlighted by five tackles against Stanford, but still never took over a primary role on the Irish defense.

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games; 29 tackles including three for loss with one sack.
2017: 13 games; 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.

QUOTE(S)
Of Notre Dame’s likely defensive starters against Michigan two months from today, only Bilal, junior defensive end Khalid Kareem and junior safety Alohi Gilman will be first-time Irish starters. Naturally, that leads to wondering if Bilal has the lead duties at rover locked up.

“At the end of the day, for me, my only responsibility is to put the most competitive 11 on the field,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in mid-April. “… [Bilal] has an edge from an experience standpoint right now, but that will be accounted for. At the end of the day, there will be plenty of opportunity from now until game one — who is the most productive there.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Bilal has all the physical tools to demand playing time this season, provided a grasp of [former Irish defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s playbook — that disclaimer is not Bilal-specific, simply a reality of bringing in a new coordinator. The biggest reason he may not be a primary contributor on defense in 2017 is the three starting linebackers (when lumping the rover in with the linebackers) are all established senior captains in Tranquill, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.

“Simply due to the need to understand the rover’s duties, Bilal will not be the first option considered to spell Morgan or Martini. He will, however, step in for Tranquill whenever necessary. That should be the bare minimum of expectations of Bilal this fall.

“The opposite end of that spectrum begins with Bilal excelling against the ground attacks of Temple and, even more so, Georgia. If he plays a vital part of shutting down the Bulldogs imposing and heralded [running backs] duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel while also showing more than competence [against] the passing game, Bilal could make it imperative he become the top option at rover.

“The reality will likely be somewhere between those two extremes, perhaps something along the lines of 45 tackles, highlighted by seven or eight against Georgia and Stanford each.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Suffice it to say, Bilal did not force the issue for Elko or Lea last season. Sure, that was in part thanks to Tranquill’s career year, but it also tied to a pattern seen from Bilal through two seasons of action. For a player who was widely-considered physically ready when he arrived at Notre Dame, Bilal’s potential has yet to translate to on-field production.

The optimistic view looks at Bilal as yet-unknown, despite being a senior. He has never had enough playing time to even make memorable mistakes. Perhaps all he has needed to shine is some time competing on Saturdays.

The pessimist reminds, Bilal has not seen time because he has not earned it, despite three years of supposed athletic readiness. Even when behind Tranquill at rover and the combination of Martini and Te’von Coney at inside linebacker, if Bilal proved himself set to contribute, he would have worked his way into the rotation. That is, after all, what led to Coney’s breakthrough last season.

Looking forward, the expectation should be the fruits of the middle ground. The realist’s view, in theory. Bilal will get first crack at rover snaps and, unless he falls flat on his face, he will have some leeway to prove himself. His natural athletic ability affords that gray area. If he reaches 50 tackles, consider it a success. If between tackles for loss, pass breakups and hands in turnovers he equals half Tranquill’s 2017 total of 18.5 notable plays, Bilal will have laid the groundwork for something more. Again, Tranquill’s season at rover was an exceptional one, no matter what some may argue otherwise.

Speaking of Tranquill, Bilal would be in the discussion to replace the starting Buck linebacker if injury were to befall him. Sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved from safety to that role late in spring practices, but Bilal also cross-trained there.

DOWN THE ROAD
Before Genmark-Heath made that move, Bilal appeared rubber-stamped to follow Tranquill’s footsteps from rover to Buck. The interior position would make all that much more sense for Bilal’s wide frame and strong tackling form. Genmark-Heath’s move does not eliminate the possibility, but it does create a conversation before the roster change is a sure thing.

With that in mind, this may be a prove-it year for Bilal at rover. If he does not play well, Owusu-Koramoah and incoming freshman Shayne Simon were recruited specifically for the roll while early-enrolled freshman Ovie Oghoufo and Robertson both make sense there, as well. Bilal has some runway to get up to speed and place a claim to 2019’s focus as rover, but it is not the length of the one featured in the pivotal scene of Fast and Furious 6. This runway is finite.

If Bilal gets passed up by one or two of those options and Genmark-Heath shines as a Buck-of-the-future in preseason practice, then a graduate transfer could be on the radar. That is not to encourage it, but if playing time with the Irish has dwindled, it could be in the best interest of both parties.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

Getty Images
8 Comments

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

Getty Images
15 Comments

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

Getty Images
12 Comments

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

Getty Images
55 Comments

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.