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Leftovers & Links: On Phil Steele’s expectations for Notre Dame

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It begins innocently enough with a question from a dinner companion, “How good could Notre Dame be this year?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t started my deep dive yet, but I do think the defense could be pretty special.”

A few days later, the friend waiting on the cashier with you reaches for a conversational topic, “That Michigan game could be a fun one, huh?” Would any reasonable college football devotee reply negatively? Rather, attendance was encouraged; it should be a fun atmosphere.

A day or two after that, the mailbox is filled with college football preview magazines. Sure, Phil Steele’s annual brick arrived a few weeks ago, but its spine broke only this last week. The rest await that fate now.

If there is such a thing as a football offseason — and when discussing the Irish there is an easy argument against such a concept — those doldrums are quickly reaching their close. That became clear when Steele excited Notre Dame fans by declaring the Irish his “No. 1 surprise team” this season, essentially his preferred dark-horse title contender.

That may be a bit of a leap for a team considered 40:1 to win the national championship, but Steele cites nine returning defensive starters and a “stout” offensive line as enough when combined with a deceptively-favorable schedule.

Again, it is still only the second week of July. This scribe’s annual summer deep dive on every college football possibility with a focus on Notre Dame and its opponents does not commence for another week or two. That is a measure taken to preserve sanity. It is desperately needed.

Nonetheless, Steele’s broad strokes make sense, even if his finer points appear to contradict each other. His Irish pick hinges on its defense, already acknowledged as something to await with hope, but he considers the Notre Dame defensive line only the No. 21 up-front grouping in the country. Even if senior Te’von Coney and fifth-year Drue Tranquill are two of the top draft-eligible linebackers in the country, per Steele, the Irish linebacker unit rates as the No. 13 nationally, while the secondary is at No. 17. The first two of those ratings feel underrated, while Notre Dame’s unknowns at safety make that No. 17 spot feel a tad high.

If that defensive set is enough to drive a team into national title contention, one should really take notice of Michigan, Steele’s No. 4 surprise team and with a roster holding the No. 6 defensive line unit, the No. 12 set of linebackers and the top secondary.

That “stout” Irish offensive line Steele expects to drive Notre Dame will not keep it from a massive drop-off in the running game, per his computers. To some degree, that makes sense. The Irish could have a solid ground attack but still not come close to matching last year’s numbers. After all, Notre Dame did lose two offensive linemen to the NFL draft’s top-10 and a Heisman thought at running back to the Philadelphia Eagles.

A final piece to ponder as these conversations gain steam: Steele thinks Notre Dame “will have the most potent offense in [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly’s eight years.”

Such a possibility has not come up at dinner, at a cash register or in hours of mindless mental meandering. At least, not yet.

SHEFFIELD COMMITS FULLY
On Friday, rivals.com three-star receiver TJ Sheffield (Independence High School; Thompson’s Station, Tenn.) committed to Notre Dame … with a disclaimer: “My plans are to officially visit several colleges to confirm my decision and leave no regrets.”

In every way, that sounded like Sheffield was keeping his recruitment open, throwing doubt onto his understanding of the definition of commitment, although also a prudent strategy when making a life-changing decision. By Sunday evening Sheffield had changed his tune.

“After committing to the University of Notre Dame, I have decided to forego all of my recruitment/official visits with the exception of the one I spend with [Notre Dame],” he posted to Twitter. “Thanks again to all who have participated in my recruitment. #allin100%.”

December remains five full months away, but it appears Sheffield is on board with the Irish at this point.

“Fight On*”
Dan, the taskmaster mentioned in the “Leftovers” post of last week, signed an email with that farewell a few days later. A Notre Dame alum with an Irish football-loving father, it certainly stood out as unexpected, but that asterisk pointed to a footnote.

“*I use the stolen USC battle cry throughout the year after we beat them. Man, I hate when we lose to those guys; I become relegated to mundane and prosaic closings such as ‘Sincerely’ and ‘Regards’.”

You do you, Dan. It is a bold strategy, that’s for sure.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
A Notre Dame mailbag highlighted by an apology
Notre Dame lands both a QB and a WR commit on Fourth of July
Speedy Tenn. WR TJ Sheffield chooses Notre Dame over Ohio State
No. 20, Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior

OUTSIDE THE IRISH READING
Maryland athlete Cam Hart picks Notre Dame: It’s all about fit
Notre Dame’s practice facility construction continues
Notre Dame vs. Michigan: What’s on the line in opener?
The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season … No. 10: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
Notre Dame invites Garth Brooks to play first-ever concert in legendary stadium
CJ Holmes finds second chance at Penn State

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.