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Counting Down the Irish: 15 to 11

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Of this top 25, 14 players were unanimous selections among the dozen ballots. Notre Dame sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey was not one of them, yet he rated so highly on seven particular ballots, he snuck past one of those unanimous selections.

25: Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points
24: Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30
23: Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60
22: Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74
21: Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79
20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84
19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88
18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89
17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91
16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93

15: Cole Kmet, sophomore tight end, 110 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 24
12 ballots total.

If Kmet does not build drastically on his 2017 of two catches for 14 yards, this balloting is going to look awfully foolish.

His physical gifts began showing themselves in spring … on the baseball diamond. That half of his double-duty saw him finish the season with a 5.05 ERA in 26 appearances and 46.1 innings. That ERA may seem high, but this is college baseball, and it should also be mentioned he struck out 39 batters in that spot duty. All the while, he impressed the Irish football coaching staff in spring practices.

In theory, offensive coordinator Chip Long prefers to utilize a variety of personnel packages. That includes a nationwide default of three receivers, one tight end and one running back, but if Long can deploy multiple tight ends or running backs, he gladly does. Kmet makes that very possible, in much the same way Durham Smythe did last season. Of course, that hinges on another tight end playing up to par, as well.

Kmet’s spring success indicates he will be a consistent tight end, even if no one else will be. Hence his finishing higher than any other tight end (read: senior Alizé Mack at No. 18) in this polling. A reliable tight end provides senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush a safety blanket of sorts, and that role alone would boost Kmet past last year’s meager freshman season.

14: Robert Hainsey, sophomore right tackle, 119 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
10 ballots total.

Some may object to calling Hainsey a returning starter. Some, in fact, have. His only official start came in the Citrus Bowl, but he played a genuine role in all 13 games, splitting right tackle snaps with Tommy Kraemer, now inside at right guard. If Hainsey is not a returning starter, neither is Kraemer, despite those 12 starts next to his name.

The greatest change for both will come in the added focus of not taking any series off. That is not something to be shirked, but it should be manageable a season after alternating series. The first-time players needed to make adjustments on the sidelines while their counterpart was playing. By now, those coaching points should not take longer than the defensive series naturally provided by the rhythm of the game.

In some respects, Hainsey’s success will still tie to Kraemer. If the two can form a potent blocking combination on the right side of the line, Long’s game plan will begin to feature them, just as it did with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson on the left side last year. Of course, this would be nowhere near as dramatic.

Pride’s sprinter speed has long set him apart, but that was not always seen as a good thing. (und.com)

13: Troy Pride, junior cornerback, 133 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 22
12 ballots total.

Pride looks more and more like a testament to giving players time to develop. Entering his sophomore season, the most frequent talking point on him focused on Pride splitting time in the spring between football and track, arguably setting back his progress a touch. Perhaps it did, but by now, he has caught up.

“He’s on-body, he’s physically now able to reroute receivers with leverage,” Kelly said after Friday’s practice. “That was a little bit problematic for him at times. He might not have been as strong as he needed to be.”

Pride will have the luxury of usually covering the opponent’s second-best receiver. His leaps and bounds in the last nine months have not moved him past second-team All-American Julian Love. However, the combination of two pseudo-shutdown corners should give each a bit more freedom, something Kelly has alluded to in terms of pressing a bit more in coverage. Both Pride and Love have the ability to recover from a mistake, skewing the risk :: reward ratio toward the defense’s favor.

12: Alohi Gilman, junior safety, 135 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
12 ballots total.

Fact: No safeties made this top 25 last year. Also a fact: Gilman received votes even though he was not eligible and always unlikely to be so. If he had been, he might have been listed here then.

It is not a secret Notre Dame has needed better safety play of late. Gilman’s transfer from Navy at least provides a playmaker at the position, even if a slightly-undersized one. (5-foot-10 ½, 202 pounds) By the looks of it, he is making those plays in preseason practice just as he did with a strip-and-recovery in April’s Blue-Gold Game.

Safety Alohi Gilman apparently intercepted a pass in Tuesday’s preseason practice, something Notre Dame hasn’t seen from a safety in a game since 2016. (@NDFootball)

Kelly has noticed those improvements at safety.

“I really like what’s happening with our safety position, as well, much more around the ball and closing space,” he said Friday before acknowledging the current rotation includes Gilman, junior Jalen Elliott and freshman Houston Griffith.

11: Chase Claypool, junior receiver, 167 points
High ranking: No. 7
Low ranking: No. 20
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 18

Not much new ground needs to be trodden here. Claypool has the physical tools to lead the Irish in every receiving category. He knows as much. He also knows his mental ups-and-downs have limited his on-field production.

How that focus fares through the preseason will be quickly revealed in the season-opener. Michigan’s defense will test Claypool and Notre Dame’s passing game. It is one of the country’s best defenses for a reason.

“We think we’ve got a really good player on the outside, a couple of really good players,” Kelly said. “Chase Claypool has continued to mature and grow as a receiver. I liked his focus and his mindset.”

If that continues, Claypool will challenge senior Miles Boykin to become the alpha receiver. That competition would be a great problem to have for Kelly and Long. Nonetheless, if Claypool’s tunnel vision broadens, then this ranking will become nothing but a pipe dream.

The panelists:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Elizabeth Greason, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

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.