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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan

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It has been a refrain for nearly four full years now. “Michigan hasn’t scored against Notre Dame in 1,802 days.” It is a misleading statistic, including a total of one game in that span, but a fun piece of bragging rights, nonetheless.

The Irish fan’s memory of the 31-0 victory, the last time the two rivals met, tends to forget how close the Wolverines came to taking an early lead in 2014. Matt Wile missed a field goal on each of Michigan’s first two possessions. He finished the year 15-of-21.

Notre Dame should not presume to be offered such a gift to start this season. Wolverines sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin went 19-of-24 last year, including 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards with a long of 55.

2017 REVIEW
Michigan began last season 4-0, but the cracks in the figurative foundation were apparent even then. Though winning each of those by at least 16 points, all four games were competitive in the second half. Perhaps as should be expected of a team with an incompetent offense (25.2 points per game and 5.2 yards per play, both lows of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s three years in Ann Arbor), special teams and defensive scores were pivotal in three of those opening wins.

Fundamentally-sound Michigan State, two weeks removed from its 38-18 loss to the Irish, did not offer the Wolverines any such end zone chances. The 14-10 loss was the first of four Michigan suffered in the Big Ten, all to the usual suspects (42-13 at Penn State; 24-10 at Wisconsin; 31-20 vs. Ohio State). A 26-19 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina — though the Wolverines were favored by more than a touchdown — dropped their record to 8-5.

Offensively, the troubles largely traced to the quarterback play. Three different passers took turns leading the way, the first shift forced by injury and the second by ineffectiveness.

Defensively, Michigan gave up a mere 271 yards and 18.8 points per game. Only once did an opponent gain more than 350 yards: Penn State in a rout.

WHAT MICHIGAN LOST
A healthy Wilton Speight may have changed Michigan’s 2017, but he was knocked out for the year in week four. Even to that point, the quarterback completed only 54.3 percent of his passes and had a meager 3 :: 2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In Speight’s place, John O’Korn struggled even more (53.5 completion percentage, two touchdowns, six interceptions). The point is, the Wolverines are now without both quarterbacks, but that is only a loss in the strictest sense of the roster.

Much more notably, left tackle Mason Cole and center Patrick Kugler are no longer around, the former a two-time All-Big Ten honoree.

Consensus first-team All-American defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (60 tackles with 13.5 for loss including five sacks) went to the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the NFL draft, and Michigan also lost its No. 2 tackler in middle linebacker Mike McCray (84 tackles with 17 for loss, including five sacks). While those are each significant departures, they are the only two defensively, allowing the Wolverines to return 14 of their top-16 tacklers.

Given the sanctioned-situation he left at Mississippi, the NCAA granted transfer quarterback Shea Patterson immediate eligibility, boosting Michigan’s hopes of a renewed offense this season. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

WHAT MICHIGAN GAINED
Either Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is Michigan’s long-awaited quarterback hero, or he will be a disappointment to those fans. The Patterson hype has gotten a bit out of hand, but the hopes are understandable when remembering just how much the Wolverines’ quarterbacks struggled last season, all three of them.

Patterson started 10 games in his two seasons at Mississippi before moving north as the Rebels embrace NCAA sanctions. He has 3,139 yards to his name, but more pertinent would be his 62 percent completion rate and 23 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions.

Michigan did sign a four-star quarterback, Joe Milton, in the recruiting cycle, so if Patterson struggles, it is not a default Harbaugh would again turn to sophomore Brandon Peters (52.8 percent, four touchdowns, two interceptions).

Also in that recruiting class: four defenders of the four-star nature. They may not all play much, but given the NCAA’s changed stance regarding eligibility concerns, they will undoubtedly see some time, adding depth to an abundance of riches.

HEAD COACH
Perhaps the most-discussed coach in the country, especially with Lane Kiffin hiding in plain sight at a Florida commuter school, Harbaugh enters his fourth year leading the Wolverines with some beginning to wonder about his future. That may seem harsh for a 28-11 record, especially since he did not take over a program in an ideal spot, but Harbaugh has gone 1-7 against the top 10 and 18-8 in the conference. Finishing 6-3 or even 7-2 in the Big Ten will not get the job done for Harbaugh at Michigan.

Some mention needs to be made of defensive coordinator Don Brown. To Notre Dame fans, his name may spark memories of a 2015 victory over Boston College at Fenway Park. In a season in which the Irish averaged 34.2 points and 207.6 rushing yards per game, Brown’s defense held them to 19 points and 127 rushing yards, forcing four fumbles (recovering two) and intercepting three passes.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
As much credit as Patterson will inevitably receive if the Wolverines offense shows improvement, much more will likely be deserved by the receiving corps. All of it returns, and with sophomore Tarik Black healthy again, it should be much better than it was last season. Black played two-plus games, making 11 grabs for 149 yards and a touchdown before a broken foot cut him down.

Similarly, senior running back Karan Higdon ran for 994 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. With three returning starters on the offensive line (coached by Ed Warriner), Higdon should give Harbaugh and Patterson the luxury of a balanced offense.

Michigan junior Rashan Gary was just one of two Wolverines defensive ends to be named first-team Big Ten last season, joined by now-senior Chase Winovich. The two combined for 30 tackles for loss. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Michigan allowed just 150 passing yards per game in 2017. Three times (Air Force, Michigan State and Minnesota), opponents did not reach triple digits through the air. A fourth, Rutgers, excelled to the tune of 101 yards.

And now, the Wolverines’ entire secondary returns.

Similar claims can be made throughout Michigan’s defensive roster. A defense that had 42 sacks returns 32 of them, including a combined 14 from defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. Junior middle linebacker Devin Bush made 100 tackles last season, leading the way in keeping seven different opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards and nine of them to no more than 4.0 yards per rush.

It is hardly a reach to think Brown will enjoy this season immensely, no matter how the Wolverines offense fares.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Michigan is a national title contender; its odds to win it all are the sixth-best in the country at 14-to-1. The Wolverines probably will not win that title, but coming within at least a game of the Big Ten West title feels like a near-must for Harbaugh. Having to travel to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State will not help either cause.

Bookmakers expect Michigan to end up with nine wins, given the over/under win total mark of 8.5 with rates skewing toward the over. Those three games and a visit from Wisconsin project as the toughest third of the slate, but it is not as if traveling to Northwestern after a Wildcats bye will be a walk through the park or, if you will, a walk around the lake.

Even before the season starts, the Wolverines have already found drama, with the school putting together an investigation into allegations raised in a controversy down at North Carolina. The Tar Heels have suspended 13 players for selling team-issued shoes. Both programs are sponsored by Nike and featured within the “Jumpman” brand, and somewhere along the way North Carolina’s compliance office was told similar occurrences were transpiring at Michigan. It is most likely little comes of the situation, but it certainly is not the story Harbaugh wants to be dealing with in the lead up to Sept. 1.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame brings back the most important NFL possibilities in Kareem & Okwara

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This is not to diminish the losses of receiver Miles Boykin and consensus first-team All-American cornerback Julian Love. Notre Dame will miss both of them, Love in particular. But looking at the Irish depth chart, there are avenues to survival without both.

Notre Dame will return two starting receivers in rising senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year-to-be Chris Finke (speaking of which, see below). A number of options exist to replace Love, though obviously none will match his shutdown abilities. Either rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy will put on the necessary muscle to compete with receivers at this level or rising senior Donte Vaughn will return reinvigorated with health after recent surgery to repair a torn labrum surgery or rising sophomore Houston Griffith will move from safety to get his talent on the field or fifth-year Shaun Crawford will recover from an ACL tear quicker than expected or … or … or … If one of those pans out, the Irish defense should be comfortable in its coverage, buoyed by the stalwart safety combination of Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. (Imagine sincerely saying “stalwart safety combination” just six months ago.)

Look again at the depth chart, and such luxuries do not exist at defensive end. If rising seniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara had not opted to return, Notre Dame’s 2019 dreams would have hit a lowered ceiling nine months before the season began. By no means were they certain high-round draft picks, but the allure of athletic and talented defensive ends may have easily led to some outsized draft hopes.

Their backups are certainly more than capable — rising seniors Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji — but a talented second-unit is as important at defensive end as dangerous starters are. To replace the latter with the former is to diminish the entire enterprise outright.

The Irish could not have recovered from losing both Kareem and Okwara, at least not to the extent where Playoff talk would be viable again. Lose one and it would have still been dubious, at best.

Take a look at the teams expected to be in the mix for the Playoff. Using current championship odds … Clemson at 2-to-1, Alabama at just less than 3-to-1, Georgia at 6-to-1, Ohio State at 8-to-1, Michigan at 16-to-1 and then Oklahoma also at 16-to-1. Those first five have been known for their defenses more than anything else in recent years. Bookmakers put some faith in their ability to reload on the fly.

Notre Dame has not earned that trust, and its roster does not indicate it should have. As well as Justin Ademilola performed as a freshman in four games, inserting him into a pivotal role in 2019 would likely be a recipe for a mediocre season. He is another year of development away from being ready for that role, barring a Matt Balis-induced excellent offseason.

The Irish will need Kareem and Okwara to survive the losses of defensive tackles Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner, but if they play as they did in 2018, that is a reasonable ask. If they continue to develop, it becomes a probability more than a Notre Dame leap of faith.

The Irish will miss Boykin’s back-shoulder reliability and everything about Love, but Brian Kelly and his coaching staff coaxed back the two most-pivotal pieces from NFL draft consideration.


Speaking of Finke, he confirmed his intent to return for his final year of eligibility Thursday evening. And he did it in a way only befitting a man comfortable in his own skin.


And for the sake of context: Notre Dame is currently listed at 25-to-1 for the 2019-20 national championship, tied with Florida and Washington, just behind Texas at 20-to-1.

Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart, a touch lighter with D.J. Morgan’s intended transfer

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With the Wednesday announcement of current junior linebacker D.J. Morgan’s intention to transfer this summer as a graduate with two years of eligibility remaining, Notre Dame’s roster drops to 87 scholarship players expected this coming fall. Included among them, at least 12, possibly 14 linebackers. Before explaining that …

Morgan finishes his Irish career with two tackles in two 2017 appearances as a safety. He moved to linebacker during 2018’s spring practices, but never came particularly close to playing time. It remained difficult to see him cracking into the rotation moving forward given the quality of recruiting classes at the position in the last two cycles.

“I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame for everything they have done for me,” Morgan wrote on Twitter. “When I decided to come here, my main goal was to get my degree from this prestigious University, and I am proud to see that I will be completing that goal this summer!

“During this time I will be searching for a new school to attend as a graduate transfer to finish off my last 2 years of eligibility.”

(@deundraymorgan)

Before facing Louisville on Labor Day, the Irish will need to be down to 85 scholarship players. At 87 now, that does not include incoming freshman J.D. Bertrand, who had a recruitment handled in a deliberate fashion so as to make him eligible for an academic scholarship. Notre Dame also continues to chase two defenders — consensus four-star linebacker Asa Turner and consensus four-star defensive end Isaiah Foskey — who could balloon the roster count further.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason

Keep that necessary attrition in mind as realizing how many players are at certain positions.

DEFENSIVE END (9)
Julian Okwara — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Khalid Kareem — Senior — 1
Daelin Hayes — Senior — 1
Ade Ogundeji — Senior — 2
Justin Ademilola — Sophomore — 4
Jamir Jones — Senior — 1
Kofi Wardlow — Junior — 3
NaNa Osafo-Mensah — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Howard Cross — Incoming freshman — 4

If not for Ademilola’s impressive 2018, it would be easy to presume a four-man rotation next season, but appearing in the Cotton Bowl all-but guarantees Ademilola will be in the mix.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE (6)
Kurt Hinish — Junior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3
Jayson Ademilola — Sophomore — 3
Ja’Mion Franklin — Sophomore — 4
Jacob Lacey — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Hunter Spears — Early-enrolled freshman — 4

Lacey will need to be ready for at least four games next season, especially with three of these six returning from injury: Tagovailoa-Amosa with a broken foot, though he did at least take some snaps against Clemson; Franklin from a torn quad that will limit him through the spring; and Spears from a torn ACL that could conceivably cost him 2019.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
Asmar Bilal — Fifth-year in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Jordan Genmark-Heath — Junior — 2
Jonathan Jones — Senior — 2
Bo Bauer — Sophomore — 3
Jack Lamb — Sophomore — 4
Drew White — Junior — 3
Jack Kiser — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
J.D. Bertrand — Incoming freshman — 4

It was always going to be a long-shot for Morgan as soon as Bauer and Lamb arrived.

ROVER (5)
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3 years of eligibility remaining.
Shayne Simon — Sophomore — 3
Ovie Oghoufo — Sophomore — 3
Marist Liufau — Incoming freshman — 4
Osito Ekwonu — Incoming freshman — 4

Owusu-Koramoah lost 2018 to injury, making this something of a toss-up between him and Simon for a spring competition chasing the starting role, presuming Bilal does indeed move inside as expected.

Alohi Gilman’s 18 tackles in the Cotton Bowl loss should set him up for an offseason of further development and possible captaincy. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

SAFETIES (8)
Alohi Gilman — Senior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Jalen Elliott — Senior — 1
Devin Studstill — Senior — 1
Houston Griffith — Sophomore — 3
Derrik Allen — Sophomore — 4
Paul Moala — Sophomore — 3
Kyle Hamilton — Incoming freshman — 4
Litchfield Ajavon — Incoming freshman — 4

CORNERBACKS (8)
Troy Pride — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Donte Vaughn — Senior — 1
TaRiq Bracy — Sophomore — 3
Shaun Crawford — Fifth-year — 1, with possibly another after that if the NCAA grants a medical waiver.
D.J. Brown — Sophomore — 4
Noah Boykin — Sophomore — 4
Isaiah Rutherford — Incoming freshman — 4
K.J. Wallace — Incoming freshman — 4

Someone needs to be Notre Dame’s second cornerback, be that Vaughn, Bracy or a healthy Crawford. Someone also needs to be the Irish nickel back, perhaps Bracy, Crawford or a converted safety.

The questions at cornerback have multiple talented answers, if unproven or uncertain. They should prove to be the most pivotal to Notre Dame’s 2019 success or failure.

 

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

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.