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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ball State

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Maybe the ideal Notre Dame schedule this season would open with Ball State before hosting Michigan in 18 days. That would parallel last year’s Georgia-after-Temple sequence. While it would rob spaces such as this the enjoyment of hyping the Wolverines’ arrival all summer, it would also undoubtedly give the Irish a softer entry to the season. It would be a much harsher beginning for the Cardinals, though, rather than hosting Central Connecticut State on Aug. 30.

2017 REVIEW
Ball State nearly changed its entire 2017 in the first week. If the Cardinals had successfully finished off an upset bid at Illinois, the accompanying promise would have been undeniable and presumably contagious. Instead, lackadaisical special teams play set up an Illini touchdown in the final minutes. Ball State could not convert a 54-yard field goal to send the 24-21 loss to overtime.

Even then, it seemed the Cardinals might have a decent season ahead of them, beating UAB (51-31) and Tennessee Tech (28-13) in the next two weeks.

Those were the good times.

Third-year starting quarterback Riley Neal went down for the season with a leg injury against Tennessee Tech. Established running back James Gilbert joined him that afternoon with a thumb injury. In due time, two more quarterbacks were lost for the fall as the offensive line became more and more of a turnstyle throughout the season, giving up 33 total sacks. That cause was not aided by losing two right guards to injury before the second week of the year.

Ball State’s top-two returning receivers were also lost to injury during the season. In other words, injuries bore much of the public blame for the 0-9 finish to the season, including a winless record in the MAC. Not a single one of those nine losses was closer than 12 points.

WHAT BALL STATE LOST
Rarely does a team lose its leading passer and shrug its shoulders, but Jack Milas’ 53.1 percent completion rate and 2 :: 8 touchdown-to-interception ratio both spoke to his backup abilities and the team’s overall deterioration.

Aside from Milas, the most-notable departures all come along the defensive line, not exactly a boon for the coming year. Defensive end Anthony Winbush made first-team all-conference despite the Cardinals’ atrocious defense. His 11.5 sacks will be rather difficult to replace, as will be the 20 combined starts last season from defensive tackles Kevin Willis and John Swisher.

Riley Neal nearly led Ball State to an upset at Illinois to begin last season, but his year ended only two weeks later, leading in part to a tailspin for the Cardinals. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

WHAT BALL STATE GAINED
Frankly, all those players injured last season should count as gains this year. Ball State suddenly has a three-year starter at quarterback, a three-year contributor at running back and two maturing receivers who have shown promise when healthy.

The fact that now-sophomore Justin Hall (pictured above, with ball) made 78 catches for 801 yards and three scores in only 10 games last year should stand out. Pairing him with a worthwhile quarterback and another year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program ought to give the Cardinals at least a semblance of an offense.

As far as Notre Dame concerns go, Hall is only 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds. If he wants to rely on speed, the Irish will turn to track star cornerback Troy Pride. If Hall opts for cuts and shiftiness, Notre Dame senior nickelback Shaun Crawford may enjoy the task/challenge.

HEAD COACH
Mike Neu enters his third season with a total of one conference win (31-21 at Buffalo in 2016) against 15 losses. His pedigree of spending two years as the quarterbacks coach with the New Orleans Saints may sound bolstering, but just how much coaching did Drew Brees need in 2014 and 2015?

Ball State hired a new athletic director this summer, Beth Goetz. Any time there is a change in that position, a struggling football coach takes notice in an uncomfortable way.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
The Cardinals averaged 17.9 points per game last year. The myriad list of injuries factors in, but there is also some simple inability at hand. They gained 4.5 yards per play. It just was not good enough.

Supplementing the Neal-to-Hall connection, the Cardinals now have multiple proven running backs. Sophomore Caleb Huntley ran for 1,003 yards and a 4.8 average last season filling in for junior James Gilbert, the first-team all-conference running back from 2016.

If Neu can call plays to somehow utilize both backs, now running behind an offensive line returning four starters, then Ball State could find some success in the MAC for the first time since going 7-1 in 2013.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
It is easy to criticize the Cardinals offense for not averaging even 20 points a year ago. It would not have mattered if it had — the defense gave up 40.7 points per game. That was not a typo. Forty point seven points per game.

It allowed more than 400 yards on seven different occasions. Three of those reached 500. Toledo broke 600.

That defense now converts to a 3-4 front and returns eight defensive backs with 2017 starts, but a complete reversal in effectiveness feels rather unrealistic.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Neal will truly need to produce for Neu’s job not to be in danger. Aside from the opener against Central Connecticut State, Ball State’s best chances at wins come from a visit from Kent State and a trip to Miami (OH) in the regular season finale. Even sweeping those would leave the Cardinals well short of bookmakers’ thoughts of a 4.5-win total over/under.

The values wagered already indicate the under is the smart bet. As the MAC has risen, someone had to end up at the bottom of the pecking order. Currently, that is Ball 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.