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And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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As much as a team can struggle to a 3-0 record, that is how Notre Dame has started this season. Wake Forest would jump for that complaint, though, coming off a 41-34 loss to Boston College. That defeat dampens the Demon Deacons’ conference dreams in a year in which the ACC seems to be in flux.

Irish fans remember Wake Forest from last year’s 48-37 victory that seemed to serve as something of a demarcation point in the season. Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal tells us what to expect this time around …

DF: Conor, of all things, I hate to ask you to focus on football this week. You have lived in North Carolina for a few years now, right? Even with that being the case, you cannot be used to hurricanes. How have you and Winston-Salem as a whole endured Hurricane Florence?

CO: Thanks for starting on this note, Douglas.

Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina full-time for almost seven years, and I went to college at Elon, which is about 45 minutes east of Winston-Salem, so I know the region well. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m used to hurricanes.

Winston-Salem was spared from the worst of Florence. It rained for nearly all of Saturday and Sunday, but other than a few downed trees and flooded intersections at low areas, there really wasn’t much of an impact. It was pretty much the best-case scenario, especially when you see much of the eastern part of the state is under water — still.

Obviously, I am still going to ask you to focus on football. If you’ll forgive me … Let’s start with the quarterback situation at Wake Forest. It went from stable in the spring to clouded in the summer when presumptive starter Kendall Hinton was suspended for three games for a violation of team rules. At Notre Dame, that phrasing could mean a litany of things, so I won’t put you on the spot to shed some light with an interpretation. I will, however, ask you, why was he working at receiver in the preseason?

Hinton was working at slot receiver for several reasons, but the main one was that his athleticism is going to have to be used at some position. And since it seems like Sam Hartman has a firm grasp on the position — at least, for now — Hinton wouldn’t be doing Wake any favors by standing on the sideline as a backup quarterback. So while Hartman and sophomore Jamie Newman took the first- and second-team reps in their fall camp battle, Hinton needed to prove he could be valuable to the team and learn to play receiver.

A freshman, Hartman has played well. Maybe not excellently or even well enough to capture the country’s attention, but well. What about him has Hartman in line to face the Irish this weekend?

The best attribute for Hartman right now — and it honestly might be this way for his entire career — is that he’s been through things no 19-year-old should ever have to go through. The main two events I’m talking about there are: 1) His adopted brother, Demitri Allison, committed suicide when Hartman was a sophomore in high school. He won a state championship game three days later. And 2) Hartman suffered from a birth defect that was discovered before his junior season started, and the fluid buildup in his left shoulder nearly led to his death. That happened about a month before the season opener. Hartman came back for that opener, weighing 40-50 pounds less because of surgery and a hospital stay, and threw an 80-yard touchdown on the first play.

The kid has been through some things.

He’s been groomed to be a quarterback by Will Grier’s father, among others, and at the risk of heaping too much hyperbole on here, it almost feels like it was destiny that Hartman is where he is right now.

RELATED READING: Talent, tragedy and triumph: The legend of Sam Hartman
Sam Hartman’s path to Wake Forest’s starting QB has been anything but normal

No matter who the Deacons trot out at quarterback, we all know who his favorite target will be. I don’t mean to sound lazy or come across as the reporter so many of us cannot stand in post-game scrums, but I am afraid if I ask you a question about Greg Dortch, I will fill up any reasonable word count with adjectives. Just this once I am going to use the dreaded two-word command: Talk about junior receiver Greg Dortch.

Oh man, I should’ve looked here before I answered the Hartman question, because I could talk about Dortch for twice as many words.

He’s just everything you want out of a dynamic slot receiver in today’s college offenses. He can separate from coverage, has open-field moves to make defenders miss in a phone booth, has an insane catch-radius — everything. Dortch really is the complete package, and as Deacons head coach Dave Clawson said before the season, everything Wake Forest’s offense does is designed to get Dortch the ball in space.

What separates Dortch is that he genuinely loves football. Watching him in spring practice, when he was finally able to return to the field after recovering from the punctured small intestine that cost him the final five games last season, was like watching a little kid who was just released from a timeout. That continued into fall camp, and with a country-leading 224.7 all-purpose yards per game, his rise has been incredible to watch.

Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch leads the country with 224.67 all-purpose yards per game. For context: The next Power Five player is Purdue receiver Rondale Moore with 190.33 yards per game. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Okay, but seriously, can Notre Dame legitimately hope to stop Dortch or should defensive coordinator Clark Lea simply try to contain the damage he does? It has been a bend-don’t-break defense this year, but Dortch’s bubble screens seem perfectly designed to counter that.

Dortch is almost assuredly going to get the ball – the key is to limit his yards-after-catch and the number of times he gets it. Kicking through the end zone on kickoffs and punting away from him are two of the easiest ways to play keep-away from Dortch.

And if Julian Love can move into the slot, that’s a matchup I’d love to see – no pun intended.

One more offensive question: The beauty of playing last Thursday night was everyone in the country watched. Otherwise I may not have noticed Wake Forest ran 105 plays, many a symptom of an up-tempo offense. Is that the norm? I don’t really remember that being the case last year, but I could be forgetting or it could be dictated by new personnel.

That was pretty much the norm last year, especially in the second half of the season. It has honestly caught me off guard that Hartman has come in and still been able to run 94 (Tulane), 81 (Towson) and 105 plays. I thought there would be a slight drop in pace, just because you’re replacing four-year starter John Wolford with a true freshman. I was wrong.

Switching to defense, it struggles. If looking at only Power-Five opponents, seven of the last eight have gashed the Deacons for at least 30 points. Any hopes of that having been fixed were effectively dashed by Boston College’s 41 points last week. Specifically, the run defense is a problem. Last year the Deacons allowed 186 rushing yards per game, No. 89 in the country, which may seem borderline acceptable, if not for the six-game stretch where that jumped to 256.8 yards per game. What is missing in Wake Forest’s run defense?

Honestly, the run defense has been the strength of the defense so far. Yes, AJ Dillon ran for 185 yards last week. But 88 of those yards came on three carries, leaving the other 97 yards on 30 carries.

The problem last week was that Dillon hit them for a 45-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender, and the pre-game focus on Dillon coupled with a big run on the third play meant play-action worked all night against some creeping-up safeties and linebackers.

Wake Forest’s defense has not been stout of late, despite the best efforts of senior safety Chuck Wade. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

What changed? In a year-plus of the scheme formerly run by Mike Elko, Notre Dame has fared well defending the run. This season it has done such to the point that opponents attempt many more passes than usual, essentially bailing on the ground game. How have the Deacons fallen off so quickly from allowing only 142 rushing yards per game in 2016?

I don’t think Elko’s importance can be overstated. Wake Forest had a hidden gem for three years and obviously it’s hardly a secret anymore that Elko is one of the best coordinators in college football. It helps Notre Dame that Lea was his understudy.

The other major factor in the Deacons’ defense, as Clawson explained this week, is that they lack an alpha communicator in the back-seven. They had one with Ryan Janvion, whose last season was 2016, and to a lesser extent had one last year with Jessie Bates III. Now, it’s on senior safeties Cameron Glenn and Chuck Wade Jr., both captains, to be louder.

I can’t let you skip out of here without offering a vague prediction for Saturday afternoon. And you can’t just say you predict you will be thankful for the early kickoff, because that is a certainty.

Well … I am happy with a noon kick.

I think there’s going to be no shortage of points scored, to begin with. And I think Wake’s defensive struggles are more of a story than Notre Dame’s offensive struggles, so I’d give the edge to the Irish. Something like 30-21 would be a probable score. ​

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.