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And In That Corner … The No. 24 Virginia Tech Hokies and Lane Stadium

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A backup quarterback transferred in from the Charlie Weis-created debacle known as Kansas, playing in an atmosphere supporting him, a crowd at the least much more formidable than No. 6 Notre Dame is used to.

A defense burned for 632 yards by Old Dominion, but led by a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator.

No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1) is something of an enigma thus far this season. To help explain the Hokies, we turn to Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

DF: I appreciate you taking some time to educate Notre Dame fans, Mike. Otherwise the only thought in many heads may be, “Virginia Tech lost to Old Dominion. This should be easy.” We will certainly get to that. I know you told me you have been at the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 2012. Have you been on the Hokies beat for that whole stretch?

MB: Yep, started in Feb. 2012, so this is my sixth football season covering the Hokies. In 2016, I started also cover U.Va.

Before diving in to that massive upset of two weeks ago, let’s take care of the proverbial housekeeping. Virginia Tech has lost so many expected defensive contributors over the last few months, keeping track of them from afar is somewhat difficult. Looking through my notes, I have senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, senior nickel back Mook Reynolds and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb as all gone, and all were possible starters. Then the day after that Old Dominion loss, head coach Justin Fuente dismissed defensive end Trevon Hill, despite Hill’s leading the Hokies in sacks. Am I missing anybody? Have I mischaracterized the importance of any of these losses? Was this all a coincidence? Of these names, I think only Webb’s was injury-related.

That’s a good list. Tech lost three senior starters last year – linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson – then had defensive tackle Tim Settle, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Terrell Edmunds leave early for the NFL draft. Alexander wasn’t going to be academically eligible, so he went to the NFL supplemental draft. Reynolds had a drug arrest and was dismissed. Webb, a junior college transfer and the expected replacement for Alexander at corner, injured his Achilles working out his first day on campus. Then the day after the Old Dominion loss, Tech booted Hill.

So, at kickoff Saturday night, the Hokies will be without 10 players who either started last season or were expected to start this year. (Editor’s context: Notre Dame is without six players who fit those parameters, but five were part-time starters at best, if not less this season. No position was left completely bare with the closest spot being the situational nickel back without senior Shaun Crawford.)

Hokies head coach Justin Fuente is 22-9 in two-plus seasons at Virginia Tech. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Without Hill, how viable is Virginia Tech’s remaining defensive line? Senior tackle Ricky Walker earned third-team All-ACC honors last year, while junior defensive end Houshon Gaines managed 2.5 sacks at Duke last week (splitting that third one with Walker). The Irish offensive line is going to be adjusting this week without fifth-year left guard Alex Bars. Can the Hokies take advantage of that?

The defensive line is the strength of the defense this year, even without Hill. A week ago, in an effort to protect the young secondary that got exploited by Old Dominion, coordinator Bud Foster rushed three and dropped eight players in coverage. Still, Tech was able to get a ton of pressure on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, led by Walker and Gaines.

Foster dubs Walker the “bell cow” of the defense and Gaines is an up-and-coming star. Gaines will be playing with a heavy heart. His mother passed away Monday. Emmanuel Belmar is playing in Hill’s spot, with a trio of redshirt freshmen also rotating in there.

For Tech to be successful against the Irish, the defensive line will have to play well.

RELATED READING: Virginia Tech anticipating Houshun Gaines to play against Ntore Dame following death of his mother

Sticking with Virginia Tech’s defense, and looking back at that loss to Old Dominion — the Hokies gave up 632 yards. The offense did its part, scoring 35 points, but Foster’s defense just got gashed. What happened?

In short, everything we predicted might happen in the season opener against Florida State reared its head in Norfolk against the Monarchs two weeks ago. Virginia Tech’s rookie corners got beat one-on-one, losing battles for the ball when passes were in the air. The two rookie inside linebackers got out of their gaps and missed tackles. Whip linebacker Khalil Ladler, playing back at safety in place of Divine Deablo (who is back this week), was not comfortable in that position and struggled.

Maybe most of all, when Foster attempted to make in-game adjustments to combat Old Dominion’s game plan of testing the young corners, his inexperienced defensive personnel struggled to take that coaching on the fly and put it into action. Again, many of us thought this would happen in Tallahassee in the opener, but the Seminoles’ offensive game plan that night never really stressed the defense enough to force in-game adjustments.

By the end of the season,  I expect this to be a fairly decent defensive team. It certainly looked dominant against Florida State and very good against Duke. The problem, being so young, is consistency.

Flipping to offense, how is the Hokies offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has come on strong this season, now with 10.5 sacks among 20.5 tackles for loss. It often feels like those numbers do not do proper service to the consistent pressure provided by the front, headlined by senior tackle Jerry Tillery and junior end Khalid Kareem. Will Virginia Tech be able to slow them down?

The offensive line is much improved this season over recent years. It brought back three starters and honestly, the lineup itself has been a week-to-week, sometimes series-to-series, rotation of change. But Tech has the pieces to play well up front. Left tackle is maybe the most interesting spot. Redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi missed last week but is expected back against Notre Dame. True freshman Christian Darrisaw started last week and likely will again, even with Dzansi’s return.

Sixth-year senior Kyle Chung can play – has played – all five positions on the line, so his versatility allows line coach Vance Vice some freedom moving his pieces around.

The results, at least so far, have been mixed. Tech is averaging a respectable but not amazing 4.6 yards per rush. Its allowed eight sacks in four games. This is the best defensive line the Hokies have faced this season and I expect them to have some trouble controlling Notre Dame’s front.

Ryan Willis started in two seasons at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech. He struggled with turnovers while with the Jayhawks, throwing 17 interceptions against only 12 touchdowns. In his first Hokies start and his emergency action the week before, Willis has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What could be gleaned from junior quarterback Ryan Willis in his start against Duke in place of injured sophomore Josh Jackson? Looking at things like completion percentage and yards per attempt, it takes a logical leap to say Willis is a significant improvement over Jackson in the passing game, but his 332 yards top all but one of Jackson’s 15 single-game efforts, and Willis did it against a strong Devils defense.

Willis, a transfer from Kansas, had big game against Duke, moving the offense with his passing. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns and had five different receivers catch passes for more than 24 yards. All that earned him ACC quarterback of the week honors.

Duke didn’t get much pressure on Willis. I expect that to change this week.

Willis might have a stronger arm for deep balls than Jackson. Overall, I’d say there’s not much change for Tech since Jackson broke his leg. Jackson was a steady, productive player behind center, but not a superstar. I expect the same from Willis.

He’s a very good passer and a more-than-capable runner in the sense of getting yards when the yards are there. If he keeps the ball on an RPO play and there’s 12 yards there to gain, he’ll gain them. He won’t turn that into a 65-yard touchdown. Neither would Jackson.

Before getting to some version of a vague prediction, let’s close with the most important question: Is the “Enter Sandman” entrance as enjoyable as it is hyped to be? I have high hopes. Start preparing me now to be let down if need be.

I remember the first time I experienced it, I was still in college at Rutgers, covering a game at Lane Stadium. I was blown away. Over the years, the novelty has worn off some for me – but not when it’s a night game. I expect Saturday night to be one of the times when all the ESPN gushing about what a great venue Lane Stadium is holds up. And yeah, I think you’ll like “Enter Sandman.”

Notre Dame is currently favored by 5.5 points. What do you expect from Saturday night? Have I missed anything notable that may factor in, aside from Frank Beamer’s bronze statue?

Virginia Tech is way better than it looked in the Old Dominion loss and it showed that against Duke last time out. The offense is going to have a fine season, even without Jackson, and the defense is rounding into form, even after losing Hill. I expect the Hokies to end up competing for the ACC Coastal Division title with Miami. (The Hurricanes visit Blacksburg on Nov. 17.)

That said, I don’t expect them to be able to compete with Notre Dame on Saturday night. I expect a decent game in the first half, as the team’s feel each other out. But I expect the Irish to exploit mistakes by Tech’s defense in the second half as young players again struggle with in-game adjustments.

I have Notre Dame winning this game by a touchdown.

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.