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Friday at 4: A never-ending Notre Dame mailbag to end the quiet idle week


If you boldly and publicly promise to answer every mailbag question received, you do so, even if they come via direct message from a Twitter account you muted, even if it is Navy week and just thinking about the triple-option this much dulls the senses, even if it was a week spent in recovery and not in writing.

Notre Dame fans are relentless, after all, or maybe this was all a long setup for a later reveal …

Anyway, a few somewhat repetitive inquiries about the No. 3 Irish, answered:

With Pitt showing that press coverage throws off our passing game, what do we do to stop other teams from doing the same? — @sgodeaux

Is it just me or does it seem like Chip Long calls an abundance of stretch runs or bubble screens to the short side of the field? Common sense would say those plays should almost always be called to the weakside. — Jason V.

What is your favorite play the Irish have called on offense and why? What does that tell you about the team thus far? — Daniel M.

These all fold into each other, so let’s address them together. The answers to the third are ready issues for a pressing defense, like mentioned in the first, and they actually include the screens referenced in the second.

To those screens first off, the point of such a screen or even a stretch run is to get the ball to the perimeter as quickly as possible, where there is a better chance of finding a seam for a vertical gain. Why a better chance? There are fewer defenders along the sidelines than in the middle of the field.

Sending those plays toward the boundary side of the field simply means the ball is on the perimeter that tenth of a second quicker. If executed well, no one coming from the middle of the field should be able to crash that vertical seam, even if the ball is thrown to the near sideline. If throwing to the field side, the far sideline, then the defenders there have that tenth of a second more to ready for the quick action.

The goal is to eliminate as much of that time as possible, so the short side of the field actually makes common sense.

Those are not “my favorite play” thus far, but they fall into a similar category. Whether aligned with three receivers and one tight end or two and two, a standard set of route trees include a finite number of variations. Finding ways to grow those possibilities exponentially is when an offense can put a defense into an unavoidable bind.

With that in mind, Long dialing up two wheel routes to junior running back Tony Jones against Vanderbilt led to 56 yards on just two plays. This is a piece of the offense Jones offers that few running backs do. He was natural in catching those passes and smooth in running the routes. The chunk plays left the Commodores somewhat short-handed. They could either focus on Notre Dame’s receivers or devote a safety to Jones, but not both.

Factoring in the tight ends leads to similar results. A few times this year, two tight ends have lined up on one side of the line and run parallel routes to different levels. If a safety is not devoted to helping on one of those tight ends from the outset, then a linebacker has to choose to cover either the short route or the deeper route. Book simply throws to the other. If a safety is committed to helping on that deeper route, then that just means there is one less defender to help over the top on senior receiver Miles Boykin or junior counterpart Chase Claypool. (This can cut against the Irish. It was this type of alignment criticized this morning for a fourth-and-short failure against Pittsburgh. An over-reliance on anything renders it ineffective.)

This is where football is often referred to as chess, and anything thinking a few moves ahead is what an acknowledged Process Truther always prefers.

Why does ND refuse to throw the ball in the middle of the field? I can count on one hand the passes that have been thrown in the middle? Doesn’t matter zone or man, they seem like there is no plan even with the big receivers they have. Everything is an out pattern or a wide receiver screen out of a bunch formation or a go route down the sideline. Finally threw a couple late in the Pitt game scoring a touchdown to win the game. — Paul L.

Well, hyperbole aside … The sidelines are where large receivers are at their best. They can use they size to outduel one defender, rather than run the route toward the safety. It really is that simple.

Those out routes and back shoulder throws have been nothing but efficient since the quarterback change. They are a large reason Book leads the country in completion percentage.

And that late touchdown against Pittsburgh that came down the middle? That was not down the middle. It was, in fact, a go route down the sideline that Boykin naturally broke in a few yards on his first move as the coverage allowed, yet he never crossed the hash marks. And it remains a picture-perfect throw from Book …

Love your work on this site. Can always count on you to give an unbiased opinion, no matter what transpires on Saturdays. My question is about Alizé Mack. Am I the only one who notices that he never breaks tackles? Outside of the beginning of the Pittsburgh game, he normally is a catch-and-go down guy. For someone his size and ability, that is certainly unexpected. — Thomas W.

First off, thanks for the kind words, Thomas. While this was submitted last week, it was nice to reread them after this long week. As for Mack, I am one to give the benefit of the doubt. That is, at least in part, because that has not stood out to me all that much. Have any of Notre Dame’s receivers broken a plethora of tackles this year? Their primary concern is catching the ball and then turning up field, and Mack has improved in those regards this year. My oh my has he improved in those regards.

Coming into the year, his career totals were 32 catches for 356 yards and a score. He should match them this season alone, already with 25 receptions for 240 yards and a touchdown.

Some of this issue seems to be expectations, something Mack has struggled with on his own, as well.

In the midst of a career season, does Alizé Mack really deserve criticism for not doing more? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

“I think maybe Alizé came in here with the sense of, ‘I’m one and done,’” Kelly said Thursday. “Certainly Notre Dame is not that. You can’t function here unless you really get your feet on the ground and commit to what Notre Dame is all about. … It was a process of him figuring out why he was here and what he needed to do to make it work and that’s why he’s starting to have the success he is.”

On a different note, it has been telling this season to hear Kelly discuss Mack, senior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Te’von Coney. All have had disciplinary issues in the past, and oftentimes a nuanced ear can hear the struggles remaining in those regards when Kelly either tiptoes around a question or outright mentions “traits.” With those three this season, he has referenced their missteps, and in doing so he makes it clear they have moved past them.

As another example, regarding Coney:

“He’s had to make some good choices after making some not-so-good choices. A lot of the credit goes to him in making good choices along the way here in the last few years …”

There have been particular players in the past about whom Kelly would have avoided mentioning those “not-so-good choices” and in doing so seem to indicate those might still be concerns. These three seniors, given time and multiple chances, appear to have born out the good faith.

What do you think of Clark Lea this far into the season? Do you think his success is more a holdover of what Mike Elko did last year to set the foundation or do you think he has contributed significantly? Further, a large part of the success of a good defensive coordinator is his ability to recruit well. Any reports on how Lea is doing on the recruiting front? — Daniel M.

What is your favorite play the Irish have called on defense? — Daniel M.

Daniel M. brought questions. To the recruiting wondering, 10 defensive prospects have committed in this class, and that includes 4 four-star defensive linemen and 3 four-star defensive backs. Let’s not worry about recruiting.

Lea has been excellent, and some gratitude is certainly due to Elko, who is doing impressive things at Texas A&M to this point, but if anyone is not getting enough credit, it is defensive line coach Mike Elston. That front is making Lea look brilliant. My favorite play call? Every single stunt the defensive line has run, giving its athleticism and speed a moment’s head start against a hesitating offensive lineman. Junior end Khalid Kareem’s game-clinching sack against Pittsburgh was hardly a great rush from him. The offensive line was just that confounded by a stunt with junior end Daelin Hayes. Daniel, you could have chased quarterback Kenny Pickett in that moment.

Those calls trace to Lea, but they are possible because of Elston’s work.

Moral dilemma. Goin’ to the BC-Miami game tonight. Don’t know who to root against more.” — Pat K.

Conceivably, Virginia Tech can still win the ACC Coastal, despite last night’s mistake against Georgia Tech. In that regard, a Miami loss could behoove Notre Dame. As discussed with Northwestern this morning, it is hard to dismiss any Power Five divisional champion, even if it comes from the chaotic Coastal where it remains possible every team finishes 4-4 in ACC play.

The Irish schedule still has hopes for Stanford and Michigan in this regard, as well, while USC’s divisional chances no longer need much be discussed.

Also, tonight is Boston College’s Red Bandanna game. You can’t cheer against the Eagles at the Red Bandanna game.

What alternate topics did you consider for today’s “Friday at 4”? — Douglas F.

“Why to never host a bachelor party during football season, even if it is during Notre Dame’s off week.”
“I need new friends.”
“I’m baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.”

Now then, what time is it? That’s right, it’s well past 4 if you made it this far. Hope that is a glass in your hand. Enjoy the evening, folks.

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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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

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.

Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, 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.

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

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.