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Leftovers & Links: November awaits No. 3 Notre Dame

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It might as well already be Halloween. Which is to say, it is November Eve for Notre Dame. The last bugaboo of the last five Irish years awaits.

Brian Kelly checked the box of beating a top-tier foe with the season-opening win against Michigan, and then did so again for good measure when a top-10 ranked Stanford arrived four weeks later.

Notre Dame forged past the horrors of Miami when it left Virginia Tech with a 45-23 victory a few weeks ago. The Irish have kept lesser opponents as inferiors, even if the contests were closer than wanted or expected, unlike years past.

That leaves November. Four games in November.

Never mind where they go — largely away from Notre Dame — or who they are against, middling-to-underrated opponents, the end of the season may present the greatest difficulty all on its own. For as much progress as the program has made in nutrition, recovery, conditioning and so forth, only one page of the calendar can determine if it has been enough.

It is more than an arbitrary Julian cutoff. It almost always coincides with the final third of the season, the point where bodies begin to breakdown, focus can wander.

The Irish went 2-2 in November last year and are 9-12 across the last five seasons. Remove the extra game granted by the falling of the week in 2014, and that falls to 8-12. Yes, that season began 6-0 and 7-1 but a four-game losing streak spurred by injury led to a 7-5 regular season finish.

Novembers have not been kind.

Before it officially arrives, let’s once again give credit to Drew White. Imagine a scenario where Navy capitalizes on the Notre Dame fumble on the first play Saturday night, suddenly putting the Irish in a 7-0 hole. Imagine even with a response, Notre Dame’s two efficient drives thereafter stake it to only a 13-7 lead, and at some point, the Midshipmen find a groove in the first half before making halftime adjustments.

Instead of a 27-0 halftime lead, the Irish may have been holding a 27-14 lead, cut to 30-28 in the third quarter. From there, who is to say how it would play out?

The absence of fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill would have been stark in that not-too-outlandish hypothetical. Along with it, criticism of sophomore Drew White would have run rampant. Instead, White finished with six tackles, Navy never made things interesting, and Notre Dame enjoyed a relatively simple 44-22 victory.

White’s emergence was unexpected, to say the least. Junior Jonathan Jones would have been expected before him, freshman Bo Bauer before that, and freshman Shayne Simon and sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath before Bauer.

But it was White, because it was the triple-option. Do not expect him in more than a rotational role moving forward if Tranquill misses any action with a sprained ankle, but do give White credit for being ready Saturday. He helped avert what could have been disaster.

One last Navy thought … The Midshipmen fair caught every kickoff. While Navy has returned only 12 all season, for 150 yards, this was still a shift in strategy and one unexpected against a questionable kickoff return unit that has allowed two touchdowns this season. An odd choice, to say the least, and one unlikely to be explained any time in the future.

On to Northwestern … Make that 10-2 with seven outright wins. From before the Wildcats’ 31-17 upset of Wisconsin on Saturday:

The Irish opened as 7.5-point favorites for this coming week (7:15 ET; ESPN). If nothing else, Pat Fitzgerald has relished that position of late.

And since back to a typical offensive approach, this trio of questions deserves an answer …

Mr. Arnold used to heap praise on cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson back in 2012. How do you feel the combo of Julian Love and Troy Pride stack up? I know Virginia Tech went after Pride with success but not as much success as Pittsburgh had on Donte Vaughn. The saving grace to me for Pride are his interceptions. To my untrained eye, I would give the nod to the current duo. — Shawn H.

Why does Julian Love not shadow the opposing team’s best receiver all game? I noticed Hazelton from VaTech had two catches against North Carolina after torching Troy Pride & Co. all night two weekends ago. It seems like letting Love take out the best receiver would be a better option than whatever scheme they have planned. — Jason V.

Why do the defensive backs refuse to find the ball when it’s in the air? Seems like so many passes are caught and we never see the ball coming. The exception to this rule is Julian Love. He seems to have been taught differently — Paul L.

Undoubtedly part of the reason Notre Dame junior cornerback Julian Love was beaten deep at one point against Navy was the surprise element inherent to a triple-option attack attempting a deep pass. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

Two quick responses here before delving into it with more detail: 1) Julian Love is a talent unparalleled in the Brian Kelly era. The most-recent comparisons are the Shane Walton-Vontez Duff duo in the early ‘00s, but neither was anywhere near as technically proficient as Love is. 2) This may not be a popular time to defend Pride, but it is really easy to do so, which indicates it is somewhat deserved.

The combined duo of Russell and Jackson may have been better in 2012 than the current starting pair of juniors Love and Pride, but having a talent like Love’s as the top corner makes up for that discrepancy. He all but eliminates half the field, which plays into the second inquiry.

Love is a better pass defender than Pride. Add in Love is very physical and a strong tackler. That skill set fits the boundary cornerback duties perfectly. Keeping Love on one specific receiver would open up the boundary for the opposition, forcing Pride or junior Vaughn or freshman TaRiq Bracy into boundary coverage when that is less than ideal. Hazelton’s 12 catches for 131 yards were an issue, yet the Hokies managed just 5.9 yards per pass attempt. That does not make for an efficient offensive attack.

Furthermore, Pride was playing on a sprained ankle against Virginia Tech, one that was bad enough to sideline him a week later. Think about a cornerback’s job requirements. A sprained ankle matters a great deal. That does not entirely explain his lack of tackling against Navy, but that also is not his forte. His best moments come in coverage, not against the triple-option. Any panic about Pride should be tempered for at least the time being.

Why does he not turn for the ball? For the thousandth time, cornerbacks are coached to look for the ball only rarely. Whipping one’s head around while at a full sprint and locating the ball takes time. In that time, the pass has likely passed the cornerback by and landed unimpeded in the receiver’s hands. Rather, the coaching is to rip through the hands as the ball arrives. It has a far greater success rate.

It may not look as cool or be as plainly logical, but the difference in outcomes is apparent.

Now feels like a pertinent time to point out Northwestern (5-3) throws the ball an average of 44.5 times per game.

With that, the mailbag is emptied entirely. The inbox has been cleared. The direct messages deleted. Let’s fill it back up again … insidetheirish@gmail.com

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Things We Learned: At 8-0, Notre Dame still has not reached its best
No. 3 Notre Dame’s defense, ground game render Navy’s triple-option largely ineffective
Notre Dame’s possession problem against Navy

OUTSIDE READING
Te’von Coney’s day against Navy
The 12 remaining Playoff contenders
Florida State implodes … again

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.