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Friday at 4: Reviewing the ‘Counting Down the Irish’ expectations

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It is an impossible standard to match, but a comparison inevitably broached in the midst of an undefeated season, especially a season with big bad ‘Bama looming over the rest of the country. Six years ago, Notre Dame rattled off an undefeated regular season, spurred by one magnetic player. No matter what happened in December and January, that much cannot be denied.

With the Irish now ranked No. 4 and only four games away from the second undefeated regular season of Brian Kelly’s tenure, the question should have been expected …

Who is this year’s Manti Te’o? Who is the face of the Irish, and why? Or why not — Perhaps this is a better conglomeration of multiple players, a better “team” so to speak? — Robert B.

Robert included the possibilities of senior linebacker Te’von Coney, senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and junior cornerback Julian Love. He mentioned junior quarterback Ian Book, brought up senior running back Dexter Williams and drew a rather bold line directly between senior receiver Miles Boykin and Jeff Samardzija.

Know what almost all those current players have in common? With the exception of Book, they appeared on the preseason’s “Counting Down the Irish.”

The past few years, Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune and ND Insider has shouldered this midseason obligation, reflecting back on his own top-25 ranking. But Tyler instead spent this year’s idle week doing things like breaking down offensive line play, charting Book’s pass progressions and providing genuine analysis. With him now tending to those bigger and better concerns, that leaves a fool like yours truly to discuss who was underrated, overrated and — in the case of Book — not rated at all just nine weeks ago.

The complete final top 25 is listed at the bottom, but to go through some highlights reveals a broader answer to Robert’s inquiry.

No. 25: Fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner — Bonner has only 14 tackles this season, but he has provided under-the-radar depth, at the absolute least. Removing any member of Notre Dame’s defensive line from these rankings is rash.

No. 22: Junior right guard Tommy Kraemer Kraemer has pretty much been benched at this point, something that may have happened even sooner if fifth-year left guard Alex Bars had not been knocked out for the year back in September. Kraemer’s replacement, senior Trevor Ruhland, does not inherently jump into the top 25, nor does now starting left guard sophomore Aaron Banks, merely due to taking over the role with only five games left. That said, if the Irish rattle off four more wins, a large amount of credit will need to be directed toward the revamped offensive line.

No. 20: Junior defensive end Julian Okwara Only one of the 12 beat writers polled placed Okwara ahead of classmate Daelin Hayes (No. 8, more on him later), but a few others claimed to consider it. Okwara currently has 26 tackles with seven coming behind the line of scrimmage. His total number of quarterback hurries is somewhat uncountable. He should have been higher than No. 20. He should have been top 10. He should have been where Hayes was.

He has run with aggression, with success and with frequency. Notre Dame senior running back Dexter Williams has all-but erased the memory of his unspoken four-game suspension to begin the year. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

No. 19: Senior running back Dexter Williams — I was wrong. In my preseason review of the rankings, I had the audacity to write, “Expecting [Williams] to be the No. 19 most-impactful player this season with those large limiting factors is a generous reach. It is not impossible, but it seems quite improbable.”

Williams has appeared in four games with four to go. Doubling his stats to date puts him on pace for 148 carries for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. In Kelly’s eight previous years leading Notre Dame, that would put Williams atop the rushing leaders in all but two of them: Josh Adams led with 1,430 yards last year and Cierre Wood ran for 1,102 in 2011. That latter number could easily fall in a bowl game.

Williams has (finally) lived up to the hype, and then some.

No. 17: Junior running back Tony Jones — Knocking Jones for his performance thus far is to miss what Williams has done. But removing Jones from this list and replacing him with unranked sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong would make an abundance of sense. Armstrong missed three crucial games, so moving him up much further than this slot might not even be necessary.

No. 16: Senior nickel back Shaun Crawford — Of course, the poll was conducted before Crawford tore his ACL. In his place, though, it would be easy to slip in junior safety Jalen Elliott, tied for the third-most tackles on the team with 45 and tied for the lead in interceptions with two. Elliott’s improved play is not discussed enough, quite frankly. Remember his game-saving pass breakup against Vanderbilt? The Irish very well could have suffered a loss the third week of September otherwise.

No. 15: Sophomore tight end Cole Kmet — Between Kmet here and senior tight end Alizé Mack at No. 18, two tight ends did not need to make the top 25. Mack’s 27 catches for 250 yards and a score warrant inclusion; Kmet’s 11 for 93 do not.

Notre Dame senior rover Asmar Bilal has responded to preseason questions by providing the Irish defense decent coverage and excellent edge play against the run, plus the occasional quarterback rush like this pressure on Ball State’s Riley Neal. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In his place, how about promoting senior rover Asmar Bilal? He was widely doubted entering the season, but 38 tackles with three for loss to date should be on this list, and Bilal’s aptitude shored up one of Notre Dame’s few defensive question marks, something of an intangible impact.

No. 11: Junior receiver Chase Claypool — In order to move players up (Okwara, Williams), others have to move down.

No. 10: Junior defensive end Khalid Kareem — 27 tackles, eight for loss, 4.5 sacks, one dramatic fumble forced that led directly to a touchdown. Essentially, the Irish defensive line cannot get enough credit, and Kareem has been a primary piece of that.

No. 8: Junior defensive end Daelin Hayes — His stats have not been there, and thus he will drop on this list, but his position is also about much more than stats. Hayes remains a piece of Notre Dame’s dime defensive line, when Clark Lea threatens the passer as much as possible. Hayes’ stunts have led to multiple Kareem sacks. By keeping four pass-rush dangers on the field, he keeps extra blockers from stopping Okwara. Hayes falls on this ranking, but he should not fall off.

No. 7: Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars — If not injured, Bars would have risen into the top five. As is, dropping Bars off the list makes space for an underrated piece like senior receiver Chris Finke. He did not make the preseason polling but has become a consistent contributor since Book’s insertion. Catching 27 passes for 338 yards should at least put Finke in the Nos. 20-25 range.

No. 6: Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — Speaking of Book’s insertion, let’s just stick him here and be good with the change.

Why not higher? Doing so would require Book surpass a defensive stalwart like Coney (No. 1), Tillery (2), Love (4) or fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill (5). Keeping fifth-year center Sam Mustipher in the top five feels similarly necessary, especially given the revolving doors on each side of him.

Robert’s question may be best answered by half the team: The Irish defense kept the record perfect through the offense’s struggles under Wimbush. It held off Pittsburgh. It reduced Navy’s triple-option to an empty threat.

Notre Dame’s defense, led by Tillery, Okwara, Coney and Tranquill still dominates a listing of the most-impactful Irish players, even more so than considered in August.

Too Long; Didn’t Read … Ranked too high in the preseason: Kraemer, Jones, Crawford, Kmet, Claypool, Hayes, Wimbush.
Ranked too low in the preseason: Okwara, Williams, Kareem.
Incorrectly not ranked in the preseason: Armstrong, Elliott, Finke, Book.

The complete preseason list:
Nos. 25 – 21: Bonner, Newsome, Eichenberg, Kraemer, Yoon.
Nos. 20 -16: Okwara, Williams, Mack, Jones, Crawford.
Nos. 15 – 11: Kmet, Hainsey, Pride, Gilman, Claypool.
Nos. 10 – 6: Kareem, Boykin, Hayes, Bars, Wimbush.
Nos. 5 – 1: Tranquill, Love, Mustipher, Tillery, Coney.

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.