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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense should match Northwestern’s tendencies

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Three different positions across five years with a total of 37 starts to date, spanning all five seasons. More than 250 career tackles. Two-time captain. Let’s make one thing clear: No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) does not simply replace fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill if he cannot go at Northwestern this weekend (7:15 ET; ESPN). His exact status is unlikely to be known until shortly before kickoff, if not after.

“Drue practiced today,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday of Tranquill’s recovery from a five-day-old high ankle sprain. “Got him in some 7-on-7, got him in some team stuff today. We’ll see how he feels [Friday]. He was padded out, got in there and moved around pretty good.”

The Wildcats (5-3) are good enough Tranquill will play if at all able. That is also akin to his nature. Nonetheless, who fills in for or complements Tranquill will shed light on Notre Dame’s long-term defensive views.

If Tranquill can’t go, then what lineup changes get made? … Perhaps Bilal would move inside allowing Simon to start at rover, but as I think it through, with [Northwestern] employing a pass-heavy attack, maybe it would be best for Bilal to stay put and Genmark Heath or Bauer to step straight into Tranquill’s spot. — Dan H.

Let’s start by eliminating freshman linebacker Bo Bauer. He has not been mentioned by Kelly this week, and his role this season has largely been on the inside, backing up senior Te’von Coney. Kelly would not go too deep into the possibilities, but he did mention both sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and senior Asmar Bilal.

“There will be a host of guys getting some work there,” Kelly said Tuesday.

The discussion on the Wildcats’ offense can wait a moment. This personnel decision will not be dictated too heavily by that in particular. Whether Bilal moves over from rover or Genmark Heath steps up from a reserve role will give a clue to 2019’s thinking. Both Tranquill and Coney will be gone then. Bilal could readily move inside, but it would most likely be to Tranquill’s buck position with the emergence of Bauer already assuaging most Mike concerns.

Bilal has played well at rover, though. It has been a rather natural fit. Genmark Heath, meanwhile, has now had seven full months of work at buck. He might finally be ready to handle the position after his move from safety in the late spring.

The best bet for both the Irish and for predicting the future is Tranquill plays. He has come back from two major knee injuries. It seems unlikely an ankle sprain sidelines him with a chance at the College Football Playoff on the line.

Northwestern senior quarterback Clayton Thorson averages 40 pass attempts per game this season, including this one of 65 against Nebraska three weeks ago. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Now, about Northwestern’s offense, the quick assumption is it will rely on the pass. For example, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 65 passes against Nebraska on Oct. 13. That came after back-to-back weeks of 56 and 58 attempts in September in the Wildcats’ two regrettable losses to Duke and Akron.

This offense heaves.

Notre Dame’s defense, meanwhile, has made a habit of taking away the run from the opposition. Only two of eight Irish opponents have exceeded their attempts per game against Clark Lea’s defense: Ball State and Wake Forest. The other six have averaged nearly eight fewer attempts per game than they usually manage. It seems worth mentioning, the Deacons run the ball sixth most often in the country, and the Cardinals were clearly trying to shorten the game overall to sneak off with an upset.

Northwestern averages 35.4 rush attempts per game. If that falls to 27 or so, that could leave about 53 dropbacks for Thorson. That begs a question …

What is the Irish record for sacks in a game?

Senior tackle Jerry Tillery matched the individual record of four earlier this season against Stanford. The team record in the Kelly era is six, notched against Arizona State in 2013 and at Pittsburgh in 2011. (Ahhhh, the 15-12 Jonas Gray Fame.) The program record is believed to be nine sacks, most-recently reached in Lou Holtz’s last game at Notre Dame Stadium against Rutgers in 1996.

Tillery & Co. probably will not get to that number, but if Thorson and his reduced mobility drop back 55 times, the Kelly era mark might have a chance of falling.

There are, however, two reasons to doubt such success. The first is that Northwestern has given up only 19 sacks this year. The second is the Wildcats have begun relying on the run of late, at least in quantity, if not quality.

“They started to establish a pretty good running game last week,” Kelly said Thursday. “If you look at what they did against Wisconsin — the big play, throwing the ball down the field is absolutely part of what they do, but they put together a really strong running attack that balanced that out last week.”

Indeed, Northwestern ran 49 times for 182 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 against the No. 20 Badgers, but that is an average of only 3.71 yards per rush. Freshman Isaiah Bowser led the way with 117 yards on 34 carries, a 3.44 average. The Wildcats are running more often, but not necessarily well enough while doing so.

Hence the expectation of long scores.

“We’re not seeing anything there other than they have to push the ball down the field,” Kelly said. “If you look at the Michigan State game, if you look at every game where they’ve scored points, it’s big plays. Shots. So we have to be prepared for that.”

Kelly is correct, Northwestern scored touchdowns of 77, 48 and 21 yards against the Spartans, but in the five games the Wildcats have matched or exceeded that 29-point day, they have a total of three scores from further than 25 yards. Obviously, two came on that one afternoon.

Advanced numbers rate Northwestern’s passing explosiveness as No. 69 in the country and its big-play rate (20+ yards) as No. 124. Good luck with that against a bend-don’t-break defense like Lea’s.

Switching sides of the ball, will sophomore Jafar Armstrong see more work than his 14 total touches last week in his return from a month-long absence (knee infection)?

Even if he was slightly overworked, Notre Dame sophomore running back fared well in his return to action last week, taking 14 total touches for more than 100 yards. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

Watching the development of Armstrong’s partnership with senior running back Dexter Williams will be an enjoyable story line over the next month from a football perspective. The possibilities available for Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long are varied and many. He still needs to be careful with his toys.

“We probably played [Armstrong] too much,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I grabbed [running backs coach Autry Denson] a couple times, said, ‘Listen, get him out. We’re working him a little bit harder than I had expected.’ But [Armstrong] doesn’t say a word. He just keeps rolling.

“He should have been on a pitch count, probably should have paid attention to that a little bit better. He’s just a guy that keeps going. He was fatigued. We pushed him through that.”

Unfortunately, the absence of senior tight end Alizé Mack (concussion) may force Armstrong back past a pitch count again this week. Notre Dame has other tight ends — cue another red-zone touchdown for fifth-year Nic Weishar — but there will still be fewer multiple tight end packages, and that may mean more two running back sets.

A better indication of the Armstrong-Williams balance should come next week against Florida State.

I initially was frustrated at the rankings, but you are so right that if ND finishes undefeated, they are in. No longer talking specifically about Notre Dame here, but if LSU beats Alabama this weekend, any chance they just flip spots at 1 and 3? — Thomas W.

If the Irish get out to an early lead Saturday night, you should feel free to watch the SEC tilt (8 ET; CBS). If the Tide win, the country is halfway toward forgetting the drama of two SEC teams making the College Football Playoff. If the Tigers pull off the two-touchdown upset, though, Thomas may be on to something. Whether or not they flip spots is a moot point. The real question will be if Alabama would stay in the top four. Spoiler alert: Probably.

Questions? There is a reason insidetheirish@gmail.com exists.

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.