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Things We Learned: Notre Dame is ready for this November and all that comes with it

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EVANSTON, Ill. — For a half, Northwestern looked like the toughest defense No. 4 Notre Dame (9-0) had faced with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback. While the Wildcats were not ranked and Ryan Field was anything but intimidating in any way, this was still November. Bad things happen to the Irish in November.

“We have to stay humble,” junior receiver Chase Claypool said after making eight catches for 130 yards. “Last year around this time, the rankings came out and then Miami happened.”

That three-syllable, five-character word has hung above Notre Dame all season, and that will still be the case for at least another two weeks. But the 31-21 victory at Northwestern (5-4) was a loud counterargument. These Irish know what happens to most teams in November, and that awareness, that familiarity keeps everyone on their toes.

Notre Dame is a long way from where it wants to be. That trip to Yankee Stadium looks more and more dubious with each Syracuse victory. But for now, the Irish know what matters — now Florida State — and what doesn’t, those rankings.

“It’s hard to win in November,” junior quarterback Ian Book said. “We’re in such a good situation and we know that. I think this team does such a good job of focusing one week at a time. Everyone is excited, but everyone is just ready for Florida State.”

The fact that Book had hardly changed out of his uniform and was already mentioning the Seminoles may make this “one week at a time” mentality seem suspect, but he did not mention then reaching 11-0 or 12-0. He said only Florida State. Per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the next step on the team’s march toward reaching all goals is to finish the home schedule without a loss. That has clearly been on the radar for a bit.

Starting November well has been, too. The offseason was spent readying for this physical and mental burden. When a botched handoff gifted the Wildcats possession on the game’s fourth snap, the defense did not panic. The quick change led to a missed field goal and things proceeded as always wanted, even if sluggishly for a half.

“The average team or teams in years past, they feel that pressure building every single week,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “Which it does, but we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. That has led us to be 9-0.

“We’ve realized that, and we’ve been coached through that. It’s a bunch of seniors, a bunch of vets that are really leading us in that confidence and not the pressure.”

It is trite to say Notre Dame is confident, not cocky, but it just may be the case. Book led an even-keeled team to the shores of Lake Michigan not inherently expecting to rout the Wildcats, but to beat them. This was the best defense he has faced and expecting another 40-point showing would have been ambitious, but expecting a couple touchdowns in due time was reasonable. There was a reason Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long kept the game-sealing play call in their back pocket until it was needed — they expected it to be needed.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Te’von Coney finished with 10 tackles, including two of Northwestern senior quarterback Clayton Thorson behind the line of scrimmage. (AP Photo/Jim Young)

Senior linebacker Te’von Coney and the Irish defense knew they were facing a four-year starter at quarterback. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea game planned to give Clayton Thorson options, but only options Lea deemed unlikely to succeed. Shutting the Wildcats down was not the intention, limiting them was.

That is confidence, not cockines. That is doing what you’ve been doing. That is how a very good team, but not an utterly great one, reaches 12-0.

How does a very good team become an utterly great one? It starts with quarterback development.

Book’s halftime stats were less than pedestrian: 7-of-15 for 107 yards, including 1-of-4 for nine yards in the second quarter. This was not the quarterback who had sparked Notre Dame the last five weeks.

Then came his second half: 15-of-19 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. That would be a strong performance if across an entire game.

What happened? Book has enough experience under his belt now to sit down at halftime and have a genuine conversation with Long and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees. At the end of it, Book knew what they wanted to do to counteract the Wildcats’ defense. And he did it.

This was not within Book’s abilities earlier this year.

“Probably would have taken a film study for him to make those adjustments and then it would probably go into action the following week,” Kelly said. “(Now) he can make [the adjustments] at halftime. You can sit down, go over them, draw them up. He can see them clearly, and then access those immediately in the third quarter.”

Kelly described a process that begins briefly with Long before it is handed over to Rees.

“Then Tommy really sits down with [Book] and says, this is where we’re going with the football because of this. They work well together.”

And a third voice chimes in. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is naturally next to Book during these sessions, and considering Wimbush has 15 career starts to his name and three years of studying film with Book, it makes sense he may have an observation, interpretation or callback that fits a situation.

At halftime Saturday night, Northwestern was clearly the best defense Book had faced. His stats looked, well, Wimbush-ian. After the break, Book was back to being Book again.

Michael Young’s 47-yard touchdown reception was a piece of Notre Dame’s second-half breakout in a 31-21 victory at Northwestern on Saturday. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP)

What is the next step? Implementing such changes on the sideline while the defense forces a three-and-out. That may not come until next year, but this current trend indicates such development is on its way.

As for the reason the Irish did not blow out the Wildcats once Book was rolling … is it something learned if it was already known? These special teams are suspect.

It does not, but it needs to be reiterated.

The blocked punt obviously led to a touchdown to cut the Notre Dame lead to 24-21. The previous Northwestern score? Aided by an illegal formation penalty on the Irish kickoff, giving a five-yard boost in immediate field position.

When sophomore kicker Jonathan Doerer sent a kickoff out of bounds in the third quarter, it did not cost Notre Dame anything but field position, but it continues a struggle that has contributed to two kickoff return touchdowns allowed.

Not all the special teams issues came when getting rid of the ball. There was also a hold from junior Jonathan Jones on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, forcing the Irish to start the drive from the 11-yard line. If Book had not finished that drive with his 23-yard touchdown run, Jones’ penalty could loom much, much larger.

These mistakes are how a very good team becomes known as a flawed team.

“Attention to detail was not what it needed to be,” Kelly said.

That attention to detail comes with focus. One might expect a junior safety involved in two seasons with Playoff aspirations would know not to leave his block early on a punt. One might expect a kicker to fulfill his one duty. One might expect these basics to not add stress.

For the most part, those expectations were met Saturday. There was enough focus. Thank last year’s lack thereof.

“Last year we were in the same situation,” Coney said. “We were in the same situation where we had a chance to complete the mission. We didn’t do a good job of staying focused. We looked too ahead and it cost us.

“This year we have to stay in the moment. That’s the key. Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low.”

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.