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Leftovers & Links: The ‘Notre Dame can do this, right?’ Mailbag

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Notre Dame’s unbeaten season breeds optimism. An opponent the quality of Clemson tempers that into cautious optimism, but it remains a glass half-full outlook, nonetheless. Considering recent Irish history against foes of the Tigers’ level, that may be surprising, but as fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said Sunday, “This team is different. This team is not the ‘12 team. This team isn’t the ‘15 team. … I guess we’ll find out on December 29.”

Look, Drue, your point is not wrong, but that is 25 days away. We are going to speculate until then …

Is Clemson vulnerable to the Irish or is this just me wishing it were so? — nmmargie

At the risk of answering an “or” question with one word, yes.

More in-depth, let’s apply both a real-world example and a statistical one. The former comes from most-recent history: In research preparing for the season finale at USC, it was difficult to find any area of the game in which the Trojans should have outdone Notre Dame. There was nothing that offered any remote indication USC had the abilities necessary to hold up against the Irish. Yet, not only did it, it did so to the extent questions like this now come in …

Do you think having seen USC’s playmakers will help in the preparation for the blazing speed and great athletes of the next game? — Gary H.

The Trojan attack may not help in preparation; Notre Dame knew it had a nickel deficiency long before J.T. Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown broadcast it to the world. Clemson knew it, too, or soon will once Dabo Swinney spends any time watching tape of the Irish victory at Virginia Tech.

To answer Gary’s question before getting back to Margie’s, if there was any Irish benefit to struggling at USC, it came on the other side of the ball. Notre Dame’s offensive line got a taste of an aggressive and capable blitz, and it realized how much work needs to be done to stand up against such. That splash of cold water may help with focus over the next month. Four first- or second-year starters will need to be up to the task of blocking what is essentially an NFL defensive line.

“You’ve got to protect,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “If you can protect, you can get the ball out. There’s an opportunity. But if you can’t, good luck to you, you’re going to be on the ground half the day.”

Now back to Margie — Is Clemson vulnerable? Notre Dame did not seem to be when it went to Los Angeles, not against that version of USC. Otherwise came to be true, as it often does in this sport.

About the Tigers specifically, the advanced numbers are not kind to Irish hopes.

Quite frankly, Notre Dame has not faced a passing defense remotely comparable to Clemson’s. With junior Ian Book at quarterback, the closest thing may have been USC’s, ranked No. 33 by S&P+ numbers, a far cry from the Tigers’ No. 6. If removing the inane 38-yard “Hail Mary” to end that first half, Book went 21-of-38 for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Trojans with one interception. That was his lowest completion percentage of the season and his second consecutive game with an interception and fifth out of six.

The only rushing defense remotely analogous to Clemson’s (No. 1) was Michigan’s (No. 10), but with senior Brandon Wimbush at quarterback and senior running back Dexter Williams suspended, that is an inexact comparison. Northwestern’s No. 19 rating may be more precise, a unit that held the Irish to 3.0 yards per carry on 40 attempts.

Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell is just a piece of a vaunted defensive line that will make Notre Dame’s life difficult on Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

And to be clear, the Tigers defense set these standards while facing opposing offenses better than Notre Dame’s. By the end of the year, Pittsburgh had one of the best rushing offenses in the country, finishing No. 11 in the S&P+ category, far ahead of the Irish mark of No. 74. The Panthers gained 191 yards on 48 carries against Clemson on Saturday, hardly efficient.

We can do this, right? Or am I just drinking too much Kool-Aid? — @dothedrew25

Still, yes. The arguable vulnerability — and again, a concept that could not genuinely be found heading to USC, although that may have derived from the lack of quality Trojans opponents creating viable data — comes in the Tigers’ passing attack, led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Notre Dame intends to remember his youth.

“We always talk about just making them line up and snap it as many times as possible,” Tranquill said. “… If an offense is going to get going on us, we don’t want to give up explosive plays. … You’ve seen many times this year, we’ve taken on water but they’ll get down and end up missing a field goal or something, and we’ll get our offense back on the field.

“We always talk about making him snap as many times as possible to get it into the end zone.”

Lawrence has led the No. 27 passing offense in the country if still deferring to S&P+’s numbers, but the best passing defenses he faced were No. 34 Duke and No. 35 South Carolina. The Irish pass defense is rated No. 8.

Lawrence had success in those two games, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 644 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, but neither was as geared toward a bend-don’t-break methodology as Notre Dame’s is.

The Irish have held arguably better aerial attacks in check. Stanford (No. 7) threw for all of 174 yards, averaging a mediocre 6.44 yards per attempt. Virginia Tech (No. 26) gained 309 yards through the air, but still inefficiently at 5.94 yards per attempt. If Notre Dame hems in Lawrence and makes Clemson one-dimensional offensively, then maybe that Kool-Aid’s sugar high was not entirely misleading.

Defensive line depth has been key to quite a few Irish wins this season. Can we anticipate Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return to the lineup for the Cotton Bowl? — goirishgo

Of course, goirishgo asked this long before Kelly said Sunday that the sophomore defensive tackle has been cleared for practice, but it is too soon to know how much he will be able to contribute. The question still warrants remembering, as Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return only adds to an already deep defensive line, the exact unit that might make Lawrence’s life difficult enough to start the process of limiting him.

The Irish rotated eight defensive linemen this season. A ninth may seem unnecessary, but if Tagovailoa-Amosa can produce on eight snaps in the first three quarters, those are eight fewer snaps tiring Jerry Tillery’s legs on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive.

With the future members of the Class of 2027 having finished their seasons, what are some impact eighth-graders Irish faith—JUST KIDDING!!

The task ahead of Notre Dame in the Playoff appears to be daunting, even when straining to look at the most optimistic scenarios. As an American moviegoer, however, I have been raised on narratives suggesting overcoming impossible odds is not only possible but practically inevitable as long as the “good guys” have enough pluck, grit and determination. What are some feel-good, come-from-behind stories Irish fans should watch to emotionally prepare for the Playoff games? “Miracle” seems to be the most similar to the present situation (college kids, unstoppable team in red), but that might be too on the nose. Any other good movies that are comparable to the present situation? — Pete E., Indianapolis

That started out on a dangerous path.

Given his city of residence, Peter is obviously fishing for a “Hoosiers” reference. But that does not seem applicable. Who would Shooter Flatch be? What is the football version of a picket fence? Would Justin Yoon have to get on Sam Mustipher’s shoulders to touch the goalposts to show all football fields are the same size?

No. This feels more like a story of an unexpected group meeting an unstoppable force from which there is no escape, using innovative, if not questionable, strategy to pull off the needed result. A group with a boss in the business for three decades who is only the best because he works with the best. A group rallying behind a leader initially sidelined, driving through the iron wall, albeit with inconsistency. A group written off by the powers at be only to prevail at the very end.

You know, “Armageddon.” Maybe this was a little bit of a logic stretch.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Eight bowl eligible
Things We Learned: Book, Williams, Lea the difference between Notre Dame’s preseason and 12-0
Championship Saturday: Who should Notre Dame fans cheer for?
The Playoff is set; Notre Dame draws Clemson
Notre Dame gets what it expected with Clemson matchup

OUTSIDE READING
Cotton Bowl preview: Notre Dame and Clemson’s redemption stories clash
Every College Football Playoff team’s biggest matchup advantages
Why is it so hard for new teams to make the College Football Playoff?
Bookstore offers ‘uNDefeated’ merchandise to celebrate Irish victory
Bob Davie to return for 2019 season, New Mexico confirms
Seahawks place C.J. Prosise on injured reserve
Notre Dame’s easy schedule (Warning: Have a sense of humor)

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.