Things We Learned: Stress-free recruiting cycle sets up Notre Dame both now and in the future

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Notre Dame may yet add to its class of 2019. Two consensus four-star defenders continue to be pursued, but adding either would only marginally change the feelings about the 21-23 signees as a whole. The class may rank as only No. 11 in the country, according to rivals.com, but its strengths are so notable, it comes across as much more impressive than that.

Maybe it was the lack of drama that most contributed to that feeling, with only two de-commitments in the entire cycle, one of which was hardly a commitment in the first place. Perhaps it is the welcome lack of stress over recruiting in December when a Playoff semifinal awaits eight days away. Or, most likely, signing four 4-star linemen on each side of the ball makes for such a foundation, the final ranking hardly matters.

Pulling in such a haul on both sides of the line is essentially unprecedented. Sticking with rivals.com rankings for the sake of consistency and the Brian Kelly era for the sake of comparison, the Irish have landed four 4-stars on either side of the line only in 2014 (four offensive linemen, including five-star Quenton Nelson and current center and captain Sam Mustipher) and 2011 (four defensive linemen, including five-stars Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams). The combined high in Kelly’s nine previous recruiting cycles was six 4-star linemen, seen twice (2016, 2011). It is no coincidence five of the six brought in 2016 have helped push the Irish to a Playoff berth to cap this 22-3 stretch: ends Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara the defensive representatives; left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer the remaining offensive linemen.

Current junior defensive end Daelin Hayes headlined the recruiting class of 2016, the only one with an influx in the trenches comparable to what has signed with Notre Dame this week. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

And to say it again, Notre Dame may yet hear good news from consensus four-star end Isaiah Foskey (De La Salle High School; Concord, Calif.) to make for five such defensive linemen. Foskey will not announce such during this period, though.

Following a year in which only one four-star lineman was among the 27 signees (defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola), the two classes complement each other. Last year was ripe with skill position players, a heralded quarterback and defensive backs expected to carry the secondary forward; this cycle resulted in the types of bodies needed to handle the dirty work to make those other guys look good.

“One of the things that is really exciting is we’re starting to stack some really good classes on top of each other that we’re really confident in,” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said Wednesday. “When you do that, the sustainability to keep competing at a high level becomes a much more realistic scenario.”

The stars alone are not why these prospects were sought. There were other high school seniors, plenty of others, some of which started calling Notre Dame back in November as it rolled toward a 12-0 finish only to be told the no vacancy sign had been turned on. On the offensive side, the Irish had the class most like this one vet these recruits. That 2014 haul of offensive linemen begat a unanimous All-American in Nelson, another All-American in Mustipher and a possible All-American deprived of such honors only by the cruel twist of a torn ACL in current fifth-year Alex Bars. Mustipher, Bars and the rest of the current Irish linemen had their say about who would join the room next year.

“They got to spend time with our offensive linemen, and, I’m not kidding you, they give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on them,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That is a close and tight group of guys. You either fit with those guys, or you don’t.”

Apparently, they fit, and when saying the quartet will join the room “next year,” that is meant calendar year, not school year. All four offensive linemen signees will enroll early next month, as will three of the defensive linemen and three others. The total of 10 exceeds last year’s previous high of seven, a notable escalation in a practice Notre Dame only began working with in 2006.

Sacrificing prom for six months in the weight room, a spring spent getting meaningful practice reps and a semester chipping away at the academic workload is the smart long-term play. The Irish will not always have 10 players opt for it — Kelly specifically credited the players for getting ahead on their high school work and being proactive enough to make this possible on their end — but the standardization of early enrollment stands out as another step forward by the University as a whole to making life a bit more tenable for the roster.

“It’s gone from, ‘Do you really think he should be here?’ to, ‘We will embrace him because we’ve had such great success,’” Kelly said. “When I say inside-out, the University has really embraced it and taken the time to be so much more concerned with that transition where we’ve built classes and we’ve built transition for the mid-year enrollees.”

Their arrival may, in a way, help the sorting process inherent to offseason roster attrition. The handling of the recruitment of consensus four-star linebacker J.D. Bertrand was done in an intentional manner to keep him eligible for an academic scholarship. Hence no official visit to Notre Dame and no in-home visit from the coaching staff. For now, let’s not count him toward the final scholarship numbers, and let’s not include seniors such as quarterback Brandon Wimbush and defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. Wimbush will presumably transfer elsewhere to start one last season behind center and bringing in two more four-star tackles in this class reduces the need to invite Dew-Treadway back for a fifth season.

That puts the current scholarship count at 90, with Foskey and the ongoing drama of consensus four-star linebacker Asa Turner (Carlsbad; Calif.) possibly pushing it to 92. The Irish roster will need to see at least five pieces of turnover by the start of the fall semester. That is by no means an exorbitantly large number, but it will remain a piece of conversation and mild drama until it is reached.

That drama will not begin to play out until Notre Dame’s season ends, and next weekend remains the biggest moment of this month. Oftentimes a recruiting class like this one would be described as the latest win on the calendar. Doing so when Clemson looms would elevate recruiting to an undeserved level. No matter how good the class, how deep the lines, how many enroll early, the greatest Irish benefit of this week’s worry-free success is the little time it took away from Playoff preparations.

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.

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