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And In That Corner … The No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl

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Shake off the Christmas snooze. The holiday is in the past. Notre Dame faces Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal in just two days. Grace Raynor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., has been in Dallas for nearly that long already, and it certainly felt much longer as lightning gave North Texas a new understanding of a “white Christmas”, albeit technically a day tardy. As Grace readies to watch the Cotton Bowl in JerryWorld on Saturday (4 ET; ESPN), she took some time to ponder Irish wonderings …

DF: For you this is all old hat. For the Notre Dame side of the Cotton Bowl, calling this a new experience would not suffice. Somehow the Playoff makes the entire experience feel bigger than the BCS title game in 2012 did. Maybe that is an indication the Irish might have a chance, but that feels like an ambitious generalization. I suppose we’re about to get to that. But first … How long have you been covering Clemson?

GR: I started getting my feet wet on the Clemson beat in October 2016 and people always crack up when I tell them that the fourth Clemson football game I covered was the 2016 national championship game the Tigers won with Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow. Since then, I have been on the beat full time since January 2017.

Let’s stick with the long-term view here for a moment, the macro. This is Clemson’s fourth Playoff appearance in a row. If not for that little operation known as Alabama, the Tigers would be the talk of the sporting world, the budding dynasty, etc. What has allowed this long-term success? Obviously the answer starts with head coach Dabo Swinney.

You’re correct in that it all starts with Dabo. This is a coach who has a very specific vision of what he wants his program to look like and he’s incredibly intentional when it comes to making sure that vision is carried out. When he first got the job as the interim coach in 2008, he started putting the pieces together with the people he trusted and the types of players he thought would fit the culture of the program he wanted to create. Swinney has been very up front over the years in his belief that Clemson is not a place every high school recruit in America would be drawn to or thrive in consistently. He has a unique vision and his players have picked up on that. He also has mastered how to balance work with fun, which might be the best tool he offers when it comes to convincing 18-year-old kids to come play for him. Every high school prospect in America has heard of the slide in the indoor facility or has seen the zany videos of Swinney with his team.

In 11 seasons at Clemson, Dabo Swinney has gone 114-30, including double-digit wins in each of the last eight years and Playoff appearances in the last four. (Getty Images)

From a great distance, Dabo seems an intriguing character, certainly an interesting coach to cover. Is that accurate or just the allure from across the country?

That’s definitely accurate. With Dabo, you never quite know what he’s going to say, but you always know it’s going to be something worth your while. In addition to being very thoughtful and passionate, Dabo is also funny and entertaining. He’s not afraid at all to let loose and that makes covering him interesting. What you see on television is what he’s like behind closed doors, too.

His coordinators — co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables — have all been in those positions for four years, with Venables tracing back to 2012. Obviously there is intention to that; Clemson pays a premium for such continuity. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator Chip Long has been around for two seasons and defensive coordinator Clark Lea is in his first, but both have been excellent. Might they be best tandem Elliott, Scott and Venables have faced this year? Realizing coaching is a much harder thing to quantify than most other aspects of a game, can the Irish match up to Swinney’s top-notch staff?

I know Clemson’s entire staff has nothing but the utmost respect for Notre Dame’s and certainly the Irish are not in the College Football Playoff by coincidence. At this point in the game, the four teams in the Playoff are all elite talents with elite staffs. Jeff Scott was just talking Wednesday about how he has followed Clark Lea’s career. It is Scott’s responsibility each week to study the big plays relinquished by opposing defenses and he said that what he has noticed with Notre Dame is there really aren’t a lot of big plays the Irish relinquish. Venables, Scott and Elliott have been in place for a while, yes. But there’s no shortage of explosiveness or talent on the Notre Dame side, too.

This is a hypothetical. There is no way to ever know the answer. But it is an interesting conversation piece, nonetheless … Would Clemson have finished the season 13-0 if it did not change quarterbacks after four games? It is almost certain Notre Dame would not have gotten this far without its respective switch three games into September.

That’s the million-dollar question. The Tigers, however, were able to go 12-1 and earn a No. 1 College Football Playoff seed under Kelly Bryant just a season ago. It’s easy to forget that.

Less than a year removed from his high school days, Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed 65.0 percent of his passes this season and threw only four interceptions, compared to 24 touchdowns.

Can you elaborate on Trevor Lawrence? He is a true freshman. Notre Dame fans want to believe he might fray under the pressure inherent to the Playoff, to JerryWorld, to facing a very good defense. Does he present as a guy that could happen to? Is his physical skill set just too much for it to matter?

Trevor is one of the most even-keeled athletes I’ve been around. Nothing seems to rattle him and no moment is ever too big for him. In fact, I asked him earlier in the season if anything in his life made him nervous and he admitted he does have some nerves once pregame rolls around on a weekly basis, but by the time kickoff arrives, he just locks in. He has a poise about him that is incredibly unique for a true freshman. That’s what separates him from others and that’s what makes him dominant; no stage is too big.

My notes are headlined, “Both 3rd receivers.” Let’s start with Lawrence’s counterpart, which is probably Hunter Renfrow, specifically, but the real point is the Tigers have four contributing receivers in Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Renfrow and Justyn Ross. How often do they line up together? Will Lea need four cornerbacks to keep up with them? That would be a tough ask. Might a safety suffice, or will that expose the back end? As you can tell, this is the part of Clemson’s offense I am most intrigued by; Notre Dame will not stop running back Travis Etienne (pictured at top) outright, but I do think it can slow him.

Clemson doesn’t do a ton of four-wide sets and prefers to have three wide receivers in with a tight end. But certainly all four of them are dangerous in their own ways. Higgins and Ross are the physical, athletic 6-4 stars that can go up and grab those 50/50 balls. Renfrow is obviously a machine on third down. Rodgers tends to fly under the radar but is a solid contributor. How Notre Dame chooses to defend these receivers could certainly help determine the outcome of this game. I’ll be interested to see what Lea does.

On the flip side, Chris Finke has emerged as a reliable option with Ian Book at quarterback. Does Venables have enough coverage defensive backs available to handle that three receiver look without overly-exposing anyone? I have heard whispers about some suspect safety play.

Clemson’s secondary has been the thinnest part of its defense all year and Venables even admitted as much when he talked about depth over the summer. Clemson’s corners are long, physical and athletic, but the safeties have had their problems. The safeties noticeably struggled when Clemson played South Carolina and Jake Bentley threw for 500-plus yards. Footwork has been poor at times and the Tigers safeties have not had their eyes in the right places at others. Venables has the personnel he believes in, it’s just a matter of consistently executing.

I’ll finish with two catch-alls: Clemson is 13-0 and in the midst of a run unparalleled aside from in Tuscaloosa. Are there weaknesses to speak of?

The secondary is the weakness people talk about the most, though it’s perhaps unfair the Tigers corners get lumped in with some safety struggles. Clemson has also noticeably struggled in the punting game.

And, have I missed anything else? Between the early signing period, this new experience of a Playoff and dreading the holiday week, I very well might have let something slip by me entirely. I realize I did not touch on Clemson’s vaunted defensive live. I know the praise of it is not hyperbolic. Quick routes to Finke strike me as the best chance to mitigate it a bit.

Clemson’s defensive line is the real deal, though obviously their impact could be complicated this week depending on what happens with Dexter Lawrence’s drug test.

Oh, and a prediction? Let’s, for now, presume the spread closes at Clemson by 13.5. (Note: Since this exchange, the line has fallen to Tigers by 12.5.)

Clemson 35, Notre Dame 24

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.

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.