No. 2 Notre Dame head and shoulders over No. 19 Heels

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Maybe Notre Dame’s and North Carolina’s defenses thought their top-25 matchup started at 4:30. Perhaps the defensive backs wanted to have one more plate of leftovers before getting to business. They may have just felt like the best way to be thanked was to first show how badly they were needed.

Whatever the reason, once the Irish and Tar Heels defenses engaged, a Black Friday shootout became a one-sided slog. A 28-point, back-and-forth first quarter gave way to only two more touchdowns the rest of the afternoon. Despite losing its best defender, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) shut down the best offense it will face this regular season in a 31-17 win at No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3), shutting out the Tar Heels in the second half after reaching the break tied.

“When we went into the locker room tied at 17-17, I looked at my team and said, ‘Now you have to understand, we have to take this one play at a time. This is going to be fighting for every blade of grass, but you guys are capable of doing this,’” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “They did it.

“This is on them. … A dominating performance in the second half because our players were locked into all of those things.”

Graduate transfer receiver Bennett Skowronek provided the winning score with yet another red-zone touchdown, this one breaking from the trend set by his previous five touchdown catches, instead taking a 13-yard handoff around the edge for a score.

Otherwise, nearly all the offensive success came early and often. A frenetic first quarter included four touchdowns on five drives, the only one failing to find the end zone being Notre Dame’s opening drive, a three-and-out losing 11 yards. None of the four scoring drives were contingent on a big scoring play. Rather, pressure from each defensive line forced quarterbacks Sam Howell and Ian Book to improvise.

Both have excelled at that all season, and the first quarter was no different, highlighted by Book scooping up a poor snap from first-time starting center sophomore Zeke Correll, scrambling away from two Tar Heels defenders and then finding sophomore running back Kyren Williams for a checkdown that also served as a wide-open touchdown.

“It was a low snap, it hit the ground, so I lose where my eyes were,” said Book, walking through the thought process that led to the most chaotic 279-yard, one-touchdown performance of his career. “I wanted to be looking to the field over to the left a little bit.

“Grabbed it, and I knew Kyren was protecting to the right. I didn’t think he was going to get out, but he did an unbelievable job and he did get out. I kind of flipped my hips and ran that way. I just know our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what. I scramble and try to make as many plays as I can, and I trust these guys to be in the right spot. That was another example of that. Kyren did an unbelievable job.”

Book took that “make as many plays as I can” style as far as he could at North Carolina, showing more trust in his targets than the most generous assessment would have endorsed. His peak moment of backyard ball veered into recklessness and foolishness, an arching pitch to freshman tight end Michael Mayer in the fourth quarter that somehow resulted in an 11-yard gain. Of course, when such a moment converts a third down, it goes from reckless to instinctual and from foolish to endearing.

“They’re obviously risky, I don’t want to do it too much,” Book said, noting he last attempted such youthful passes (also completing a backhanded shovel pass to Skowronek) his sophomore year of high school, perhaps five years later than one would have guessed. “But again, I’m just trying to fight to get that first down, fight to get the ball into playmakers’ hands. I knew Mike would come down with it. It just happens. Definitely not thinking about doing it, it just happens.”

Now tied for the all-time lead in career victories as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame with 29, and second all-time in winning percentage, Book out-performed his Tar Heels counterpart in every regard. Howell finished with 211 yards on 17-of-27 passing with one touchdown while getting sacked six times.

Kelly took the opportunity to trumpet his three-year starter’s success. Without a single word impugning Howell, Kelly expressed offense at how Book is not heralded the same way Howell has been of late.

“He doesn’t get the kind of credit he deserves,” head coach Brian Kelly said to ABC immediately after the game. “He’s a college football quarterback that wins football games. We try to make too much out of it, other than he’s a winner and he won again on the road against a really good football team.”

With all due respect to Book, and respect is due, him out-playing Howell was as much a testament to the Irish defense, even though it lacked its greatest equalizer and failsafe for the entire second half after sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting.

On a third-and-long, Hamilton tackled Tar Heels receiver Josh Downs well short of the first-down marker, but as soon as he made the tackle, Hamilton knew his afternoon was over. He clearly led with his head and initiated helmet-to-helmet contact. Dispute the rule if you want — and you shouldn’t — but this was a clear targeting foul by the letter of the law.

Yet that loss did not expose Notre Dame to any Howell Magic. The star sophomore quarterback ended with more than 110 fewer yards than his average entering the weekend. In 21 career games, he had thrown 17 fourth-quarter touchdowns, only to flounder the entire second half against the Irish. After North Carolina gained 220 yards in the first half, the Irish held Howell & Co. to 78 in the second half.

“They were scoring all over film, all over a bunch of teams,” senior linebacker Drew White said. “That just motivated our group as a unit to come into the game and reinforced that we believe that we’re the best defense in the country. We came out not the way we wanted, but I thought we bounced back great.”

Part of that defensive dominance derived from Notre Dame’s offense, which ate up 4:32 on the clinching touchdown drive, Williams’ third score of the day, a punctuation mark less crucial than the time chewed before it. In that regard, an offensive line with two new starters echoed what the original unit did against Louisville, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech earlier in the season.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book elicited Kelly’s postgame defense, while Williams scored three times to raise his season tally to 13 touchdowns. White received the game ball for his five tackles with two for loss, and senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continued his habit of seemingly being everywhere with nine tackles.

But Correll made his first start and overcame a pair of ugly snaps to put forth a solid debut. Book was sacked twice, but neither seemed to stem directly from Correll. With two distinctly inferior opponents yet on the docket, this beginning should give Correll momentum to becoming a fully-complementary piece by the time the Irish reach the ACC championship game, needing just one more win to clinch that berth.

“As a first-time starter, to get the kind of ball control that we had, especially in the second half, your center has to be doing a great job with protections,” Kelly said. “They threw a lot of stuff at us we hadn’t seen before, his recognition was really good.”

There was less concern about senior Josh Lugg stepping in at right guard, partly because he started five games at right tackle last year and partly because fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer is expected back in a few weeks after an emergency appendectomy, but Lugg performed well all the same.

“We knew both these guys were going to step in and play well for us,” Kelly said.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Family turkey bowls have showcased more responsible quarterbacking than Book’s heave to Mayer and flip to Skowronek. Presented in a vacuum, one would set the over/under on 1.5 of those getting intercepted. The amazement and curiosity to behold them succeeding creates a sense of frivolity and glee. But neither occasion is repeatable or something to build upon.

The scramble, improvise and throw to Williams for a touchdown, however, showcased many of the strengths of the Notre Dame backfield. Viewing the play from behind the line of scrimmage best illustrates how calm Book remained despite looming crisis. Williams buys Book time with a sturdy blitz pickup before leaking out. And as Book explained, he clearly knew where his safety valve should and would be, looping around toward Williams as the play broke down.

The Irish would rather not be in that situation inside the 5-yard line, but the fact that Book still found success in the face of disaster is an ability that can be replicated in the future.

STAT OF THE GAME
Both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game before this weekend. They were the foundation of a balanced offense averaging more than 50 points across its last four games. They totaled 85 yards on Saturday on 19 carries.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
As the early scoring got out of hand, Notre Dame’s defense did not fret. There was no worry Howell was gaining momentum he could roll forward with all game. Because logic dictates that simply is not a thing.

“We really, as a defensive unit, see momentum as a myth,” White said. “I’m sure people will argue that point, but after each drive we go back to the sideline, and we make corrections, however many that will be. Our focus is on to the next drive.”

Preach, young man. Preach.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:56 — North Carolina touchdown. Emory Simmons 6-yard pass from Sam Howell. Grayson Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 50 yards, 2:54)
5:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. (9 plays, 75 yards, 4:37) North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 7.
2:59 — North Carolina touchdown. Howell 1-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 2:20)
1:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 4-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 14. (4 plays, 82 yards, 1:50)

Second Quarter
1:10 — North Carolina field goal. Atkins 42 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 14. (12 plays, 72 yards, 4:40)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 17. (7 plays, 61 yards, 1:10)

Third Quarter
7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Bennett Skowronek 13-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 17. (13 plays, 97 yards, 5:22)

Fourth Quarter
1:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 17. (8 plays, 89 yards, 4:32)

Leftovers & Links: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

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The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com.

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per rivals.com: There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

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On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
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40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame did not get there in any way expected, but the Irish season ended about where anticipated in the preseason. Psychological studies could spend hours disagreeing if it would have been better for Notre Dame to go 10-3 with its three losses coming to three top-10 teams or if a 9-4 season with a top-10 upset is better for Marcus Freeman’s program in the long-term.

But either scenario was going to end with the Irish in the Gator Bowl, a likelihood as far back as August.

To finish this recap of 40 preseason predictions

32) “A freshman defensive back will intercept a pass this season, becoming just the second freshman to do so” since 2017. Notre Dame’s defensive backfields have been far from liabilities during this resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, but they have lacked young playmakers, Kyle Hamilton aside.

Enter Benjamin Morrison and not one, not two, not three … but six interceptions in his freshman season. Unfortunately for your prognosticator, that does not equal six correct predictions. (15.5/32)

33) “The spread when the Irish visit the Trojans will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown.” And indeed, USC was favored by four when Notre Dame visited the weekend after Thanksgiving, in what may have been the last visit the weekend after Thanksgiving. Logic says the Irish and Trojans will continue playing regularly, but USC’s joining the Big Ten in 2024 could change the timing of the meetings, and NCAA rule changes have removed Notre Dame’s want to be on the West Coast that particular week.

The Irish used to disperse their coaches from Washington to Arizona to recruit the Pacific time zone immediately after the season-ending game in California. In a literal sense, it saved those coaches 12-24 hours to not have to travel to Seattle or Phoenix from South Bend, particularly vital in a crucial recruiting window.

But now, the days after Thanksgiving are a dead period, so the coaches cannot make those visits. They flew back with the team this year.

Combine that with the Big Ten flux and perhaps Notre Dame starts heading to USC at a different point in the calendar in 2024. (16.5/33)

34) “USC will not make the College Football Playoff.”

Between this, suggesting Ohio State would make the Playoff and mistakenly thinking Clemson would, as well, these preseason predictions accurately predicted the season conclusions for two of the three biggest Irish opponents in 2022. Already suspect the 2023 version will include none of the three making the Playoff. (17.5/34)

35) Sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles’ disappointing 2022 — 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown — cost him any semblance of NFL draft buzz a year before he is eligible for the draft. A breakout 2023 would obviously change that, but that was not the prediction. (17.5/35)

36) Blake Grupe fell two makes short of the predicted 80 percent field-goal rate, finishing at 73.7 percent on 14-of-19. A career 74.4 percent kicker before he arrived at Notre Dame, the Arkansas State graduate transfer’s 2022 fell in line with his career. (17.5/36)

37) Arguing Notre Dame would score fewer than 32.8 points per game in 2022 was based on the lack of depth at receiver, subsequently underscored by Styles’ struggles. Expecting the Irish to slow things down made a lower-scoring season a strong thought, though perhaps not as low as the 31.4 scored per game in 2018, the low of the last six years.

Notre Dame threaded that needle with 31.8 points per game, a number buoyed, though not shockingly, by the punt-block unit and Morrison’s contributions. (18.5/37)

38) The Irish had gone 54-10 in Brian Kelly’s final five years in South Bend, winning at least 10 games each year. Predicting a sixth season of double-digit wins was a mistake largely thanks to Audric Estimé’s fumble in the fourth quarter against Stanford. (18.5/38)

39) This final stretch of predictions focused on hitting a few tight windows. The spread against USC, the exact scoring average and … where Notre Dame would play in a bowl game.

“Notre Dame will play in Florida before New Year’s.”

As complicated as bowl scenarios get during the season and then even the week of selections with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego reportedly campaigning hard for the Irish, sticking with initial expectations would have been a smart travel-planning strategy. (19.5/39)

40) 

(20.5/40)

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

Clemson v Notre Dame
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Recapping these preseason predictions bit by bit has emphasized how much of a see-saw Notre Dame’s 2022 was. They expected decent Irish success at Ohio State to open the season, which was realized. They then plainly assumed Notre Dame would continue to wallop overmatched opponents as Brian Kelly made the default.

Instead, Marcus Freeman stubbed his toe twice as first-year head coaches are wont to do, rendering that stretch of predictions largely flawed.

Now, the predictions tilt into early November, expecting little from the Irish. Of course, that was exactly when Freeman delivered the defining moment of his debut campaign.

21) “Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks.”

The first part of that fell inarguably short, 38 clearly less than 41. But the next sentence held more merit. Defensive end Justin Ademiloa and twin brother tackle Jayson Ademilola each had three sacks while Mills added 3.5. No linebacker reached three unless willing to still count Jordan Botelho as a linebacker with his 4.5 sacks. Given two of those came in the Gator Bowl when Botelho was clearly a defensive end, that would be generous grading. Instead, this entire prediction should be considered wrong, alas. (12/21)

22) Did this space continue publishing as planned after the Minnesota Timberwolves home opener? The running content calendar says a “Leftovers & Links” column ran on Oct. 20, the day after. Take the wins where you can find them, especially as a Timberwolves fan. (13/22)

23) The Irish had won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents entering the season. Predicting that would reach 27 meant predicting Notre Dame would beat North Carolina and Syracuse. Check and check. (14/23)

24) That did not push the Irish into the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, as predicted, thanks to the mishaps against Marshall and Stanford. (14/24)

25) And here comes a stretch of predictions predicated in pessimism, focused on how Notre Dame would fare against Clemson. The Irish had won 16 straight games in November entering the 2022 season. Suggesting that would end at 16 was suggesting Notre Dame would lose to Clemson on the first weekend of November.

Rather, that was the win in Freeman’s first season that will be long remembered. (14/25)

26) That expected loss was based on Clemson’s defensive front holding Notre Dame’s ground game in check. There was no expectation the Irish would dominate there with 264 rushing yards on 46 carries after adjusting for a single one-yard sack. Logan Diggs ran for 114 yards on 17 carries while Audric Estimé took 18 rushes for 104 yards. (14/26)

27) That loss did not knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers messing around and finding out against South Carolina did that. But regardless, predicting Clemson would return to the Playoff was ill-fated. (14/27)

28) Notre Dame was 30-1 in its last 31 home games entering the season. Predicting that would reach 35-2 in step with suggesting the Irish would lose to the Tigers was wrong in all sorts of ways, most notably in that the stretch is now 34-3 after Notre Dame went just 4-2 at home last season. Again, Marshall and Stanford. (14/28)

29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers did not have the predicted 40-yard catch on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. He had a long of 39 yards on a snow-covered field playing with a backup quarterback.

The spirit of the prognostication was valid, but alas. (14/29)

30) Former Irish tight end George Takacs did not catch a touchdown in his return with the Eagles. No one did. (14/30)

31) And former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec did not have a “perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day.”

Jurkovec did not play at all, so let’s call this wager a push. He did, however, make some headlines from the sideline.

There is a strong chance this prediction is rerun in its entirety in 2023 with Jurkovec and Pittsburgh heading to South Bend on Oct. 28. (14.5/31)

Leftovers & Links: Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State
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The first two notable dates of college football’s offseason passed last week, the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal before the spring semester and the deadline to enter the NFL draft. The former hardly warranted much notice at Notre Dame, only three players entering the portal after the 2022 season. While plenty did transfer from other programs, a mid-May look at that movement may better serve Irish purposes, as plenty of names will eventually leave Notre Dame.

The NFL deadline has no second passing. Players are either headed toward the NFL draft by now or they are not.

The Irish lost five players to early entry to the NFL, though two of those instances were offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and defensive end Justin Ademilola, both of whom would have been returning for sixth collegiate seasons in 2023. So in a more genuine sense, Notre Dame lost only three players early to the NFL draft: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey and safety Brandon Joseph.

All five would have started for the Irish next season, obviously. But at most, Ademilola’s and Joseph’s declarations were surprises, and even those were only mild at most.

College football will slowly churn back toward college careers following “normal” timelines and more tenable roster management the further it gets from the universal pandemic eligibility waiver from 2020. That will not take all the way until the 2025 season. Coaches are already leaning toward it.

While Notre Dame would have gladly welcomed back Patterson and/or Ademilola, it also knew two realities.

1) Patterson should be a second- or third-round draft pick who could have gone to the NFL a year ago. His time is now.
2) A year of Ademilola’s production would come at the expense of the development of younger players that may already be on the verge, somewhat deflating the value of his return.

In a parallel way, coaching staffs fall into two categories.

1) Either they are doing well and trust they can recruit better players than any draft debaters now. Leaning into continued successful recruiting lengthens the timeline these coaches expect to continue to succeed.
2) Or they are failing and soon fired. A new coach would rather bring in new players, “his players,” to reboot the program.

In both scenarios, fewer and fewer sixth-year players will be seen around college football long before the 2025 season rules them out entirely.

All of that is to say, when discussing entrants into the NFL draft, it is more and more accurate to focus on the juniors (like Mayer) and the seniors (Foskey, Joseph) rather than the half-decade veterans. Those losses from Notre Dame’s 2023 opponents, in order of most severe to least …

Ohio State: Losing quarterback C.J. Stroud would top this list no matter who else was on it. Stroud alone would have made the Buckeyes the title favorites next season. Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also jumped to the NFL, though his final collegiate season was effectively nullified when a Joseph tackle in the season opener injured Smith-Njigba’s hamstring to an extent he never genuinely returned in 2022.

Center Luke Wypler and offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. headed to the next level, as well, along with defensive tackle Dawand Jones and defensive back Ronnie Hickman.

But those latter losses are anticipated at elite programs. Ohio State has recruited to replace most of these players. The Buckeyes barely missed Smith-Njigba in 2022, and he may be the best receiver in the draft. Stroud, however, is a loss that will throw the early part of Ohio State’s 2023 into some question.

Clemson: Similarly, the Tigers losing three defensive linemen in Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry along with linebacker Trenton Simpson may be too much to overcome in stride. As Clemson has so terribly struggled — throw some sarcasm on that phrasing — to just 10 and 11 wins the last two season, it has leaned on its defensive front.

The Tigers gave up only 102.7 rushing yards per game in 2022, No. 13 in the country, and 20.9 points per game, No. 22 in the country. A year ago, Clemson ranked No. 7 and No. 2 in the respective categories.

Replacing 29.5 tackles for loss from the 2022 season including 16 sacks will be a difficult task. Perhaps “terribly struggled” will no longer warrant sarcasm.

Pittsburgh: Not many programs saw two All-Americans jump to the NFL, but the Panthers did in running back Israel Abanikanda (1,431 yards on 5.99 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns) and defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (14 tackles for loss with 7 sacks in 11 games). Safety Brandon Hill also provided Pittsburgh’s defense some versatility.

USC: The Trojans also lost two All-Americans to the NFL — which, come to think of it, Notre Dame did, as well, in Mayer and Foskey — in receiver Jordan Addison and defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. To be more clear, Addison was not a 2022 All-American, but one at Pittsburgh back in 2021. Injuries slowed him a touch in 2022, but overall, his talent is All-American in caliber.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s talent drain this offseason will warrant a deep dive. It is one to behold. The first line on it is quarterback Tanner McKee heading to the NFL with some draftniks thinking he should be an early-round pick.

When Stanford upset Notre Dame in October, McKee led the way with 288 yards on an impressive 26-of-38 completion rate. Losing him will drastically change the Cardinal ceiling in 2023, which is saying something considering how low that ceiling already was.

Central Michigan: Running back Lew Nicholls III did not have the statistical profile of someone who should head to the NFL already, with all of 616 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but look back to 2021 and his choice makes more sense. He ran for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns with another 338 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air.

Navy, Tennessee State, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville and Wake Forest did not lose players to any early NFL decisions.

If this list seems abbreviated, that’s because it is throughout college football. Name, image and likeness rights have made it more enticing for players to return to school Reportedly, fewer players entered this draft early than at any time in the last decade.

To think, so many people insisted NIL rights would ruin college football. Here is hard evidence it has upgraded the talent in the sport.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Trio of early-enrolling Notre Dame receivers most likely of dozen arrivals to impact 2023
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: ND’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

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