Counting Down the Irish — 15 to 11, where Notre Dame’s defensive depth becomes too much to overlook

Wisconsin v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden will face a tough decision right away against Ohio State. At some point, the Buckeyes will have a third down. That might take a drive or two, as Ohio State’s offense will be that good, but the third down will eventually arrive.

Presume it is a third-and-four, neither passing nor rushing specific. If presenting a four-linemen front, will Golden drop to only two linebackers to match the Buckeyes’ personnel? If so, who comes off the field?

Last year’s leading tackler, nearly doubling No. 2’s takedowns? A player with a knack for finding the ball and causing chaos? Possibly the most dynamic among Notre Dame’s linebackers?

If Golden opts for only three linemen, does he remove the widest body in favor of veteran end Justin Ademilola?

Those players by name, in order, are senior linebacker JD Bertrand, senior linebacker Jack Kiser, senior linebacker Marist Liufau and junior defensive end Rylie Mills.

On one hand, that is an embarrassment of riches for Golden. Multiple defensive looks could qualify as Notre Dame’s best. On the other, pinpointing the right combination will be vital against offenses like Ohio State’s and USC’s.

As always, thank you to the 10 media members who took the time to rank the top quarter of Notre Dame’s roster …

No. 15 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker — 96 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 6
Lowest rank: No. 25

In a vacuum, it is utterly nonsensical that a player would make 101 tackles in a season, 46 more than the next defender, and then finish No. 15 among expected impactful players the following year. Not in a vacuum, it is initially even harder to square Bertrand’s placement here.

He played the entire 2021 season with a wrist injury. The Irish training staff suggested surgery to Bertrand before the year, and he instead opted to play through the injury after being told he would not worsen it. Every time he made a tackle, he could feel the wrist.

“The biggest thing is the pain. It’s an annoyance. You feel it every time you punch,” Bertrand said Monday. “… For me personally, I just wanted to play no matter what. They said I was good to play, and it wasn’t going to affect my future long-term. From that point, I was ready to go.”

RELATED READING: Unbreakable JD Bertrand sets high bar for Irish

And remember, Bertrand made a lot of tackles. On a bit more than 700 snaps, he made the tackle on about 14 percent of the plays.

Yet, he is ranked No. 15 by the beat writers entering this season when predicting who will impact Notre Dame’s season, and that is because the defending leading tackler may not even start for Golden and the Irish.

Liufau missed all of last season after dislocating his ankle in August, the injury that moved Bertrand into the starting lineup. With Liufau healthy and fifth-year Bo Bauer a bit more versatile at the middle linebacker spot, Bertrand may become the backup to them both.

No. 14 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker — 120 points
Nine ballots
Highest rank: No. 5
Last year’s rank: No. 18

Then comes Kiser, an underrated recruit who started most of last season. He scored two touchdowns, able to watch himself on the Soldier Field video board as he broke loose against Wisconsin (above). He has had his hand in on five turnovers across the last two years and broken up eight total passes.

Kiser makes an impact on the field, yet he is not even the highest linebacker listed on this preseason ranking.

RELATED READING: Taking time to teach makes Jack Kiser a better LB for Notre Dame

At rover, Kiser has found a home that requires both sure tackling and diligent pass coverage. His recruiting ranking may have doubted his ability to excel in both those regards, but he has proven otherwise.

No. 13 Rylie Mills, junior defensive end, 125 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 9
Lowest rank: No. 21
Last year’s rank: No. 23

The third-down dilemma at Ohio State in 22 days (22 days!!) may not give Mills enough credit. He excelled as a pass rusher at Virginia in his spot start last season, making three sacks. Human beings should not be as quick as Mills is while being this large …

That combination may make him an ideal edge player on a third-and-four against a dynamic offense.

To frame this annual exercise in a preemptive retrospective manner — yes, that was quite a phrasing — if Mills impacts Notre Dame’s fall so much he belongs in the top 10 of these thoughts after the season, then the Irish defense will be among the nation’s best and will have a semblance of a chance against Ohio State and USC.

The way to beat those offenses is with a dominant defensive line. While that is Notre Dame’s best position group, asking it to turn those games on their heads is a different ask than its week-in, week-out charge of hassle the quarterback.

For the Irish to upset the Buckeyes — and remember, Ohio State is favored by more than two touchdowns — the defensive line will need to harass Heisman Trophy frontrunner CJ Stroud on more snaps than not. As much hype as senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey gets, he will not be able to manage that on his own. Mills will need to overextend the Buckeyes’ offensive line to help Foskey break loose.

And if he does so, then this No. 13 ranking will look low.

No. 12 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker, 149 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 17
Last year’s rank: No. 20

Some Irish fans undoubtedly cringed at the thought of a three-man defensive front. It did not go well for Notre Dame in last year’s season opener, though it gradually played much better as the season progressed, something not as well-noticed.

Losing Liufau just a week or so before the season threw that alignment into a bit of disarray. His return should only help it.

If Liufau was poised for a breakout season in 2021, he now brings a better awareness of the game after being forced to do nothing but watch, and Golden thinks Liufau has added some weight. (Indeed, Liufau is listed nine pounds heavier now than he was in the spring of 2021.)

“The sky is the limit for Marist,” Golden said. “I’m really hopeful that we’ll get there.”

The sky may be the limit, but thus far, Notre Dame is adding limitations to Liufau, also lowering his ranking here. (That is not opinion: Multiple panelists admitted Freeman’s hesitation with Liufau lowered their ranking.)

Liufau is fully healthy, according to both him and Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, but Notre Dame is setting a low ceiling on his snap count in preseason practices as he returns to football. By the sounds of it, it is a fitness thought more than anything else, but the possibility of anything else lingering from Liufau’s injury lends some worries.

No. 11 Chris Tyree, junior running back, 154 points
Unanimously ranked.
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: No. 15
Last year’s rank: No. 10

As has been a theme with this year’s “Counting Down the Irish” series, this ranking once again underscores lowered expectations for Notre Dame’s offense in 2022.

To wit, lead Irish running back Kyren Williams ranked No. 2 in this polling last year.

Yes, Williams was a magnificent college running back with an energy that elevated his physical abilities, but the point remains the same: Notre Dame’s offense will take a step back in 2022, if not a couple steps back.

A year ago, four Irish skill position players were ranked in the top 10 of who would most impact Notre Dame’s season, with Tyree coming in at No. 10.

This year, only three skill position players rank in the top 11.

Comparing Tyree to Williams is unfair, but the Irish may need a Williams-esque showing from Tyree this season, and this ranking strongly suggests it will not be coming.

The voters, generously giving of their time and insights in this annual exercise …

Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, Inside ND Sports
Mannion McGinley and Aidan Thomas, The Observer
Tim Murray, Vegas Stats & Information Network, but more pertinent to his exercise, an irrational Notre Dame fan
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

Others Receiving Votes
No. 25 Audric Estime, sophomore running back — 35 points
No. 24 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker — 39 points
No. 23 Clarence Lewis, junior cornerback — 44 points
No. 22 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver — 46 points
No. 21 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle — 46 points
No. 20 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end — 48 points
No. 19 Tariq Bracy, fifth-year cornerback — 55 points
No. 18 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back — 65 points
No. 17 Zeke Correll, senior center — 69 points
No. 16 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver — 73 points

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    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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    I requested my Notre Dame admissions file
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    On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
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    Auditor: LSU overpaid Brian Kelly by more than $1M in 2022

    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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    2023 NFL Draft Big Board: PFF’s top 100 prospects
    ‘Everything’s on fire’: NIL collectives are the latest patchwork solution for college athlete pay
    Numbers show NIL benefits college football
    Has legalized betting led to more hurtful social media actions? Some admins think so.
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