Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

NFL jumps alter Irish schedule

Last week the NFL officially stamped a list of nearly 100 underclassmen making early draft moves. While DeShone Kizer and Tarean Folston were part of that, decisions to stay or go impacted most of the Irish schedule too.

When it comes to quarterbacks declaring early for the NFL Draft, it’s about more than DeShone Kizer. In fact, among all players leaving eligibility on the table to chase pro contracts, the Notre Dame quarterback’s departure probably won’t impact the Irish as much as it does the NFL team that grabs him.

The NFL made its list of underclassmen in the draft pool official last week, with nearly 100 players a part of it, including Kizer and running back Tarean Folston.

Now, with draft declaration season complete, the story shifts from who’s leaving to who’s returning to fill those spots. That’s why the perspective on Kizer’s departure around South Bend might be different than the one nationally, where Brandon Wimbush is known more as a former four-star Penn State commit than the athlete the Irish coaching staff can’t wait to unwrap.

Not every Irish opponent got so lucky.

Here’s a rundown of the roster moves worth knowing from a Notre Dame point of view.

Georgia (Sept. 9)

The Bulldogs rank as maybe the biggest winners anywhere with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning at a position where few actually do. They combined for 1,970 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season in Georgia’s pro-style offense. The Bulldogs got all three of their potential departures back on defense too in linebacker Davin Bellamy, defensive end Lorenzo Carter and safety Dominick Sanders. Combined, the three logged 33 starts last season. Bellamy and Carter posted five sacks each. Sanders led Georgia in both interceptions and pass breakups.

The Bulldogs did lose former Irish recruiting target Isaiah McKenzie in a strange draft move after he led the team with 44 catches for 633 yards and 10 total touchdowns. But McKenzie the receiver isn’t what would have got Notre Dame’s attention most next season. It’s McKenzie the return man. He brought five punts back for touchdowns in his three years, which is why Notre Dame wanted him in the first place.

It’s not clear how Georgia will replace McKenzie in the return game, but junior receiver Terry Godwin is likely next up at receiver. He was second on the team with 38 receptions last season but didn’t score a single touchdown.

at Boston College (Sept. 16)

No early draft departures for Boston College, but the Eagles could have had one in defensive end Harold Landry, who instead will return for his senior season. Landry led the nation in sacks last season with 16.5, which are 2.5 more than Notre Dame had as entire team. Not bad for a former three-star prospect. But before getting too carried away with the “no one saw this coming!” narrative, remember Landry had reported offers from Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and Tennessee out of high school.

at Michigan State (Sept. 23)

Defensive tackle Malik McDowell bolting a year early was no surprise. It’s what former five-star prospects do. McDowell was arguably the best player on the field in Michigan State’s win at Notre Dame Stadium last season and the same could have been true this September in East Lansing. Even if he finished the year with just seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, he was a match-up problem.

Michigan State doesn’t have a like-for-like replacement here (it must replace its other starting defensive tackle too), not after former four-star defensive tackle Craig Evans left the team last spring. Enoch Smith was another potential replacement (and former Irish target), but he left Michigan State in August. However the Spartans rebuild it will be with youth, probably their collection of sophomores and juniors. One-time Irish target Naquan Jones could get a look.

Safety Montae Nicholson also left early after finishing second on the team with 86 tackles last season. It means the Spartans must replace three starters in the secondary, including both safeties.

at North Carolina (Oct. 7)

Want to know why Malik Zaire cooled on North Carolina even with quarterback Mitch Trubisky out the door? The Tar Heels were losing their top three offensive linemen, top two receivers and No. 2 running back off last year’s roster. Now throw leading rusher and former Irish commitment Elijah Hood into that mix. It means North Carolina will start over on that side of the ball next season.

With Hood and T.J. Logan both gone, North Carolina’s top returning back rushed 20 times for 45 yards last season. Down Trubisky, the next man in at quarterback is coming off a season where he attempted nine passes. Things are a little better at receiver and tight end, where nine of last season’s 30 touchdown receptions come back. Still, that’s a ton of firepower to replace.

Even with defensive tackle Nazair Jones gone early, North Carolina should survive on defense without his 70 tackles and 9.5 TFLs. The team’s three-leading tacklers return (Jones was fourth), as does top cornerback M.J. Stewart, who posted 11 pass breakups last season.

USC (Oct. 21)

You know the names. They were all five-star prospects. Now do-everything Adoree' Jackson, offensive lineman Damien Mama and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are gone. That’s the good news for Notre Dame. The good news for USC is the fact the Trojans have signed five-star prospects at all three of those positions since. Maybe there’s a drop in talent at cornerback, offensive line and receiver. More likely it will be more of the same.

At cornerback, USC will likely pair Jack Jones with Iman Marshall, meaning the Trojans will start two five-star prospects. Jones played a bit part as a true freshman, but he got action in the Rose Bowl when Jackson went down.

Receiver is an embarrassment of talent even without Smith-Schuster. USC signed five-stars Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman last year. They’ll both get a chance, although USC’s leading returning receiver is actually rising junior Deontay Burnett, a former three-star recruit who ranked behind receivers who signed with Kentucky, SMU, South Carolina and UCF his cycle.

Mama’s loss on the offensive line might be hardest to replace because USC also lost a four-year starting left tackle and a three-year starter on the right side. Still, the Trojans have a host of former four-star prospects in reserve to go with five-star junior tackle Chuma Edoga.

N.C. State (Oct. 28)

You probably have no idea who Josh Jones is, but he departed N.C. State early for the NFL draft. The Wolfpack might actually have a hard time replacing him. All the safety did was lead N.C. State in tackles (109) and interceptions (3) to go with eight pass breakups. The departure means the Wolfpack lost three starters in the secondary, at least when it came to the nickel formation.

But the entire front seven returns, including rising senior defensive end Bradley Chubb, a pain for Notre Dame to block in that monsoon. The Irish weren’t alone in flailing at Chubb, who finished with 22 tackles for loss at 10.5 sacks. He had seven quarterback hurries on top of that. Only five players put up more tackles for loss last season.

Wake Forest (Nov. 4)

Wake Forest didn’t lose anybody early and won its only tossup when defensive end Duke Ejiofor decided to come back for his senior year. He’s a nice advertisement for Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who inherited Ejiofor following his freshman year. The previous staff took the 210-pound, two-star recruit. Wake Forest was his only Power 5 offer. Now he’s a 270-pound menace who posted 10 sacks last season. Ejiofor ranked as the nation’s No. 121 defensive end prospect out of high school, three spots behind former first-round pick Shaq Lawson and three spots ahead of James Conner from Pittsburgh.

at Miami (Nov. 11)

If Miami got quarterback Brad Kaaya back it would have been a dark horse College Football Playoff pick with its young defense, plus running back Mark Walton and star freshman receiver Ahmmon Richards. Instead, the Hurricanes have to start over without a Brandon Wimbush type waiting on the bench.

In fact, Miami might stage a six-man quarterback competition this fall. Malik Rosier, Vincent Testaverde (yeah, you remember his dad), Evan Shirreffs and Jack Allison will get looks. Incoming freshmen Cade Weldon and N'Kosi Perry could too. Regardless, there will be a learning curve here.

Miami’s other notable departure was tight end David Njoku (43 catches, 698 yards, eight touchdowns), who’s already picked up mock draft buzz. Back-up running back Joe Yearby (102 carries, 608 yards, seven touchdowns) also left.

Technically, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and linebacker Jermaine Grace declared too, but both were suspended all last season.

at Stanford (Nov. 25)

The Cardinal lost its two biggest guns in running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, with both looking like first round picks. If Thomas played every week like he played against Notre Dame, he’d go Top 5. The former Irish recruiting target was the best player on the field in South Bend last October with 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

Stanford doesn’t have another Thomas on the roster, but defensive tackle Harrison Phillips will at least be part of that solution. It’s just not clear who will line up next to him as Stanford’s talent in the front seven may dip.

McCaffrey gives way to Bryce Love, who was solid in place of the All-American last season. Love finished with 783 yards rushing, a 7.1 per carry average and four offensive touchdowns. He rushed for more than 100 yards at Notre Dame too. With Stanford’s offensive line, Love should be just fine next fall.


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