It’s been a wild end to 2019 and start to 2020 for Notre Dame and its roster and coaching staff. No one would fault anyone for losing track of all of the comings and goings that have happened over the last few days, so we felt a recap was in order. One was also in order since we haven’t been able to write individual stories on each since, and as we tell all of the English professors who love to point out grammar mistakes in the comments, this site is just a hobby for us. While we’d have loved to write posts about each one, well, real-life gets in the way sometimes.
Tony Jones Jr Heading to NFL
On New Year’s Eve, we got a bit of a surprise when Tony Jones Jr announced that he was entering the 2020 NFL Draft instead of potentially returning for a 5th year at Notre Dame. Jones’s logic centered around the idea that he isn’t going to get a lot faster, so if that’s all that he had left to prove, he might as well face that challenge now. Jones has shown that he is competent running back behind a good offensive line, he excels in pass protection, and can be used in the passing game. He’s got the kind of all-around skillet that will give him a chance to stick in the NFL.
He’ll likely be a late-round pick at best, but more likely an undrafted free agent. Remember, Josh Adams ripped off long run after long run in 2017 and ultimately went undrafted as well.
This is a significant loss for Notre Dame because Jones could have had a really nice role in 2020. He might not have been a prototypical RB1 for Notre Dame, but he would have been an excellent piece in the offense that complimented incoming freshman Chris Tyree very well. As is, Notre Dame returns Jafar Armstrong, Jahmir Smith, C’bo Flemister, and Kyren Williams in 2020. There’s potential there, but also a lot of questions. Lance Taylor has his work cut out for himself this spring and summer.
Cole Kmet Leaving Notre Dame Early
When we learned that Kmet got a 2nd round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee and still hadn’t made a final decision, the writing was on the wall – he likely wasn’t coming back. This is a draft that is short on premiere tight ends, and despite the 2nd round grade, many think Kmet will be the first tight end off the board in April. If he is, no one should fault him for leaving early this year. Given the premium placed on tight ends and the lack of elite ones in this draft, it shouldn’t shock anyone if he sneaks into the late first-round too.
Tommy Tremble showed a lot of promise as a receiver this year with four touchdowns for the Irish and will likely be Notre Dame’s TE1 in 2020 with Brock Wright continuing his role as the second tight end and primary blocker. Tremble will need to work on his blocking this off-season and spend a lot of time in the weight room to be ready.
Notre Dame also has rising sophomore George Takacs along with incoming freshmen Kevin Bauman and Michael Mayer. There’s a ton of talent for the next tight ends coach to work with here.
Alohi Gilman Headed To NFL
This is another one that was expected for a while. Gilman decided against returning for a 5th year and will instead prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft. Like Jones, the only things that will prevent him from being drafted high right now are issues that will exist next year as well, no matter how well would have played in 2020 if he did return. He isn’t going to get a lot bigger or faster in a year. Gilman probably won’t wow anyone with his Combine numbers other than perhaps his bench press, and that wouldn’t change with another year of college football.
Gilman’s production did dip this year, so an argument could have been made that he still could have improved his stock by coming back, but either way, he was likely going to be a late-round pick/undrafted free agent. That said, as ridiculous as this sounds, he’ll still be the kind of late pick/undrafted player who gets in a camp and then wins a job for his special teams skills and ends up having a long career. NFL teams covet players like that yet refuse to spend anything other than late picks on them.
I’ve written a few times over the last two months that the graduate transfer of Isaiah Pryor was huge for Notre Dame because it was likely Gilman was leaving. Notre Dame will have a safety room featuring Kyle Hamilton, Houston Griffith, and Pryor next year, along with some promising younger players like Ajavon Litchfield. It would have been fantastic for Notre Dame if Gilman returned, but luckily the Irish should still be strong on the backend of the defense.
Notre Dame Adds WR Graduate Transfer Bennett Skowronek
With Kmet headed to the NFL, Notre Dame’s addition of Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Showronek on New Year’s Day became an even bigger pickup for the Irish. Brian Kelly hinted during his early signing period presser that Notre Dame might add another player on offense still, and that player turned out to be Skowronek.
At first, people might have been confused about Notre Dame adding a grad-transfer wide receiver considering the talent in the Notre Dame wide receiver room, but with Kmet leaving for the NFL and Notre Dame also losing Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, Notre Dame will have to replace most of its receiving yards from 2019. Claypool and Finke’s graduations also leave that wide receiver room very short on experience.
Skowronek missed most of 2019 with an injury that won’t impact him in 2020 but has 110 career receptions for 1,417 yards and 8 touchdowns in an offense that makes it hard to put up big numbers. At 6’4″, 215 lbs; he’s also a huge target on the outside who figures to be a factor in the battle for a starting position on the outside.
Skowronek’s addition raises some questions about whether or not Javon McKinley will return for a 5th year. None of Notre Dame’s other returning receivers – Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Micah Jones, Joe Wilkins, Kendal Abdur-Rahman – have more than 13 career receptions (Keys) or more than two touchdowns (Lenzy).
Ade Ogundeji Returning for a 5th Season
Notre Dame also learned on New Year’s Day that defensive end Ade Ogundeji will be returning for a 5th year. This one was assumed for a while, but Ogundeji was non-commital about his return when asked in December. Notre Dame already had to replace Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones, and Julian Okwara this off-season, so losing Ogundeji would have been a massive blow. Luckily, the Irish don’t have to.
Ogundeji came to Notre Dame extremely raw but has developed well and could be poised for a breakout 5th year in 2020. He ended the year with 4.5 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss, with most of that damage coming in the final month of the season. He will start opposite Daelin Hayes next fall to give Notre Dame another outstanding pair of defensive ends.
With Justin Ademilola, Ovie Oghoufo, Isaiah Foskey, and Nana Osafo-Mensah all returning, the Irish are set even with losing a trio like Kareem, Jones, and Okwara.
Todd Lyght Leaving Notre Dame Staff
On the coaching staff front, we learned today that Todd Lyght will not be returning to the staff in 2020 but will instead be moving out to California to be closer to his family. There had been rumblings about Lyght’s future on the staff, and those were proven correct on Thursday when Lyght announced he would not be returning. His return to his alma mater will be remembered for outstanding coaching of the Irish cornerbacks, including the development of Julian Love, who was a finalist for last year’s Thorpe Award.
Brian Kelly and Notre Dame will, however, have an opportunity to improve Notre Dame’s recruiting power with Lyght’s replacement. While the former Irish legend excelled at the x’s and o’s of coaching the corners, recruiting at the position left a lot to be desired much the way it had with Autry Denson at running back before his departure last year. Kelly knocked that hire out of the park with the addition of Lance Taylor last year. He has the chance to do the same this year.
Notre Dame now has two open positions on the staff with Chip Long‘s departure last month in addition to Lyght’s.