Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2024

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM JANUARY 2024 19 most potential of the Irish's talented group of freshman wide receivers. He'll take that potential somewhere else after one season and only four games played in South Bend. On Dec. 11, James committed to TCU, where he will have four years of eligibility remaining. Nana Osafo-Mensah, Gr., DE Osafo-Mensah posted career highs in sacks (3) and tackles (20) in his fifth season with Notre Dame, playing heavy rotational snaps behind grad- uate student Javontae Jean-Baptiste. He was an important veteran leader for the Irish, but he likely would not have started in 2024. The Fort Worth, Texas, native committed to TCU, his hometown school, on Dec. 8. Zeke Correll, Gr., C Correll spent two full years as Notre Dame's starting center, generally grading better as a pass blocker than a run blocker. With Correll sidelined due to a concussion in the last two and a half games of the regular season, sophomore center Ashton Craig filled in and played well. On Dec. 9, Correll committed to North Carolina State, where he should start at center for the 9-3 Wolfpack. Aidan Keanaaina, Sr., DT Keanaaina struggled to find playing time in four seasons at Notre Dame, maxing out at 40 snaps in 2023. When he played, it was mostly in short-yard- age situations and in games that junior defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio missed with a knee injury and a concussion, respectively. Ramon Henderson, Sr., S Henderson played 304 snaps for Notre Dame in 2023, most often in the team's third-down "spear" package with three safeties on the field at once. He made 14 tackles, defended 3 passes and came down with 1 interception. It was a diving grab in Week 1 against Tennessee State. Holden Staes, So., TE Staes seemingly broke out with a 4-catch, 115- yard, 2-touchdown performance against North Carolina State Sept. 9, but he was quiet from that point on. Freeman has said that Notre Dame wanted Staes, known mostly as a receiving threat, to work on his blocking and become a complete player. Ryan Barnes, Jr., CB Barnes was in the mix to compete for the No. 4 cornerback position in fall camp. However, fresh- man Christian Gray quickly claimed the spot with his play in camp, sealing Barnes' role as a seldom- used reserve. Antonio Carter II, Gr., S Carter played sparingly in his lone season with the Irish after transferring from Rhode Island, an FCS school. He couldn't crack the three-man rota- tion of Xavier Watts, DJ Brown and Ramon Hender- son, and he finished his Notre Dame career with 8 tackles and 1 forced fumble. Michael Carmody, Sr., OL Carmody played in 10 games and made two starts in 2021, but he only played in the blowout win over Boston College in 2022 and missed the entire year with an injury in 2023. DECLARED EARLY FOR NFL DRAFT Marist Liufau, Gr., LB Liufau announced his intention to enter the NFL Draft on Dec. 5. A year removed from missing the 2021 season with an ankle injury, Liufau was an impact linebacker in 2022. His tackling numbers were down in 2023, but Liufau finished the season with an 82.5 Pro Foot- ball Focus coverage grade and 26 pressures (with 3 sacks) in just 130 pass-rush snaps. He earned and accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Blake Fisher, Jr., OT Fisher earned a reputation as an excellent mover and a mauler in the run game, which he hopes to parlay into an NFL career. The junior announced on Dec. 8 that he'll enter the NFL Draft, where he's projected to be a Day 2 pick. Fisher gave up 16 pressures, including 3 sacks, this season, which was good for a 97.2 PFF pass- blocking efficiency rating. Consistency in pass pro- tection is Fisher's No. 1 area to improve upon, but his tools are enticing for pro teams. ACCEPTED AN ALL-STAR GAME INVITE These players have not officially declared for the NFL Draft, but they have accepted invites to post- season all-star games for draft prospects. Cam Hart, Gr., Cornerback Hart came in second for the "Most Underrated" BGI Award, because he made a massive impact this season that does not show up on the stat sheet. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 15 of 28 passes for 137 yards when targeting him. Twenty- eight targets in 308 coverage snaps might be the even more impressive number. He will join Liufau at the Senior Bowl, and the only step left is to put his draft declaration in writ- ing. Hart has earned a shot at the NFL. JD Bertrand, Gr., LB Bertrand was one of a few players the Irish really did not like to take off the field this season, be- cause they believed his communication, leadership and tackling abilities were that important to their success. Bertrand has been Notre Dame's leading tackler for three straight years and had his best game in the win over USC. The East-West Shrine Bowl invited Bertrand, who will likely have to compete for an NFL roster spot but whose instincts and intelligence will give him a chance. RETURNING FOR A FIFTH OR SIXTH SEASON Howard Cross III, Gr., DT Cross was a good player in 2022. He was a great player in 2023. The fifth-year nose tackle must believe he'll continue on that trajectory, because he announced his intention to return to the Irish lineup for 2024 on Dec. 10. Cross led Notre Dame with 36 quarterback pres- sures this season and almost singlehandedly beat Duke, totaling 13 tackles, a sack and 2 forced fum- bles. He led all FBS defensive tackles with 64 total stops en route to earning second-team All-America honors from the Associated Press. STILL TO DECIDE (AS OF DEC. 12) Joe Alt, Jr., OT Alt is widely expected to be a first-round, possibly top-10, NFL Draft pick, but he has not declared yet. Audric Estimé, Jr., RB Estimé produced a 1,341-yard, 18-touchdown season, but perhaps more importantly, he took big steps as a pass blocker and pass catcher. He is also expected to enter the draft. Jack Kiser, Gr., LB Kiser won "Most Underrated" in the BGI Awards because he is PFF's highest-graded Notre Dame de- fender despite playing fewer than half the snaps. Could he return for a bigger role with Liufau and probably Bertrand gone? We shall see. Rylie Mills, Sr., DT Cross overshadowed him but Mills quietly had a very good year. He totaled 27 quarterback pres- sures despite coming off the field for a third safety on most passing downs. Xavier Watts, Sr., S Watts, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner as college football's defensive player of the year, con- firmed Dec. 5 that he will play in the Sun Bowl. However, he has not decided whether or not he will enter the 2024 NFL Draft. ✦ Junior right tackle Blake Fisher, who declared for the 2024 NFL Draft, was among the Irish players that had opted out of the Sun Bowl as of Dec. 11. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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