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After four years and nearly a byline per Notre Dame point, here’s to four more

Clemson v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 07: Running back Kyren Williams #23 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after his first quarter touchdown against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

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It’s been four years.

No, I’m not referencing that. I’m referencing this.

I took over these duties from Keith Arnold exactly four years ago today. Nothing else historical happened that same afternoon, nothing at all.

Four years of Notre Dame going 43-8, reaching double-digit wins each season. Four years of the Irish defense raising the floor and the offense determining the height of the ceiling. Four years of middling writing with — searches within the content management system/no, no that can’t be right/that’s far too many — 1,603 articles under this byline. Make that 1,604.

401 stories per year, and to think, I felt like I let my duties slide this weekend as I spent time with my niece and nephews for the first time since February.

Four years of conversations with readers. Four years of debates on if DeShone Kizer was NFL-ready (he wasn’t), if Brian Kelly should remain Notre Dame’s head coach (he should have and should still), if the Irish ever have a chance in big games (see: Nov. 7, 2020). Four years of vague references to a woman supposedly named Claire, of late Friday afternoon drinks and of appreciated exchanges highlighted in the annual “40 Thanksgivings,” more often than not with Highly Suspect serving as the soundtrack to those more honest keystrokes, including on vinyl currently as this outline becomes paragraphs.

There was Mike McGlinchey’s missed block in the final minute against Georgia and Chase Claypool’s not-quite-high-enough leap at Athens. There was a woeful trip to Miami and another to Michigan. There was Clemson, Clemson again and then Alabama.

There was Chris Finke’s over-the-back touchdown against the Wolverines and an unbeaten season clinched at USC. There were three wins against the Trojans and two against Stanford, including Kelly’s first win at The Farm. There was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah combining with Ade Ogundeji to sack D.J. Uiagalelei and Daelin Hayes then sacking Uiagalelei again.

Notre Dame outscored its opponents 1,732 to 985 across these four years, large numbers intended to emphasize that four years in college football is a long time. (That averages to 34.0 to 19.3, as you were assuredly wondering.) The Irish were never shut out (that last happened at Boston College in 2008), though they blanked an opponent in each of the last two seasons. Claypool led Notre Dame with 19 touchdowns, barely beating out Dexter Williams’ 18 and Ian Book’s 17 rushing scores. Kyren Williams should blow by all of them in 2021, having found the end zone 14 times this past season.

It wouldn’t be fair to count Book’s 72 passing touchdowns in that conversation, perhaps his prayer to Miles Boykin in the 2017 Citrus Bowl still the most notable among them, well, aside from his final-minute scamper against Virginia Tech in 2019 or his dart to Avery Davis to reach overtime against No. 1 Clemson this past November or … 89 total touchdowns creates a long list.

Te’von Coney racked up the most tackles, a mere 239 in his final two seasons. His late-career development then matched and exceeded by Owusu-Koramoah’s, making 24.5 tackles for loss these last two seasons. Kyle Hamilton will not break their takedown numbers next season, but the safety may end up the best defender of this entire stretch.

Mike Elko came and went. Clark Lea came, got promoted and then joined Elko in the SEC, albeit in a vastly different role. Tommy Rees returned, got promoted and remains.

Those 1,604 articles are starting to seem like they were not enough, not to keep up with five recruiting classes, soon-to-be five NFL drafts and a fifth offseason that is already down to only 258 days until the Irish head to Tallahassee to face Florida State on Labor Day Eve.

That first recruiting class was previewed from a hotel room in Florida, getting up at 5 a.m. the morning of a cousin’s wedding to be sure Owusu-Koramoah’s debate between Notre Dame and Michigan State was properly discussed, not to mention Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s late arrival onto the Irish recruiting scene. In retrospect, arriving at brunch better-rested would have been acceptable if it came at the expense of pondering the possibilities of cornerback Russ Yeast (Louisville, now to Kansas State), safety Evan Fields (Arizona State then and now) and defensive lineman Jalen Harris (Arizona then and now).

When the then-San Diego Chargers drafted defensive tackle Jerry Tillery with the No. 28 pick in the first round in 2019, that boilerplate draft story was published from the main bar at a Rival Sons concert, the rarest of moments when yours truly properly and successfully worked ahead.

May the future hold more weddings and concerts, and fewer furloughs. That byline count would at least be approaching 1,800 if not for those idled five months.

The last four years have not been all bad, present turmoil notwithstanding. A few readers have bought drinks, one a meal, and during that furlough, many provided welcomed encouragement.

My debut column here, exactly four years ago, set goals of being “readable, reasonable and realistic,” and it quoted a past boss and present friend (not to mention new father) setting an Inside the Irish task:

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective. … We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

Admittedly, his infant-induced sleep-deprivation this fall led to some knee-jerk texts, but perhaps that served to reinforce the purpose of this space, to avoid those reactions.

I only hope I have been readable, reasonable and realistic these last four years. I will continue to strive for those meager benchmarks.

Thank you all for reading. Here’s to four more.

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