Notre Dame’s opponents lose more talent than Irish to early NFL draft entries
The oddities of unprecedented eligibility scenarios could yet see a few more names join the list of NFL draft entrants, but with Monday having served as the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the April draft, the vast majority of entrants should already be known, if not all of them.
By the usual standard, Notre Dame lost only junior tight end Tommy Tremble to early entry into the professional ranks, though left guard Aaron Banks and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah each would have had eligibility remaining even without the NCAA’s universal pandemic eligibility waiver.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s not delve too far into which players could have returned next season thanks to that waiver but have opted not to, as that would essentially be a replication of last season’s rosters, and for the most part, players followed through on what they had presumably planned on in the preseason — Irish defensive tackle Kurt Hinsh and kicker Jonathan Doerer the exceptions proving the rule.
In losing only Tremble, Notre Dame fared better than most of its most notable 2021 opponents. Even if including Banks and Owusu-Koramoah, it can be easily argued the Irish lost no more than USC, North Carolina or Stanford did, and Notre Dame should theoretically be in a better position to reload at those positions.
Florida State — The Seminoles will need to replace both defensive ends thanks to Joshua Kaindoh heading to the NFL, formerly a heralded recruit and recently an injury-plagued playmaker. He finished 2020 with only 14 tackles but returned an interception for a touchdown to highlight the possibilities of his 6-foot-7 frame.
Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. also declared for the draft, a 2019 third-team All-ACC honoree and 2020 leading defensive vote-getter as he earned first-team All-ACC recognition. Notre Dame fans may remember hearing his praises sung even after Javon McKinley caught five passes for 107 yards against Samuel in September, the defender’s known prowess establishing McKinley’s performance as more substantial than his previous flashes against New Mexico and Bowling Green.
Purdue — Of the many things 2020 took from us, one of the bigger college football disappointments was losing the final season from Boilermakers star receiver Rondale Moore. He did play in three games, catching 35 passes for 270 yards, but that was only after initially opting out of the season and then returning under a cloud of uncertainty that kept him sidelined into late November.
Moore could have been one of the season’s biggest stars and would have been in 2021 if returning.
Wisconsin — A shoulder injury cut short cornerback Rachad Wildgoose’s final collegiate season, limiting him to two games, six tackles and one broken up pass.
Cincinnati — The Bearcats lost first-team All-AAC offensive tackle James Hudson to the NFL draft, but more importantly, they held onto quarterback Desmond Ridder, one of the greater questions in this conversation as the regular season ended. With him still behind center, Cincinnati may end up Notre Dame’s highest-ranked opponent in 2021.
Virginia Tech — The Hokies mess of a season began with first-team All-ACC cornerback Caleb Farley opting out and it ended with offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw joining Farley in heading to the NFL. Darrisaw kept Irish right tackle Robert Hainsey from receiving first-team All-ACC recognition.
USC — Of Notre Dame’s opponents, the Trojans lost the most to the NFL draft, as would usually be expected. Offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker joins star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown on that side of the ball. In six games, he caught 41 passes for 478 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020, one of the better receivers in a stocked draft class for pass catchers.
Defensively, USC may have lost even more. Cornerback Olaijah Griffin and safety Talanoa Hufanga both leave the secondary shorthanded, while defensive tackle Jay Tufele followed through on a 2020 opt-out and is joined by defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu in chasing the NFL.
Tuipulotu made 23 tackles in 2020, with 3.5 of them for loss, numbers that were arguably enhanced by Tufele’s absence, given he had 6.5 tackles for loss in 2019.
North Carolina — While the Tar Heels will have quarterback Sam Howell directing their offense for at least one more season, he will have to do so without running back Javonte Williams (1,140 yards in 11 games with 19 touchdowns and 7.26 yards per carry) and receiver Dyami Brown (55 catches for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns). North Carolina has other offensive skill players poised to step up, but losing Williams and Brown will create more of a learning curve for Howell’s third go-round.
Stanford — The Cardinal never got to enjoy possible first-round picks cornerback Paulson Adebo and left tackle Walker Little in 2020. Quarterback Davis Mills, center Drew Dalman and receiver Simi Fehoko will join them in worrying about 40 times and 225-pound bench press reps.
Toledo, Navy, Virginia and Georgia Tech lost no players to early entry into the NFL draft.
Losing Tremble to the NFL draft may change Notre Dame’s base offensive package in 2021, but Tremble cannot be faulted for his decision, despite modest career stats. He finishes his Irish tenure with 35 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns, not too different from Troy Niklas’ 37 receptions for 573 yards and six scores (2011-13) before he jumped to the NFL after his junior season in a mild surprise.
Niklas did not match those numbers in five NFL seasons, but he did earn more than $4.3 million, per Spotrac. His NFL decision may have been unexpected, but it worked out for Niklas, and there is little reason to think he would have made more if he had returned to South Bend for the 2014 season.
Tremble enters the NFL draft with more receiving talent and proven blocking abilities, so that career track could logically be his floor, at which point, taking home biweekly paychecks is a shrewd decision.