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Notre Dame Defensemen Benefit From Fourth Season

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Julian Love (above) and drop end Julian Okwara are the next crucial "return men" on defense at Notre Dame. (Photo by Angela Driskell)

Far and away, Notre Dame’s top two “commitments” in 2018 were juniors Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney at defensive tackle and Mike linebacker, respectively, when they announced via social media in January that they would return for their senior seasons rather than turn pro.

Without their presence, it would have been extremely difficult to envision a College Football Playoff berth for the Fighting Irish in 2018. Likewise in 2017, an offensive line without both Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey returning would not have made a 269.5 rushing average for a Notre Dame team that finished No. 11 possible.

The declaration by junior defensive end Khalid Kareem on New Year's Eve that he will return for his senior year already is a boon for the 2019 Notre Dame unit. If he is joined soon by classmates such as consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love and drop end Julian Okwara, that is as crucial as Tillery, Coney and Drue Tranquill (who announced for a fifth season early last December) all coming back in 2018.

Since 1991, when juniors first became eligible for the NFL Draft, 12 of the 16 Irish players who turned pro early (meaning junior years academically, not seniors with a fifth year like receiver Miles Boykin) lined up on offense. That was the case last season too when running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown declared early.

But consider these three defensive players under head coach Brian Kelly who did not turn pro:

• Linebacker Manti Te’o had enjoyed a strong first three seasons from 2009-11 and applied for the NFL Draft after his junior season.

Yet it wasn’t until the first game of his senior season that Te'o recorded the initial interception (the first of seven) and fumble recovery of his career while helping lead the Irish to a 12-1 campaign and become one of the most decorated defensive players in college football annals, including Heisman runner-up. He also became the 38th overall pick (second round) in 2013.

• In his first three seasons at Notre Dame from 2012-14, defensive lineman Sheldon Day totaled 16.5 tackles for loss. In his senior year alone he amassed 15.5 to become the No. 103 overall pick (fourth round) in the NFL Draft.

• Like Day, cornerback KeiVarae Russell returned to Notre Dame his senior year in 2015 and, although inconsistent at times, made game-clinching fourth-quarter interceptions in back-to-back weeks versus USC and Temple, and became the No. 74 overall selection (third round) in 2016, the highest of any Irish cornerback in 22 years.

That’s not even including someone such as safety Harrison Smith, who in Kelly’s first year with the Irish in 2010 had seven interceptions as a senior and would have been “draftable” after a roller-coaster first three seasons from 2007-09.

Yet he returned for a fifth season and became Notre Dame’s first safety selected in the first round since Jeff Burris in 1994. Smith has graded out as a consistent Pro Bowl safety.

Tillery and Coney likewise likely reaped huge benefits by returning in 2018, with Tillery projected as high as first-round caliber in some mock drafts. Coney, meanwhile, made appreciable improvements in pass coverage to work his way up more on the draft board.

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