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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s Quarterbacks

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As soon as Ian Book announced he would return for a fifth year, his third season as a starter, in 2020, the most dramatic possibility of Notre Dame’s spring entirely dissipated. It did so to such a degree, it led to Phil Jurkovec’s transfer to Boston College.

The Irish have their starting quarterback, the driving force of the offense in coordinator Tommy Rees’ first season calling plays, and as much as the springtime instinct may be to dissect each of Book’s deep balls to speedy receivers, time will be better spent watching his understudy, albeit not too closely. That mistake should have been learned last year.

Spring roster:
— Fifth-year Ian Book
— Rising sophomore Brendon Clark
— Early-enrolled freshman Drew Pyne

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter — Drew Pyne, consensus four-star QB

Summer arrivals:
With Pyne already around, the summer will not bring another passer to the depth chart. Given Clark has already preserved a year of eligibility, expect him to be the No. 2 quarterback by default, a position that would only come into doubt if Book was out for the long-term and Pyne quickly establishes himself as more of a playmaker than Clark.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
There was never a quarterback competition in 2019, not at any time in the calendar year. Not in the spring. Not in the preseason. Not in the second half at Michigan.

Expect all of that to be true again in 2020, with the exception of the Michigan distinction. (Cue Clemson quip here.)

That aside, Clark has done nothing but impress in practice since arriving at Notre Dame and there is no reason for that not to continue in 2020. Most notably, Clark has an arm to match Braden Lenzy’s and Lawrence Key’s speed. Not inherently because of a connection with them — they were not on the scout team — but that arm strength was part of what won Clark the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors. If he can combine that with a thorough understanding of Rees’ playbook, then Clark should be well-positioned to succeed Book, even as star recruit Tyler Buchner arrives in 2021.

That is not to overlook Pyne. The reality, though, is the four allowed appearances without burning a year of eligibility create a default expectation for a freshman when the Irish know whom their starter is. As long as Book is healthy, Clark can handle the crux of mop-up duties, and if a spot start is needed, two scenarios would emerge: Either Clark is the better of the two, or they are at least even, and Clark will shoulder the challenge of the start — or Pyne is outright ahead of Clark and the week or two of action could be within his four token games.

2019 statistically speaking:
Book: 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns with a 60.2 completion percentage and six interceptions; 546 rushing yards with four more touchdowns.
Jurkovec: 222 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-16 passing; 130 rushing yards.
Clark: One pass, one completion, one touchdown of 22 yards; 33 rushing yards on five carries.

2019 departures:
Jurkovec’s time with the Irish will forever be most remembered for his abysmal showing in last year’s Blue-Gold Game. He will, however, have his chance to change the tenor of those memories from a wondering of, “What went wrong?” to “What went wrong at Notre Dame?” He has an increasing chance of playing right away at Boston College as the NCAA embraces the conversation regarding transfer eligibility rules.

RELATED READING: Jurkovec transfer a 2020 reality, not a surprise

Either way, Jurkovec figures to be at the helm of the Eagles’ offense in 2022 when they visit South Bend. Gauging how he fares then will be the prudent perspective on Jurkovec’s career, though this season he will have the luxury of Boston College returning its three leading receivers now that Kobay White has removed himself from the transfer portal.

If Jurkovec pans out as the star player long expected, it should still be noted Book’s return would have kept Jurkovec on the bench at Notre Dame this season no matter what, particularly since Book gives the Irish the best chance at returning to the Playoffs in 2020.

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

Leftovers & Links: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC — Honorable Mentions

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Saturday’s look at Notre Dame’s win over Indiana way back in 1991 was intended as the subtle start to an offseason-long series covering all three decades of the relationship with NBC. In those 29 years, NBC has broadcast an unofficial total of 192 games, a number that will fall one short of 200 at the end of 2020.

If the plan is to touch on 30 different games/moments/highlights in the 30 weekends leading up to the home opener against Arkansas on Sept. 12, then obviously a good number of notable memories will not make the cut. To be completely honest, the intended list of 30 is not yet finalized — beginning with the signing of the contract and the first game was not only natural but also gave a week’s leeway to nail down the other 29 — but it has been whittled to 34 or 35. Even with that cushion, some of the honorable mentions stand out.

That first year on the network was highlighted by a 42-7 blowout of No. 12 Pittsburgh, raising the Irish to No. 5 in both the Coaches’ and the AP polls, but then the season fell apart with back-to-back losses to No. 13 Tennessee and No. 8 Penn State in November, rendering the early success largely an afterthought all these years later.

It is a bit baffling the 17-17 tie against No. 6 Michigan a season later is not better remembered. The draw dropped Notre Dame to No. 7 in both polls, from No. 3, and just a few weeks later the Irish lost 33-16, at home, to No. 19 Stanford. Those were the only blemishes on a year that finished with Notre Dame at No. 4. It would have needed to be undefeated to top Alabama in the polls, but one can be forgiven for wondering if the tie’s deflation lingered into October and cost the Irish twice.

On an entirely separate note, doesn’t the current narrative insist Lou Holtz never lost to ranked opponents? Imagine if Brian Kelly lost as a heavy favorite at home in his seventh season at Notre Dame. (Admittedly, Kelly’s seventh season was the 2016 debacle, but aside from that, he has not lost as a hefty home favorite since 2014, so a logical mind should see the point at hand.) (In fact, if excluding 2016, the last four years have seen only one loss, to title runner-up Georgia in 2017.)

Neither the 1995 nor the 2014 losses to Northwestern crack the coming 30, although as a tandem they do make for a version of a moment. Duval Kamara’s fateful fourth-down slip against No. 6 USC in 2009 does not make the cut, though if he had kept his footing and caught Jimmy Clausen’s pass, it likely would have.

The considered honorable mentions go on: Tyrone Willingham’s debut season including a 25-23 win against No. 7 Michigan; the 2008 win against the Wolverines in a downpour so heavy it forced future student-ticket booklets to be made of laminate rather than mere cardboard; that same season’s four-overtime loss to Pittsburgh was momentarily delayed when the sprinklers began watering the field in an overtime because no one thought to check their timers as the game stretched into the night.

There’s a problem Notre Dame Stadium no longer needs to worry about.

And, of course, who could ever forget the historic moment of a squirrel scoring a touchdown against Boston College in 1999? It was more exciting in person than it sounds.

“Fourth and Inches” by Tom Keeley, The Observer, Nov. 22, 1999.

A few more will yet fall by the wayside from the summer’s schedule: What warrants more inclusion, Charlie Weis’ last game at Notre Dame or Brian Kelly’s first? Does including Ian Book’s seven-yard touchdown scramble against Virginia Tech this past November reek of recency bias, or does the six-game winning streak it sparked give it enough merit? If neither beating No. 5 Michigan in 1998 nor shutting out the Wolverines in 2014 led to greater things, is it understandable to feature only the latter, known as it is for Brian VanGorder’s gif-able fist pump and Elijah Shumate’s interception return for a touchdown that wasn’t?

The intent is to add some variety to the next seven months, walk you down memory lane a few times and maybe even laugh once or twice. (If you don’t think the 2011 comedy known as the South Florida game will make the list, you take all this too seriously. That’s one to forever remember.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s 2020 home kickoffs feature prime time
Things Not To Learn: Some Notre Dame questions will last well past spring
Reports: Former Cincinnati star Mike Mickens fills out Irish coaching staff
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991

OUTSIDE READING
Preseason SP+ college football rankings
30 years later at Notre Dame, Greed vs. Envy
Day 1 mock draft
Day 2 mock draft
He is building a home. And a career in the NBA

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991

Rick Mirer 1991
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By the time No. 7 Notre Dame took the field against Indiana to open the 1991 season, the panic around NBC broadcasting Irish home games had begun to subside. That 49-27 Notre Dame victory stands now as a footnote in history, the first game in an exclusive deal that will reach its 30th year exactly 30 Saturdays from now when the Irish meet Arkansas, but that footnote lingers for a reason.

Beating the Hoosiers marked the implementation of a reality that would supposedly spell the end of times for college football. As Sports Illustrated quoted Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, the five-year, $38 million contract elicited “Surprise, shock, greed and ultimate greed. That’s the reaction I’m getting from people.”

Perhaps the only phrase to linger across three decades more than Broyles’ “greed and ultimate greed” was the SI headline, “We’re Notre Dame — And You’re Not.” That, Broyles’ summary and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno’s quip aside (“We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institute to a banking institute.”), William F. Reed’s five-page spread spent more time accurately projecting what the NBC deal foreshadowed than it did wailing for the lost times of little televised football.

That article came out 30 years ago this week — available in full via the wonder that is the SI Vault, see pages 56-60 — and it completely failed to mention the Indiana footnote. One can thus be forgiven for not realizing Wally Pipp-esque quarterback Trent Green threw four interceptions on Sept. 7, 1991, not the last crumbling passing performance captured by NBC’s cameras.

Of course, Irish head coach Lou Holtz credited neither his defense nor the national broadcast for getting to Green.

“I don’t think we’re tackling well as a football team and I’m really worried about our strength up front,” Holtz said. “They did some things we had trouble adjusting to, but you expect that from a young football team.”

Maybe Holtz’s focus was on getting Rick Mirer (11-of17 for 209 yards and one score) into Heisman form, and the country’s focus was, by then, on topping Florida State or halting the Miami dynasty, but the initial reaction to Notre Dame and NBC pairing up was as vitriolic as Broyles and Paterno made it seem. Even in his retroactively-reasonable article, Reed opened with “Jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame,” before finding the forced turn of phrase, “greediron.”

The Irish were leaving the College Football Association’s negotiated deal with ABC, something the Big Ten and the Pac-10 had already done, though history tends to gloss over those conference choices. Notre Dame was doing so to the tune of many millions of dollars, all of which would go to either opponents or the scholarship fund. And the Irish did this logically, its rationale largely overlooked at the time, making this decision following the 1989 season when they were featured in the three top-rated games in the country (vs. USC, at Michigan, at Penn State).

That was the driving logic for the University. The CFA’s newest deal would result in significantly less reach for everyone’s games, many becoming regional broadcasts. That would not fit a school with Notre Dame’s national reach; and frankly, no regional footprint would have welcomed the Irish in such a fashion as to accommodate a network’s wants. The deal was fraught in many respects.

Instead, Notre Dame and NBC came to terms.

“People are entitled to their opinion, and we assumed there would be some negative reaction,” said University Executive Vice President Fr. Bill Beauchamp, also the secretary-treasurer of the CFA. “But Notre Dame was in a unique position with some unique problems, and people have to understand that.”

Thus, Irv Smith’s 58-yard touchdown catch from Mirer was seen from coast-to-coast, a memorable score when four Indiana defenders could not bring down the tight end.

Smith’s rumbling through those Hoosiers into the end zone may have been as inevitable as the Irish leading the way into the current era of college football despite their peers’ complaints. To Reed’s credit, he recognized that right away.

“Strange as it may seem, the Irish may have done college football a favor by breaking away from the CFA, which now has 63 members in its TV package,” he wrote. “Notre Dame’s defection may encourage some other members to step out on their own, too, thus forcing the sport to undergo the massive overhaul it sorely needs. … The day soon may be at hand when traditional conferences are revamped.

“… So jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame if you must, but also understand that Joe Fan might benefit from the Irish’s power play.”

Joe Fan has. This 30th year of Notre Dame on NBC should underscore that, highlighted by a trip to Lambeau Field to face Wisconsin and a visit from title favorite and Heisman frontrunner Clemson and Trevor Lawrence.

Before then, though, 29 more Saturdays await the Razorbacks’ visit. In other words, 29 more chances to remember a moment broadcast by NBC, the rest assuredly more dramatic than the last time the in-state opponents met, an afternoon in which Indiana was out-gained by 160 yards despite punting just once. That may not have been a game of much renown, but what it represented played a pivotal role in changing the sport.

“Money is the name of the game, and people want to see Notre Dame,” former Irish star Paul Hornung told Reed. “That’s the bottom line.

“But there’s plenty of room out there for football on TV, and I think we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.”

Reports: Former Cincinnati star Mike Mickens fills out Notre Dame’s coaching staff

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Notre Dame has finally filled out its coaching staff. Multiple reports this week indicate the Irish will hire Mike Mickens as cornerbacks coach.

In a bit of symmetry, Mickens starred at Cincinnati as a two-time All-American under Brian Kelly and now replaces Todd Lyght, a former two-time All-American at Notre Dame.

The 32-year-old Mickens is seen as an up-and-comer in coaching ranks, beginning as a defensive analyst at his alma mater in 2011 and ascending to this Power Five position after just seven years on the sideline. He spent a season at Indiana State, another at Idaho and four at Bowling Green before returning to Cincinnati for the last two years.

Mickens was “only” the defensive backs coach for the Bearcats, but it warrants mentioning they finished No. 15 in team passing efficiency defense in 2019 and No. 13 in 2018. For context: The Irish were No. 5 last season and No. 6 two years ago.

Mickens will have the charge of developing an underwhelming cornerbacks corps, courtesy of Lyght’s years of middling recruiting. Sixth-year Shaun Crawford and rising junior TaRiq Bracy are the likely starters, but neither has the build of a usual boundary cornerback, a role necessitating physicality in coordinator Clark Lea’s defense. A half dozen underclassmen who were all once three-star prospects fill out the position group, with KJ Wallace’s four appearances the most experience among them.

It should not be a reach to think Mickens’ impact will be quick, given his rise through the coaching ranks and his own recent success at the position, playing in 47 games (2005-08) with 14 interceptions and three defensive scores.

John McNuulty
Former Rutgers offensive coordinator John McNulty should bring an experienced voice to first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ initial forays into calling plays. (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He will reportedly join former Rutgers offensive coordinator John McNulty on Kelly’s staff, with McNulty coaching the tight ends, replacing former offensive coordinator Chip Long. McNulty and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees overlapped in 2016 with the San Diego Chargers when the former coached tight ends and Rees was an offensive assistant. That relationship plus McNulty’s nearly three decades of coaching experience should make him a helpful voice in an offensive system dependent on “more collaboration” moving forward.

McNulty spent 17 years in the NFL, split by five years at Rutgers as the offensive coordinator during Greg Schiano’s heyday, before returning to Rutgers in 2018 to be the offensive coordinator in Chris Ash’s failing tenure. When Ash was dismissed at the end of September, McNulty’s offense had been held scoreless in two of its four games, most notably in a 52-0 blowout to Michigan.

McNulty spent the rest of the year as an offensive analyst at Penn State, where he played in 1988-90.

To some degree, the quick landing involved with one of the country’s best offenses shows respect of McNulty’s acumen within the coaching ranks, even if his time at the helm of offenses has not resulted in the same successes.

With the two additions, along with Rees’ promotion to offensive coordinator, Kelly has a complete coaching staff and any Irish turnover should be resolved until at least a few weeks into spring practice, beginning March 5.

Things Not To Learn: Some Notre Dame questions will last well past spring

Ian Book Tommy Rees
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Any day now, Notre Dame will announce it has hired a tight ends coach, likely at the same time as it names its new cornerbacks coach. Exactly one year ago as of Wednesday, the Irish announced Lance Taylor would take over running back coaching duties.

In fact, the tight end decision has already been reported by one national writer so reliable, no one else has sought further corroboration beyond the likelihood post-dated to the interview process.

But neither of those hires will be the defining moments of spring practices, beginning in 23 days, even if they will undoubtedly affect the season beginning in 201 days. The memorable sights of the spring will come from a flash or two, or a lack thereof, from rising sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark, from a return to the first-team from previously-suspended receiver Kevin Austin and from half a dozen interceptions from star safety Kyle Hamilton.

Those moments will shed light on the proverbial things to learn, to be discussed at length yet before March 5. Some things, however, will not be learned before the summer …

First-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ impact will not be easily determined this spring, be it in play calling, receiver alignment or offensive line approach. Maybe that should be inherent, implied and obvious in the spring practice settings designed for drills and experimentation, but that will all be overlooked once fifth-year quarterback Ian Book raves about Rees in a post-practice media scrum.

Beyond Book’s inevitable praises, Rees perhaps dabbling with rising junior receiver Braden Lenzy on the boundary in place of Austin or Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek should be seen as a springtime test, not a distinct shift in offensive philosophy. (Also, that is merely a hypothetical to illustrate a point.)

When it comes to April 18’s Blue-Gold Game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will presumably tout the play-calling experience for Rees, but working within the parameters of an intrasquad scrimmage is hardly a true simulation of facing an actual opponent. How Rees approaches that final spring practice will hardly be illustrative of his scheme when Notre Dame faces Wisconsin or Stanford or Clemson.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees the right call for Notre Dame, at least for 2020

Frankly, if the Irish offense struggles against the defense throughout the spring, that may be a sign of leaning into weaknesses to diagnose solutions before the summer, part of the entire purpose of the March and April work. A “vanilla” showing on NBCSN in mid-April does not assure a bland offense in the fall; it would simply indicate Rees wanted Notre Dame’s young receivers to understand the fundamentals of his system before broadening the game plan.

All told, Rees’ impact will not be seen on the surface this spring.

Similarly, the No. 2 Irish running back will not be clear cut before the summer. There is a good chance the question of who first relieves Jafar Armstrong remains unanswered past the trip to Dublin, though it will be repeated in “Things To Learn” columns multiple times between now and then, including a direct contradiction to this point in a few weeks, again before the preseason and perhaps both the Navy opener and the home opener against Arkansas.

Rees and Taylor will give Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams plenty of chances this spring, and the odds are they will trade days of earning notice. Adding incoming freshman Chris Tyree in the preseason will cloud that competition a bit, but his workload will grow only gradually, leaving plenty of touches for the other three in August.

Notre Dame does not need to identify a No. 2 back at any point, even during the season. Their skillsets may determine opponent-specific usages as much as anything. Though this space and just about every other will continually speculate who will get the most touches if/when Armstrong suffers a nick, that pecking order will be plenty vague after the spring.

There is a chance the next wave of captains may also be vague, but certainly not with a “plenty” distinction. The Irish have the luxury of returning two captains in Book and four-year starting right tackle Robert Hainsey. It is safe to presume each will be captains again in 2020. They may be enough named leadership for the spring, as Kelly has oscillated between naming captains before the spring and waiting until afterward.

Notre Dame returns five defensive starters, with three more warranting that description but for participation technicalities. There is leadership on that side of the ball already, enough to make a captainship delay an issue in logistics, not in effect. Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford and fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes have both shown natural leadership, in addition to perseverance through injuries, and should fill any void until captains are officially named, at which point it may be a good chance each of them dons a ‘C’, anyway.