It comes with the territory

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Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about Brian Kelly and his decision to come to Notre Dame. In the last two days, he’s been on a media tour that would have an A-list movie star complaining of over-exposure. But after listening to Kelly on multiple radio stations — whether it be national outlets like ESPN or Dan Patrick or a local South Bend station — the message has been the same. Say this for the man, he is as media savvy as any coach I’ve seen.

Over the past few days, debate has swirled about Kelly’s honesty during the entire process. Whether it be in the comments section here or among talking heads on ESPN2, people seem intent on questioning the integrity of Kelly for making the difficult decision to leave his team before the Sugar Bowl. The fact that none of us know what truly happened is immaterial. This incident will likely be Brian Kelly’s “decided schematic advantage.”

This is how it starts:

A coach is put in a terrible position because everybody with even a conversational knowledge of college football concludes that Brian Kelly is a candidate for the Notre Dame job. Whether or not he’s even thought about the job, whether or not he’s been contacted, whether or not his people have even talked to Notre Dame’s people, the rumors of Brian Kelly to Notre Dame — however manufactured they are — become a story. And as the hot-seat warmed for Charlie Weis, the speculation around his potential replacement swirled, to a point where even ESPN was talking about Brian Kelly as the front-runner for the job. 

Both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick have been adamant and consistent on the timeline regarding Kelly taking the job. While I’m not naive enough to believe that a search firm or somebody representing Notre Dame didn’t contact Kelly’s agent and gauge his interest in the job, there’s no reason not to believe him.

(If you’re interested in reading about the reality of coaching hires, check out Andy Staples excellent breakdown of the machination. That gives me every reason to believe that Swarbrick and Kelly probably only spoke briefly before ever agreeing on anything.)

Still, people are quick to attack Kelly for lying to his players in Cincinnati, often sourcing the anger-filled comments of star wide receiver Mardy Gilyard as their “proof” that Kelly purposefully mislead his former team. (No doubt, someone will quickly link to this article, but if you’re to believe the timing, Kelly had yet to hear from a single-soul at Notre Dame.)

If time heals all wounds, Mardy Gilyard is a quick healer. The All-American wide receiver, who flourished both on and off the field with Brian Kelly as his head coach, has already tempered his comments greatly, backing off his previous stance. Here’s what Gilyard said on a radio appearance two days ago:

“I have no problems with Coach Kelly. My message got skewed because I was speaking out of anger. I just want to make it clear: He didn’t do anything but help me personally. When nobody wanted to, he took it upon himself to deal with Mardy, and I thank him for that.

“I know he has a family. He has to do the best he has to do to support them. That’s what a man should do. For him to come to Cincinnati was a blessing for us. That’s the one thing that people should remember about BK. He came and he helped spring board us to where we needed to be in the national spotlight.”

The fact that Gilyard has already moved on — without even talking to Kelly yet –should be enough for most people. Yet this controversy, one that plagues nearly every coach that leaves for a better job in college football, will quickly become the source material used by people who either dislike Notre Dame football or Brian Kelly to label him dishonest or a liar. This will be his “decided schematic advantage” moment, the genesis for the arrogant and brash tag that Charlie Weis was never able to shake off.

During Kelly’s media tour these past few days, he’s been asked repeatedly about the decision and his response has mirrored his comments from his introductory press conference:

“Transition is very difficult, and those situations are extremely
emotional. But I handled myself in a manner that was up front and
honest. The two watch words for me in dealing with our student athletes
and anybody is professionalism and integrity. And I believe that in
those areas, that’s the way I handled myself. When I had the
opportunity to inform our team, I certainly did that.”

For many of us, it’s easy to look at Kelly’s track record, the evidence presented, and give the man the benefit of the doubt. But for just as many others, it’ll be easy to merely bang the liar drum, and do it long enough until it just becomes accepted as true.

Whether those people are talking heads, anonymous message-board posters, or rival coaches in recruits living rooms, I fully expect the dishonesty/liar card to be played constantly by those who either root or recruit against Notre Dame.

Whether it’s true or not is hardly the issue. When you’re the head coach of Notre Dame, it simply comes with the territory. 

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.