Friday notes: Martin, Offers, Videogames and more

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As usual, here’s a good assortment of news and notes from the week. If you have a good link you want to share, feel free to email me. (Address to your right.)

* Yesterday’s announcement that Chuck Martin was leading the recruiting efforts has to come as good news. Martin is a top-notch coach that will add a great deal of experience to the coaching staff, and has a personality that will make him a favorite of recruits.

Some of Martin’s quotes from yesterday’s media session were quite telling. Like this one about being behind on recruiting last year’s class and surprisingly, this upcoming season’s as well.

“Obviously we were behind, coming in in January to finish last year’s class,” Martin said. “What some people don’t realize is how far we were behind with this class. Our guys worked their tails off the last 30 days to try to get caught up. When we were sitting here on Signing Day, a lot of kids had 15, 20, 30 scholarship offers already and they hadn’t heard from the new staff at Notre Dame yet.”

Martin’s first big test is Notre Dame’s first junior day, which will be held in two weeks on March 20th. The Irish open spring practice a week later.

* Pete Sampson at IrishIllustrated.com is putting together a watch list for each position as the new coaching staff continues to make initial scholarship offers. It’s clear that there’s a method to the staff’s madness as it gets its first wave of offers out to elite prospects all across the country.

From Sampson:

If you’re looking closely, you can see it.

There’s a philosophical shift in Notre Dame’s
recruiting on the offensive line as size makes room for speed. Being
big is great if you’re a lineman, but in Brian Kelly’s spread offense
there’s a major focus on agility. In other words, if that size can’t
travel it can’t do much good stuck at the line of scrimmage.

The recruitment of jumbo tight end Tate Nichols
offered a taste of the offensive linemen Kelly wants in his system.
That Kentucky standout represented an athlete who just happened to
block people well. In a pro-style offense, Nichols would have been
considered a project. In the spread, he’s closer to a prototype.

Check out five of the offensive linemen on Irish
Illustrated’s Watch List expected to attend junior day next month.
Among the group of Michael Bennett, Matthew Hegarty, Tony Springmann,
Anthony Zettel and Brendon Austin, each tips the scales at 275 pounds
or less, with the average weight coming in at 262.8 pounds.

Aside from providing proof that Kelly trusts his
strength and conditioning staff to put good weight on his linemen, it
also shows how much the new staff values athleticism on the line.

I’ve never believed that you can get much from a high school players reported height and weight, but switching offensive systems means looking for more mobile athletes to play along the offensive line. While the offers that the previous coaching staff would’ve made might not be that different, Sampson’s example of Tate Nichols as a developmental project is a good one, and is a smart way to build a roster that finally has decent distribution among classes thanks to the recruiting efforts of Weis and his staff.

Sampson has also done watch lists for linebackers and defensive lineman. Great reads for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of recruiting. 

* ND blog Clashmore Mike had an incredibly in-depth piece on last season’s struggles in the red zone, written by contributor Anthony Pilcher. I’ve tried to find a snippet that’d be worth showing, but really the piece is an incredible piece of research, statistical analysis, and most importantly… pie chart usage.

If you’ve got a half-hour or half-ream of paper to spare, take the time to give it a read. If you get nothing else out of it, be impressed by the great usage of the Microsoft Office suite.

* Lorenzo Reyes over at IrishSportsDaily.com had a nice piece on the videogame playaction simulator that has been installed in the player lounge at the Gug. I know most college football coach’s probably show great disdain for the time-waster that videogames are, Kelly has gone the other way.

Since Brian Kelly was introduced as the Irish head coach last December, Notre Dame has incorporated the use of the XOS PlayAction Simulator, a product from XOS Digital, Inc. that combines the look and feel of EA Sports’ Madden and NCAA Football franchises with technology that the company has developed as a virtual training tool.

Kelly, who was one of the first coaches to use the software at Cincinnati, has now brought the system to the Irish program.

“From the players’ perspective, it’s just like the game they would play, Madden or NCAA,” Tsai said. “We actually use the same underlying engine from EA Sports. What we’ve done differently is made it PC-based so they can integrate with our technologies a little more cleanly. In terms of using a controller, the way you select plays and the way you actually run the game for the simulator, it’s virtually identical to what they’ve grown up with. That was on purpose. So the learning curve from the players is almost zero.”

Very cool idea and great story by the guys at ISD. I’m hoping Dayne Crist is spending some time with an ice-bag on his knee and a videogame controller in his hands.

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.