Fantasy Camp: The golden rules

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They say a football game isn’t won on Saturday, but in the work put in Monday through Friday. Well, it’s tough to make that translate when game day is Thursday afternoon, but I’ll do my best to try.

The Blue-Gold game was most likely won Tuesday night. That’s when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the head coach of the Gold team and an eater that could put Kobayashi on notice, maneuvered to put together a team that offensive coordinator Charley Molnar could not counter. With Friday’s coaching staff lunch on the line, and having personally witnessed Diaco polish off two Filet Mignons and two full plates of pasta at dinner, I’m guessing Diaco’s epic appetite was an imposing figure in the draft room, especially for the Blue head coach that has nine other mouths to feed at home.

At Tuesday night’s dinner in the Monogram Room, Brian Kelly announced the game rosters, alternating between Gold and Blue teams. Here’s one talent evaluator’s breakdown of the rosters:

GOLD TEAM:

Keith Arnold: QB/CB — Schmuck blogger. One of youngest guys in camp, always a plus.
Frank Bagatta: TE/LB — Old school player with great instincts and better hair.
Country Balitsos: RB/FS — Second cousin to waterboy Bobby Boucher. A little crazy.
Tom Britz: WR/FS — Silky smooth athlete who looks 30 years younger than his real age.
Jonathan Brooks: RB/LB — Bulldozer that battled hamstring injuries throughout camp.
Joe Colgan: TE/LB — Locker room leader who has a penchant for hoarding socks.
Patrick Dolphin: WR/DB — Deep threat and shut down corner. Definite RKG.
John Harris: OL/DE — Jersey’s finest brings an attitude to the trenches.
Bob Johnson: OL/DL — Tough interior player anchors offensive line.
Larry Leamy: WR/DB — Elder statesman of the camp just makes big plays in space.
Dave Libs: OL/LB — Veteran presence brings great intangibles to team.
Scott Litwiller: OL/DL — Physical force inside, key to line as shotgun snapper.
Bart McGloin: QB/LB — Veteran QB and Mike backer brings ice-water veins to huddle.
Hubert Oates: RB/LB — Hard-charging ball carrier and great locker room presence.
Dennis Rios: OL/LB — Battled through injuries to contribute with solid defensive play.
Bill Robinson: NT/OL: Undersized battler brings smiles to teammates and frowns to enemies.
Tom Tague: OL/DL — Windy City rookie brings rare blend of youth and power to interior.

BLUE TEAM:

Gene Bicego: WR/DB — Pint-sized receiver with great shake.
Mike Brennen: WR/DB — Another little guy with wheels. Joey Getherall type player.
PT Brent: WR/DB — Former Marine who brings leadership to the huddle.
John Paul Condon: TE/LB — Half of the Canadian contingency for the Blue squad.
Keith Cross: WR/DB — Boston-based starter that battled injuries and criminal charges.
Gene Faut, Jr.: WR/DB — Speedster looked to play the role of #1 wide receiver.
Gene Faut, Sr.: WR/DB — Veteran presence that can make a defense pay.
Rob Gothier: QB/DB — Hotshot new QB with rocket-arm and a balky hamstring.
Michael Haveard: QB/DB — Veteran signal caller that brings presence to the field.
Joe Hession: TE/LB — Veteran player brings old-school attitude to the field.
Tim Kopp: WR/DL: Injuries kept him from contributing on-field, but brings plenty off the field.
Ned Lesnick: RB/LB: Veteran running back dangerous inside the tackles.
Rich Maynhart: OL/DL: Anchor in the middle of line also in charge of shotgun snaps. 
Michael O’Donnell: WR/DB — Veteran from California brings savvy to Blue team attack.
John O’Neill: WR/DB — Lanky Canadian battled foot injuries to make highlight reel catch.
Rick Peltz: OL/DB — Longtime player brings size to the trenches.
Terry Philbin: OL/DL — Monster along the interior, premiere lineman on either roster.
Mark Smith: RB/DL — Fifth-year camper didn’t let balky knees stop him.

What made game day so special was just how close to script we played things compared to the actual Irish football team. Both teams met for a training table meal at The Gug, where breakfast options were waiting as well as an omelet chef to prepare one of your choice. After that, we broke into team meetings, where Diaco, Chuck Martin, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Jon Carpenter and Scott Booker gave quick pregame talks, as well as going over our keys to success. We knew our offensive line gave us a great chance to get our running game going, and our two corners let us roll a safety down into the box and challenge the Blue team to try and beat us through the air, because they weren’t going to be able to run on us.

After meetings, it was off to the Basilica, where Father Doyle, the team Chaplin for the football team, said mass for us before leaving every team member with a small pendant, just like he does with the football team. From there, we took the same walk from the chapel to the stadium, minus a few thousand screaming fans and a marching band. Even preparing for a game played in front of maybe only a hundred fans, it was pretty hard not to get fired up for the game we were about to play.

Strapped up in the new Irish uniforms and heading down the stairs out of the locker room, we slapped the same Play Like A Champion Today sign that Irish football players have been slapping for years. Introduced on the public address system, running out of that tunnel to your waiting teammates, this was the closest thing to playing for the Irish I’ll ever experience.

As for the game, many of the Gold team’s suspicions came true. With an offensive line that helped game MVP Country Balitsos break two long touchdown runs, and a suffocating pass-rush that kept the Gold Team from getting any type of rhythm going, our offense and defense had dominating performances. Trading off series with Bart at quarterback, I only had the chance to throw the ball once, a quick bubble screen that was a missed tackle away from going the distance, but I ran the option a couple times and moved the team for a touchdown drive capped by a run by tugboat Jonathan Brooks.

On defense, we pitched a shutout, and I nearly took an interception to the house but chose the far sideline instead of the near one, before I was tracked down inside the red zone. Coach Carp’s defense, where we rolled safety Larry Leamy into the flat, worked perfectly with fellow freshman Patrick Dolphin playing a perfect shutdown corner opposite me with our linebackers stuffing the run nearly every carry.

While the lopsided scoreboard made for an anticlimactic finish, the game was a success because nobody got hurt and everybody had fun. Touchdowns by Country, Brooks, and Leamy, plus a couple extra points made by Joe Colgan, put an exclamation point on a perfect draft and game plan by Diaco and company. The defense also held strong after a long catch and throw between Rob Gothier and Jon O’Neill that brought the Blue down to inside the ten, only to be held scoreless.

The scoreboard didn’t matter (26-0! 26-0!), the experience did. That experience was punctuated by an incredible dinner with family and friends at the top of the press box, where Brian Kelly handed out the postgame awards to every player. As a first year camper, I was given a game worn helmet that’ll go next to the rest of the Notre Dame memorabilia on my bookshelf. Sophomores received a monogram jacket with a special Fantasy Camp logo in place of the interlocking ND. Juniors received class rings, which seemed to be the talk of the camp. Seniors, fifth-year players and graduates all received watches and framed photos, an impressive keep sake, especially when you consider that the photos were all taken in the three previous days.

While I’ll continue to call it as I see it, it’s hard for me to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid after spending four days with the coaching staff. To a man, every single guy on staff was great, and they honestly enjoyed every mome
nt they spent with us, just
as we loved spending it with them. While I never had an experience like this with the previous coaching staff, it’s clear that this group has a great working relationship, is completely on the same page, and that Brian Kelly is a dynamic leader. Whether it was the offensive coaches, the defensive guys, or the dynamic strength and conditioning staff that will be a twelfth man on the field come this fall, I heard from people high and low that this was the group that was going to return Notre Dame to prominence.

We’ll ultimately find out come this September, but for four days in June, Brian Kelly and his staff certainly were perfect. 

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.