Friday Notes: Worley, Women, and Weis

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As the month of June cruises to an end and the 4th of July holiday weekend rapidly approaches, we are getting seriously closer to some actual football.

One of the better quotes that I just remembered last night came to me from offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, when we shot the breeze after the Fantasy Camp banquet. He mentioned how nice it was to have our group in town, just because all he’s been thinking about — from the moment he wakes up, to the second he goes to bed — is Purdue. It struck me as crazy that the focus would already be on week one in early June, but that’s the life of a college football coach.

All that leads me into a nice preview of the opening game match-up from the opponents point-of-view, where the Purdue website Hammer & Rails profiled the 2010 Irish team. (I’ll give him a link, even though he forgot about me in the Blog Representation…) It’s always interesting getting an opponent’s perspective on the team you follow, so if you’re interested in what Notre Dame’s 6-6 season looked like from a Boilermaker, have at it.

Moving to the notes…

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With Bubba Starling headed to Nebraska or the route of Carl Crawford (another dynamic quarterback that signed with Nebraska, only to pick the MLB Draft path), all eyes are on South Carolina’s Justin Worley, who heads to South Bend this weekend with his family to spend three days on campus.

While many Irish hearts and minds were set on Bubba, a quick look at Worley’s game tape shows a quarterback that already plays in an offensive very similar to Brian Kelly’s. After noting his 8,000 yards and 90 touchdown passes over the past two seasons and the prolific throws he’s making as a high school sophomore and junior, it’s pretty easy to get on the Worley train as well.

That said, Steve Wiltfong of IrishSportsDaily.com picked up an interesting quote from Worley’s father that sheds a little light on why quarterbacks are hesitant to jump at the offer to play for the Irish.

“Obviously, Notre Dame would be number one on that list from an academic side,” Worley’s father said. “Also relationship with the coaches, and the type of offense they run, and the number of quarterbacks they already have in the pipeline, which Notre Dame has a lot.”

Worley’s the top quarterback on Notre Dame’s board, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Irish either locked in Worley or took a pass on quarterbacks in this class all together. Regardless of how quarterback friendly an offense is, it’s going to be tough to sign a national recruit when you’ve got a crowded depth chart like Notre Dame’s.

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Brian Kelly already made headlines with he and his wife Paqui’s $250,000 donation to Notre Dame for cancer research. He’s taken another step with the Kelly Cares Foundation, which had its official kickoff with Football 101, a guide to helping women understand football.

A sold-out group of women gathered in Notre Dame stadium to go through the ABCs of football and meet the new Notre Dame coach.

Even more interesting, is the heroic journey Paqui Kelly has gone through, which Eric Hansen detailed in the South Bend Tribune.

The shape of the Kelly Cares Foundation dates back to December 2002,
when a baseline mammogram that Paqui’s doctor suggested she have
revealed a lump in her breast. She was 37 years old at the time.

She
acknowledges that if she had waited until she turned 40, the benchmark
some women use to push them to get the test, her story might not be
teeming with so much hope.

It wasn’t until six months later –
June 2003 – that the diagnosis came back as cancer. Paqui had three
children – ages 6, 3, and 2 – at the time and a husband whose career window had
just opened to the kind of jobs he had been dreaming about.

Paqui
accelerated through the “Why me” stage and attacked the Stage 1 cancer
almost like a coach would.

“We had a game plan,” she said. “And
I’m not making light of how people deal with stuff, but Brian and I tend
to use humor, more than get real serious. We’re not heavies that way.

“I
remember when we were waiting for the tests to come back to see (if the
lump) was cancerous. At first they told me it was 999,999 out of a
million chance it would come back (benign). Brian kept calling, asking
me if I got the tests back.

“When I did, I said, ‘Honey, I’m one
in a million. Just not the one you want me to be.'”

The next even for Kelly Cares will be a golf tournament at the Warren Course at Notre Dame on July 12 and another on July 19th at Kemper Lakes in suburban Chicago. For info on the ND event, call (574) 631-4116 and the Chicago event, call (847) 609-1147. It’s always a nice excuse to play golf for a good cause and get out of some work.

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Another nice nugget from the South Bend Tribune was on Charlie Weis’ return to South Bend for the Hannah & Friends events that took place last weekend. Former Irish players Rocket Ismail, Tony Rice, Chinendum Ndukwe, Brady Quinn, Golden Tate, Ryan Harris and a slew of others came back to town to support Weis and his charity as well as to place some golf at Blackthorn. (A pretty great track for those that haven’t played it yet.)

Eric Hansen spent some time with Charlie, and while he offered him plenty of opportunities, Weis never bit when given the opportunity to drop a juicy quote.

Here’s the best he gave, when asked about all the conference affiliation talk.

“As a Notre Dame fan, I think whatever the powers-that-be feel is best
for Notre Dame, that’s what they should do,” Weis said. “I don’t really
have an opinion one way or another. It never really crossed my mind when
I was coaching. Same thing with scheduling.

“The only thing I
was happy about — and this might sound weird — was that the Big 12 held
together. I’m living about 35 minutes away from Kansas. Kansas State
sits an hour and a half away and Mizzou is about two hours away. I think
a conference break-up would have really hurt those teams.” 

 

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.