Spring Solutions: Defensive Line

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If there is one position group with a razor-thin margin for error, it’s the defensive lineman. The good news for Irish coach Mike Elston is that he’ll only need to find three guys that can play on the field at once as the Irish are shifting from four to three down linemen, and all three projected starters are returning. In the middle, Ian Williams will start at tackle. After a promising opening salvo to his career, Williams will be looked upon to become a dominant run-stuffing force on the inside of the 3-4 defense, allowing linebacker Manti Te’o (and whoever wins the job next to him) to get after the ball carrier and make plays.

On the outside of the 3-4, the Irish have two player cut from the proper cloth to play on the edges of the defensive line. Now a junior, Ethan Johnson will have to finally play up to the prestigious recruiting ranking to avoid being labeled a major disappointment. Too small to play on the inside and not quick enough to dominate as an edge rusher in the 4-3, Johnson just hasn’t made enough plays in two seasons for the Irish, but also played out of position last season after being rushed onto the field as a freshman. Kapron Lewis-Moore saved a year of eligibility his freshman year, but ascended to the top of the defensive end depth chart last season, leading Irish defensive lineman in tackles, and finishing second on the team in tackles for loss. A year in the weight room with Paul Longo and a second season of playing time should bode well for KLM, who has ideal size to play on the end of a 3-4 front.

Behind this trio, things get a bit scary for the Irish, especially at defensive end. In recruiting, Brian Kelly took a chance on Bruce Heggie, an unknown recruit who fit the profile of what the staff is looking for in a big-bodied end. They also made a late offer to Kona Schwenke, who will immediately look to make a dent in the two-deep depth chart. But for the Irish defense to succeed up front, they’ll need players like Emeka Nwankwo and Tyler Stockton to put things together quickly, and from the sounds of it, both had very productive springs. For the first time in a long time, the Irish are rock solid at defensive tackle, with Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Sean Cwynar all pushing into the rotation. With an offense that’ll push the pace, Elston will need to get a rock-solid rotation of defensive linemen ready to see the field. Let’s take a look at the players that’ll get that done.

              DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
              2010:  Ian Williams (DT)
              2011:  Emeka Nwankwo (DE), Ethan Johnson (DE)
              2012:  Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE), Sean Cwynar (DT/DE), Hafis Williams (DT),
                         Brandon Newman (DT)
              2013:  Tyler Stockton (DE/DT)
              2014:  Bruce Heggie (DE), Kona Schwenke (DE), Louis Nix (DT)

The senior class’s lone representative is Ian Williams, one of only two players to have played in every game since joining the Irish. Williams will anchor the inside of the defensive line, playing a position in the system he was originally recruited to play. If you’re looking for a reason to believe Ethan Johnson is ready to explode on the scene, look to the squat rack. After playing light in the lower-half for the first two seasons, Johnson will spend the majority of the summer working on leg strength to help him along the line of scrimmage. One of the better stories out of spring practice was the play of Emeka Nwankwo, who was a healthy scratch for all of the 2009 season. Having only played in seven games in three seasons, Elston praised Nwankwo for his dedication to the game and working his way into the rotation.

While Lewis-Moore will open fall camp as the starting defensive end, Cwynar is the kind of player that continues to show up on game film. Another tweener in a 4-3 defense, he’ll thrive as a high-motor, physical defensive end, especially playing limited snaps. Speaking of game film, Brandon Newman’s Blue-Gold game tape had to make Irish coaches happy, as the defensive tackle was disruptive at the line of scrimmage, knocking down multiple passes and showing a great burst as well. Hafis Williams, another defensive tackle, had a nice spring for the Irish, and will compete with Newman for the role of spelling Ian Williams.

Tyler Stockton didn’t play a snap last season and also physically profiles as a defensive tackle, but spent some time playing on the edge of the defense as well in Bob Diaco’s new system. He’ll enter fall camp with four years of eligibility, just like defensive ends Bruce Heggie, an under-the-radar recruit from Florida, Hawaiian defensive end Kona Schwenke, and defensive tackle Louis Nix. Both defensive ends will need to spend some time adding mass to their frames before they’re able to compete up front, but the lack of depth at the position is alarming. As for Louis Nix, he’ll join a crowded depth chart for defensive tackles, but was a critical recruit for Notre Dame, committing to assistant coach Tony Alford even when the Irish were without a head coach.

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.