Lemming talks Irish recruiting

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Recruiting guru Tom Lemming hit the airwaves in South Bend with Eric Hansen and Bob Wieneke on WSBT 960 to talk Irish recruiting. If you don’t have 15 minutes to listen, I’ve got you covered.

Here are some of the best nuggets:

On Bubba Starling’s decision to pick Nebraska over Notre Dame:

I was really surprised that Bubba Starling picked Nebraska because they were putting all their eggs in the Bubba Starling basket and obviously it didn’t work out. Shawn Watson, the quarterback coach at Nebraska did a great job recruiting Bubba, and I think trying to relate to the family that it’s only a four hour drive to Lincoln, not even four hours, and Notre Dame was a lot farther. He had made three trips to Notre Dame and each time the indication was that he was going to commit. So Notre Dame didn’t pursue any more players.

With 12 commitments, why the pace will likely slow down:

They’ve got enough guys offered. The key is to get quality players, not numbers. Fans sometimes just want to get guys committed, but you want to make sure they’re good ballplayers. I remember when Tyrone Willingham was there, they kept signing MAC Conference-type players, and the fans were excited, not knowing. The key is to get blue-chip players, even if it takes until February. They didn’t get Manti Te’o until the last day of recruiting. I don’t think numbers mean anything, but right now 18-21 is what they project.

Comparing the freshman QBs with the ones in this recruiting class:

I don’t think any of them compare to the five guys they lost. Braxton Miller, Kiehl Frazier and Bubba Starling were head and shoulders above everybody else… Hendrix has good potential, but he played on a run-oriented Moeller team last year, so he needs some developing as a passer and a quarterback, like all freshman do. Tommy Rees is an efficient passer, good kid, but I don’t think he’s going to be a lights-out type guy. I think Massa came along so they could get Matt James… They’re all guys that could project, and Coach Kelly has shown magic when developing quarterbacks, but magic appears much quicker when you’ve got great talent.

What is the greatest area of need for the Irish:

I always thought what Charlie Weis always overlooked was the defensive side of the ball. Defensively they’ve gotten four or five of these guys that can be pass rushers, but they’re all down the line guys. Getting a guy like Aaron Lynch could really help as a pass rusher. This year there are a lot of great ones. Ray Drew — Georgia seems to be loaded with them,  I don’t know if any of them are really considering Notre Dame, besides Aaron Lynch. It’d be great to get a pass-rusher like him. Another impact linebacker. I think Wayne Lyons coming in could be a great catch if they could get him. A good character kid, a straight-A student.

Five big-time guys that ND has really targeted:

Wide receiver, George Farmer would be their the top guy — but Kasen Williams might be more logical — though they’ve offered two of George’s teammates. He’s the speed guy.  When I saw him two years ago, just finishing up his sophomore year, he was as good or better than Robert Woods. (Another blue-chip recruit that signed with USC.) He could be that go-to guy right away. Savon Huggins or Brendon Bigelow I think as a tailback would be an impact guy they’d like to get. Left tackle, if they want an early Christmas present, Cyrus Kouandjio would be absolutely fantastic. He’s 6-7, 290, and he looks thin at 290. He’s got the athletic ability, he’s at a Catholic school, he’s a Notre Dame type of a guy… Their high school coach there sent his daughter to Notre Dame, so he’s very aware of Notre Dame. If they don’t get an Aaron Lynch, look for Ray Drew. He’s an ordained minister down in Thomasville, Georgia, he’s a Notre Dame type of guy, however he’s less than an hour away from Florida State. There are a lot of good guys out there. Notre Dame has done a good job recruiting, but they haven’t signed the players that normally don’t go to Notre Dame.

What the USC sanctions could mean for ND’s West Coast recruiting:

The kids that are serious about academics, could be looking at Notre Dame now because of the two-year probation. USC with Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron are going to do a great job, but now they’re limited to 15 guys a year, and they’re a lot of them on the West Coast. USC with their national recruiting efforts are going to go after 7 or 8 on the West Coast and the rest nationally, so it gives Notre Dame an opening to come after some of those big names and land some of them and beat UCLA and some of the other schools that are targeting some of those players.

Of the 12 committed recruits, the guys that could make the biggest impact:

If Kyle Rudolph leaves early, I think Ben Koyack can. He looks like he needs some weight work, but he’s very agile, and a great body control-type tight end that can run. Matt Hegarty really blew us away down in San Antonio at the combine. He was an efficient, tough, aggressive, 6-5, 260-pounder at the time. He can play tackle or guard. Jordan Prestwood has gained 25 pounds since last year, he’s almost 280, he could be the surprise left tackle in this class, even though he’s never played tackle before. Within a year or two, he’s got one more year to develop in high school and a freshman year to develop with the strength coach, and maybe he’s thrown into the left tackle spot. I really like Terry Hanratty’s son Conor, because he’s a blue-collar guy, but what makes me really like him is that Kirk Ferentz likes him, who I believe is the top offensive line coach in the country.

As always, encyclopedia-like stuff from Lemming, who covers recruiting 24-7. 

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.