Opponent preview: Boston College Eagles

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The beat goes on as we preview Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out previews for Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.

The Overview:

Boston College made headlines for all the wrong reasons last offseason. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired in January after interviewing for the head coaching position of the New York Jets. Quarterback Dominique Davis was ruled academically ineligible, and more devastating, All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Still, former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani took the reins of the program and steadied the ship, guiding a team that was predicted to finish last in the ACC Atlantic to within a game of the conference championship game. While the offense struggled behind 25-year-old freshman Dave Shinskie, the defense was stingy, giving up only 19.8 points a game.

Last time against the Irish:

A week after crawling back into the game with a furious rally against USC, the Irish found themselves in gut-check time once again, the defense leaking oil after turning Shinskie into an All-American as they clung to a four-point lead with the Boston College offense driving down the field. After giving up an inexplicable 4th and 17 the Irish defense finally put the game away, thanks to a Brian Smith interception with 1:43 seconds left on the clock.

Down 16-13 entering the 4th quarter, the Irish were stuffed on a 4th and goal from the one when they decided to run Robert Hughes in the Wildcat. Once again, the offense was bailed out by another heroic effort from Golden Tate, who turned an out pattern into a 36-yard touchdown for the Irish’s final score. On a sloppy field, the Irish looked intent to run the ball, with Armando Allen running for 98 yards on 21 carries. Thanks to five turnovers, the Irish held Boston College to 16 points, stuffing running back Montel Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, a season low. Yet Notre Dame’s emphasis on stopping the run left them susceptible against the pass, where Shinskie and wide receiver Rich Grunnell had career days in a losing effort. Warts and all, Notre Dame’s victory took their record to 5-2, and it was the first Irish victory over Boston College since 2000.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Boston College as the third-toughest game on the schedule for the Irish. Here are the rankings so far.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Purdue Boilermakers
      7. Stanford Cardinals

While the ACC was weak last year, Boston College’s 8-5 record was pretty impressive, especially considering the turmoil the team was under last season, breaking in a new quarterback, head coach, and losing Mark Herzlich to cancer. When the Irish head to Chestnut Hill, they’ll face a team mostly intact, with a defense that’ll likely be one of the toughest the Irish face.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish seemed almost content to play a horizontal passing game, taking minimal shots downfield and relegating Jimmy Clausen to the distributor role. While he didn’t throw any interceptions, it was one of Clausen’s worst on the year, nearly picked twice as the BC coverage flattened and the zone tightened the middle of the field. On a sloppy track, the game seemed to be played in slow motion, something BC took advantage of an the Irish could not. While the Irish offensive system is different, they’ll still need to account for sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly and the returning Herzlich, who’s return from cancer has been slowed with a stress fracture in his foot. Both the defensive line and the secondary need to replace starters, but the depth is there for the Eagles.

Offensively, Shinskie returns at quarterback but is being pushed by Mike Marscovetra, a dual-threat option. Whoever wins the quarterback battle, the offense will run through Montel Harris, who set BC freshman and sophomore rushing records and returns for his third season. Harris will be supported by the Eagles’ offensive line, one of the best in the ACC and anchored by Anthony Castonzo.. Through the air, BC won’t be able to depend on wide receiver Rich Grunnell who graduated, but will look to get production from Colin Larmond* and tight end Chris Pantale.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat BC if they attack the defense, not tip-toe around it. The Irish were their own worst enemies last year, playing a possession game without taking any shots down the field, allowing the Eagles to shrink the field vertically. This year, the Irish will attempt to blow the top off the zone, hitting on a few deep passes that also open up the middle of the field. Defensively, while the Irish forced five turnovers, the coverage in the secondary was horrendous. (Don’t believe me, check it out here.) While Shinskie will still be turnover prone, the Irish will do a better job of blanketing coverage on a mediocre passing attack, forcing the Eagles to play a game they know they can’t win.

How the Irish will lose:

Chestnut Hill is not friendly to the Fighting Irish, and behind a robust defensive attack, and some strong running by Montel Harris, the Irish will feel the heat of the rivalry get to them. After five straight games against top-level BCS teams, the Irish defensive front will be worn down, and the Eagles strong offensive line will take advantage. Dayne Crist’s could see healthy doses of both Herzlich and Kuechly in the backfield, and that could spell trouble.

Gut Feeling:

Boston College is a lot like Michigan to me. My gut tells me to expect the Irish to win handily, but my head tells me that it’s always a different story with these two programs. BC is coming off a huge game against Virginia Tech the week before and one year of scouting tape on offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill will be enough for the Irish to fix the problems that plagued the defense. On offense, don’t expect Kelly to try and play slug-it-out football the way Weis did last season. Pedal to the metal will let Notre Dame’s athletes run away from Boston College.

* UPDATED — Thanks to former Irish pitching great Drew Duff who checks in from Chicago to point out that Boston College wide receiver Colin Larmond is out for the season with a knee injury.

“Obviously this is a very unfortunate situation, both for Colin and for our team,” BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “Our first priority is to get him on the road to recovery. Now we will need some players to step up and fill his role.”

This is a pretty crushing blow to the Eagle wide receiving corp. Their returning receivers have caught a total of 24 passes in college football collectively. 

 

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.