Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan edition

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Round two of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we into towards the Michigan game.

1. Mother Nature might be playing a factor in this one.

Maybe it was Rich Rodriguez’s premonition during his Tuesday press conference, but it looks like rain for South Bend this Saturday. Here’s what Rodriguez said about his recollection of Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s an intimate setting, just like the Big House,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “You’re in a confined area. It seems like it always rains when we go down there, I don’t know what the forecast is. The few times I’ve been there it seems like it’s always raining and the grass is usually high. Because of the rain, I guess.”

Tossing Rodriguez’s dig of the field aside, the weather is going to be a factor on Saturday and the Irish are already preparing for it.

“Today we did a wet ball drill in (special teams), in particular because
the snapping, punts, field goals, things of that nature,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Wet ball in
7-on-7, we did that in camp. We have to play in the elements. You have
to practice them. but I don’t think I over-coach it. I think we have
great balance in our offense and defense that if we have to take shape
differently during the game because of the elements, we’ll do that.
Thirteen years of being on Lake Michigan at Grand Valley State, I think
I’ve seen every kind of weather pattern that’s blown through here.”

2. With Jamoris Slaughter limited, walk-on Chris Salvi is the next man in.

Much of this week has been dedicated to looking at the thin depth chart in the Michigan secondary, but with Jamoris Slaughter being held out unless it’s an emergency situation, walk-on safety Chris Salvi now serves as the primary back up for Zeke Motta.

Want the dish on Selvi? How about this blast from the past from the suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald on November 9th, 2007.

Salvi is a two-year starter for the 9-2 Corsairs, who
will take on De La Salle Saturday night in the Class 7A quarterfinals. A
cornerback turned safety, he’s become a focal point of the defense with
his textbook tackling and hard hits.

He ranks second on the team with 93 tackles. He also has
4 interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt against Notre Dame that he
recovered himself and ran in for a touchdown.

“Last year, Chris had a good year, but this year he’s
had a breakout year,” Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. “Part of it has to
do with the fact that he switched from cornerback to safety and safety
seems to suit him a lot better. He’s great against the run and he’s the
kind of player who really loves to hit people.

“But the other part of it is that Chris has worked so
darn hard to improve himself and establish himself on this team. He was
in the weight room so much over the summer that I had to practically
kick him out. I think I’ll be able to use him as an example for many
years about what you need to do to really get ahead. This is a kid who
is just extremely motivated to do his best.”

Brian Kelly’s confidence in Salvi seemed to be similar to that of Carmel coach Andy Bitto.

“I’m good with four and Salvi is a real solid player for us. He’s on all of our (special teams),” Kelly said. “He’ll be our fifth guy and we’re not afraid to put him in the game if we have to.”

3. Barry Gallup Jr. filled the role of Denard Robinson this week.

No word on whether or not Gallup actually laced up his shoes, but he did take the scout team reps at quarterback, trying to replicate the offensive prowess of the speedy Michigan quarterback. He might not have the top-end jets of Shoelace, but Kelly was happy with the work he did.

“You can pay attention to pursuit angles, how you’re working in
different levels defensively, and not have a guy who’s 4.3, 4.4,” Kelly said after practice Thursday. “Though I will say Gallup did a nice job running that offense for us, because you
get banged around a bit running the ball as much as he did.

4. The Irish just added a much more visible sign of tradition to the football offices. Seven of them.

Brian Kelly added some serious hardware to the lobby of The Gug this week, bringing in the school’s seven Heisman Tropies to be displayed alongside a National Championship trophy and a bronze bust of the Four Horseman. Kelly’s rationale was simple:

“The tradition here can be talked about all we want and it can be read
about, but you can also see it tangibly when you walk into this football
facility now,” Kelly said. “Obviously, with the national championship trophy on
display, it’s real when a recruit or an alumnus or a former letterwinner
comes in. You can tangibly see the success of Notre Dame. It’s not just
what was talked about.”

5. That tradition will be on display for some pretty impressive recruits.

The Irish welcome a nice collection of recruits to South Bend for the big game against Michigan. Irish fans better hope that the potentially stormy weather doesn’t wash a few of the uncommitted targets away.

Some of the expected visitors that are still being recruited by Notre Dame:

      George Atkinson, WR
      Josh Atkinson, CB
      Wayne Lyons, S
      Stephon Tuitt, DE
      Maty Mauk, QB (2012)

Here are the recruits already committed to the Irish that will join them in South Bend.

      Kyle Brindza, K
      Jalen Brown, CB
      Brad Carrico, DE
      Jarrett Grace, LB
      Eilar Hardy, S
      Justice Hayes, RB

Wayne Lyons is a five-star prospect that has just about every team in the country chasing him. The Atkinson brothers are also a pair of prestigious national recruits, and Stephon Tuitt has offers from SEC powers like Georgia, Florida, and LSU. With scholarships opening up with the departure of Derek Roback and Shaq Evans, this weekend could be a big one.

6. Looking for the last time Brian Kelly squared off with Rich Rodriguez?

November 17, 2007. Pat White and the No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers survived a fourth quarter run by Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats, and held on to a 28-23 victory. Ben Mauk (Maty’s older brother) led the Bearcats with 323 yards passing and two touchdowns, as well as paced the rushing attack with 52 yards on 15 carries. Pat White and Steve Slaton both had 100 yard days, with White getting 27 carries for 155 yards, and Slaton ran for 103 yards on 23 carries.

7. Looking to see how Kelly’s offense has done against a Greg Robinson defense?

After holding Cincinnati offenses to 22 and 17 points in Greg Robinson’s first two seasons coaching at Syracuse, the Bearcats exploded for 52 points in Kelly’s first match-up against the Orange in 2007, scoring double-digit points in each quarter, on their way to racking up 544 total yards.

In 2008, a week after handing Notre Dame a 24-23 loss on Senior Day, Cincinnati coasted to an easy 30-10 victory over the Orange in what was Greg Robinson’s final game as head coach of Syracuse. Tony Pike did most of the work, throwing for 272 yards and two TDs, with the Bearcat defense also forcing two turnovers.

8. ND’s offensive line vs. UM’s defensive line could be the story.

Michigan’s secondary may be a mess, but this game will be won or lost in the trenches for the Irish. The Wolverine defense played pretty stout against a UConn running attack that many thought was lethal. Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and Craig Roh will be the main threats battling Zack Martin, Chris Stewart, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

The 3-3-5 system of Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez relies on bringing pressure from different places, so if Ed Warinner’s group can identify who is coming and where he’s coming from, there should be holes up front to run between, and time for Dayne Crist to dissect a porous secondary.

9. Dayne Crist will have the opportunity to play a breakout game.

How big of a deal is Dayne Crist? Even though he only joined Twitter in June and has exactly one start as a college quarterback, he’s got over 2,750 Twitter followers already. In fact, Crist’s right arm even has its own Twitter page, with “The Cannon” starting to rack up followers all around the Notre Dame blogosphere.

Crist played a solid game, completing 73 percent of his throws for 205 yards and a touchdown, but he missed on two or three more explosive plays, including potential touchdowns to both Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd (twice). Crist will need to harness some of the emotions and energy that maybe had him missing some easy opportunities last Saturday. If he does that, expect a very nice day from Crist. And his right arm. (They can both tweet about it later that night…)

10. This is a big game for defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Elston played football for the Wolverines, lettering from 1994 to 1996 as a linebacker. After his playing career he worked in the football department for four years, starting as a camp coordinator his first two years, then climbing to the ranks of graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000.

Elston had to leave Ann Arbor to get a full-time coaching position, and went to Eastern Michigan, before joining Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004. The two have been together ever since. This will only be the second time Elston has faced off against his alma mater since he began coaching over a decade ago. The first was a 41-17 loss in 2006 when Central Michigan was beaten by a Michigan team that would walk into South Bend the next week and blow out the Irish.

11. Denard Robinson certainly announced his presence with authority.

In his first start, Denard Robinson set a Michigan record for most yards rushing for a quarterback, with 197 yards on 29 carries. His 19-of-22 passing moves him to second all-time on the Michigan lists for completion percentage in a single game behind Elvis Grbac. Robinson’s 383 total yards is the sixth-highest total yardage mark in Big Ten history and the top mark for the Wolverines in school history.

Even more bizarre, while Robinson may have burst onto the scene with his performance against UConn, he led the Wolverines offense in rushing last year with 351 yards on 69 carries last year, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 5 touchdowns.

12. Coach worth watching? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

The opening performance by the defense against Purdue was impressive, but if Diaco really wants to earn the adoration of Notre Dame Nation, he’ll need to orchestrate an equally-impressive performance against Denard Robinson and the Michigan offensive attack.

Diaco discussed what the defense needs to do to stop Robinson.

“It’s a real challenge,” Diaco said. “All we’re going to do is do the best that we can in selecting from the menu of installation that we have, preparing the players mentally, focusing on the nuts and bolts of defense in terms of block destruction, tackling and effort. Then they need to just clearly know their assignment and do their assignment the whole time.”

Kelly already hinted earlier this week that the Irish wouldn’t send a lot of pressure after an option quarterback. We’ll see what Diaco has in store for Michigan Saturday afternoon.

 

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.