The good, the bad, the ugly: Boston College

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Reaction to the Irish win last night is running about as hot and cold as the Irish offense was last night. For as many fans that are enthusiastic about Notre Dame drubbing rival Boston College at Alumni Field — something the Irish haven’t been able to do since 1998 — there are just as many people complaining about the inconsistency that continues to plague this team as it evolves.

“I didn’t come in thinking that we were ready for the national championship game,” head coach Brian Kelly admitted after the victory. “But the process for us has been exactly what I thought it would be. We’re developing a mentality and a toughness, a physical and mental toughness, that all the teams that I coach want to display. We just have to work really hard on that principle.”

While Kelly rattles the eardrums of his players ingraining that philosophy, he also continues to mold a team into the likeness he desires. While the methods surprise many that expected a buttoned-up coach that matches the man they see in press conferences and public appearances, the leader of the Irish is as fiery as the last coach beloved by Notre Dame Nation, a man named Lou Holtz.

The Irish win was in many ways a perfect outcome for Kelly and the coaching staff. A dominating victory that featured exceptional play by both the offense and defense in spurts, but enough teachable moments that reaffirm the weekly message this coaching staff preaches.

Let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over Boston College.

THE GOOD

An Irish defense that was labeled “high school” by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN’s College GameDay, absolutely stifled the Eagles’ offense. Praise certainly should be heaped on the rush defense of the Irish, but what’s not to be discounted is the Irish defense’s ability to hold the fort down when they’re forced into immediate action — something that’s happened too often with the Irish offense turning the ball over more often than they’d like.

“They did a great job the last couple of weeks with turnovers,” Kelly said this afternoon. “Against Stanford we turned the ball over on a sack fumble and held them to a field goal. We’ve been very resilient on what we consider those crucial moments, sudden change we call them. Our defense has been very good against sudden change.”

In a second quarter that saw the Irish offense attempt to give back much of what they did during the opening minutes, Bob Diaco’s troops held strong, limiting Boston College to only one of six on third down even thought the Eagles held the ball for 10:43 in the second quarter.

Kelly has been open about his pleasure in the defense’s play so far this season, even if the stats didn’t prove it. Saturday’s performance was a nice step in the right direction for the Notre Dame defense, who will need to continue with the improvement they showed on Saturday.

(Special Mention in the good category goes to true freshman Bennett Jackson and Prince Shembo, who both made an impact on the game — Jackson on the opening kickoff and Shembo in pass rush situations.)

THE BAD

It’s hard to be too hard on any facet of the Irish, but it’s clear that the Irish passing game is still a work-in-progress. Dayne Crist looked great in the opening drives of the game, but his 4.5 yards per attempt is sub-par in an offense that has as many weapons as the Irish do.

It’d be unfair to complain about a quarterback that’s played as well as Crist has in the first five starts of his career, but Kelly has made it clear that Dayne needs to master the spread system if he’s going to lead the Irish back to prominence.

“He’s gotta be a spread quarterback or he can’t be
the quarterback here. Period. We’re running the spread offense and he’s
gotta be a spread quarterback,” Kelly said. “If he can’t do that, he can’t be the
quarterback here. He’s all in. He’s 100 percent in. He had a great week
of practice and preparation. We’ve begun to build on that process of
developing him as a spread quarterback. He’s not there yet, but he’s
developing. He’s shown signs. I think we’re going to get better each and
every week.”

The transition hasn’t only been difficult on Crist, but also front-line players like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Floyd and Crist missed on a sight-adjustment that nearly turned into an easy interception for BC, and while many assumed Kyle Rudolph’s lack of production was because of defensive schematics, Kelly acknowledged that even his tight end is going through some growing pains.

“He’s getting better too at learning where he fits within the offense as well,” Kelly said of Rudolph. “There’s some things he has to continue to work on… He’s usually in tight coverage situations. They know where Kyle Rudolph is. You’re not going to get Kyle Rudolph one-on-one without tight coverage on him. He’s evolving as well within our offense… but it’s a process for Kyle as well.”

THE UGLY

It was an ugly victory Saturday night, and if that’s the only ugly that Irish fans have to deal with, then everybody should get in line to sign up. While a faction of Dame fans downplayed the game the Irish played, consider what Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani said after the game:

“First of all congratulations to coach Kelly and Notre Dame, they did a good job,” Spaziani said. “They came in here and licked us schematically, physically, every way. They really played a very good football game.”

After three very downtrodden weeks that ended in Notre Dame defeats, Irish eyes are finally smiling.

“Happy happy happy. Everybody’s happy in Notre Dame land,” Kelly said after the game. “Our
players wanted to win badly. They worked hard at it, I’m happy that
they got a win, but they know they’ve got a long way to go. But they’re
doing the right things to get there. We’ve just got to keep grinding.
We’re not there yet. But we’ll go to work every day and continue to work
on those things to get us better.”

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.