Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan

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Notre Dame got off to the perfect start on Saturday afternoon, with Dayne Crist hitting a wide open Michael Floyd for an 80-yard touchdown pass on the games first play from scrimmage. The rest of the first half? Not so great.

“I was not happy obviously about the first half and we hadn’t played that way this year,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “At halftime, we had a little chat about that, and I think that chat went pretty good.”

In what was likely a closed-door outburst that would put his sideline antics to shame, Kelly whipped the Irish into shape, and Notre Dame cruised to an easy 44-20 victory against visiting Western Michigan, led by three Floyd touchdown catches.

The victory pushes the Irish to 4-3, their three game winning streak erasing an earlier three-game losing streak and pushing the Irish season back onto track.

“Absolutely progress,” Kelly said about the win. “This team was 1-3. I think when we talked about that at the time, you can go in
one of two directions at 1-3. You
can fall off the cliff and have a disastrous season or you can work towards 9-3. I think this is another step. Our players are learning, learning how
to play football games, regardless of who the competition is.”

Here’s what we learned this Saturday:

1. If you forgot, Michael Floyd is still an All-American wide receiver.

A game time decision with a balky hamstring, Floyd stepped up and was the best player on the football field this Saturday afternoon, running around, over, and through Western Michigan defenders as he caught nine balls for 157 yards and three touchdowns.

On the game’s opening play, Floyd broke wide open on a deep post, slowed to catch an under-thrown ball by quarterback Dayne Crist, hopped over a defensive back and sprinted for the end zone. His second catch was also a great individual effort, picking up a low pass from wide receiver John Goodman and powering his way into the end zone. His third touchdown was a replica of the failed 3rd down play in overtime against Michigan State, with Crist choosing correctly this time by throwing to a wide open Floyd instead of a covered tight end running a quick out.

When asked about the opposing team’s star receiver, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit didn’t mince words.

“I remember (Texas All-American) Roy Williams, and I didn’t think I’d see another guy like him, but I just saw him,” Cubit said. “He’s a great player. He’s as physical and as good a receiver as I’ve ever seen. He plays the game the way its supposed to be played.

“There’s no show-boating and he’s appreciative of the game. I’m not going to tell you he was fun to watch, but maybe tomorrow it will be.”

After the game, Kelly explained that the coaching staff knew they needed to incorporate Floyd into the game plan even more, breaking down the way the ball’s been distributed thus far.

“We did a breakdown and we threw the ball to Michael Floyd 74 times, Theo Riddick 55 times, and Kyle Rudolph 55 times. We have pretty good balance there. Michael, as we broke down who was getting the football, needed to get the football even more than that. So there was a focus in our game plan to make sure that we were creating opportunites for him, in what happened to be some one-on-one opportunities, he’s going to win most of those times.”

2. The kids are alright.

For the first time, the Irish were able to play a bunch of developmental players, and that experience gave us a chance to see first-hand the work the coaching staff has done with their young team.

Freshmen Austin Collinsworth, Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson, Prince Shembo, Lo Wood, and Tommy Rees all played this afternoon, and Kelly liked what he saw of the young guys, particularly on special teams.

“Daniel Smith helped us out. Obviously today we wanted more athleticism on our kick teams,” Kelly said. “But I would say that the young guys continue to show. Collinsworth, outstanding in all phases of our kick games. Daniel Smith gives us speed and athleticism in there, and obviously Bennett Jackson.”

Smith’s ascent to the the kickoff team is an interesting one, as he doesn’t show up on any of the two-deep positions at wide receiver. But as large and as physical as Smith is, the fact that he’s becoming a special teams ace speaks very highly for his future as a wide receiver.

3. Brian Kelly really doesn’t care about time of possession, but is glad others do.

In a funny light moment, Kelly called out the media for not mentioning that the Irish finally won the time of possession battle this afternoon.

I’m really surprised and disappointed I didn’t get
this comment made, but for the first time in two and a half years, we won time
of possession,” Kelly joked.For all of you guys
that live and die on time of possession, please note that we won today’s time
of possession.

The Irish did that by riding the back of Robert Hughes late in the second half, and running the ball consistently after a mediocre start to the afternoon. The Irish possessed the ball for 11:39 seconds of the fourth quarter, wearing down an undersized Broncos defense that had no answer for Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes.

When pressed on time of possession, Kelly deferred to a stat that really matters:

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}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; text-align: justify; font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1Scoring points is the No. 1 thing,” Kelly said.Any time we have an opportunity where
we believe we have got a play that matches what we think we see, we are going
to call those plays to score points. 
When we needed to control the clock in the second half, we did, and
obviously took about five minutes off the clock late in the game when it was
pretty much in our hands.  Again,
we are going to score points first and time of possession comes later down the
road.

4. Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone did a capable job of filling Kyle Rudolph’s shoes.

While Eifert laid a ball on the ground early in the game, he had four catches for 72 yards, including his first touchdown in an Irish uniform, on a clutch 4th down conversion. He’s a capable receiver, surprisingly nimble, and will look very good running in space in Kelly’s offense. Even more encouraging for Irish fans, Eifert didn’t blink when he made his first mistake of the day.

I wasn’t worried about that as much as, you know,
he clearly was engaged in the game. 
This was not a far and away look in his eye, where, oh, my goodness, the
guy is in the play now and we’ve lost him,” Kelly said.
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I’m usually going to be pretty good in those
situations, I don’t want the ball on the ground, but you can tell looking at a
kid that he’s locked in and knows what he’s doing. I got a good feel from him today.

While Crist’s lone interception came on a pad throw that hit Mike Ragone in the shoulder pads, Ragone did a nice job as the second tight end, making a nice play on Nate Montana’s lone completion, and doing a good job blocking.

Overall, Irish tight ends had five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, plenty good production for the position. 

5. The battle for first down is crucial for the Irish offense.

As we discussed earlier in the week, Notre Dame’s ability to be productive on first down is the surest sign of whether or not an offensive drive is going to go anywhere. After the game’s opening touchdown pass, the Irish struggled on early downs, and predictably, drives stalled out.

“I wasn’t pleased with out management on
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first and second down,” Kelly said.I thought we made some poor decisions at the quarterback
position. Dayne didn’t play very
well in the first half.  You guys
watched the same game I did, he played much better in the second half, saw some
things and made some plays.

In the first half, the Irish scored two big touchdowns on first down, the 80-yard pass to Floyd and Goodman’s 32-yard completion to Floyd on the reverse. The rest of their production on first down? Non-existent.

Even including Dayne Crist’s nine-yard touchdown run on first down, the Irish total six net yards on 10 first downs in the first half, an absolutely abysmal rate. If the Irish are going to win as the schedule gets tougher, they’ll need to do a better job on first down.
 

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.