Pregame Twelve Pack: Western Michigan edition

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We’re back for another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Western Michigan game.

1. The Irish will be wearing new uniforms this Saturday.

Thanks to some new technology from Adidas, the Irish will be donning the new TECHFIT compression jersey this Saturday.

“They’re really excited about them,” Kelly said about his players, who practiced this week in the uniforms to get used to them. “They’re 30 percent lighter. It’s a compression fit and we put them on today because there are some fitting issues relative to the pads.

“But they look great, the kids love them, and we’ll put the defense in them so we can have everybody get a feel for them. It’s a terrific product by Adidas.”

If you’re looking to get a first look at the jerseys, check out some guy carrying Dayne Crist’s jersey while reciting the fight song.

2. Game four of the Brian Kelly vs. Bill Cubit era happens Saturday.

So it may not be Frazier/Ali, but there’s quite a bit of history between the Western Michigan head coach and Kelly, a duo that’ll be squaring off for the fourth time — with Kelly coaching his third different squad against Cubit’s Broncos.

Kelly’s got the upper-hand against Cubit, winning two of three against the Broncos, including the rare feat of beating Cubit’s squad with two different teams in the same season — Central Michigan in November of 2006, and Cincinnati during their International Bowl victory over WMU in January 2007.

“Bill Cubit is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said this week. “I know Bill very well and I know
his teams will be prepared and this will be, for them, an opportunity
that they are not going to want to come in here and not play their very
best.”

3. Mike Ragone is ready for his shot to contribute.

It’s been a winding road for the tight end from New Jersey, who finds himself in position to really contribute with the injury to Kyle Rudolph. After a trying offseason, a major health scare during preseason camp, and injuries that hobbled him in previous years, Ragone seems confident he’s ready to contribute.

But instead of quoting him here, I’ll let him speak for himself — with an accent that Mike, Pauly, Vinnie, and Snooki would even be proud of.

4. While he’s not getting carries, Theo Riddick is still contributing to the run game.

We talked about the run/pass ratio in our previous post, but the short passing game also factors into what the coaching staff considers the run game.

Dayne Crist does a good job describing the “half pass” plays in the offense.

“In the spread and this is something that I learned since I just continue
to gain knowledge of spread philosophy, you really want to work with a
five to six man box in the run game. You can get away with running with a
six man box, but it’s a little more difficult, because I mean,
obviously you’ve got five guys blocking most of the time. So it really
depends on your box counts. We normally have a player that we are
throwing off of; so if he’s playing in run support, we are throwing to
where he can’t cover. So that’s just a lot of times that you see what we
are doing with swings and just things like that. So I mean, that’s part
of the spread philosophy and how we run things, and you can say, well,
man, they are really not running the ball that much, why aren’t they
running more. Well, then you see Theo catch the ball and has a seven
yard average on catching swings, that’s basically like a great run for
us. That’s just kind of how that will develop and continue to develop.
Teams will either play one way or another, but that’s just kind of why
that run stat is a little off.”

Charlie Weis always believed that his quick throws to Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, or any of the other receivers catching hitches operated as defacto run plays as well.

At seven yards a play, a quick swing pass is a great weapon to keep defenses honest.

5. The Irish are in need of more explosive plays.

With playmakers like Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Mike Floyd, Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, there’s no reason why the Irish offense doesn’t make more big plays. Last week, Notre Dame won in spite of only having one explosive play, a diving 37-yard catch by TJ Jones.

Part of the problem was the Irish shooting themselves in the foot, losing two 40-plus yard plays by Floyd and some poor accuracy by Dayne Crist on seam throws have hurt the Irish as well.

Look for the Irish to force the issue this week with match-up problems and speed, trying their best to get their playmakers out in the open field as well as getting Cierre Wood some room to run the football.

If the Notre Dame offense is going to put the Irish on a roll, they’ll need to make a few big plays this Saturday.

6. The first points for Western Michigan will be their first against Notre Dame… literally.

While this is the third time the Broncos have played the Irish in football, their first points will be the first in school history against Notre Dame, one of only two opponents to never allow a point against WMU (Virginia Tech is the other).

The 1919 and 1920 Irish shut-out Western Michigan, the Irish blanking WMU 53-0 in 1919 and 41-0 in 1920. 

While I think there are plenty of reasons to be really excited about watching this game, the Broncos rate out as the Irish’s softest opponent on the season, with the Sagarin ratings putting them at No. 97 in FBS football, 11 slots ahead of Army.

There offense has been the strong point of the season, averaging 29 points a game and putting up 45 last week against Ball State, but the Irish defense should have a goal of keeping the shutout streak alive.

7. While it may not have seemed it, the Irish had their best running game against Pitt.

No one should be slapping high fives about a 2.8 yards a carry, but the Irish actually graded out as having their most efficient running game of the season.

I’ll let Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explain:

But grading Notre Dame by land in a offense designed for the air
requires a curve. Not only do the Irish coaches go inside the numbers,
the reinvent them too.

“We were 72 or 73 percent efficient in our run game which was 20
percent higher than we’d been in any game this year in terms of what did
we need on this play,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “Are we
trying to get five yards? Are we trying to get a first down? We were
real pleased with the efficiency.”

Here’s where it takes some digging to understand Warinner’s point.

Notre Dame faced five second or third down plays against Pittsburgh
needing one yard to move the chains. The Irish picked those up on the
ground all five times, gains of one, two, three, four and five yards.
That’s five carries for 15 yards, a modest three-yard average nobody
inside the Guglielmino Center will complain about.

Three times the Irish picked up six yards or more on 1st-and-10 runs,
meaning the offense stayed ahead of schedule. That doesn’t include Dayne
Crist’s 10-yard touchdown run on 2nd-and-goal that doesn’t need next
level explanation.

I don’t feel like making excuses for a ground game that’s still rounding into form, but I think this is a very interesting way to look at how the coaching staff views the run attack. It’s a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle.

8. Commitment? Not a commitment? Recruiting doesn’t end until Signing Day for Kelly.

Earlier in the week, Irish fans received a bit of a jolt when they found out offensive tackle recruit Jordan Prestwood reopened his recruitment, bringing back into play home-state schools Florida and Florida State.

While Urban Meyer’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, it seems proximity to home is an issue with Prestwood, who committed to the Irish way back in April.

Under Charlie Weis, the coaching staff adopted a firm stance on commitments and visits, taking a “if you’re looking, we’re looking” stance. Under Kelly, the Irish aren’t going to stop recruiting until Signing Day.

“”The reality of it today is, there is so much scrutiny
relative to the kids in the recruiting process. I’ve told our staff,
unless I see a letter of intent, you need to keep recruiting them,” Kelly said.

“Certainly we would all like to say the value of a person’s word is a
bond, but there are so many shifting and moving pieces out there that
I’m not tripping over that. Would I like somebody to be that guy that
says, that’s my word and it’s a bond and we’re not going to break it?
Certainly. Because we’re not going to do it on our end. So I’ve told our
staff, gotta keep recruiting. It’s the University of Notre Dame.
Nobody’s going to give it to you for free.”

From the sounds of it, Prestwood is still considering the Irish, with his high school coach, Wayne Ward telling the South Bend Tribune, “(Notre Dame) is a golden opportunity. But at the same time he is a
kid,” Ward said. “I don’t really think he thought things through before
he made that decision.”

Good news for Irish fans: Tony Alford is on the case.

9. Kyle Rudolph is set for surgery on Friday.

After discussing his options with his family, tight end Kyle Rudolph is staying local with his hamstring surgery, choosing Dr. Brian Ratigan of the sports medicine program to operate on his detached hamstring.

“Dr. Ratigan will be doing the surgery,” Kelly said. “So he’ll stay within the sports medicine program here at Notre Dame. We will get it done here.”

The decision for Rudolph to talk with the media was a good one and showed how good a kid the star tight end is. Even though he was surprised about the devestating prognosis, he’s kept a good attitude.

“We went in with a positive mindset with the MRI,” Rudolph said earlier this week when he met with the media. “We were expecting to get good results and go get an ultrasound and take a week off and go from there To come back and get that news was a little shocking.”

Rudolph is in the hands of someone that knows first hand what it’s like to play college football under the Golden Dome, with Ratigan playing linebacker for Lou Holtz from 1987-1990, before moving on to the NFL. 

Ratigan is truly an amazing story, one of the most impressive Notre Dame graduates you’ll ever read about and an alum that truly gives back to the school. No doubt, Kyle picked the right doctor for the job.

10. Dever sitting for second straight week, Romine and Nuss to fill his shoes.

Taylor Dever is going to spend another week getting healthy, one of the benefits of finally taking a step back from six consecutive BCS opponents. And thanks to the good play by Zack Martin at right tackle and senior Matt Romine filling in for him, there shouldn’t be much of a step back in play.

“Taylor, I would say right now will probably be a backup on Saturday,” Kelly said. “Matt and Andrew have handled that position well. We’re going to stick
with them and make sure Taylor is 100 percent. I think he would be
afforded to us if we needed him. But right now we’ll move with the plan
we had last week.”

One of the great benefits of playing Kelly’s offensive system is the fact that positions like offensive tackle are more interchangeable. Under Weis, there was so much stress on the left tackle position that great defensive ends could neutralize the offense, like Pitt did last year to tackles Paul Duncan (and to a lesser extent Sam Young). You could only imagine what would’ve happened if Duncan or Young went down.

Give credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for cross-training versatile players like Andrew Nuss, who should get significant snaps at tackle to help speed the development process.

11. Luke Schmidt and Dan Wenger see first hand the dangers of concussions.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune did a great job on his article about concussions, as he followed the decision process for center Dan Wenger, who has to decide if an application for a sixth year makes sense, in light of the lingering brain injuries he suffered this year with two concussions in the first month of practice.

Lesar caught up with Wenger’s classmate Luke Schmidt, the former Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana who was forced to walk away from football after three concussion by his junior year that ended his career involuntarily.

“It was very tough,” Wenger told the Tribune. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. There were no maybes for me. I knew it was over. At least Dan’s got a chance.”

After listening to Wenger, it’s clear that he’s not sure what choice he’s going to make, but he’s glad that he’s still got the chance to play the game.

“I’m not ready to be a coach yet,” Wenger said. “Do I wanna be a coach? Yeah, but not just yet. I’m 22, I still want to play. I love this game. Practice, lifting, games — it’s a different feeling.

“Be patient, get healthy, then make a decision. Think with a clear mind. You’re emotions run wild with this thing. It’s up and down. One day, you’re thinking about hanging in up. One day, you’re thinking about ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still play.’ It’s looking at the overall picture. But then again, you’ve worked so hard for what you love, what you love to do.”

It’s great to see Schmidt making the most of his Notre Dame degree, working as a credit analyst at a bank in Greensburg, Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

12. Gary Gray just got reckless.

In one of my favorite stories of the week, Gary Gray has officially joined Team Reckless — an unofficial weightlifting/condition/bizarro group consisting of Mike and Jake Golic, Dayne Crist, Braxston Cave and Kyle Rudolph.

In one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while, the crew covering sports for the Observer got an absolutely priceless interview with Gray, detailing the process of joining such an illustrious team.

Observer: You are currently vying for a spot on Team Reckless. What made you decide to attempt to join?

Gary Gray: Dayne had said a long time ago that I should join, but we never got around to it. We’re trying to set that up.

Observer: Is it a very selective process?

Gray: I’m not ever sure what the process is. We’ll see in the next couple of days what I have to do.

Observer: How reckless do you think you’ll have to be?

Gray: I think I’m pretty reckless. So I don’t think I’ll have to be too much more reckless than I already am. I think I’ll fit right in.

Observer: Would it be an honor to be the first member of the Notre Dame defense on Team Reckless?

Gray: Yeah, it’d be a great honor, first defensive player. It’d be nice.

Consider this my standing ovation to the Observer staff for an absolutely terrific interview with Gary Gray. You can see the actual copy here.

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.