Pregame Twelve Pack: Tulsa edition

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(Due to the lack of media access to the team this week, and the Declan Sullivan tragedy, we’re cutting down the 12 pack to 6 items. We’ll be back next week with a full slate of fun facts, tidbits, and miscellaneous items.)

1. While the game will go on, the Irish will pay tribute to Declan Sullivan.

With the week’s tragedy overshadowing the football game, Notre Dame canceled both the Friday pep rally and the football luncheon, weekly staples during home games. Also canceled were Brian Kelly’s radio show, as well as any media availability between Wednesday and Saturday for Irish coaches and players.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced that the Irish will put a decal on their helmets to honor Declan and there will be a moment of silence. They’ll also dedicate this football game to Sullivan’s memory.

2. Notre Dame and Tulsa meet for the first time. The time they almost met is stuff of Tulsa legend.

While Saturday’s date in Notre Dame Stadium will mark the first time these two programs face off in football, “the game that could have been” is one almost for the ages.

According to Robert Ruttland’s 1952 book entitled “The Golden Hurricane: Fifty Years of Football at The University of Tulsa,” the Irish nearly came to Tulsa in 1916.

I’ll let the Tulsa Sports Information Department take it from here:

Tulsa, known as Kendall College at the time, had finished its’ season at 10-0 and were claimed the unoffical “state champions” with wins over both Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) . . . excerpts from the book tell the story –– “most of the Kendall squad turned in its football equipment and drew basketball uniforms. But to a few Tulsa businessmen, there was one game left on the Kendall schedule –– with the fabulous Irish of Notre Dame. How close Kendall came to playing Notre Dame in the final of the 1916 season probably will never be known, but a definite move was under way with some of the town’s wealthiest oil men reportedly backing the promotion. Notre Dame was contacted regarding the possibilities of such a game, to have been played in Tulsa. Response from the Indiana school indicated an interest in the post-season match. Bringing Notre Dame to Tulsa would have paid immeasurable dividends to both the city and the college. With the exception of the A&M game, the team was virtually untested (Kendall outscored the opposition that year 566-40), and it is possible that the (Sam) McBirney-(Francis) Schmidt combination could have paid off with an upset over powerful Notre Dame. Negotiations for the game, which were hastily drawn and presented, reached a cooling point because of the large guarantee Notre Dame wanted. Tulsa rooters hinted the match ‘fell through’ because, upon checking the records, Notre Dame authorities might have had apprehensions over their own chances. The important fact was that the game was not played, and for reasons that remain obscure. It might have been a mere promoter’s dream, but the value of the match would have reached down to the present day insofar as it would have affected athletic relations at The University of Tulsa.”

Ninety-four years later, The Golden Hurricane finally gets their shot at Notre Dame.

3. G.J. Kinne is a guy that should scare the Irish.

It’s only taken 19 games for junior G.J. Kinne to climb into the record books at Tulsa, with his 4,587 career passing yards the eighth most in the school’s history. Kinne is averaging 241 yards per game, and Brian Kelly compared him to a gunslinger who likes to wear Wranglers.

“Kinne, the quarterback, is — he reminds me of Brett Favre out there,” Kelly said. “He’s got the number. He likes to obviously have the ball in his hands.”

Any questions on Kinne’s pedigree should’ve been answered by his original college choice, when the dual-threat quarterback  signed with his home-state Texas Longhorns and head coach Mack Brown. The two-time Class 3-A offensive player of the year in Texas, who finished his career with 130 touchdowns (second in Texas high school history), transferred after a freshman season stuck behind Colt McCoy, John Chiles and Sherrod Harris.

Kinne’s father is a high school coach and a former teammate of Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, and Graham’s brother Brent worked as a defensive coordinator for Kinne’s father, making the transfer natural.

“We’re extremely excited to have a player of G.J.’s caliber,” Tulsa coach Todd Graham said then. “He has been a winner his whole life. For a player of his caliber to transfer to Tulsa speaks volumes about our program and where we’re are at this point. He had a lot of big-time scholarship offers out of high school.”

4. While Gus Malzahn is out at Tulsa, offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the next closest thing.

When Gus Malzahn was pulled from the Arkansas high-school ranks to coordinator then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt’s Razorback offense, many thought it was a ploy to sign prep-star Mitch Mustain, Malzahn’s prized Springdale quarterback that agreed to join him in Fayetteville. When Malzahn’s no-huddle, hurry-up spread offense was tossed aside for a power running attack, Mustain transferred to USC and Malzahn took his talents to Tulsa, where he ran turned Todd Graham’s offense into one of the most potent in all of college football. When Auburn head coach Gene Chizik lured Malzahn away from Tulsa and back into the SEC, Graham looked back into the high school ranks and hired another successful high school coach, Chad Morris… who just so happened to befriend Malzahn seven years ago, when Malzahn took Arkansas high school football by storm.

“Gus and I have had an unbelievable relationship. I’m very thankful to him,” Morris said earlier this season.

Irish fans don’t have to think hard when trying to imagine what it’d be like if Notre Dame reached out for a succesful high school coach to run their program. For Tulsa’s sake, it looks like the gamble is working again.

5. The road doesn’t get any easier for Bob Diaco.

A week after his worst as a defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco welcomes Tulsa’s high-powered offensive attack into Notre Dame Stadium, short the heart of his defensive line and with a secondary that’s still struggling to get three safeties healthy.

Diaco has gone from pleasant surprise to overwhelmed bum in some fans mind, but if you’re looking for a test of how ready Diaco is to lead the Notre Dame defense, you’ll have four consecutive opponents that’ll push the Irish to the max:

  • TULSA — No. 8 in Total Offense.
  • UTAH — No. 3 in Scoring Offense.
  • ARMY —  No. 8 in Rushing Offense (one place above Navy)
  • USC — No. 7 in Total Offense.

The health of the Irish secondary and Sean Cwynar’s ability to replace Ian Williams will likely decide if Notre Dame goes bowling or not this year, and if the Irish do, credit should go to Diaco for putting together a great final quarter of the season.

For those that want to, it’ll be easy to bury Diaco if the defense gives up a rash of points these next four weeks, but there isn’t a team in the country that faces a more diverse slate of offensive attacks.

6. It looks like a turn for the better for Notre Dame institution Jeff Jeffers.

Let’s end this column with some much-needed good news. This out of WNDU’s NewsCenter, where South Bend sports pillar Jeff Jeffers is reportedly making great progress after he suffered a stroke in late August, just days before he was set to cover his 36th Notre Dame football season.

“When I woke up one morning and they said, ‘You had a stroke’ and I’m like, am I going to die?” Jeff recounted to WNDU’s Maureen McFadden.  “They say, ‘You’re not going to die, you’re in the hospital, you’re in the rehab unit and here’s what we’re going to do.’ And that was a month and a half ago and I’m fine,” says Jeff.

With the help of Jeff’s wife (and live-in nurse) Leslie, Jeff hopes to be back covering the Irish in no time.

“I should be back to work soon, how soon is soon is anybody’s guess, but I’ve received tremendous care with everybody with St. Joe Med and Rehab,” said Jeffers. “I’m on the mend and I hope the worst is passed.”

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Jeff in South Bend this summer as he emceed a few of the dinners for the Fantasy Football camp. There was nobody more welcoming to me, or optimistic that this coaching staff would be the one that brought the Fight back to the Fighting Irish.

It sure seems like Jeff’s practicing what he preaches as well, fighting back strong after a health scare that’d knock weaker men out. Here’s hoping that he keeps taking the fight to his stroke, and is back covering the Irish soon.

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.