And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

11 Comments

Can you believe this is it for the 2010 Irish football regular season? In many ways it feels like the Charlie Weis era is so far behind us with all that’s transpired, but it feels like Year One of the Brian Kelly era has just begun.

We’ll have one more game after this Saturday to discuss, but there are none more important than the date that’s been circled on the Irish calendar since Jimmy Clausen’s pass hit the grass at Notre Dame Stadium after Duval Kamara slipped on his out cut. With that, the Trojans withstood the Irish’s furious comeback led by Clausen and Golden Tate and Pete Carroll’s Trojans snuck out of South Bend with another win, seemingly on track for another Pac-10 championship.

When you consider all of that’s happened last October, so much has changed for both programs. While we were tempted to get into all that’s changed at Heritage Hall, it’s probably best we stick with the football. For the first time since Frank Leahy and Sam Berry met in 1941, both the Irish and the Trojans will have first year head coaches on their sidelines. While I’ve lived in the heart of Trojan territory for the past six years, I thought it wise to defer to an expert on what’s gone on with the Trojans in their first year under Lane Kiffin.

Enter Dan Weber, who covers the Trojan beat for USCFootball.com. Weber is a native of Northern Kentucky, a graduate of St. Xavier High school in Cincinnati and counts jobs as a sports information director at Northern Kentucky University and Xavier as well as writing gigs at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Riverside Press-Enterprise as lines on his impressive resume. Dan was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions for me in advance of Saturday night’s game between the Irish and the Trojans.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1. Assess the season so far. Seven wins, four losses, two really bad ones (Washington, Oregon State). Obviously, this season came under rather bizarre circumstances, but what do you make of the Trojans after 11 games of Lane Kiffin?

So far, some good, some not so for this USC team this season. Transition seasons are often difficult for no other reason than they’re transition seasons. The adjustment to a new staff is almost never easy. Whoever came in after Pete Carroll was going to face a challenge which Lane Kiffin has handled extremely well.

Discipline, academics, and morale for much of the season has been improved over last year despite all the hard knocks these kids have had to take that were absolutely no fault of their own. Losing two games on the last play could have knocked this team back for good but it didn’t. But that’s not to say there’s an excuse for the Washington loss. There’s not. That was an awful effort all the way around.

The Stanford loss is another question with USC being cheated by an incorrect clock operation at the end of the game that stole 30-35 seconds and left three seconds on the clock for Stanford to kick a game-winning field goal in a game USC outplayed the Cardinal. The Pac-10 assures us that secret measures have been taken since that game to prevent another similar occurrence.

No way to excuse USC’s third straight loss in Corvallis. After beating a ranked Arizona team on the road, USC wasn’t mentally ready at all for Oregon State and was embarrassed for the third time in two seasons by an opponent able to run the score up on a hapless Trojans team that pretty much didn’t attempt to compete.

What USC has done is not allow the fact that its opportunity to play for a bowl game and a Pac-10 title was taken away. Or the fact that the NCAA allowed upperclassmen to transfer without penalty at any time in an unprecedented ruling. The players have pretty much hung in there with the program and the new coach. It’s been inspiring what the seniors have done even though their careers haven’t turned out the way they thought they would.

2. What has surprised you the most about this year? With the talent returning, did you expect any facet of the team to perform better?

Obviously the defense has been a disappointment, especially the pass defense. Linebackers might have been expected to fall off as heart ailments knocked out two of the second year players and USC lost four players two years ago to starting spots as NFL rookie linebackers. You don’t replace numbers and talent like that.

And all four secondary starters also graduated so USC was starting anew there. And the lack of experience and difficulty in adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s schemes have been obvious as USC is 114th in NCAA pass defense this week allowing 272 yards a game.

The tackling and pursuit angles have suffered because USC hasn’t been able to tackle live in practice all season. Having just 51 or 52 scholarship players available for some games will do that to a team.

3. The Notre Dame/Southern Cal rivalry has been one of extremes, with long winning streaks for both teams dominating the past few decades. With Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis gone, do you expect things to even out?

Whether the rivalry evens out, it would seem, depends on Notre Dame, I’d imagine. Even the unprecedented sanctions, the two-year bowl ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons, a penalty of unprecedented severity and without any historical basis that the NCAA Committee on Infractions including Notre Dame deputy AD Missy Conboy inflicted on USC** probably won’t completely even things out unless the Irish improve.

**Editor’s Note: We expanded on this subject, but Dan thought it better to remove it from our Q&A. I agreed.

4. Are you impressed with the job Brian Kelly’s done, especially considering the injuries (starting QB, TE, 2 WRs, MLB, DT, FS) and off-the-field tragedies he’s had to deal with?

The way Notre Dame has bounced back the last two weeks is impressive. The Irish suffered some tough early losses as well as the off-the-field tragedies and seem like they still want to compete and that has to please fans of this series. No one wants to see either of these teams so far down that the rivalry is diminished. As a Cincinnati native who always paid attention to the program, I was well aware of the job Kelly did there and a strong believer in his ability to put together a winning program at Notre Dame.

5. Back to the game. It looks like Mitch Mustain has a chance to form a pretty compelling two-game legacy for the Trojans. What are the keys to a Trojan victory on Saturday? Can USC bounce back after last week’s demoralizing loss?
Mitch Mustain does have the opportunity to become a USC legend in two games for staying, and winning, the archrival games for USC when he easily could have left. And it could maybe only happen at USC since the Trojans are the only program in the country with two major and almost equal archrivals in Notre Dame and UCLA. No one else has two archrivals like that and gets to play them in back-to-back weeks. And if Mitch can get it together, and USC can, it’s there for him. I think USC can get its act together this week — but then I thought it could last week, as well. Shows how much I know.

6. Gut Feeling?

Gut feeling? I think they’ll bounce back. Notre Dame may not have quite as much talent as Oregon State but it’s close. So USC’s players have to know what could happen if they don’t show up ready to play.

*****

Read more of Dan’s coverage of the big game all week at USCFootball.com

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

Getty Images
19 Comments

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

rivals.com
23 Comments

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

und.com
5 Comments

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

Getty Images
22 Comments

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.