Closing out recruiting clear focus for Irish

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After a week of nothing but good news for the Irish, Notre Dame finally didn’t get the commitment they were chasing when Iowa’s Christian French committed to Oregon over Notre Dame and his home state Hawkeyes yesterday. French is a freakish athlete, but where he’ll play and how effective he’ll be in college are still to be determined. The Irish were willing to give French his first look at wide receiver, but in the end French chose Chip Kelly’s Ducks, a decision you can hardly blame him for.

Looking for a silver lining? He was in South Bend yesterday when Brooklyn’s Ishaq Williams spent the day on his official visit, checking out campus with his father. Williams is looking at the Irish, and also visiting Syracuse and Penn State, with two other potential visits in the running before he makes his choice at the Army All-American bowl. Williams presents the Irish with the opportunity to land an elite athlete with tremendous size and speed at outside linebacker, a position where the Irish will need to replace both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith.

With 19 verbal commitments and a roster with not that many more openings, it appears the Irish are down to a select few targets in the 2011 recruiting class. We’ve already mentioned Williams. Let’s take a look at the big names still out there on the Irish big board.

TROY NIKLAS — DE:  Niklas is one of those prototype defensive ends that Bob Diaco spoke of since Day One at Notre Dame. He’s 6-foot-6, a lean 245 pounds, and has the potential to grow into a monsterous 3-4 defensive end with great athleticism, as evidenced by an offer from Stanford to play tight end. Niklas would join a crowded front seven class of recruits and also gives Kelly the kind of pliable athlete that can play multiple positions depending on how he physically develops. At 6-6, he’s got the size to be a defensive end, tight end, or a mobile offensive tackle, three positions the Irish roster could use depth at.

SHANE RAY — DE/OLB: From the sounds of it, Ray is more of a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, and might be the perfect successor to someone like Darius Fleming, only better suited physically to play up and down in a 3-4. Ray’s another athlete that’s got plenty of size and room to fill out, and gives Paul Longo another big body to put into his workshop and turn into granite.

BRENNAN SCARLETT — DE: Here’s another target that’s got the athleticism to bring speed off the edge, but the frame to grow into a 3-4 defensive end. His offer list (USC, LSU, Oregon, Cal) gives you an idea of what type of athlete he is, and while it’s hard to say what Scarlett ends up doing, he’s another high-end prospect that could add to the wealth of prospects joining him.

Adding Ray, Niklas or Scarlett to a front seven group that includes Brad Carrico, Ben Councell, Anthony Rabasa, Tony Springmann, and Stephon Tuitt would help enhance what might already be the best haul of big-bodied defensive prospects that I can remember. Only Rabasa is under 6-foot-4, and each of them fit perfectly into the model Kelly and his defense like to build around.

SAVON HUGGINS — RB: If there’s a position on this roster and in this recruiting class that’s thin, it’s running back. Huggins represents the Irish’s best chance at landing another one after adding Cam McDaniel last week, and would be one of the elite recruits in this class if he gives his pledge to ND. Huggins has an offer list that’s as good as anybody’s and has Notre Dame on the top of his list along with home state Rutgers. If there’s a big fish out there offensively for the Irish, Huggins is it.

AMIR CARLISLE — RB: A relatively recent offer by the Irish, Carlisle is committed to Stanford but looking at the Irish this weekend. He’s friends with the Atkinson brothers and is a very intriguing running back prospect that’s a well-rounded player and a guy that will likely walk onto campus and push for playing time. It’s hard to be sure if Notre Dame got in too late, but if Carlisle is flying across the country to take a look, that’s got to mean something, right?

MILES SHULER — WR: Probably the fastest recruit that the Irish are going after, Shuler might represent the type of wide receiver that can blow the top off of a zone defense. Pair him with someone like Bennett Jackson and the Irish have a few guys that qualify as burners if they can talk the New Jersey product into coming to South Bend. At 5-foot-10, Shuler’s not the most imposing threat, but as one of the top prep sprinters in the country, he could just as easily become a cover corner on a roster thin in the secondary.

 

 

 

 

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.