Friday notes: Swarbrick, Russ, recruiting and more

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If you’re looking for some insight into the mind of athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the internet has got you covered, as both Eric Hansen and Tim Prister have very good Q&As with the man himself. They are both very much worth the read, but I’ll give you my favorite exchange from each of them:

We’ll start with Eric Hansen’s interview, which covered a wide variety of topics from the official death of 7-4-1 scheduling to Irish envy for the Yankee Stadium Jumbotron.

But here are Swarbrick’s comments on what the new Longhorn Network means for Notre Dame’s future.

Q: Can Notre Dame do the same thing? Will Notre Dame do the same thing at some point?

A: It’s really important for us to expand our media presence. There’s no question. And so I don’t know what form that will take yet.

Texas has geography going for it that Notre Dame doesn’t. So you can sell that into a geograhic region to cable providers, and it works well. We don’t have geography in that sense, so our approach will have to be a little different. But we’re  very excited about exploring ways to do that.

All of the emerging technologies are going to help us. What we have is probably the largest national following, but it’s dispersed. So we’re going to need robust broadband solutions and new forms of deliver of digital media, some of which don’t exist yet but are clearly coming.”

To me, this is absolutely fascinating, and is another great example of how much Swarbrick truly gets the business engine that powers collegiate athletics. Even in-house, Notre Dame has taken huge strides on their online platform, with the work the team at UND.com has done to give all of us better access behind the scenes and at press conferences. But as many of us have talked about, there is a huge opportunity to create a central Notre Dame home online, and from the sounds of it, it’s coming sooner than later.

Prister hasn’t tackled Notre Dame football in his epic three-part interview with Swarbrick, but here’s an exchange I enjoyed.

TP: You didn’t want to be the guy that was AD at Notre Dame when it lost its independence, did you, whether you were painted in the corner or not.

JS: (laughing) I know you won’t believe this, but it’s a little like when I hired Brian (Kelly). People were saying during that process, ‘This hire will define Swarbrick’s legacy.’ The same thing was said about independence.

I’m pretty secure in what I’ve done and what my relationship is here. If the best result for Notre Dame as a university – not as an athletics department but as a university – took us elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had any trouble with that. You just have to look at this from the broad perspective of the university.

People would be amazed that as we were talking internally how little time we spent on an athletics approach to it. Why are we independent? What is the value of independence to us beyond the traditional value? Its principle value is to the broader university, promoting Notre Dame, playing all around the country.

For anybody who was in New York this year at that (Army) game, that’s the power of Notre Dame. Those are the reasons to keep (our independence) because we still think it plays a really important role in the university.

Both guys did a great job and if you’ve got a spare hour or so, dig right in.

***

After 25 years in the training room, Notre Dame legend Jim Russ is moving from taping ankles to a newly created role in the athletic department: Director of Athletic Training and Rehabilitative Services. Here’s more from ND’s official release:

“As we look to create greater structure for the sports performance area, we had a great interest in creating a position that would provide oversight, direction and expertise for our delivery of athletic training and rehabilitative services to our student-athletes,” said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Jim is as well-respected as anyone in the country in his field, with nearly 35 years in the business, so he was a natural for this role. While we will miss Jim’s day-to-day focus on football, this move will enable him to apply his background, expertise and professionalism to provide improved guidance for all of our other sports – and Jim will play a critical role in the continuing integration of the various areas that comprise our sports performance division.”

Eleven years ago, I had plenty of opportunities to have my balky right elbow wrapped with ice by Jim and last summer he was right were I found him over decade earlier, this time willing to look at an ankle that didn’t feel quite up to running around in football cleats and full pads.

Notre Dame will look to replace Russ and find a new head football athletic trainer immediately, allowing Kelly to bring in a new — incredibly important — lieutenant to the football program. After a season that saw multiple players plagued with balky hamstrings, I’m guessing the interview process will include a long session on discussing the best way to keep Irish skill players on the field with two healthy legs.

***

Four-star running back Savon Huggins just announced his intent to stay home and play for Greg Schiano’s Rutgers squad, taking one of the final names the Irish are chasing off the big board. (Unless Bob Diaco ends up sitting as Huggins’ kitchen table tomorrow morning before dawn.) As we discussed yesterday, Los Angeles Times lineman of the year Troy Niklas is arriving on campus today, and will make his final decision between USC and Notre Dame by Signing Day.

Niklas would obviously be icing on the cake for a pretty historic front-seven class for the Irish, something Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples dug into in an article today. While his article talked about the proportion of defensive linemen that hail from the Deep South, it isn’t hard to see why what Notre Dame did pulling guys like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt out of the area, (not to mention Louis Nix last season) was such an astounding feat.

In related SI news, Stewart Mandel took a look at the glass ceiling that keeps elite kickers rated artificially low in the five-star model that has taken over big-time recruiting.

Four years ago, Auburn signed a top 10 recruiting class that included many of the players who wound up starring for last season’s national championship team: defensive linemen Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter, linebacker Josh Bynes and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh. No player, however, was rated higher at his position than Wes Byrum, Rivals.com’s No. 2 kicker.

Yet the same guy rated so highly in his position group — the same guy who wound up hitting four game-winning field goals during his time at Auburn, including in the BCS title game — was essentially dead weight when it came to the Tigers’ class ranking. Because Byrum was just a three-star recruit in Rivals’ eyes, his mere presence dragged down the average rating for a class with 10 four- and five-star prospects.

Wondering why I’m including this tidbit in today’s links? Well consider this little nugget, something I’ve been wondering since the focus has turned to recruiting rankings.

No one is suggesting that Kyle Brindza, Scout.com’s top-ranked kicker this year, should be rated the No. 1 player in the country, as Henderson was last year. Heck, the Notre Dame commit doesn’t even need to be ranked 100th.

But it would be nice if Brindza at least got that fourth star so that Brian Kelly’s class — currently ranked seventh with a 3.57 star average — isn’t penalized for signing the best player in the country at his position.

Brindza is Kelly’s only two-star recruit according to Rivals, pulling down their overall ranking quite a bit. Take that into consideration when you measure ND’s class against others.

***

Speaking of recruiting, for all those that still were wondering about the whirlwind battle for Stephon Tuitt, here’s where he stands as of yesterday, according to Irish Illustrated.

The five-star defensive end from Monroe, Ga., remains committed to Notre Dame and on Thursday denied a report that he planned to postpone signing his letter-of-intent by a couple days.

To the contrary, Tuitt plans to send his paperwork to South Bend from Austin, Texas, where he will participate in the USA vs. The World game along with fellow Irish commits Josh Atkinson, George Atkinson III, Matt Hegarty and Anthony Rabasa.

“I’m very excited,” Tuitt said. “I get to do it with my future teammates.”

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound prospect put the finishing touches on his commitment during a meeting earlier in the week with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Among the topics discussed was a potential spring trip back to campus.

“It went well,” Tuitt said. “I got a chance to see about going up to the spring game. A game or a practice. I don’t know which one I’d go to. But I got a chance to talk to (Diaco) about that and see how that was gonna go. Then (we talked) about really how to do the signing and everything.”

I think the Irish coaching staff will breath a huge sigh of relief when Tuitt’s fax comes through The Gug. (Good to see somebody still uses fax machines…)

***

Bonus Jack Swarbrick quote, courtesy of Eric Hansen, who asked about putting field turf into Notre Dame Stadium, after another dreadful season of field conditions on Notre Dame’s natural grass.

“I think there are two issues there. One is I was disappointed in our field this year. It wasn’t where it needed to be and, frankly, that was without any real weather challenges.

“So we’ve got to make sure we get the field to a quality that makes sense. The other is, as the university considers doing more things in the stadium, we have to make sure we keep a natural grass field in the shape we want it to be, graduation being an example. That’s where graduation is held now, in the stadium.

“So it’s a little like Jumbotron, video boards if you will, nothing imminent. But as the use of the stadium evolves – it’s like so many things about this – we’ve got to stay open to new ideas, but maintain the tradition of Notre Dame.”

It’s refreshing to see that the man in charge of Notre Dame athletics acknowledges that the surface in the stadium has been bad. When they ever do anything about it, that’ll be worth following.

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.