Underachieving Irish seniors have their shot at redemption

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As he does every year around this time of year, Matt Hinton at his Dr. Saturday blog takes a comprehensive look at the “recruiting-industrial complex,” his way of supporting the “premium information” recruiting machine that drives a multi-million dollar industry and makes celebrities of teenage football players while turning grown up football fans like us into raving lunatics every December through February.

In the fifth installment of the series, Doc tackled the nation’s most underachieving teams, where a certain team wearing blue and gold not surprisingly topped the list.

Here’s Hinton’s rationale:

Individually, some of Charlie Weis’ most hyped signees turned out to be all they were cracked up to be, especially in the passing game. Golden boy quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his top target, Golden Tate, finished their careers as one of the most prolific pass-catch combos in the nation in 2009. Former five-star Kyle Rudolph will likely be the first tight end off the board in April’s NFL Draft. Another five-star coup, Michael Floyd, will be back next fall to break all of Tate’s school receiving records before going on to high draft status himself in 2012. There’s still time for the rest of the Weis holdovers to make their move in Year Two under Brian Kelly.

So far, though, the string of top-10 classes Weis inked from 2006-08 has amounted to an ongoing series of debacles, beginning with the 3-9 catastrophe of 2007. Since that season, the Irish have lost three of four to their longtime whipping boy, Navy; dropped multiple games in ongoing series with the likes of Boston College, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Stanford; and suffered embarrassing November defeats at the hands of recruiting non-factors Air Force, Syracuse, UConn and Tulsa in consecutive seasons. They still haven’t beaten a team that finished in the final polls since early 2006.

To its credit, the 2010 edition managed to close Kelly’s first season with back-to-back wins over a pair of fellow underachievers, USC and Miami, which is no small triumph after years of going out with a whimper. But it will take a genuine breakthrough in 2011 to avoid being back on this list next year.

Way back last November, we took a look at the vaunted 2006 recruiting class and where it all went wrong. Of the 28 man recruiting class, headliners like Demetrius Jones, Zach Frazer, Konrad Rueland, Matt Carufel Richard Jackson, Munir Prince, Jashaad Gaines and Will Yeatman transferred. Guys like Luke Schmidt and Bartley Webb had their careers cut short by injury.  (Add Dan Wenger to this group if he doesn’t win his appeal for a sixth year.) Morrice Richardson, George West and Kallen Wade never fulfilled the promise recruitniks had for them. But even with all the misses and bad luck, the great recruiting class of 2006 failed because there wasn’t a single starting-caliber front seven player in the group. (John Ryan was the best of the class.)

The class Weis assembled in 2007 is down to six remaining Irish football players, with Taylor Dever, Gary Gray, Andrew Nuss, Mike Ragone and Harrison Smith all officially applying for a fifth year of eligibility. While Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate shipped off after three seasons, it’s interesting that the best member of this recruiting class is also one of its lowest rated, Senior Bowl stalwart Ian Williams, who may be playing his way into a 2nd round pick.

If the Irish are going to be a BCS caliber team, they’ll do it behind the recruiting class of 2008, slated to be seniors next season. While Hinton seemed willing to deem the ’08 class underachievers, you could argue that the verdict should be rendered after next season.

Headlined by quarterback Dayne Crist, wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph, the 2008 recruiting class is pretty incredible in its depth and star-power. With Rudolph moving on to the NFL, the only other defection from this class is tight end Joseph Fauria, now playing for UCLA. That’s 21 roster spots filled by seniors on next season’s roster, with 13 of them still having a final season of eligibility available if they’re brought back for a fifth season.

Michael Floyd’s return is obviously the big news for this class, but if you’re looking for one member of the class that’ll likely determine the fate of this group it’s Dayne Crist. We might forget it now, but Crist was rated the second best pro-style quarterback in the nation that year, behind only Blain Gabbert and ahead of guys like Andrew Luck and Landry Jones.  Crist’s apprenticeship behind Jimmy Clausen cost him snaps (and saved him a year of eligibility), but his first year as a starter was marred by a system change and two knee injuries.

Crist isn’t the only highly rated player in the class of ’08 waiting to make the leap from serviceable to great. Ethan Johnson was rated the 32nd best player in the country, Trevor Robinson the 37th. Jonas Gray, stuck behind guys like Armando Allen and Robert Hughes clocked in at No. 72, Darius Fleming right behind him at No. 89. Everyone of those guys, minus Gray, has cracked the starting lineup at Notre Dame, but for the Irish to be a BCS team, they’ll need to start making impacts, something we saw from Johnson and Fleming as last season progressed.

Before we spend tomorrow focusing on the next group of recruits that’ll build a base for Notre Dame’s future, it makes sense to look back at the classes that were responsible for the past few years of Irish mediocrity. Fortunately for next year’s group of seniors, they still have an opportunity to determine their fate.

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.