2011 could be the year… Now with stats to back you up

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I’m a few days late linking to Bill Connelly’s season preview of the Fighting Irish, but I can always blame the research needed to simply understand what Connelly is actually talking about for the delay.

Connelly is part of the wonderful team at FootballOutsiders.com, taking “innovative statistics and intelligent analysis,” two things that always trump the standard blow-harding that comes along with this time of year when people try and project who’s going to be good and who isn’t in the upcoming season.

I’ve done my best to ignore the fact that Notre Dame is a “consensus” preseason No. 12, if only because Notre Dame’s inclusion in preseason magazines and rankings rarely ever comes true. But when somebody actually takes the time to show WHY the Irish have the potential to be a very special football team, well — that deserves a second look.

Do yourself a favor and read Connelly’s entire preview. But here are a few tidbits I found incredibly interesting:

* Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees: It’s easy to look at the team’s record under Crist and the Irish’s record after Rees took over and to come to the conclusion that Rees played better. Even if you compare their stats, which are pretty similar, you’d think a spotless W/L record would give Rees the lead heading into fall camp.

But Connelly breaks down the numbers and shows that the Irish offense was actually better with Crist at the helm — with the Irish offense averaging 30.3 Adj. PPG with Crist and 26.7 Adj. PPG with Rees.

Both hovered around the national average of 27.1, but taking opponent into account, the offense performed slightly better with Crist at the wheel. (This despite the fact that running back Cierre Wood began to thrive late in the season as well, further aiding Rees.)  The Irish very much won games with defense over their final third of the season, and while Rees didn’t get in the way, Crist was the slightly more well-rounded option in terms of yards per pass, touchdowns-to-interceptions, and run threat (he’s not exactly Tony Rice, but he had 165 pre-sack rushing yards). I assume the starting job will be Crist’s when all is said and done, though Rees and evidently Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix all still have a chance to sway the coaches.

While you wouldn’t have known it by watching the Blue-Gold game, I heard nothing but good things about Crist’s work during spring practice. Brian Kelly is going to stay mum about it for obvious reasons, but I suspect it’ll be Crist leading the Irish come September 3 against USF.

* Look out for the Irish defense. While some people still want to think differently, Bob Diaco did an outstanding job with the Irish defense. Even more impressive though, was Chuck Martin’s work with the secondary. Guiding a secondary that needed to forget a really ugly statistical season, Martin and Diaco helped the unit perform a 180, even more incredible when you consider they lost a starter in the season opener and played with only two healthy scholarship safeties for most of the season. Still, Diaco probably won’t be fully embraced until he shows he can stop the Navy option, but after that dreadful day, the defense was transformed.

The only time they gave up more than 14.3 Adj. Points in the last five games was against Miami in the Sun Bowl, and in that game they took a 30-3 lead before the Hurricanes got rolling. Theirs was potentially the best defense in the country after their humbling loss to Navy on October 23, and it is the primary basis for what will be some pretty strong College Football Almanac 2011 projections. Which is odd considering defense hasn’t been the strongest feature for Kelly’s teams in the past. So consider this a huge nod in the direction of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose 3-4 alignment evidently fits the personnel very well.

Rarely do you see a position coach do such a good job with his unit and lose responsibility, but that’s what happened to Martin, who gave the cornerback coaching duties to Kerry Cooks. But don’t worry about Martin, he’ll have his hands full as recruiting coordinator and will likely have even more say in the weekly packages installed this season.

* Irish will improve at blitzing. One final note that caught my eye — Connelly makes mention of the defense saying, “Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense almost had the statisticaly profile of a 4-2-5 — not great in attacking situations, but reacting, swarming, and preventing big plays…”

What’s interesting is that the Irish actually did slide into a 4-2-5 when they went to four down linemen, something I imagine they’ll do much more this season, with guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams capable of bringing heat on the pass rush.

For as well as the defense played last season, I’m guessing the Irish want to be more effective when blitzing the passer. With the move of Prince Shembo to an outside linebacker spot opposite Darius Fleming, the Irish have two guys with elite pass rush ability standing on the edges of the defense, giving Diaco the ability to confuse a defense far better than he could last year, when Kerry Neal and Brian Smith weren’t great pass rush options.

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.