Projecting the freshmen

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With a tip of the cap to Frank over at UHND.com and as we get ready to embark on another fun offseason exercise of projecting the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, I wanted to follow up on his series that’s been going on here, here, here and here.

In what likely will be something we can look back on and chuckle, I’ll attempt to pick my rookies that’ll likely make the biggest impact on the 2011 season. And just because Frank came up with the idea and I obviously need to advance his original thought, I’ll get crazy and rank the 23 incoming freshman in order of their impact on the season.

Because this isn’t picking teams in gym class, I’m going to avoid ranking these guys from 1-to-23, but you’ll see where I’m going with this one rather quickly.

Without further ado, here’s a quick projection of what we can expect from the Irish rookies. (With the very large asterisk signifying my right to change my opinion, groupings, and thought process whenever I want to.)

Group One: See you at Training Table

This group can basically be lumped together, as I don’t expect any of them to use a year of eligibility. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t become big-time players (ask Harrison Smith what redshirting did for him), it just means that these guys will likely spend the season on the scout team.

Brad Carrico, OL — The debut commitment of the 2011 signing class and an early-enrollee will likely see incredible physical gains during his year watching, learning and eating.
Nick Martin, OL — With his older brother holding down the blind side, Martin can follow the family plan by redshirting a season then hopefully stepping into the starting lineup.
Conor Hanratty, OL — Terry’s son will definitely benefit from Paul Longo’s weight room and a few extra meals at training table.
Tony Springmann, DE — He’s got the size to potentially be a mammoth individual, I just don’t see Springmann breaking into the two-deep at defensive end yet.
Matt Hegarty, OL — He might be highly touted, but Hegarty will likely spend his freshman season facing off against the Irish’s No. 1 defense — pretty good practice.

Group Two: Don’t hold your breath, but intrigue awaits

Whether it’s a stacked depth chart or some needed development, there’s a good chance we won’t hear any of these names, but they could just as easily turn into a Kona Schwenke-like player, coming out of nowhere to make a difference. At the very least, they might be special teams candidates and earn a letter.

Chase Hounshell, OL/DL — Something about this kid strikes me as fierce, and his ability to cross-train on either side of the ball has me thinking he might work his way onto the field.
Anthony Rabasa, OLB — Rabasa might not grab the eyeballs like some recruits, but this kid played elite football in an elite league, a good recipe for early success.
Troy Niklas, OL/DL — Call it West Coast bias, but there’s something about this lanky Orange County product that’s intriguing right out of the gate.
Jarrett Grace, LB — He’s walking into a crowded depth chart, but Grace has an All-American ceiling, something I won’t say about many recruits.

Group Three: So you’re saying there’s a chance…

In honor of Lloyd Christmas, Group Three either fills a need for the Irish or is good enough to have the coaching staff find a role for them. Sure, they might not turn into freshman All-Americans, but expect to hear Tom Hammond or Mike Mayock gushing over one of these guys relatively soon.

Ben Koyack, TE — The Irish have a great depth chart in front of him, but Koyack’s the real deal with the ball in his hands. If he puts in the time this summer gaining some good weight, he’ll have every chance to add some weaponry to the tight end position.
Josh Atkinson, DB — He’s got nice height, good speed, and great bloodlines, I just don’t know how ready Josh is to contribute on a very good defense with an excellent (but thin) secondary.
Kyle Brindza, K/P — That rocket that’s replaced Brindza’s leg hopefully will give the Irish a jolt, both in the kickoff game and in punting.
Jalen Brown, DB — It’s hard to know what someone brings until they’re on campus, but Brown’s got the speed to contribute early on in special teams.

Group Four: Expect to hear these names

They might not turn into instant stars, but expect to hear from this group in the same way you heard from Prince Shembo. Brian Kelly will find a way to get the player, and his talents, onto the field.

Eilar Hardy, DB — The safety depth still isn’t great, and Hardy could add some athleticism to the mix.
Matthias Farley, WR/DB — Raw athlete was singled out by Brian Kelly for being the potential sleeper of the freshman class. He’s 6-foot-4 and 200-pounds. His spot might be the red zone.
Ben Councell, OLB — With both Shembo and Danny Spond impressing, Councell might not have much of a role in the two-deep, but the lanky linebacker could be a terror on special teams.
Ishaq Williams, OLB — Call me crazy, but Williams might not see the field all that much this year. Sitting behind Darius Fleming and potentially a guy like Steve Filer, Williams could really learn a lot of football, even if it’s from the bench.
Everett Golson, QB — I think Golson will beat out Andrew Hendrix for the three-spot, but I don’t know if Dayne Crist (or Tommy Rees) will let him make much of a difference. Golson brings some much needed athleticism to the position and a nice change of pace.
Cam McDaniel, RB — If anything, McDaniel might walk onto campus as the best punt returner on the roster. (Something the Irish are clearly in need of getting fixed.)

Best Bets for Breakout

My failed attempt at an alliteration does give us a few great candidates for major immediate impact. If these guys deliver on what recruitniks drooled over, then Irish fans are going to be very happy with this group dominates as soon as early September.

Davaris Daniels, WR — His athleticism seems to jump off the screen when you watch him, but his lack of experience at wide receiver might hurt. That said, if he’s a quick learner, expect a trio of Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick starting things out with guys like John Goodman, Deion Walker and Davaris Daniels breathing down their necks.
George Atkinson, RB/WR — Atkinson played in the Army All-American game as a safety. He’ll likely tote the football at Notre Dame, or pass catches depending on what the offense needs. His versatility could mean a lot to the Irish offense.
Stephon Tuitt, DE — We didn’t get a chance to see him this spring, but the man is the size of a redwood tree. If Tuitt comes into camp in shape, he’ll be playing quite a bit of football.
Aaron Lynch, DE — Come on, did you think it’d be anyone else? Lynch’s transcendent performance in the Blue-Gold spring game has people thinking the Irish have their first true pass rushing threat since Justin Tuck.

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.