Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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As we kick off our 2011 Irish Top 25, let’s get some things out of the way quickly. This is just a list, not some objective evaluation process. Some guys I had ranked much higher than others. (It worked the other way as well.) Still, what you’ll find here is a pretty good composite projected ranking for players on the 2011 Irish roster.

Of course, lists like this are subjective by definition. I kept the qualifications light and let our panel of “experts” use their own methodology.

Once again, here is our esteemed group of panelists:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.): Dever won the right tackle job last year after seeing limited minutes as a junior and sophomore. The fifth-year senior should anchor the position he started ten games at, missing time with a hamstring injury in the heart of the season. You didn’t hear Dever’s name much last season, a good thing for a right tackle.

Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (3 times)

24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.): Watt is the presumed replacement for Chris Stewart, and is versatile enough to slide in at center if needed. After redshirting his freshman season, Watt played in all 13 games last season for the Irish, providing depth behind Stewart.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (4 times)

23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.): Thrown into action after an early season injury to Jamoris Slaughter, Motta learned on his feet, playing in all 13 games and starting eight opposite Harrison Smith. His improvement was evident as the season went on, and the rising junior will battle Slaughter for the job across from Smith.

Highest ranking: 19th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)

22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.): One of the most highly anticipated defensive newcomers in years, Lynch lit the Blue-Gold game on fire with a dynamic performance. While he’ll probably only see the field on passing downs, Lynch has all the potential in the world.

Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)

21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman season, Calabrese won the inside linebacker job opposite Manti Te’o, and started eight games before a hamstring injury took him out. He finished fifth on the team in tackles, sixth in TFLs, and fourth in sacks. He’ll compete for a starting job again this fall.

Highest ranking: 17th. Lowest ranking: 24th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the composite list, here are a few questions I had for the panel. I’ll highlight a few answers that I found interesting.

Who did you have sitting at No. 26? Are you reconsidering after looking at everybody else’s lists?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Crist. had Crist at #26. Or maybe 40th. Or maybe lower. Wherever I had him, he wasn’t 1-25. And I’m actually feeling pretty good about it, having stolen a look at everyone’s 1-25. It went about the way I thought it would.  And I understand the points of view of the other fine members of this council, but, while this team may not be full of 1st-round talent from 1-25, it’s full of a nice bit of depth, and I just couldn’t see clear to move Crist into the top 25 given he was the QB who started in the latest loss to Navy.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I was tempted to stick Robby Toma in there somewhere because I think he’s going to be the guy who emerges as the most productive fourth wideout. Sean Cwynar also got some consideration thanks to his rock solid performance filling in for Ian Williams when the senior went down.

Which one of these guys has the highest upside for the season?

Eric @OneFootDown — Out of the guys from the 21-25 range it is most obviously Aaron Lynch, who could jump as many as a dozen spots or more if we were to do this ranking system at the end of the 2011 season. I also think Motta is a good bet to move up a decent amount as well.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’ll tap Zeke Motta for this question. Motta improved by leaps and bounds throughout last season as he logged more and more minutes thanks to Jamoris Slaughter’s injury. He’s a freak athlete and he finally seems to be grasping the position.

Any name you think comes in too low here? Too high?

Frank @UHND — Definitely think Lynch is too low.  I know Kelly tried to downplay Lynch’s Blue-Gold game performance, but it was hard not to be impressed.  With the off-season conditioning and fall camp under his belt, I think Lynch is going to make a big impact from day 1.  No one here really looks too high.  Of the three players here I didn’t have in my rankings – Motta, Watt, and Dever – all of them were right outside of my rankings and I considered all of them right on the cusp so hard to argue with any of them.

CW&MB @RakesofMallow — I cannot shake the images of Zeka Motta’s miserable tackling angles in the 2010 Blue-Gold Game.  Even our walk-on running backs were beating him to the edge because of his lack of basic geometrical knowledge.  He played well enough during the season, but he’s the one guy in this group that I’m not sold on.

What do you think a realistic expectation is for someone that’s judged to be between the 21st and 25th best player on the Irish roster?

Frank @UHND — There are 24 starters on a team (including the kicker and punter) so any player within the top 25 should either be a solid starter or excel at a niche such as kick/punt returning, situational pass rushing, etc.  Of these five players, I expect Jones, Motta, Watt, and Calabrese all to be solid starters and in the case of Jones, Watt, and Motta I think they have the potential to be more than solid.  A guy like Lynch might not start but I fully expect him to be a pass rush specialist that makes several big plays throughout the season.

MY THOUGHTS

I’m really surprised that Sean Cwynar isn’t listed in the Top 25. In fact, I think if there’s anything I’m certain of, Sean Cwynar is one of the best 25 football players on Notre Dame’s roster. It isn’t a coincidence that the defense not only didn’t miss a beat when Ian Williams went down, but it actually improved. I’m not saying Cwynar was the key to the renaissance, but he’s going to be a very good player on the 2011 Irish. I also had Danny Spond at No. 25, and while I can understand why people haven’t started drinking the Kool-Aid yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Spond turns into a Chad Greenway type of athlete.

Obviously, Aaron Lynch is the guy that could immediately become a top-ten player on this roster or he’ll be a guy that has some growing pains, likely due to the incredible expectations he helped heap on himself. I have a feeling he’ll be slowly eased into the process, but will make his presence felt early and often in pass-rushing downs. But don’t forget Stephon Tuitt, who didn’t enroll early, but is physically ready to play September 3rd.

Lastly, Carlo Calabrese is at an interesting inflection point. His injury derailed expectations after an impressive redshirt freshman campaign. We’ll find out if he’s ready to become an impact linebacker or a guy that makes plays because he’s lined up next to Manti Te’o.

 

 

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.