Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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This is the second installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-21.

If you’re looking for a grouping high on expectations, look no further than numbers 20-16 on our list. Youth is served with four true sophomores checking in, as TJ Jones, Louis Nix, Tommy Rees and Prince Shembo join senior Braxston Cave in the rankings.

Of the first ten players listed, only fifth-year senior Taylor Dever is playing his final year of eligibility. Cave is a senior, but has a fifth-year available to him. After a freshman season spent working his way into playing shape, Louis Nix checks in at No. 19, a lofty spot for a guy that’s largest accomplishment in South Bend has been successfully self-coining the nickname “Irish Chocolate.”

Interestingly enough, players 25-21 had three returning starters and Chris Watt, who likely assumes Chris Stewart’s vacant spot. Players 20-16 only have one guy assured of a starting job come USF. Jones is still battling for a starting spot, Nix will likely split snaps with Sean Cwynar, while Prince Shembo enters fall camp neck-and-neck with fellow sophomore Danny Spond. As for Tommy Rees, an undefeated freshman campaign still has him in a four-man quarterbacking race that’ll be the talk of preseason camp.

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

20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.): Jones burst onto the scene at Notre Dame, wowing the coaching staff in spring practice after enrolling early and then becoming the first freshman to catch touchdowns in his first two games.  After making five catches against both Navy and Tulsa, Jones was hobbled by injuries for the rest of the season, making only one catch after October 30. He’ll likely start his sophomore season as the leading candidate to start opposite Michael Floyd.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.): The gigantic sophomore is a little less gigantic after spending his freshman season working on his conditioning and weight — a number that ballooned upwards of 360 pounds. Notre Dame hasn’t had a defensive tackle built like Nix in recent memory. What that translates to on the field is anyone’s guess.

Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.): Cave was locked in a tight battle for the starting center job when Dan Wenger suffered a preseason concussion last August, an injury that ended his Notre Dame career, but opened the door for Cave. Learning on the job, the South Bend native got better as the year progressed, and Brian Kelly named Cave one of the team’s best players in spring practice. Cave was named to the Rimington Trophy’s watch list this preseason.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: 23rd.

17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.): Tommy Rees came a long way in 2010. After throwing an interception on his first series against Michigan and looking lost at sea, Rees led the Irish to an impressive drive during some mop-up work against Navy, then powered the Irish to a 4-0 finish after Dayne Crist got hurt against Tulsa. The sophomore won’t wow you physically, but his comfort in Kelly’s spread offense is obvious.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.): As a freshman, Prince Shembo only made nine tackles, but over half of them were behind the line of scrimmage. Working into the linebacker rotation, Shembo finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks, including two against Boston College. After playing mostly as a pass-rush specialist, Shembo and Danny Spond will battle for the drop linebacker job, with Shembo adding a pass-rush element to the position that neither Kerry Neal nor Brian Smith possessed.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

ANALYSIS

After looking at players 20-16, here are a few questions that I posed the group. I’ve highlighted a few answers that I found interesting.

 

TJ Jones burst onto the scene early in the year before coming back down to earth. What are realistic expectations for Jones as a sophomore?

Frank @UHND — I think Jones will improve quite a bit in his second season and will greatly benefit from a healthy Theo Riddick taking attention away from him.  As a third receiver, Jones is match up problem for a safety because of his speed.  I expect more consistent performances out of Jones as a sophomore too.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Jones got banged up big time last fall which is why he spiraled into oblivion as the season progressed. He’s got the tools to be a very good receiver, he’s just not a big guy so he needs to find a way to overcome the weekly grind of D-I college football. My gut says this isn’t going to be the year he breaks out (that will be next year), so the expectation level should be around 35 catches for 500 yards and a couple touchdowns.

We’ve never seen Louis Nix in a game, but he’s obviously expected to do big things. Who spends more time on the field this season: Nix or Sean Cwynar?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate —  I saw Big Lou on the field in the spring game. You couldn’t miss him–he was the dumptruck planted between the hashes on defense. While Nix is going to play a huge role in the defense, his workload will be curbed to keep him as fresh as possible. Ultimately that will mean Cwynar sees more total snaps.

Eric @OneFootDown — Ultimately I think Nix will spend more time on the field. Stamina aside, I think he will prove to be far too talented to not be playing just a little more snaps than Cwynar (who has his own problems coming off injury). I’m thinking that even a tired Nix at 80% is better than the rest of our options at nose tackle…he may be just that good.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Cwynar. Far be it from me to make any sort of statements about the merit’s of Kelly’s offensive system and the effects experienced as a result by the defense, but ND faced 905 plays last year – nearly 70 snaps/game – as a defense. Nix is a special beast, but if he were a mythical beast, I think the underdog human trying to defeat him would seek to wear him out.

Brian Kelly cited Braxston Cave’s learning curve as one of the reasons why the offense didn’t move at the pace it wanted to last year. Is Cave ready to play at a level befitting the growing expectations?

Frank @UHND — Year two in Kelly’s system and more familiarity with the player he’s snapping too should allow Cave to improve in his final season.  I think Cave might still be a little limited in the offense because he’s more of a power lineman than an athletic one, but I do think he’ll be more comfortable with the pace this season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I believe Cave is ready and all indications are that he’s ready to have a big year. While he didn’t have a great year in 2010, I thought he played a lot better than most people give him credit for. I love his physicality and I believe he has good chemistry with the hopeful starter, Dayne Crist.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I thought Cave made a lot of solid progress over the course of the year, but I still want to see him use his absurd strength more effectively. He’s one of the strongest guys on the entire team (if not the strongest), but he just doesn’t maul defenders like he should. Maybe that was because he was hesitant as a first year starter in a new offense? I don’t know.

Over/Under: Tommy Rees will start four games for the Irish. What’s your Over/Under for TD/INT for Rees as a sophomore?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Under. It’s a dangerous choice because basically I’m gambling on whether Crist’s knees will hold up, but I’m in an optimistic mood today so I’ll roll with the Great Dayne. Rees is the perfect back-up, I just don’t think his ceiling is nearly as high as any of the other quarterbacks on the roster. I’ll put the over/under for TD’s/INT’s at 8 and 4. Rees will see the field, it just won’t be often.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Over. Dayne’s a better athlete, but I’d put money on him getting injured again this season. That said I’d set the over/under for Rees’ TD/INT ratio at 2.5 because he’s a natural fit in this offense.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — I’ll put Rees as starting 6 games for the o/u. And we’ll call it 12 TDs and 7 INTs in 6 games. That would actually put him right on pace with his ~6 games of PT last year, but 1 INT better. I think the bigger question to his (and ND’s success), is can he improve on his completion % and yards/attempt? In 2010, he finished at ~61% and just 6.7 YPA. In Kelly’s system, he either needs to bump his completion % significantly, or manage a healthier YPA to keep the job.

How confident are you in Prince Shembo’s move from pass-rushing specialist to drop linebacker?

Frank @UHND — There will be growing pains, but Shembo is an animal on the field so any hiccups from Shembo will be more than made up for with the big plays he’ll make.  I think we’ll see Shembo get caught out of position in coverage from time to time, but I think we’ll see him in opposing backfields much more frequently.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Tough question. He’s obviously explosive, so he’s got an ability to move quickly, but so much of being an effective pass defender is about range – both in lateral motion and wing-span. At 6’2″ and 250lbs, it’s hard to picture him being “rangy.” Still, what he showed he could do on the field last year leaves me feeling comfortable that he’ll at least be serviceable at the position.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Shembo and Fleming have very similar pass-rushing abilities. I don’t think Shembo’s a natural fit at drop-linebacker and I could see him and Fleming playing both drop and rush during a game. It may be preferable to have two guys who can play both positions on the field together. If there’s one position group I’m really excited to watch this fall, it’s the linebackers. Te’o, Calabrese, Shembo, Fleming starting; Filer, Ishaq, Fox, Moore, Spond, oh the vapors . . . [passes out].

MY THOUGHTS

I’m one of the people that kept TJ Jones and Tommy Rees out of my top 25 lists. I really like both guys as football players — especially Rees — I’m just not sure they’re going to have the production needed to make this list. Rees’ career at ND is going to be a very interesting one to watch. He could become a great college quarterback and a true “winner,” or he could be the next Matt LoVecchio. My question with Jones is whether he’s physical enough to endure a full season or explosive enough to become a true playmaker. I was impressed by his hands and how smooth he was, but playing on the outside is a tougher job than lining up in the slot.

Prince Shembo’s transition to the drop linebacker position may be one of the most important on the roster. The fact that both Spond and Shembo acquitted themselves so well in the spring that Kelly named them the only two candidates for the Dog linebacker job is quite a gamble, as there are less than a dozen tackles between the sophomores. Both are great athletes, and Shembo gives Bob Diaco his best opportunity to present opposing defenses with a defense that actually looks like a mirror image, with both Shembo and Darius Fleming dangerous pass rushers.

Braxston Cave and Louis Nix are two guys on the “show me” team. While I expect they’ll both have successful seasons, I’m not ready to anoint either as impact players just yet.

 

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.