Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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This is the third 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 and 20-16

After revealing ten players on our Top 25 list, we’ve named three-fifths of the presumed starting offensive line, a quarterback that went undefeated last season, two linebackers that seem on track to start, two talented newcomers that have yet to see the field, and both a wide receiver and safety that the Irish are counting on.

Because list form is always easier, here you go:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)

Of the ten players listed, only Taylor Dever is entering his final year of eligibility, a sign that the depth chart is getting deeper at Notre Dame, something Brian Kelly stressed from his first days in South Bend. As we unveil the next five members of our list, we add some veteran leadership to the list, with four seniors and a junior ranked between 15 and 11.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

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

15. Trevor Robinson (RG, Sr.): Last season has to be considered a disappointment for Robinson, who failed to build on the momentum he brought into 2010. Whether it was nagging injuries or the difficulty transitioning to a different system, Robinson wasn’t the elite player many expected him to be. After focusing on strength work and playing better as the season went on, Robinson enters his final season ready to put all the pieces together.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.): After shifting back outside to his more natural 3-4 defensive end position, Johnson put together a solid season for the Irish, tallying five sacks, six TFLs and starting all 13 games at defensive end across from Kapron Lewis-Moore. Johnson stepped onto campus as a freshman and played, likely a mistake for a guy that sat out his senior year of high school with a knee injury, and while it’s taken longer than people hoped, he’s got a chance to live up to the great expectations he brought with him to South Bend.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 19th.

13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.): The number thirteen is appropriate for Crist, who’s had an unlucky run in his three seasons on campus. Whether you view Crist’s first season as a starter as a failure or as a season to build on likely determines where you rank him, with opinions varying wildly both among our panelists and the Irish fanbase at large. In nine games last year, Crist completed 59 percent of his throws with 15 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.): When Kyle Rudolph went down, Irish fans barely knew Eifert, a backup who played only briefly against Nevada as a freshman before a dangerous back injury ended his season. But Eifert’s 2010 season was one of the most surprising on the roster, with the sophomore not just picking up the slack for Rudolph, but becoming a key target for both Crist and Tommy Rees. At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Eifert is another match-up problem for defenses, and has an ability to stretch the field even Rudolph didn’t have.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.): After sitting out his freshman season, Moore burst onto the scene as a sophomore, winning a starting job at defensive end in 2009 while making seven tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks in his first year of duty. KLM’s production behind the line of scrimmage diminished in the 3-4, but he finished fourth on the team in tackles, racking up 62 stops. Thanks to saving a year of eligibility, Lewis-Moore has two seasons at ND left, giving his career a remarkably different feel than his classmate and fellow defensive end Johnson.

Highest ranking: 5th. Lowest ranking: 18th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the players ranked 15-11, I posed a few questions to the group. Here are some of the answers I found interesting.

Trevor Robinson was on the 2010 Outland Trophy watch list. He isn’t on the 2011 list. What can we expect out of Robinson in his final season at Notre Dame?

Eric @OneFootDown — I think we can expect a very strong season from Robinson, including him being in the running for some postseason awards and being a mid-round draft pick. I thought it was pretty obvious that he was the one linemen who was not ready for the spread last year and spent a lot of the season not at a comfortable weight, and possibly even injured. We’ve seen him be too talented to not expect a great senior season.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — I’m refusing to believe that Robinson wasn’t at least partially dinged up last year, because the guy who was such a force early in his career was getting shoved around like a tackling dummy for parts of games.  There’s also the consideration that perhaps he just didn’t pick up on the new schemes right away, and that hesitation was proving deadly.  I’m expecting a big bounce back from Robinson as he helps anchor the offensive line.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Expect a huge bounce back season; he’ll be the best lineman on the team. Robinson took a clear step backwards last season, but there were a couple different reasons for that. The fact that he had to reshape his body (again) and was forced to pick up a new scheme he didn’t really fit into held him back. He’s finally got some continuity and consistency in terms of philosophy and coaching. If you saw the way he began to flatten defensive linemen against Southern Cal and Miami you knew he was getting more comfortable in the spread. He’s going to be a stud this season.

Ethan Johnson is in his final year of eligibility as well. Can he reach the expectations people had for him when he signed with the Irish four years ago?

Frank @UHND — I’m not sure if he can reach those expectations because those expectations were so high.  Notre Dame will also have unprecedented depth at defensive end this year so Johnson might not get enough snaps to put up huge numbers.  Because of that depth though Johnson will be more effective whenever he’s on the field and I’m very surprised to see him ranked below KLM.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — I don’t think he’ll be able to meet the expectations that come with being the type of highly-touted recruit that he was on signing day, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to have a bad season.  I would guess that at the end of the year, we’re going to be looking at a steady, very capable rotation of over a half dozen defensive ends and blitz linebackers, meaning that it will be tough for one guy to stand out.  As Lynch, Tuitt and Williams get more and more confident – as well as Nix and Shembo – that will slowly chip away at Ethan’s playing time, unless he is performing at some superhuman level previously unseen during his time in South Bend.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — No, he was just overrated and overbilled from the beginning. That’s not to rag on the kid; he’s had a very productive career and is in line for yet another strong season. He just never had the physical tools to be the superstar some seemed to have him pegged for upon arrival in South Bend.

In 100 words or less: Best Case, Worst Case, Most Likely Case for Dayne Crist’s 2011 season.

Eric @OneFootDown — Best Case without getting too crazy, would be 35+ touchdowns, less than 10 picks, and moving his way into the top 5 draft eligible quarterbacks while notching 10+ wins for the Irish. Worst case is that he’s injured in the first game or two, and misses yet another season. The likely scenario is a very solid season, I’ll say 3,427 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Frank @UHND — Best case – Crist stays healthy for all 13 games, builds off his 2010 experience, and lives up to his potential by tossing 25+ TDs with single digit INTs and double digit wins.  Worst Case – Crist suffers another major injury and tumbles down the depth chart not to be heard from again at Notre Dame.  Most likely – Crist is solid, sometimes spectacular, but still struggles at times and misses one or two games.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Best case: Healthy knee and consistent drives like the first halves of Pitt and BC.
Worst case: Another season-ending leg injury that strikes earlier than the last two seasons.
Most likely: Some great throws mixed in with enough gopher balls to have people grumbling for someone else by the midpoint of the Michigan State game.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Best case is he stays healthy, irons out the inconsistency, and develops into a Tony Pike-esque producer in the spread. Worst case is that he shatters one or both of his knees and misses the year. Most Likely is a step in the right direction, just not a giant one. There will still be cold spells, they just won’t be as common as they were last year (when he would hit seven straight passes then miss five in a row). Sign me up for 28 TD’s and 9 INT’s…and I’ll go down to The Grotto real quick and light a candle for every ligament in his knees.

Tyler Eifert was the breakout player of 2010. How would you use him in 2011 to continue his ascent?

Eric @OneFootDown — I think I would keep him in a more traditional tight end role as much as possible. The only way I would move him outside a lot is if the other receivers prove to be not effective. I like Eifert’s blocking and I think it will help the run game if he’s on the line more often. Plus, he can surprise teams a lot easier there, instead of lining up out wide and being so one dimensional and such a big target for the defense.

Frank @UHND — Eifert was pretty much thrown right into the fire after Rudolph’s injury so I don’t think his role will change a whole lot.  He might see some more passes, but with hopefully a healthy Theo Riddick, an improved TJ Jones, and some good young receivers there might not be enough balls to go around for Eifert to see many more passes.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — We’ve been really spoiled as Irish fans, with Fasano giving way to Carlson giving way to Rudolph.  Then when Rudy went down, there was a barely a beat missed before Eifert came streaking across the middle of the field, a new Great White Hope.  Considering the question marks around the receiver position, I would take advantage of Eifert’s ability in space and flex him out into the slot.  Let 5’ 11” cornerbacks try to deal with him.

Kapron Lewis-Moore or Ethan Johnson: Who has the more productive year?

Eric @OneFootDown — Lewis-Moore because I think he’s athletically on a different plain and has more of an explosive game. Their number of tackles might be close to each other, but KLM will likely have more tackles for loss and sacks.

Frank @UHND — Johnson has been more productive for the past three seasons so I’ll go with Johnson again.  KLM improved a lot from 2009 to 2010, but I still think Johnson is the best DE on the squad.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Despite the massive amount of kind words from the coaching staff for KLM all offseason, I’m going with Ethan, who outpaced his defensive line counterpart in both tackles for loss (6 to 2.5) and sacks (5 to 2).  KLM nearly doubled Ethan in total tackles, so you could easily make the case that he was the more productive overall performer.  I went back and forth on this and think it’ll be close, but I’ll say Ethan comes out slightly ahead in the big plays department, which is what I’m looking for from this defense.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — KLM. He’s got superstar potential, EJ just doesn’t. To me it’s like comparing Justin Tuck to Patrick Kuntz. I’m not saying KLM will be Tuck by any stretch, I’m just saying he’s got an extremely high ceiling and Johnson lacks it.

MY THOUGHTS

While MQ caught a lot of grief (and earned plenty of eyeballs) for leaving Dayne Crist unranked, he wasn’t the most polarizing player on the roster. That honor goes to Trevor Robinson, who was ranked as high as 3rd on one ballot and left off another one, a higher variance than any player receiving votes. I tend to think of Robinson as a good, but not great, lineman — ranking him at 17th, and two slots behind Braxston Cave, who received some preseason notice, just like Robinson did last year. That said, there’s every chance that the light bulb flips on for Robinson, a guy that strength-wise just hasn’t turned into the type of player an elite guard needs to be.

Also interesting is the difference in voting for defensive ends. Kapron Lewis-Moore was more productive from a sheer tackles perspective, but Ethan Johnson had more sacks and TFLs. I had EJ just a hint in front of KLM because of this, but it’s interesting to notice that most rated Lewis-Moore higher, likely because it just feels like he’s still on the way up — example No. 2,358 why redshirting linemen is a good idea, unless they’re a true star (like Aaron Lynch could be).

As much as losing Kyle Rudolph to the NFL Draft was a big deal, Irish fans need not worry about the tight end position. With Tyler Eifert, they have a perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s offense, and behind him the Irish have plenty of good depth with Mike Ragone, Jake Golic, Alex Welch and promising freshman Ben Koyack.

Of course, what happens with the Irish season likely is determined by what kind of play the Irish get out of Crist. If he performs like a top-ten player on the roster, the Irish are BCS bound. If he struggles to develop the feel and timing needed for Kelly’s offense, the Irish offense will sputter, and any promise of double-digit wins will likely go up in smoke. (Unless BK can truly pull a rabbit from his hat in the form of Rees, Golson or Hendrix.)

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.