Opponent preview: Michigan State

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This is the third of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. You can also read previews for South Florida and Michigan.

The Overview:

Those pesky Spartans became more than that last season, charging their way to a share of the Big Ten title by playing… let’s call it opportunistic football. Taking advantage of the fact that Michigan avoided Ohio State on the dance card while upsetting Wisconsin propelled the Spartans to an 8-0 start before being pounded by No. 18 Iowa. Finishing the regular season at 11-1, the Spartans likely felt jilted when the BCS didn’t call their name, but they were ultimately undressed by Alabama, when the Crimson Tide embarrassed MSU 49-7, an ugly black eye at the end of a sparkling season.

Were the 2010 Spartans more lucky than good? At this point, who cares. Mark Dantonio‘s team will once again be anchored by Kirk Cousins and a strong running trio in Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper, 99 percent of last season’s rushing offense. B.J. Cunningham returns to lead the receiving corp, but the offense will only be as good as the linemen blocking for it, a unit still trying to find an identity. Defensively, Greg Jones is finally done terrorizing opposing offenses, but Jerel Worthy might take over his place on the All-American list. Replacing Jones and Eric Gordon from the linebacking corp will be tough, but Dantonio has options. He also welcomes back Trenton Robinson and Johnny Adams in the secondary.

Last time against the Irish:

Little Giants. It’s no longer just a mediocre Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill movie about a scrappy Pop Warner football team. Now it’s another memorable chapter in the Irish-Spartans rivalry, with the movie title memorialized by Dantonio’s fake field goal call in overtime, snatching victory away from the Irish. The win took tension to a new level, as Dantonio suffered a heart attack after the game.

The loss erased two breakout games, as Theo Riddick‘s ten catches and 128 yards and Dayne Crist‘s 369 yards and four touchdowns were erased by an uneven performance by both the Irish offensive and defensive units and two redzone turnovers that hurt Notre Dame badly.

After the game, Brian Kelly spoke to the media with somewhat prophetic words.

“This is about belief,” Kelly said. “What do you believe in after a loss as difficult as this? Do you believe in your teammates? Do you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to get better. If you don’t believe, then these are the times when you start to see teams pull apart. It’s about belief at this point.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan State as the fourth toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5.
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

If there’s a below-the-radar star on the Irish schedule, it’s Kirk Cousins, who will likely walk out of East Lansing with his name all over the record book. Cousins is accurate, athletic and a terrific leader. He’ll have a capable array of receiving targets and a deep group of tight ends that’ll easily replace Charlie Gantt. Three running backs that combined to run for over 200 yards against the Irish return, with Baker, Bell and Caper keeping the play-action passing game very much alive. Of course, if the Spartans are going to have any success throwing or running the ball, they’ll need to fill the three starting spots still undetermined along the offensive line, with two of those spots likely going to transitioned defensive players. It’ll be up to new offensive coordinator Dan Roushar to make that work, who takes over for longtime assistant Don Treadwell, who took over as the new head coach of the Miami RedHawks.

Defensively, the Spartans could give the Irish offensive line one of its stiffest challenges, courtesy of All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. Hell be joined by another Anthony Rashad White, another 300+ pound tackle, who will combine for one of the stouter defensive tackle combinations in the Big Ten. With guys like Tyler Hoover and former blue-chipper William Gholston coming off the edge, the Spartans might be able to protect a back seven that’s talented, but lost more than a few key elements to a very good unit.

How the Irish will win:

Not needing to be reminded about their uneven performance in 2010, Notre Dame’s front seven find themselves tasked with shutting down the running trio of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell, and Larry Caper, a group that went for over 200 yards last season. Against an offensive line still learning as they go, the Irish are able to neutralize the Spartan running attack and disrupt Kirk Cousins’ playmaking ability, keeping receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin in check after both had 100 yard days last year.

Back in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Dayne Crist is sharp and both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray put together nice days, opening up the airways for Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. The Irish are determined to run the football, something they couldn’t do last season and the result is a comfortable victory over a Spartan team that’s in the midst of a transitional season. After getting beaten on the game’s final play by his predeccesor at Cincinnati, Kelly doesn’t let Dantonio have the chance.

How the Irish will lose:

It’s a story all too familiar for Irish fans. Regardless of how well regarded the Irish seem to be, they’re in for a tight one with the Spartans. Thanks to missed opportunities and a power running game that gives the Irish defense fits, the Spartans hang around, only to have the game hinge on a big play that Kirk Cousins ends up making.

If the Irish are kicking themselves, its because they failed to cash in when they got to the red zone and struggled to flip the field position, not getting any big plays out of special teams while losing the turnover battle for the first time on the season.

Gut Feeling:

There’s never a good feeling in Irish fans’ guts when they play the Spartans, but Michigan State’s inexperience along the offensive line and at linebacker should help the Irish win an annual slugfest. History tells me not to feel too comfortable about this one, but the Irish should be able to handle business if they play up to their abilities.

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.