IBG: Thankful for another year of football

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What a bizarre year of football. After months of anticipation, the season got off to its worst possible start, as the Irish stumbled out of the gate so badly that most casual football fans never even got a chance to hop on the Notre Dame bandwagon.

But of course, this website isn’t for the casual fan. We’re here — 365, 24:7, whatever term you prefer that means you’ve got something to read daily — and while two gut-punching losses took some wind out of our sails, we made it through another season, and for that, I’m immensely thankful. (Even if some of you like to write stupid comments during the live blog just to mess with my blood pressure.)

After being a passive participant all season, it’s my week to host the Irish Blogger Gathering, so if you don’t like the questions… well, it’s my fault. After eleven games, we’re running out of debate topics, but I feel like I’ve put together enough to make things interesting. I’ll continue to update this post with responses from other writers as they roll in, so be sure to check in and read everything by kickoff Saturday, if only to make fun of the poor prognostication of this group.

So loosen your belt, enjoy a lovely day of carb-loading, turkey, football and all the wonderful things that make the fourth Thursday in November one of the greatest days of the year.

Obviously, Saturday night’s game is massive. Win, and the Irish get to nine wins after starting 0-2, and you can make a really persuasive argument that they’re deserving of a BCS berth. Lose, and ND only makes incremental progress over last year’s 8-5 record. Three potential outcomes: Win, close loss, ten-point loss. How does your takeaway for the season change?

Saturday night’s game is definitely a tipping point in the Brian Kelly era. I don’t think there’s a way to understate the importance of the game. Win — and you’ll hear me bang the drum for a BCS bid, regardless of the three losses. Lose and it’ll give Irish fans a month to debate what exactly is wrong with another Irish head coach. Get blown out? Well, that’s one of those topics I’m not going down unless I’m forced to do it Saturday night.

Brian Kelly has spent over two decades as a head football coach. But this season probably added a few hundred grey hairs to his scalp, and for understandable reasons. Whether it was replacing his starting quarterback thirty minutes into the season, losing games because of defensive implosions or self-induced mistakes, it’s safe to say that the first two weeks of this season spun the year into such a weird place to start that in his wildest dreams, Kelly never saw this coming.

Still, give the team — and their head coach — credit for not packing it in. While the loss to USC was really disappointing, the Irish did exactly what everybody asked for: win a bunch of games and make the last Saturday of the year a compelling football game.

Right now the Irish have 15 prospects committed to the 2012 recruiting class. Let’s assume every starter with a year left is coming back (Cave, KLM, Cwynar and Slaughter) and the Irish end up signing 20 recruits. That’ll make 93 players technically available for the 85-man roster (With Mike Ragone potentially being No. 94). Assuming Te’o and Eifert are back next season, what reserves do you invite back for a fifth year? Why?

I don’t know why I do this to myself, as these are the kind of questions that make life really difficult. Notre Dame’s policy on fifth-year players is incredibly admirable, but it must make life hard for a head football coach.

If you’re in the business of coaching student-athletes and objectively deciding their ability to help your team, picking who stays around for a fifth year must add a lot of stress to your life. A football coach’s job is to believe in the students he brings to Notre Dame. It’s easy to decide that a wet-behind-the-ears freshman isn’t ready to play. It’s got to be a whole lot tougher to decide a mature, 22-year-old student isn’t deserving of one more opportunity for the light bulb to go off. It’s practically antithetical to your mission statement as a coach.

With that in mind, let’s get cold-blooded about an Irish roster that’s finally — this is a good thing — bursting at the seams.

Fifth-year candidates:

Dayne Crist — One of my favorite players on the team. I wish him well as he transfers and plays a final season to rebuild his NFL Draft stock.
John Goodman — One of the more difficult decisions on the roster. I’d cut bait with him depending on the wide receivers that came in during recruiting. Even though he’s the quintesential example of a “waiting for the lightbulb to turn on” kind of player, he just hasn’t been the athlete many thought he could be.
Deion Walker — Even though Walker was one of the most highly touted recruits in his class, he just hasn’t been able to work his way into the two-deep. This year is it for the other No. 1.
Mike Golic — Probably the toughest call in the group. I’d actually let Golic walk, and then spend all spring turning Bruce Heggie into the super-sub type player that can play center and guard. (That said, if he comes back, I’d completely agree with the decision.)
Lane Clelland — Let him walk. Clelland is one of those guys that just as easily could’ve turned into a first round pick. His pedigree is perfect: high school wrestler, big-bodied athletic lineman. The coaching staff thought he had a chance to make a difference at defensive end, but the experiment ended after spring ball, and injuries robbed Clelland of a final chance to contribute.
Hafis Williams — There are just too many youngsters that have jumped ahead of him in the depth chart.
Brandon Newman — Ditto. Although I will really miss his thoughtful personality, which is always on display in UND.com’s videos and Trick Shot Monday episodes.
Anthony McDonald — Another tough, but logical decision. McDonald got passed up by Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, not to mention youngsters like Kendall Moore. And he’s struggled with injuries.
David Posluszny — He’s not much smaller than his brother, but Poz just couldn’t work his way onto the field. Another guy that struggled with injuries.
Dan McCarthy — One of my favorite recruits when he signed on to play for the Irish, McCarthy battled a serious injury coming into Notre Dame and just never seemed to work his way onto the field. Even though his brother was a late-bloomer, Dan is far down the depth chart after four years. It’s a tough decision, but I’d let him go.
Mike Ragone (Sixth Year) — One guy I’d fight to bring back. He’ll help the running game just as much as the passing game, and he’s a perfect compliment to the offensive line, and an off the field leader for a team that could be in need of one.

If you ran the website NDNation, what would you do with it? It’s the most prominent Notre Dame hub on all of the internet, but it’s got a very vocal faction of readers/fans that seem to control the agenda — most often with a significantly negative point-of-view. What would you do if that was your website?

This is one question I have no answer for. Unfortunately, there are certain vocal curmudgeons that make navigating their website a difficult task. For thousands of Irish fans, NDNation.com is a daily stop. Yet it’s probably been abandoned by just as many, with people simply growing disenfranchised after years of reading.

While it’s easy to say you’d nuke it and start over, it’s much harder to actually do it. I’d probably find myself deleting a few key posters, and then spend a few hours every day just challenging people to be rational, hoping that eventually people realize everybody wants the same thing: a winning football team.

You’re Brian Kelly. You spent last recruiting class successfully upgrading the front seven of the defense. Over the next two recruiting classes, what position groups do you absolutely need to upgrade to get the Irish over the BCS hump?

I take dead aim at the wide receiver position. My adoration for Michael Floyd is well known, but outside of him, I’m unimpressed with the athleticism of just about everybody playing the position. Kelly showed that he can find and bring in really impressive athletes at other positions — especially along the defensive line, one of the hardest places to bring in talent at Notre Dame. I’d focus my energy on bringing in a better breed of athletes at wideout, and watch how quickly the offense would take shape.

On the flip side of the ball, we’ll know if Brian Kelly is a success based on his evaluation of defensive backs. He’s basically been tasked with completely rebuilding the secondary for 2012, and we’ll know in about ten months whether he did a good job. Kelly has to replace a really veteran group, and if they can do it next yer, the team has a chance at being really, really good.

I’ve seen dozens of analogies used to describe the current state of the quarterbacking position at Notre Dame. What’s your favorite, or the one you think is the most appropriate?

I’m going to lean on the great Stephen Stills, who absolutely nailed how I feel about the current conundrum at quarterback:

“Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove.
And eagle files with the dove.
And if you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with.
Don’t be angry, don’t be sad.
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do.

So many people are focused on what Tommy Rees can’t do. I always find myself going the other way. Let’s just enjoy the things that he can do, even if some Saturdays that feels awfully limited. I’ve said it a million times so once more won’t hurt: If Brian Kelly thought he had someone else that’d help the Irish win every Saturday, he’d play him.

Get out the crystal ball. Even after an unimpressive weekend, the Irish are right around a seven-point underdog to Stanford. Do the Irish leave Palo Alto victorious?

If I got paid to pick Irish wins, I’d be broke and living on a street corner. That said, we’re still waiting for this Notre Dame team to play their best football. Even without some key contributors, I really do feel like this Saturday can be the day.

If Notre Dame wins, it’ll be because they played well, not because Stanford played poorly. It’ll also be because the Irish defense did a good job with Andrew Luck, the best quarterback Notre Dame will see in quite some time. Lost in the offensive implosion of last year’s 37-14 loss was Bob Diaco’s very good day against Luck. Statistically, it was one of the three worst games Luck ever played, and if the Irish can force a few mistakes out of him, they’ll have a chance to win.

Gut feeling or deep-seeded hope I can’t be sure, but I’ve got a feeling that Notre Dame beats Stanford, putting this season’s trajectory right back on track.

UPDATING: THOUGHTS FROM PEOPLE LIKELY SMARTER THAN ME:

* Our friends over at Her Loyal Sons had a really thoughtful response to the NDNation question. But he also quoted Beautiful Girls, one of my favorite movies. So there.

* I actually really like Shamrock Head’s take on fifth-year players. Whether it works is a different story.

* Our friends at the Irish Round Table make a really interest point: You can be anti-Brian Kelly or anti-Tommy Rees. You can’t be both.

* Here’s a Tommy Rees comparison that I really like from One Foot Down, comparing the quarterbacking situation to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Is Tommy Rees Kristen Wiig? To some, she’s a one-note comedian worth a couple laughs. Then again, she’s the brain/star behind Bridesmaids, the biggest comedy of the year.

* The Subway Domer gives us the three different places the Irish will be depending on what happens Saturday night.

* Blog Davie (now moving to New Mexico!) and the Gameday 40 crew still think the Irish should concentrate on recruiting quarterbacks, something Brian Kelly agrees with as he takes dead aim at Gunner Kiel.

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.