Quarterback plans signal next year can wait

42 Comments

Beating Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl is a big deal for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. His decision to keep Tommy Rees the starting quarterback proves that. In a bowl game that most fans see as equal parts rivalry and exhibition game, the Kelly regime needs a victory to keep the football program moving in the right direction.

There’s plenty of time for the Irish to figure out who’s going to be starting behind center when the Irish take on Navy in Dublin next September, not to mention how to split up reps next spring during one of the more interesting spring practices of recent memory. So forgive Kelly and his staff if they aren’t engaged in the daily debate amongst Irish fans about who should play quarterback not just against the Seminoles but into the future.

“It will be a topic that gets debated and I understand that — it’s the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Kelly said.

But that debate needs to wait until after the season is over, and that’s the main reason why Kelly is sticking with Rees behind center instead of promising sophomore Andrew Hendrix. The Irish need a win. And after twelve games and a season filled with highs and lows, Kelly still believes Rees is his best bet to beat the Seminoles and keep momentum going into the final days of recruiting.

***

Back to back 8-5 seasons isn’t what anyone had in mind — Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick included. But a victory against Florida State, a team that had even higher preseason expectations than the Irish, will be enough progress to keep recruits interested in the Irish as the staff heads down the home stretch in a two-year quest to land the skill portion of the first phase of rebuilding this program.

There’s little doubt that Stanford revealed another blueprint for limiting Rees’ production in Kelly’s offense. He was a stationary target in the pocket. His inability to run neutralized the ground game, while his less than accurate deep ball allowed the defense to shrink the top of the field as well. But given a month to rebound from his worst game of the season last year — a 20-16 victory over USC — Rees came out firing against Miami in the Sun Bowl, hitting Michael Floyd over the top of a talented Hurricanes secondary for 35 yards on the game’s opening drive and again for a 34 yard touchdown strike on the second drive. For the Irish to win with a young quarterback that had just given the ball away multiple times against USC, they needed to be efficient with their shots and protect the football. Rees did exactly that after a month of coaching and game planning. Naysayers will argue that Rees put those numbers up against a Hurricanes team in free-fall. That may be true, but it was also the No. 3 passing defense in the country. You can say a lot of things about Tommy Rees, but he’s certainly resilient. After a month to recover after his worst game of the season, he’ll likely be ready to come out firing.

***

Dayne Crist‘s announced transfer could actually be seen as a stabilizing factor in a quarterbacking situation that seemed precarious. If the Irish season went according to plan and Crist made it through the first half of South Florida, the 2012 depth chart could be anyone’s guess. Would Hendrix stick around — likely still third or fourth on a depth chart that may or may not include another talented freshman recruit? Could Kelly keep four scholarship quarterbacks happy for a second season in a row? Some people will knowledge of the program thought Crist’s transfer would come before this season, seeing him as a square peg in Kelly’s round hole offense. Rees’ ability to think quickly and distribute in the spread offense make him a step forward, but he’s still one evolutionary step behind guys like Hendrix and Everett Golson. With Rees, Kelly has a known commodity — a guy that can clearly win football games, but has also struggled through some ugly growing pains as the Irish program moves forward according to Kelly’s blueprint.

Of course, prepping for the season’s final game won’t stop people from looking ahead. Spring practices, summer workouts, a 2012 schedule that looks the part of a meat-grinder, all point to an offense that needs to make a big step forward, and do so without Mike Floyd. Is Hendrix the best fit moving forward? What about Golson, a guy that this coaching staff is incredibly high on? What will Gunner Kiel do to the mix if he signs on the dotted line? More questions than answers, and all of them need to wait until after December 29th.

“I didn’t want any debate within our program,” Kelly said. “I wanted our guys to know, here’s our starter, here’s where we’re going.”

We might forget sometimes, but a coach never forgets that long term planning can wait. Especially when there are games left on the schedule, the only objective valuation of a head coach’s performance. For Kelly, a ninth win means progress, even if it’s only incremental. A loss throws a bundle of negativity, not to mention a lost year of forward momentum, on an offseason that’s already going to be filled with questions.

When given the option, Kelly went with what he knows best — and that’s Rees at quarterback. But as most smart coaches do, he did so with a caveat.

“I think you all know that Andrew Hendrix can do some things that can help our football team and we need to see him as well,” Kelly said.

That’s true. Now and in the future.

 

 

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

Getty Images
22 Comments

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

rivals.com
23 Comments

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

und.com
5 Comments

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

Getty Images
22 Comments

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.