Opposition round-up: Week five

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With the Irish taking the weekend off and members of the team getting a chance to return home or step away from football, many of Notre Dame’s opponents took the field this weekend.

Let’s take a run through the schedule and see how Notre Dame’s opponents did yesterday.

NAVY — After getting back on track against VMI, Navy lost an ugly game at home to San Jose State, getting blanked 12-0. That’s a 1-3 start for the Midshipmen, but it’s also a 4-1 start for San Jose State, whose only loss is a 20-17 defeat at the hands of Stanford. It was a horrible performance by the Navy offense, gaining only 144 yards, the worst total for the Midshipmen since 2002.

Trending: Backwards. It always looked like a rebuilding project for Ken Niumatalolo, but even with the defense keeping the opponents out of the end zone, another putrid offensive performance means it could get ugly this year in Annapolis.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers are off to a 3-1 start after surviving a barnburner against Marshall. Caleb TerBush led Purdue with four touchdown passes and outscored the Thundering Herd 51-41. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato threw the ball an astounding 68 times, completing 45 passes for 439 yards as Marshall put up 534 yards of total offense. Purdue was up 42-14 at halftime before Marshall roared back.

Trending: Purdue has scored 153 points in their three other games of the season. They may have taken their foot off the gas, but they might just be in the drivers seat of a very confusing divisional race to the Big Ten championship game.

MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans lost the biggest game of Saturday 17-16 to Ohio State, unable to stop Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes’ one-man army. Le’Veon Bell was shutdown on the ground, limited to just 45 yards and forced to be Andrew Maxwell’s primary target. In a grind it out Big Ten match-up, the Spartans couldn’t do enough to pull out the victory.

Trending: A step backwards for a team that thought itself a top ten team, but the Spartans are still in the thick of a mediocre Big Ten race.

MICHIGAN — The Wolverines took the weekend off. They’ve got an interesting match-up next week with a Purdue team that has their offense rolling and a defensive front that should match-up well with the Michigan front line.

Trending: We’ll see if the Wolverines are the upper-echelon team many predicted in the preseason in the next few weeks.

MIAMI — In one of Saturday’s most exciting games, Miami won another offensive battle, this time against North Carolina State. Quarterback Stephen Morris set an ACC record with 566 yards passing, including a 62-yard bomb to Phillip Dorsett with just 19 seconds left to seal the victory. The Hurricanes defense gave up 664 yards, but still managed to win thanks to six Wolfpack turnovers, including four fumbles on five possessions.

Trending: There were worries that Miami’s offense didn’t have the playmakers you’d expect from a Hurricanes squad. But the offense has looked impressive so far this season, with the defense struggling. At 4-1, this looks like a very interesting test for Notre Dame.

No. 18 STANFORD — After vaulting into the top ten with a victory over USC, the Cardinal crashed back to earth in Seattle, getting upset by Washington on Thursday night. All the preseason worries there were about the Stanford offense after Andrew Luck manifested themselves, with Josh Nunes only completing 18 of 37 for 170 yards and an interception. The Stanford defense battering Huskies quarterback Keith Price all evening long, but Washington broke two huge plays — a fourth-and-one run for a 61-yard touchdown, and a game-clinching 35 yard screen pass to Kasen Williams — to win the game. Stanford only gained 235 yards of total offense.

Trending: It’s a step backwards for Stanford, but probably more of a leveling out. The Cardinal defense looked very impressive, but the offense is still finding its way.

BYU — The Cougars got healthy thanks to Norm Chow’s rebuilding Hawaii team, barreling through the Rainbows 47-0 on Friday night. It was an offensive explosion for BYU after struggling to do much of anything the past two weeks. Starting in place of injured quarterback Riley Nelson, freshman Taysom Hill looked solid throwing the ball while also running for 144 yards and running back Jamaal Williams ran for 155 as BYU rolled. The Cougars defense held Hawaii to just 149 yards and nine first downs.

Trending: A nice rebound by BYU, which looks to have a pretty solid defense coming together, and an interesting dual-threat wildcard quarterback in Hill.

No. 17 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners had the week off after losing a crusher to Kansas State last week. They’ll play Texas Tech before heading into the Red River Shootout.

Trending: I fully expect the Sooners to be 5-1 when they welcome Notre Dame to Norman.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers also had the week off after leveling their record to 2-2 with a patsy victory over Garner-Webb. It was a welcome win after losing to Youngstown State, another game most Pitt fans expected to roll in.

Trending: With a big victory over Virginia Tech (who just lost to Cincinnati on Saturday), we’ll get a progress report on Paul Chryst’s squad when they play at Syracuse on Friday night.

BOSTON COLLEGE — The Eagles led Clemson at half, but they couldn’t hold on in the second half as quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins connected 11 times for 197 yards. Chase Rettig threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns but also threw two interceptions. The Eagles running game couldn’t get started and the Eagles needed to play near perfect to beat Clemson, who played without All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Trending: A 1-3 start isn’t a good sign for Frank Spaziani, who started the season on one of the country’s hottest seats.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons got beat by Duke and back-up quarterback Anthony Boone on Saturday, falling to 3-2 on the year and 1-2 in ACC play. Tanner Price completed 19 of 38 for 230 yards, but threw two interceptions as Wake Forest turned the ball over four times. Perhaps bigger than the lost game was an injury to wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who broke his right hand in the second quarter and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks.

Trending: Without Campanaro, Wake Forest loses its best offensive weapon, and a team that didn’t have much artillery, now must navigate the meat of their conference schedule without him. They’re also missing standout defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock, their top interior player.

No. 13 USC  — The Trojans also had Saturday off, resting before facing the bulk of their Pac-12 schedule.

Trending: It’s hard to lose ground when you don’t play, but it wasn’t a very impressive week for USC opponents. Hawaii got smoked by BYU. Syracuse lost last week to Minnesota, and Stanford’s defeat to Washington exposed the Cardinal a bit. Add in Cal’s loss to Arizona State and we’ll see if USC is a legit national title contender or another paper tiger.

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.