Golson key to Irish offense’s evolution

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Early in the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, we spent obsessive amounts of time discussing quarterback performance. After watching Charlie Weis spit out two elite college quarterbacks, the Irish bringing in another “offensive guru” gave Notre Dame fans hopes that their new head coach would continue to develop quarterbacks, even if it was with a system different than the one the previous coach employed.

Three years ago to the day, here’s what we wrote when trying to predict how Dayne Crist would perform in Brian Kelly’s system.

While everybody seems to agree that Dayne Crist holds the key to the Irish offense, trying to predict how he’ll play certainly presents a lot of variables. The Irish will be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line, with both tackles and Eric Olsen gone at center. The receiving corp lost Biletnikoff winning wide receiver Golden Tate, a staggering blow for any offense. While the entire running back depth chart returns, Theo Riddick moves outside to the slot, where he’ll try to open up opportunities for Cierre Wood.

The key for Crist and the Irish offense will be its ability to absorb Brian Kelly’s offense. While philosophically divergent from that of Weis’, Kelly’s spread attack correlated nicely when it came to success in the air, as both the Irish and the Bearcats were elite last season when it came to throwing the ball. More importantly, Kelly’s system has proven to be very good for quarterbacks in general, not something you could say about Weis’ complex NFL offense. Since Kelly entered D-I football in 2004, he’s yet to have a season where quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Over six seasons, his quarterbacks have averaged nearly 62 percent completions while throwing an average of 27 touchdown passes against only 10 interceptions, pretty staggering numbers. The average passer rating of a Brian Kelly quarterback is 141.8, which would’ve put John Q. Average in the top 30 in the country last season.

On paper, Crist’s first season looked like we probably could have expected. (Though certainly not how we remembered it.) His numbers are actually pretty close to those Everett Golson put up in year one.

To complete the exercise, let’s take a look at the debut seasons of Crist, Tommy Rees and Golson:

DAYNE CRIST
174 of 294 (59.2%) 2,033 yards. 15 TD 7 INT

TOMMY REES
269 of 411 (65.5%) 2,871 yards. 20 TD 14 INT

EVERETT GOLSON
187 of 318 (58.8%) 2,405 yards. 12 TD 6 INT

Those numbers all fit in the approximate window that Kelly’s past quarterbacks displayed at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where guys like Kent Smith and Tony Pike had solid but not spectacular first seasons.

Of course, one benefit of a first-year starter is the progress made between their first and second seasons. After sitting out his freshman season, Golson is entering his third spring in Brian Kelly’s system. With that comfort, he’s no longer the confused rookie quarterback that wasn’t trusted to run the football for much of the first half of the season, for fear of fumbling. Now, he’s got the potential to be Kelly’s first star quarterback at Notre Dame.

“I don’t know that you could even put him in the same category with where he started last year to where he is now,” Kelly said.

That much has been evident even in our limited windows into the Irish this spring. If there was any question that this was now Golson’s offense, it has been answered resoundingly this offseason.

While in the past, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have had to pair back the offense to something Golson could handle, now it’s a matter of stopping him from taking on too much.

“He didn’t know anything relative to what he had for tools last year in terms of what he could do with the offense,” Kelly explained. “Now he wants to maybe do a little bit too much. We’re at a totally different point in his development.”

That point should be fascinating. While Golson loses All-American Tyler Eifert, he returns a wide receiving corps that while thin, should be ready to take a leap forward. TJ Jones will likely be a front-line player. Davaris Daniels is poised for a big season. And while we’re not quite sure what to make of the slot receiver position, there are intriguing weapons available that’ll now be ready to be properly utilized with Golson understanding his job, and the offense, better.

The last time Brian Kelly had a quarterback lead a team in passing for two consecutive seasons, Tony Pike exploded, throwing for over 2,500 yards, with a sparkling 29:6 touchdown to interception ratio. That’s likely more than the Irish can wish for with Golson this season, but his skillset is one that’s so diverse that the sky truly is the limit for the rising junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

With Gunner Kiel retreating and Malik Zaire most likely spending this season learning, the groundwork laid in a 2012 season that saw the Irish reach unprecedented heights could help Notre Dame finally have the offense many assumed would arrive in South Bend with Kelly.

All of that now possible with Golson’s continued growth.

“I think the thing that stands out the most to me though is his command,” Kelly said. “His communication and his command and his leadership has been evident as we start to evolve.”

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.