Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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Looking at the first fifteen names we’ve revealed, one pretty clear trend seemed to be emerging. The strength of this team’s depth was on defense. Ten of the players we’ve already rolled out will be defensive contributors. That includes highly touted freshmen Max Redfield and Jaylon Smith, who will have to find a way onto the field for Bob Diaco’s defense.

Of the offensive players listed, only Christian Lombard is a proven commodity. While we’ve talked about the positional flexibility Lombard has, he started 13 games at right tackle, where he’ll open fall camp as the returning starter.

The next five names all but even out our proceedings. They include a nice mix of talented youth and veteran experience, with all five players seemingly on track to be front-line college starters with NFL potential.

Let’s take a look at where where we stand before rolling out our penultimate grouping:

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)
20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.)
19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.)
18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.)
17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.)
16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.)
15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.)
14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.)
13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.)
12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.)
11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.)

RANKINGS

10. Davaris Daniels (WR, Jr.) Entering his third season in the Irish program, where Daniels goes this season will likely give us a better idea of his career trajectory. After redshirting during his freshman season and watching future first round draft pick Michael Floyd, Daniels spent his debut season battling injuries and inconsistency, not all that surprising for a guy taking his first collegiate snaps and depending on a quarterback doing the same.

Daniels made three starts in his eleven games, with an ankle injury and broken collarbone sidetracking him just as he seemed to get rolling. Daniels returned from the collarbone injury against Alabama to provide one of the lone bright spots for the Irish, catching six balls for 115 yards against a talented Crimson Tide defense. Sure, it was with the game mostly in hand for Saban’s crew, but it gives you a glimpse at the tremendous ability that Daniels has when he puts it all together.

That time is now for Daniels, with the Irish offense without a All-American caliber receiving threat for the first time in Kelly’s three seasons. That’s not to say that Daniels doesn’t have that ability, but he’ll need to become the consistent player that many hope is waiting to breakout.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 15th.

9. Troy Niklas (TE, Jr.) That Niklas checks in this high is a testament to the potential of the hulking tight end that should feel much more comfortable a season after learning on the fly as a sophomore. At 6-foot-6.5 and 260-pounds, Niklas has freakish size and strength, and his hands and speed are much better than you’d expect for a man his size.

A season after taking pleasure in learning the mechanics of blocking by flipping sleds, the Irish will ask Niklas to be a more well rounded threat. The Irish coaching staff thinks they have a player that can resemble Rob Gronkowski, and not just in the eclectic personality category.

Niklas caught a modest five balls for 75 yards and a touchdown last season, but was used almost exclusively as an attached blocker that helped power the running game. There were some ugly moments as he played his first season of tight end, but his improvement was well documented as the season went on. Tommy Rees is a fan of using his tight end and Niklas could be the primary beneficiary this season.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 2oth.

8. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Soph.) Entering fall camp as just another body in the running back depth chart, Russell switched sides of the ball and miraculously started all thirteen games for the Irish, putting together a freshman All-American season at cornerback while racking up 58 tackles and two interceptions.

After getting beat for a touchdown pass against Navy in the opener, Russell played with more and more confidence as the season went on, coming up interceptions against both Michigan and USC, the latter a clutch pick against Max Wittek in Irish territory.

It’s still hard to quantify what Russell’s ceiling is as a football player, even after his impressive freshman season. Russell was in the starting lineup mostly out of necessity, with Lo Wood’s season ending Achilles injury putting the Irish into a training camp bind that also saw the Irish temporarily flip Cam McDaniel to the defensive side of the ball as well.

Russell has good enough speed, nice enough size, and clearly has a great head on his shoulders. Spending any time around him you understand that he also has the confidence to be a great cornerback, which goes plenty far. We’ll see by Bob Diaco’s scheme this season how much they trust the duo of Russell and Bennett Jackson to lock down receivers. Never a man coverage defense, adding some to the defensive scheme might tell you all you need to know about the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.

7. TJ Jones (WR, Sr.) After being stuck in neutral for two seasons, Jones excelled in 2012, taking a big step forward with 649 yards and showing himself as more than just a complementary part of the offense. Jones matched All-American Tyler Eifert’s numbers for both catches and touchdowns, and had a flair for the dramatic, coming up big against both Stanford and Pitt when the Irish needed him most.

Jones will never be a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s getting national attention if only for his consistent body of work and impressive performance against Alabama, where he made seven tough catches. Jones rarely has a ball come his way that he doesn’t catch and had a great knack for getting the tough yards last season.

Quicker than fast, Jones isn’t all that big at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. But he’s a smooth operator and has worked his way around the Irish offense, starting in the slot and then succeeding last season on the outside. After learning on the fly last season with a new quarterback, Jones is primed for a big season, and could be one of those guys that does enough right to find a nice niche playing on Sundays.

Highest Ranking: 4th.  Lowest Ranking: 14th.

6. Chris Watt (LG, Grad.) That Watt ranks this far down our list goes to show you how much better this roster has gotten personnel wise. In 2010, both Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart ranked higher on our lists than Watt, with only Robinson latching on to an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. The Irish staff believes Watt is one of the top guards in college football, and at 6-foot-3, 321-pounds, he’s a rough and tumble guy that’s done a lot of good in the trenches for Notre Dame.

Entering his third season as a starter at left guard, Watt and Zack Martin could be one of the best left sides in all of college football. He’ll be counted on to move an already strong running game forward, and should anchor an offensive line that could be one of the strongest in recent memory for the Irish.

It’s hard to truly evaluate the ceiling of an offensive lineman without evaluating an awful lot of game tape, but Watt is one of the best interior linemen on the Irish roster in recent memory.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.

***

Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

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.