And in that corner…The Michigan Wolverines

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Whatever we’re calling the Michigan-Notre Dame game, it’s immensely important. Not just for the fans, but for the trajectory of each team’s season. For the Irish, Saturday night’s battle in the Big House kicks off a tough five game stretch that has the Irish facing three straight Big Ten teams to go along with Oklahoma and Arizona State. For Michigan, it’s an early season victory that likely vaults them into the top ten, and is a springboard (along with assumed wins over Akron and UConn) into Big Ten action.

Gathering much from Michigan’s 50-point trouncing of Central Michigan is difficult. The bullet points are certainly there: Devin Gardner, some receiving weapons, and young and aggressive defense.

But to help us dig a little deeper is the Detroit News’ Angelique Chengelis. Covering the Wolverines beat since 1992, she’s seen quite a bit of the boys in maize and blue, and was kind enough to answer a few questions to get us up to speed on the big game.

I asked, she answered:

Winning by 50 points is an impressive way to open the season. Did the dominant victory over Central Michigan answer any of your offseason questions?

Only this question — would Michigan really play a lot of young players, including true freshmen? — and Brady Hoke did that, and I think in the end, that will be a big plus for this team. I think the interior of the offensive line is still a question mark and that depth chart, as offensive coordinator Al Borges said this week, is written in pencil. It was good to see Fitz Toussaint running the ball after his offseason of rehab from a broken left leg. It was also good to get an early look at freshman back Derrick Green, who has quickly climbed the depth chart from fifth to second (in part because of the season-ending injury to Drake Johnson), and as expected, freshman quarterback Shane Morris got in the game and got his feet wet.

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For better or worse, this offense is in Devin Gardner’s hands. Watching last weekend’s game, he put together quite a highlight reel, but also threw two interceptions, including one inside his own 10 yard line. After having their struggles with Denard Robinson (until last year), what type of quarterback are the Irish facing in Gardner? 

While Gardner doesn’t have the electricity of Denard (or the untied shoelaces), he has great athleticism, and I like what he did when he scrambled. The ONLY positive to take from the picks is that he didn’t drown in those — he rebounded quickly and recovered well. Clearly, as we’ve seen these last few Michigan-Notre Dame games, avoiding turnovers is absolutely key. I do not expect to see Gardner, who, by the way, is a better passer than Denard, making a habit of such bad throws like the two against CMU that resulted in picks.

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After a few good recruiting classes, there is some talented youth in Greg Mattison’s front seven. How will that group do against Notre Dame’s offensive line without Jake Ryan?

Michigan played a LOT of defensive linemen and rotated a lot at those spots — Quinton Washington this week said he was more refreshed than he’s ever been during and after a game because the rotation worked and kept everyone fresh. The linebackers were solid in the opener. Desmond Morgan played well, as did Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer, the key guys replacing Ryan, and James Ross and Joe Bolden also got high marks.

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Another big match-up is the battle up front between the Wolverine’s offensive line and the Irish’s tough front seven. How does the rebuilt interior of Michigan’s line look?

Well, it looks like it’s still a work in progress. Graham Glasgow, who started at left guard, and Jack Miller, who started at center, are still engaged in competition at center. While I wouldn’t expect any great lineup changes, Borges suggested that could be a possibility, that jobs are up in the air. Across the board, though, the staff seemed to like the performance of redshirt freshman right guard Kyle Kalis. Again, while they got valuable game experience in the opener against CMU, Notre Dame presents a much more complete package that more than likely will give the Michigan offensive line some fits.

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Brian Kelly ruffled a few feathers when he said he didn’t consider Michigan to be one of Notre Dame’s historic rivals. Does anybody believe that? How do you characterize this rivalry from Michigan’s perspective? Considering the drama of the last few games, the rancor of the scheduling break, and the general disdain between the two schools’ fans, how big of a rivalry is this for Michigan?

I don’t think most people from either camp really believe that, but it has made for some fun conversations this week! I’ve always looked at it this way — Michigan State and Ohio State are Michigan’s most important rivalry games because they are vital in the Big Ten championship race. But Michigan considers Notre Dame its important non-conference rival. Because they are so similar in how their fan bases and programs value their traditions, and because they often recruit the same players and because they are the winningest programs, it carries that historic value. Michigan looks at the Notre Dame game as a battle against what often is a mirror image, and that games gives the Wolverines a better sense of who they are as a team and where they need to improve.

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I believe you are on the record picking the Wolverines in this one already. What kind of game do you think we are in for on Saturday night?

I am taking Michigan, in part because of the cliche-but-true — homefield advantage. Not that that helped Michigan two years ago under the lights against Notre Dame those first three quarters, but in that fourth-quarter flourish, the players definitely fed off the crowd. I think we’ll see a few critical turnovers, because, well, we usually do. I think we’ll see an aggressive Michigan defense doing its best to rattle Tommy Rees, get him to hang onto the ball and overthink situations. There’s no doubt Devin Gardner is aware of how huge this stage will be, and he likes that stage. I think he will be steady and play well and will find tight end Devin Funchess on some critical throws. But overall, I think it’s the Michigan defense that will dictate this one.

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A special thanks to Angelique for fitting this into her schedule this week. For more good stuff from her and the Detroit News, check out her Michigan coverage here, or follow her @Chengelis.

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.