The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Texas

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The sun came up in South Bend Monday morning. But likely well before that, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff were in the office—a day behind on preparations for Nevada, with an unexpected loss already on their resume.

Moving forward is the only option for a young Irish football team who showed plenty of character on Sunday night, though none of that adds up to a victory. And while there’ll be plenty of opportunities to diagnose all that ails this football team, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Sunday night’s 50-47 double-overtime loss.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played exceptional football, throwing for five touchdowns and running for another against the Longhorns. With Kizer at quarterback, the Irish scored six touchdowns… leading us into a discussion everybody (or at least the one typing this) is already sick of.

Kizer’s poise has improved from his redshirt freshman campaign. His ability to stand tall in the pocket and throw is unmatched. And for as good as we all believe Malik Zaire to be as a runner of the football, Kizer’s Football IQ and comfort making split-second decisions make him probably at least Zaire’s equal when it comes to the lethalness of the zone read.

He wasn’t perfect. With the game on the line and more than three minutes remaining, the Irish couldn’t do anything more than go three-and-out. But Notre Dame’s part-time quarterback just because a Heisman Trophy candidate, making the decision to pick a starter all but academic.

 

C.J. SandersNotre Dame’s slot receiver and return man was a dynamic piece of the puzzle for the Irish. His 25-yard score in overtime made things easy for the Irish offense. His dazzling 40-yard punt return helped set the Irish up as well.

With no depth behind him at slot receiver other than former walk-on Chris Finke, Sanders needed to play big. And he did.

 

Equanimous St. Brown. It’s interesting to look at the expectations of a sophomore receiver with one catch to his name. Especially after most in the media forgot about his potential breakout after seeing others step to the forefront.

“Well he’s a stud. We expected it out of him,” DeShone Kizer said after the game. “We treated him as if he was a veteran because quite frankly, all the reps he got last year as well as all the things he did this year, he is a veteran. So we’re relying on him to make big plays just like he did today.”

Two touchdowns in game one was a nice way to start.

 

Isaac Rochell. Notre Dame’s veteran defensive lineman was about the only guy up front who consistently held his own in the trenches. He tallied nine total tackles and made 2.5 TFLs, graded out by PFF College as the team’s best defender.

With the Irish struggling to find a good fit in their odd front, Rochell moved inside and out as Brian VanGorder looked for a solution. Rochell was a consistent force up front, and also a workhorse, playing a ridiculous 87 snaps.

 

Nyles Morgan. While I was tempted to keep him out of the good category after he took a 15-yard personal foul penalty, Morgan made 13 tackles from his middle linebacker spot, leading the Irish defense. Nine of those stops were solo.

In a brawl that required Morgan to play big and go head-to-head with not just a 250-pound running back or quarterback but also interior offensive linemen, Morgan did a nice job holding up under pressure.

 

Quick Hits: 

It was great to see Tarean Folston back on the field, his 54-yard run on the first series of the game a nice reminder that Folston didn’t forget how to play the position.

What a great knack for blocking kicks Jarron Jones has shown. The length and power the fifth-year senior brings to the point of attack is a true weapon.

Justin Yoon‘s consecutive field goal streak ended when his 36-yarder was blocked. But he made a clutch kick in overtime and did a nice job with four touchbacks on six kickoffs.

Notre Dame’s offense made it through the game without a turnover. That’s the first time the Irish have lost without committing one, Kelly now 19-1 in games where the Irish put up a goose egg in that category.

Those worries about Devin Studstill not being up for it turned out to be unfounded. Studstill played 47 snaps, doing a nice job as Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive back, per PFF College.

 

THE BAD

The Defensive Front. If there’s a surprise for most Irish fans, it’s the battle Notre Dame’s defensive line lost to the Texas front. Even with three of the five Longhorn starters battling nagging injuries, Texas won the war at the point of attack, scoring five rushing touchdowns and running for 237 net yards.

The decision to start Andrew Trumbetti is one that’ll look questionable when the tape goes on. No doubt it was a move necessitated by the injury to Jay Hayes, who didn’t play, but Trumbetti was overwhelmed as a run defender and no better as a pass rusher.

Jarron Jones only logged 26 snaps and Daniel Cage only played 33. That’s not going to get it done for the Irish when they need those big bodies in the trenches, especially considering how impactful Cage was when he was on the field.

 

The big plays. Nick Coleman won’t want to watch this tape again. Asked to play three deep against Texas’ receiving weapons, Coleman got torched multiple times, unable to run with John Burt, who got vertical on the Irish defense.

“We were in cover three when we got beat. We weren’t even man-to-man,” Kelly explained, a surprise to most. “The inability to play cover three requires better coaching on our part.

“I thought we put ourselves in a tough position when we let the ball get thrown over our head. That’s one thing were the game changed a little bit.”

Texas took dead aim at Coleman until Shaun Crawford was moved outside and Julian Love came in at nickel. Drue Tranquill also subbed out, Studstill taking his reps while Sebastian stayed on the field. The loss of Nick Watkins loomed large on Sunday night, an additional cover corner needed, especially if Coleman is going to commit a defensive back’s cardinal sin.

 

Missed tackles. Sure, it’s easy to call it a missed tackle when you’re trying to take down a 250-pound bowling ball. But there just wasn’t enough sure tackling when Notre Dame had a chance to slow down Texas’ runners—and it consistently blew up in the Irish defense’s face.

An unofficial tally revealed some key misses by Avery Sebastian, inserted into the lineup because of his ability to do the little things and know the system. He was hardly alone—Morgan missed a handful, Jerry Tillery ran through a few TFLs, including one that came on the game’s final play.

Greer Martini’s debut at Will had him playing like a guy learning a new position—understandable since he moved there late in training camp.

 

Tyler Newsome. Notre Dame’s eccentric punter has a booming leg. But he had a case of the shanks on Sunday night—not the first time the young specialist has struggled on the big stage to flip the field.

Newsome’s first punt was a bomb. The rest? Not as much. And while his 24 yarder late in the game didn’t come back to bite the Irish, Newsome needs to sharpen up his mental approach to get past this tough outing.

 

Torii Hunter’s missed targeting call. At this point, it’s over. Notre Dame can expect acknowledgment of the mistake, but it’s not changing the game. Watching the hit again, the ball looked tucked into Hunter’s arm and possessed before he was hit in the head—a blow that we’ve seen called so often, especially with a newfound emphasis on the penalty.

Perhaps the refs just missed it. Perhaps the replay officials missed it too, with ESPN’s cameras so focused on Torii Hunter’s reaction in the stands to the critical timing of the penalty.

However it happened, it was a brutal no-call, especially with Notre Dame’s history of having these flags go against them.

 

The Offensive Line. I’m hesitant to fully call the offensive line play “bad,” but I’m going to do it. Notre Dame did run for 206 yards, but take away the 83 yards on two carries (Folston & Kizer) and it’s 2.8 yards per carry. That’s just not good enough—not against a Texas defensive front that was overwhelmed last season and lost its best interior players.

Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are expected to be All-American caliber players. But the right side of the offensive line struggled and Sam Mustipher got called for a snap infraction in a critical situation. Most importantly, when the Irish needed to move the point of attack and get the ground game going late in the game they couldn’t do it.

Sure, Texas brought a ton of heat. But I have a very high bar set for this group and they didn’t live up to it.

 

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. Nobody expected to be calling for the defensive coordinator’s head after week one. And while I certainly didn’t go easy on VanGorder, it’s worth pointing to the personnel the Irish have playing—a reminder that even Bob Diaco would struggle if you take away guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and Aaron Lynch.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse anything. But if you thought Kelly was going to scrap the plan for the season after one tough weekend, think again.

Here are his comments when essentially asked to evaluate his defensive coordinator:

“I mean it’s the first game, and you go into the first game and — first time starters, and we have a lot of young guys that got their first start,” Kelly explained.  “We’ll critically evaluate and I think everybody needs to tap the brakes and relax.

“This is a football team that showed great resolve, took the lead down 17 points in the fourth quarter up 35-31, and we needed to come up with one more stop or one more better offensive possession, you know, to win the football game and we didn’t do that.

“So this narrative about it’s all the defense’s fault is, you know, just Monday morning quarterbacking. If we get a better punt, if we flip field position, if we make a catch or a throw we’re talking about some different things.”

Getting some distance from the loss, Kelly’s confidence is understandable, especially considering he knows his personnel—and their limitations—better than anyone. But the margin for error this season is zero. And seeing the deficiencies in this defense against Texas, expect opponents to pounce.

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.