Five things we learned: Notre Dame 39, Nevada 10

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Notre Dame’s home opener went the way you’d want. An easy victory, a ton of young players getting experience, and a team back on track with Michigan State coming to town next weekend.

And while head coach Brian Kelly said all the right things about a Nevada team that threw the kitchen sink at the Irish, Wolf Pack head man Brian Polian probably said it best.

“If we were supposed to beat Notre Dame, we wouldn’t be in the Mountain West conference.”

It wasn’t all easy. The Irish offense was slow out of the gate. The defense struggled on their opening series, but made some game-changing plays and held Nevada to just 300 yards. After after a first 20 minutes that was as forgettable as any from last season, the Irish’s talent took over, a victory inside Notre Dame Stadium that leveled the team to 1-1 on the year.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

The loss of Shaun Crawford will be felt on and off the field.

The defense suffered a painful loss Saturday afternoon when Shaun Crawford went down early with a season-ending achilles injury. The sophomore was hurt after breaking up a pass that initially looked like a forced fumble and recovery. And instead of it being another big play by the diminutive defensive back, it’s a heartbreaking second-straight lost season for Crawford.

A season after not having a Plan B when Crawford went down in August, the Irish will now deploy theirs. That means Nick Coleman back to corner, a week after getting torched at Texas. True freshman Julian Love moves to nickel. And freshman Donte Vaughn will continue to get a look as the Irish secondary waits for junior Nick Watkins to recover from his broken arm.

Earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Coleman’s need to rebound and stay ready. Little did he know that a few days later, he’d be back in the starting lineup.

“Nick played with much better technique and a lot more confidence,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be that player for us with Shaun lost for the season.”

 

The defense woke up and made some plays.

The Irish defense played much, much better on Saturday, a relief not just to the 80,000 inside Notre Dame Stadium and the millions watching at home, but to a coaching staff that had to be wondering what to make of the unproven unit.

Especially after Nevada’s opening drive.

The Wolf Pack marched 62 yards on their opening possession, moving the chains and sustaining a 10-play drive that saw Polian eschew a field goal attempt for a 4th-and-1 run inside the Irish red zone. But Asauni Rufus never had a chance when Daniel Cage knifed through the line and the stop was a big momentum changer for the Irish defense, giving up just 61 yards the rest of the first half.

“We needed some confidence,” Kelly said postgame. “So that fourth-down stop was really a confidence builder for our defense.”

Also building their confidence was Jarron Jones’ interception, the fifth-year senior snagging a screen pass and setting the Irish offense up with the ball near the goal line. While the defense’s two other big plays—Crawford’s forced fumble and Tranquill’s return, along with a very nice interception by Cole Luke—were both overturned by referees, the defense played more than respectable after getting bludgeoned in Austin.

It took a group of back-ups to finally give up a touchdown to Nevada and the Wolf Pack were held to just 300 total yards— a big step forward for a unit that focused not on mixing and matching exotic looks, but playing fundamentally sound football.

“I thought we tackled better, played the ball better in the air, and just made the kind of improvement that we were looking for from week one to week two,” Kelly said.

 

DeShone Kizer is the engine of this offense. 

After earning the starting job, DeShone Kizer backed it up with a near flawless performance, a 15 for 18 day with two touchdowns, the only poor throw on the afternoon an underthrown deep ball to Kevin Stepherson. Add in another touchdown on the ground and two more through the air and Kizer’s responsible for nine touchdowns through the first two weeks, elite play by the junior signal caller.

Kelly praised Kizer’s poise, applauding that he’s willing to take what the defense is giving him. He also praised Kizer’s development in the scoring area, the Irish scoring all six times they were in the scoring zone, with five touchdowns and just one field goal.

“I think he was a little bit more patience in certain areas,” Kelly said. “Especially in the red zone. Where now he’s had two touchdowns in the red zone where he’s been really patient, hitting his third and fourth option down there.”

With the game in hand, Kizer turned the keys of the offense over to Malik Zaire, who played well in relief, making a few big plays and driving the Irish to a score. But Kizer is the most important piece of the puzzle for this team, and his efficiency—even while breaking in a young group of receivers—has been really impressive.

 

With Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, the Irish have two young, dynamic talents at receiver. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has two emerging stars at wide receiver. Both Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders continued their hot start, with both sophomores playing large without Torii Hunter available.

St. Brown had 85 yards and six catches, nearly breaking two big plays early. Sanders’ numbers might have been more modest, five catches for 46 yards and a score, but he came through with a clutch fourth-down conversion and scored the team’s first touchdown.

With Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Kelly talked about the challenge to replace that trio and fill their shoes with the next generation.

“We had the spring and the summer to really spend the time at developing. We knew they had to be the next guys in,” Kelly said. “And we had a lot of confidence that we were going to be able to turn over a very good group. But they needed to obviously work together.”

While Kelly applauded the jump in play from week one to week two for the defense, the same step forward was made by the young receivers, with Kevin Stepherson scoring his first touchdown, Corey Holmes converting a clutch third-and-long, and Chris Finke and Chase Claypool making their first career grabs.

“We wanted to get them involved early. We felt like it was important to get Corey and Stepherson some touches early,” Kelly said. “Get them some confidence and they’ll make some plays for us.”

 

Kelly will keep rotating backs, but Josh Adams is quickly establishing himself as a workhorse.

Josh Adams had a big Saturday. And Notre Dame’s record-setter as a freshman did his best to take a three-man rotation and make it a one-man show. Adams only needed 10 touches to get past 100 yards, running for 106 yards and breaking off a nifty 43-yarder in the third quarter.

Though Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams each got ten carries, Kelly was asked postgame if Adams is starting to emerge as the team’s No. 1 back.

“He’s good. You can call him whatever you want. No. 1, No. 101,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those things where Folston had 10 carries, Adams had 10 carries and Williams had 10 carries, but you can make the argument that (Adams) should get 20.

“But Folston is a pretty sharp guy and Dexter is explosive. I think we’ll keep a balance in there, but Adams looked good today.”

In his first extended playing time this season, Williams showed a burst that might have been better than both Adams and Folston. So while the loss of C.J. Prosise (and his home-run speed) has changed the complexion of the Irish ground game, Adams’ ascent is coming at a perfect time—with Michigan State just around the corner.

 

 

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.