Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Miami 27

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It’ll likely be relegated to the online supplement of the coffee table book memorializing the historic Notre Dame-Miami rivalry. But that doesn’t take away from the drama in the Irish’s 30-27 victory, a win that had all makings of a nightmarish year-in-review for Brian Kelly’s squad, until a young Irish roster rallied after giving up 27 unanswered points, sealing the win on the game’s final play.

But as Brad Kaaya laid pinned under a stack of bodies as the clock mercifully hit 0:00, the Irish finished off a much-needed victory—especially gratifying after spending the midsection of the game finding new ways to give it away.

These sixty minutes embodied the Irish season. There were moments of brilliance—a quick start and dominating first quarter that had Irish fans thinking back to the 2010 post-bye week jumping of a ranked Utah team.

But then—of course—there were the next 40 minutes, a toxic brew of stalled-out offense, self-inflicted mistakes and special teams implosions, with the Irish giving away a 20-point lead to find themselves trailing 27-20 with under seven minutes remaining after C.J. Sanders gift-wrapped Miami’s go-ahead touchdown, muffing a punt inside his own 5-yard-line, the cherry on top of the Irish special teams implosion.

But even with the collective stomach of the stadium queasy and remote controls tossed around ND Nation, Brian Kelly’s team found itself, scoring the game’s final 10 points to pull out the win.

“No one was surprised,” Kelly said of his team’s late-game resolve. “They were just happy as heck that it’s finally over, that they got through it in a close game, that they found a way to win.”

That the Irish did, earning their third victory of the season and keeping those bowl eligibility alive to fight another week.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Jarron Jones was unblockable today. 

Notre Dame’s fifth-year senior earned not just the game ball on Saturday, but probably a few job offers for next year. Because the 330-pounder absolutely dominated the trenches, looking like the Jarron Jones many of us thought would emerge after his coming out party against Florida State two seasons ago.

But Jones has traveled a long road since then, injuries turning him into a shell of his former self. But after the tweak in defensive scheme and a renewed commitment to being a senior leader, the Rochester, New York native supplied what could be used as his NFL Draft sizzle reel on Saturday alone, a one-man wrecking crew as he racked up seven solo tackles and an astounding six tackles-for-loss, dominating Miami center Nick Linder.

“I think that was as good of performance that we’ve had in a while here. Jarron was outstanding. He was awarded the game ball,” Kelly said postgame. “What stands out to me more than anything is that when your senior is playing his best ball, that says a lot about how he feels about coming to work every day, getting better, regardless of the record. I think that’s a real positive for our program and for him individually. He was a beast today.”

You saw that buy-in on Jones’s face postgame after the Stanford loss, an emotional veteran proudly defending his team. From the sideline after the victory, Jones talked about the goal of getting to the postseason, the win a huge first step for the team.

“It lifts us up. It lifts us up in a big way,” Jones told NBC’s Kathryn Tappen. “We’ve got to win out to go to a bowl game, so we’ve got to keep pushing, keep it moving.”

 

DeShone Kizer got a huge monkey off his back. 

Notre Dame’s junior quarterback hasn’t been having much fun lately. Stuck amidst the longest losing streak of his lifetime—at any level–Kizer didn’t hide his relief postgame.

“I feel like this whole stadium is off my shoulders,” Kizer said. “The last couple games in this stadium haven’t gone the way we wanted them to. But to come out and get this done the way we did today was awesome.”

Kizer’s play was a big part. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions. He got the ball out in rhythm, making big plays both down the field and also on quick routes, spreading the ball to 10 different receivers on Saturday, with the offensive staff deciding that up-tempo would be the best way to slow down a Miami defense that came into the game as the top team in the country in tackles-for-loss.

“Really, really pleased with some of the play within the play,” Kelly said of Kizer’s game. “For me, my eye is focused on rhythm, timing, getting the ball out of your hand. And I thought it was the best since he’s been here, in getting the ball out of his hand.”

That was necessary, as the Irish offensive line still struggled at the point of attack against the Hurricanes. And while Kizer’s been victimized by his own success (and maybe the echo-chamber that has his name still climbing the rungs of mock draft ladders everywhere), Kelly tried his best to praise the game his quarterback played, while reminding everybody that he’s still a work in progress.

“He’s not flawless yet. So, sorry guys. He’s not flawless yet,” Kelly said. “He’s got some work that he’ll continue to work on, but he was really good today. He did a lot of really good things today.”

 

Notre Dame’s special teams nearly lost this game for the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be horrendous.

(Pause for emphasis)

Scott Booker’s unit didn’t cover itself in glory on Saturday. Two critical mistakes on punt returns gave Miami the ball back and a go-ahead score. They got out-schemed on an onside kick with freshman Jalen Elliott looking like he forgot the rules of the game. And they got another Tyler Newsome’s punt blocked for good measure, enough mistakes to drive the Irish’s early-game momentum into a brick wall.

The special teams didn’t cost the Irish the football game. And to their credit, they actually executed when it was needed, as Chris Finke broke off a huge 23-yard punt return to start the Irish in Miami territory on the game-clinching drive that ended with Justin Yoon booting a game-winning chip shot with 3o seconds left.

But at this point, Irish fans likely yearn for the days of John “Fair Catch” Goodman back returning kicks, hoping that a no-joy approach will at least kill any chance of disaster. Because Sanders delivered a ton of that, making the worst decision of the evening that resulted in seven points for the other guys and also failing to keep Troy Pride away from a short punt that flipped possession and kept Miami alive.

Kelly tried to keep things positive postgame, understandable because the Irish broke their losing streak. And as Kathryn Tappen reported from observing Kelly’s conversation with Sanders after the punt-touchdown debacle, he didn’t undress the sophomore, but stressed being decisive, something Kelly echoed after the game.

“We have to be more confident. We’ve got really good players who care a lot and have a lot of pride in what they do every single day,” Kelly said. “I just need to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive. They’re coming on the other end of that.”

 

Notre Dame’s defense continues to make gigantic strides in life after Brian VanGorder. 

Brian Kelly has talked about some of the limitations that come with the main objectives of not giving up big plays and simply limiting the points. But at this point, Kelly should look at what the results have been—a completely transformed defense that looks nothing like the unit that was a four-alarm fire under Brian VanGorder.

Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense dominating the trenches. They held the Hurricanes to just 18 net rushing yards and had five sacks and 12 total TFLs on the evening, beating Brad Kaaya to a pulp and slowing down some skill players who looked like very tough matchups for Notre Dame’s three freshman cornerbacks.

After the game, Kelly took a moment to respond to the criticism of his team’s pass rush (“We do sack the quarterback here at Notre Dame”) while also crediting his restructured defensive staff for their game plan.

“We knew, more than anything else in this game, that we had to attack the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained. “I thought it was an outstanding game plan that our defensive coaches put together, and that was we really needed to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage.”

To do that, the secondary had to hold up in coverage. And they did, with Cole Luke nearly taking an interception to the house and Dante Vaughn and Julian Love making some very big pass break-ups.

With Nyles Morgan cashing in nine tackles and two more sacks of his own, this defense is starting to play like we thought it could before the season started, a frustrating footnote considering the early-season futility we saw under VanGorder.

 

Some fans will write this off as a meaningless victory. But Brian Kelly views it as a building block for the future of his program. 

Don’t tell Kelly—or his team—that this win didn’t matter. So some will (somewhat understandably) scoff at this victory, Kelly views it as a first step towards getting this young roster on track to build the mindset of a champion.

After the game, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach talked about what a win does for this team, allowing them to avoid another week of toxicity that’s been difficult for his young team to ignore.

“It just meant that we’re not going to have to go through this again,” Kelly said. “We were all going to have to listen to, ‘Okay, the locker room is falling apart,’ a bunch of baloney, and we’d have to go through all this again.”

This staff believes in the process they’ve laid out. But they also understand that you need to see success if you’re going to keep preaching that the wins will take care of themselves if you just put in the work.

“We were still going to do the same thing. The attitude would have been great. Their preparation would have been great,” Kelly said. “But they were going to have to figure out how to win a football game late, and that meant they had to execute better, they had to play all phases better at the end, and they did.”

Scoring the game’s final 10 points helped. So did some luck—DeShone Kizer miraculously recovering Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble—averting disaster that would’ve been the third critical mistake made by a senior on the afternoon (Torii Hunter’s olé block on 4th-and-1 joined by Mike McGlinchey’s inexplicable false start).

But a win is a win. And coming back from the brink is something that this young roster needed to badly pull off.

“Now they know how to do that,” Kelly said of the late-game win. “Now there’s a lot more confidence in that room that they believe that they can do it, and if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they’re going to win.”

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.