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Position changes, weight loss and quarterback questions welcome Notre Dame’s spring

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Position changes? Check, highlighted by two offensive skill players adding to their descriptions without shedding their previous tags.

Strength and conditioning praise? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered that as well Monday, noting an emphasis on change of direction bursts.

Positive remarks about the early-enrolled freshmen? Kelly made it three in a row by describing linebacker Bo Bauer as a “tiger” in the weight room and picking out safety Houston Griffith’s skillset as a possible standout this spring.

Obviously, the topic Kelly returned to most as he previewed Notre Dame’s spring practice was that of the Irish quarterbacks. It will be a genuine competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book, with Wimbush seeming to have the leg up simply because one or the other needs to take the first snap in the first practice.

“By virtue of a lot of the really good things that Brandon did last year, he’ll go out with the first group,” Kelly said. “But we all know Ian was integral in our last win against LSU, and he deserves an opportunity to compete as well.”

It would not be an honest quarterback competition if Wimbush were to take a noted majority of the first-team snaps, so those will be split between him and Book, although that may be more by day than within each practice.

Throughout last spring, Ian Book knew he was going to be the backup quarterback. This year, the rising junior will be in the mix of a competition to be the starter. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The odds are Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long will still be pondering both quarterbacks after the spring. For now, the focus will be on needed development.

“You always hope that one guy just says, I’m head and shoulders (above),” Kelly said. “If we have that situation, we’re in pretty good position.

“It’s more important that we do a really good job of developing both of the quarterbacks. … What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case this year. We have to be equally adept, and that’s really going to be the goal of the spring, more so than if one guy separates himself.”

Notice the usage of both. Rising sophomore Avery Davis will still be a quarterback first and foremost, but he will see opportunities elsewhere moving forward. After a year spent on the scout team, spending another offseason watching Book and Wimbush compete would stifle Davis’ development only further. Getting him some time at receiver or possibly on a kick return unit should help counteract that to a degree, and it could perhaps unearth an unexpected fit.

“We want to give him a chance to really continue to develop his skills at quarterback, but when he’s not playing quarterback, we want to see what else he can do for us,” Kelly said. “[Davis is] a very gifted player, and we may try to get him involved in opportunities where he touches the ball other than just in the quarterback position.”

Davis’ part-time move should serve to get him on the field, rather than simply bury him on the depth chart at another position.

“He’s going to be a guy that definitely comes out on the field and helps us next year.”

Rising sophomore receiver Jafar Armstrong will similarly add duties to his workload, but in Armstrong’s case, it is a positional need forcing the issue, not the depth at receiver. The Irish need at least one more running back, and Armstrong will now cross-train there. Kelly compared the intended role to one once manned by Theo Riddick or CJ Prosise.

“[Armstrong is] going to be a guy that I think can touch the ball coming out of the backfield, but can also give us some work at the running back position,” Kelly said.

Kelly did note the summer will see three more receivers arrive on campus, so while Armstrong may be somewhat needed for depth there right now, reinforcements are on the way.

Other positional changes of note
Rising junior Jamir Jones will move to drop end from linebacker. Kelly forecast the move last season as arguably inevitable as Jones’ body continued to grow.

Rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson and rising junior D.J. Morgan will both move to linebacker from safety, presumably candidates at rover as Kelly confirmed fifth-year Drue Tranquill will move to a more traditional linebacker alignment.

Robertson gained 12 pounds from his weight entering the 2017 season, now at 207 pounds, while Morgan added 11 to get to 220, both signs of linebacker preparations.

Dexter Williams (Getty Images)

On Dexter Williams
One other impossible-to-ignore weight change would be rising senior running back Dexter Williams losing 12 pounds. That may be the effects of a second year listening to strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis, it could be renewed dedication to fitness, or it could simply be the positive result of Williams staying healthy.

“This year he’s been healthy,” Kelly said. “He’s made really positive strides in his volume of work, his ability to sustain over a longer period of time. If there was one area where I really feel good about what he’s been able to do is that he’s broken through some barriers as it relates to his volume and his workload.”

Three captains this morning
Kelly will announce three captains at practice this (Tuesday) morning. For the record-keeping of those in the predictions business: As a captain in 2017, Tranquill is a mortal-lock to be one again. Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher emerged as a leader last year, notable considering the two captains then already on the offensive line. Thus, Mustipher will likely join Tranquill.

From there, the likes of rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery or rising junior cornerback Julian Love would seem the obvious candidates.

On ‘Speed School’
Balis’ winter workouts included what Kelly described as a “speed school.” Whereas the NFL Combine’s 40-yard dash is often lampooned as pointless and hardly a football activity for the majority of players, a quick 10-yard dash is pivotal to gridiron success, especially coming off a change in direction. Kelly and Balis identified 1.5 seconds as the mark to get under for a 10-yard dash off a change of direction.

Apparently, only rising junior cornerback Troy Pride could reach that when speed school started, not surprising considering Pride routinely picks up ACC honors in indoor sprints during the winter.

Now, seven others have joined Pride. Kelly relayed this while praising rising senior receiver Miles Boykin, identifying him as one of those seven.

Limited this spring
Early-enrolled freshman tight end George Takacs needed cartilage surgery, so he will be out this spring. Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar and rising sophomore tight end Brock Wright will both be limited following shoulder surgeries this offseason, each likely in a non-contact jersey. Rising junior receiver Chase Claypool (shoulder) will have similar restrictions, as will fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner as he recovers from wrist surgery, having played much of last year’s end with a broken wrist.

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.