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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 324 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Ewell currently sits at third-string among the nose tackles, behind fifth-year Jonathan Bonner and sophomore Kurt Hinish. Given how quickly Hinish and sophomore three-technique tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa both separated themselves from Ewell last summer, it is worth wondering if incoming freshmen defensive tackles Ja’Mion Franklin and/or Jayson Ademilola might pass him in the depth chart, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star out of Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Va., Ewell was considered the No. 6 player in the state and No. 9 at his position by rivals.com. In just about every respect, he was the defensive tackle prospect viewed as a possible immediate contributor, not the other two interior defensive linemen in the class, the Nos. 38 (Hinish) and 39 (Tagovailoa-Amosa) recruits at the position in rivals’ rankings.

CAREER TO DATE
Ewell saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility.

QUOTE(S)
The difference between the trio of defensive tackles’ recruiting rankings and 2017 impacts seems to trace to their conditionings. While Hinish’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s high school days had them fit to play right away, Ewell’s left something to be desired. A full year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program helped that cause, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly the first week of March.

“We’re starting to see, first of all, he can lift every weight that’s in the weight room, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into what we need,” Kelly said. “Some of the things that we need — his ten[-yard burst] is becoming competitive for his size. It was non-competitive.

“We’re starting to see that lower-body explosiveness translate into football-related movements. That’s really what’s going on here. That transformation to this big, strong, physical kid into football movements.

“You’re going to see a little bit more of that as we go through the spring. It’s been an encouraging seven weeks for him.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Nothing about Notre Dame’s spring practice diminished the odds of Ewell earning playing time in his freshman campaign. There is still plenty of opportunity at defensive tackle, partly due to junior Elijah Taylor suffering a springtime injury, and partly due to [Daniel] Cage not yet appearing to be entirely full-go after suffering a concussion last season.

“That is not to say Ewell will start. He won’t, at least not on day one, but if he takes to the weight room and grasps the basics of [former defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s scheme, Ewell could see his snaps increase as the season moves along.

“[Jerry] Tillery logged 12 tackles in 12 games, including two tackles for loss, in his freshman season of 2015. If Ewell could exceed those figures, that would be a good start. Certainly, Elko and Kelly would be even happier if Ewell could approach 20 tackles. That may seem a low number, but consider that in 2016, only 14 Irish defenders made more than 20 tackles, including four defensive linemen. If Ewell were to reach that (arbitrary) threshold, it would be as much a sign of him earning playing time as it would be of him excelling in that playing time.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Ewell’s lack of initial conditioning is not entirely his fault. A high schooler can do only so much without proper guidance. A full 10 months into a collegiate strength program, though, should have gotten Ewell to a point where he would not pull up short within the tackle box while chasing a quarterback for a sack. After all, that is certainly within the reaches of a 10-yard burst.

The stat sheet may claim Ewell logged a four-yard sack in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, but that was only because the Notre Dame coaches had decided the whistle would blow whenever a quarterback left to scramble. The reality was, Ewell took just a few steps toward junior quarterback Ian Book before he was already out of burst. Book needed to take one sidestep away from Ewell to eliminate the pass-rush threat.

The once highly-touted recruit sits firmly on the Irish third-string. At some positions, sits is not an accurate term for a third-stringer. Cornerbacks, for example, or most certainly running backs. At defensive tackle, however, having three worthwhile defensive tackles at each position would be a surplus of riches even Clemson or Alabama would take a second look at. Notre Dame cannot claim that delight yet, not with Ewell struggling to shed a walk-on’s block (sophomore Colin Grunhard, in the Blue-Gold Game clip) before staggering after a quarterback hardly concerned with the imminent threat.

If Ewell does not show more aggression in both the weight room and on the field, Franklin or Ademilola may usurp him for the honor of being the third nose tackle.

DOWN THE ROAD
This segment once figured Ewell “projects as Notre Dame’s defensive tackle of the future.” Not only did Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish seem to have other thoughts about that, but Ewell might, as well, and in the wrong way.

His ceiling may yet be higher than that of either of his classmates, but Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish have both raised their floors to exceedingly-serviceable levels. Neither Tillery nor Bonner will return in 2019, but Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish should slot into each of those starting roles for the following two seasons.

Until more (some) of his potential becomes reality, Ewell has little chance of surpassing either for a leading gig. He could (should) become a needed backup. Even the best defensive tackles come off the field for competitive snaps, meaning Ewell’s contributions as a backup would be vital next season. That is, if he develops at a rate greater than seen thus far.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle

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.