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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, nose tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ¾, 293 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: In his fifth year, Bonner has only 2018’s eligibility remaining, having returned unexpectedly after initialing declaring his Notre Dame career finished following last season.
Depth chart: Bonner will start at nose tackle, flipping from the three-technique position, with sophomore Kurt Hinish providing relief.
Recruiting: Bonner’s recruitment jumped late in the cycle thanks to strong camp performances throughout the summer before his senior year. A rivals.com three-star prospect, the St. Louis product chose the Irish over offers from his homestate Missouri, Michigan State and LSU, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Bonner’s career entering 2017 was one of the reasons projections of Notre Dame’s defensive front were rather pessimistic. His 14 career tackles in 22 games did not exactly sound like the makings of a starter near the ball every snap, especially for a player who spent his first collegiate season preparing for a role on the end of the line.

But Bonner rose to the occasion, making 13 starts and holding his own throughout last season, despite battling through a wrist injury for much of the season. He finished 2017 as the defense’s No. 11 tackler with 30.

2014: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2015: 10 games; five tackles, one sack.
2016: 12 games; nine tackles.
2017: 13 games, 13 starts; 30 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks.

QUOTE(S)
If completely healthy, moving Bonner to nose tackle will not spark the slightest concern. If hampered by the wrist, depending on Bonner at either interior tackle position will be a risk. Following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, Irish head coach Brian Kelly insisted the only lingering effects of the injury — which kept Bonner out of full-contact sessions throughout all of spring practice — pertained to the strength and conditioning aspects, and Bonner would have all summer to assuage those concerns.

“He’s been [lifting] everything, but at a lighter weight,” Kelly said. “Now he’s only a couple weeks away from being full. He was already physically gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Kelly doubled down on that prognosis Monday morning when The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen asked at a Kelly Cares Foundation event.

“He should be full go,” Kelly said. “We were very cautious with him. I thought we could have gotten more out of him. We had kind of gone into this idea that you’re not going to get involved much in terms of contact.

“He’s excited. He’s worked really hard to put himself in this position to come back, so we’re excited about him.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“[Bonner] has long been considered a physical freak of nature, displaying unexpected strength and athleticism. That played a part in his late but quick recruitment by nearly every school who saw him the summer before his senior year of high school.

“Finally converting those attributes to on-field successes is the key. In Bonner’s defense, he has spent the last few seasons behind the likes of [Isaac] Rochell and [Jarron] Jones, both now working to make the cut in the NFL. Neither one was a slouch, especially as their careers progressed. Backing them up should not be considered a mark against Bonner, only an inevitability of timing.”

“… If Bonner succeeds in his role this season, he should have an iron grip on the starting spot in 2018. Even if he doesn’t, the Irish coaching staff will likely offer him a fifth year. Veteran defensive linemen with playing experience are not commodities to let slip away. The worst-case scenario would be Bonner could spell … one of the aforementioned freshmen. There would be value in that role.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Last summer’s thoughts on Bonner’s long-term floor would now be a worst-case scenario dictated by his wrist and subsequent diminished conditioning. Even if he becomes Hinish’s backup this season, though, that would indeed still have value. It would also be a testament to Hinish pushing forward, now with incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin joining sophomore Darnell Ewell in the mix.

Kelly would assuredly rather be correct about Bonner’s timeline and instead have a solid lineman alongside senior three-technique Jerry Tillery. Flipping the two on the interior is more about putting Tillery in position to use his athleticism to make plays in the backfield, but it would have been nearly inconceivable a year ago to think Bonner could hold the point of attack as necessary at nose. When at full-strength, he genuinely can.

That may not result in many more than 30 tackles, but it would free up Tillery to rack up an influx on his 56 of a year ago.

DOWN THE ROAD
Starting for two seasons at defensive tackle, be it as a three-technique or as a nose, for a program like Notre Dame will essentially guarantee Bonner a mini-camp chance at the next level. Just like in college football, the NFL relies on defensive linemen too much to ignore such a résumé.

A bit undersized, that path may not result in a long-term gig for Bonner, but it is more than nothing.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically), Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

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.