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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 304 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only one season of eligibility remaining to be used in 2018.
Depth chart: Mustipher will start at center for the third straight year, and, as has been the case for most of that time, his backup is to be determined.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Mustipher chose Notre Dame over the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Stanford and most other top-tier programs in the country. An Under Armour All-American, rivals.com rated him as the No. 3 prospect in Maryland, the No. 12 guard in the country and the No. 203 overall recruit.

CAREER TO DATE
Mustipher returns 25 starts to the Irish offensive line, all of them at center in the last two seasons. He first preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman before working as a reserve in nine games in 2015.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly named Mustipher one of three initial captains the first day of spring practice, an honor easily predicted.

“He’s got grit,” Kelly said. “He’s got all the things off the field. Engineering student who has graduated, great student, great role model, represents Notre Dame football in the manner that you would want your student-athletes. He just has an immense amount of respect from his peers, coaches, players.”

Mustipher’s growth over the last four seasons, and in particular the last few as a starter, has not been limited to earning respect from the rest of the roster, though.

“It’s been his best [offseason], obviously,” Kelly said in late March. “In terms of his numbers, we had a full staff meeting with the strength staff on Tuesday and he’s in the top three in every category physically.”

Of course, the focus of Mustipher’s performance has little to do with his work in the weight room and only somewhat pertains to his leadership.

“There’s a lot of confidence when Sam is in,” offensive line coach Jeff Quinn said in mid-April. “He’s able to direct calls and make adjustments based on what defenses are doing. [The entire offensive line] trusts Sam without a doubt, as I do. Certainly his experience is pretty evident when we flip on the film. He’s always on his A-game with the calls and various different techniques that are applied based on the situations that present themselves. He hits those marks all the time. It’s just great to have somebody that has that kind of experience.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Mustipher will continue to be the fulcrum on the Irish line next season, as well. [Left tackle Mike] McGlinchey and most likely [left guard Quenton] Nelson will be off to the NFL, leaving Mustipher and presumably [guard Alex] Bars as established starters, plus whoever gets the final nod at right tackle.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Mustipher will likely become the vocal leader of the offense. As the most-established starter and an obvious choice as captain, he will do well in that role. When the going gets tough, his figurative and literal support will come from his immediate left side and fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, also a captain. The two have worked together, usually alongside each other, for five years now.

The only question around Mustipher is what happens if he twists his ankle, let alone suffers a long-term injury. Quinn identified senior Trevor Ruhland, sophomore Dillan Gibbons, Bars and incoming freshman Luke Jones as possibilities at center. None of them are centers by trade yet, but then again neither was Mustipher when he arrived at Notre Dame. If Mustipher is out for a series or a quarter, Ruhland or Gibbons would likely fill in. If the prognosis were to sideline Mustipher longer than that, then perhaps Bars would move to center and someone else could emerge at guard.

Either way, Mustipher’s health is of paramount importance to the Irish offense’s success, arguably even more so than that of starting quarterback senior Brandon Wimbush.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mustipher’s technical ability has steadily improved throughout his collegiate career. Combined with some impressive strength, his progression makes him an intriguing draft prospect. Centers are not pursued as highly as other line positions, partly due to needing exactly half as many of them, but elite centers get noticed.

A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Mustipher’s draft fate may come down to his combine numbers as much as anything else, considering his film will almost certainly be outstanding.

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. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

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    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.