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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame will (probably) not wear green; freshmen will need to be ready for Michigan


Being “Counting Down the Irish” week, let’s offer a teaser of what is to come by Friday: Four Notre Dame seniors or fifth-years received all the first-place votes in the balloting of a dozen media members. What should not surprise: All four line up in the middle of the field, which makes sense considering the series attempts to gauge who is the most impactful player on the team.

What may surprise: Two play offense.

Nonetheless, four of the top five play for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a large part of the reason any Irish hype ties to that defense.

One more tease: The one offensive showing in the top five is not senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

None of those players will be wearing green against Michigan on Sept. 1, per Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Well, probably not.

Kelly has publicly thrown his support behind an attempt to fill the stadium with green and only green in just 26 days, a bit of a correction to the showing of red brought by Georgia last September. The marketing catchphrase seems to be “Irish wear green.”

“I’ve simply been 100 percent backing, giving [the students] the backing that we, in fact, will be pushing that on our end,” Kelly said Thursday. “Some of our coaches, coaching gear, they will have some green in it. We’re pushing some other things within the stadium through our marketing department that I think is going to bring that stadium together unified.

“More than anything else, it was listening to what our students wanted. They wanted that stadium to be unified.”

This seems a clear chance to trot out the much-maligned green jerseys. The rekindling of a historic rivalry, two top-15 teams with bigger hopes, a big game on a day with few others to match it.

“My sense is, there’s going to plenty of green in that stadium,” Kelly said. “Our home jerseys are blue. I love that tradition. Unless something happens drastically in my thought process, we’ll wear our traditional blue coming into that game.”

That is about as definitive a “no” as Kelly could offer while still leaving the proverbial changing room door unlocked.

ESPN announced its “College GameDay” pregame show will broadcast from Notre Dame to open the season, returning to the campus where GameDay first broadcast live 25 years ago, then previewing a top-two matchup of Florida State at Notre Dame. Obviously, the morning broadcast will not impact the Irish or the Wolverines on the field in the least, but it will add hype and attention to the contest, as well as dial up the on-campus environment another notch.

That will be quite an up-tick in atmosphere for Notre Dame’s freshmen. No matter where they may have played high school football, under the lights against Michigan will be a change. The green, College GameDay, etc. only adds to such.

This is of note because Kelly certainly seems intent on playing some of the freshmen, in large part thanks to the NCAA now allowing them up to four games of play before losing a year of eligibility.

“I’m going into camp with the mindset of playing those [freshmen] that are physically and mentally prepared to help our football team win,” Kelly said. “If they are, we don’t have to worry about it.

“We’ll get them on the field and we’ll compete right away and then maybe we’ve got to make some decisions. Maybe some are better suited as they move through the season to pull back on and maybe some are, let’s keep rolling, let’s keep playing.”

It remains to be seen exactly how this shift from the NCAA alters coaches’ plans across the country. Some will undoubtedly hold back some players until November, adding fresh legs to their depth charts. Kelly may yet do that with a few, but his description points to testing out freshmen in a high-stakes moment early to quickly learn who can viably contribute the rest of the season and who needs more physical and/or mental maturation.

Of those likely to play the rest of the season, freshman safety Houston Griffith is an obvious candidate, already looking to force his way into the starting lineup.

Freshman linebacker Bo Bauer also made enough of a springtime impression to have Kelly still praising him.

“Here is a guy that physically has transformed himself, his mentality, his work ethic, the way he attacks things,” Kelly said. “He’s been extremely impressive.”

On coordinators and the coaching box
Both Lea and offensive coordinator Chip Long are likely to spend the season watching from above. That will be a continuation for Long from last year’s precedent.

“Chip would prefer to be on the field, but he’s open,” Kelly said. “He’s a young coach. It’s not like he’s done it for 40 years, and we all can learn and change.”

For Lea, it will be an adjustment from his past, just as working as the coordinator is. Kelly emphasized moving to the distant aerial view means Lea will have to have even better communication with his defensive assistants. Look for associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston to become the point person in that endeavor.

Lea as the defensive coordinator will include a few other shifts in scheme, something Kelly has been hinting at since the spring.

“We’ve made some tweaks along the way in terms of what I think will be effective for us both in front and in coverage,” Kelly said. “That’s another great thing about Clark. Clark’s not married to, this is the way we do it and we can’t get better at doing it in a different fashion.”

Those changes almost assuredly include greater use of press coverage to best utilize the skills of junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride while trusting an improved back-line at safety to provide a, well, a “safety” net.

The greatest preseason goal, Notre Dame’s maturation amid chaos
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s preseason dotted by questions at complementary positions
With three QBs and six RBs to tend to, Notre Dame’s preseason work awaits
Counting Down the Irish: Others Receiving Votes
Counting Down the Irish: 25 to 21
No. 2 Jordan Genmark Heath, safety-turned-linebacker
No. 2 Dexter Williams, senior running back

Notre Dame begins at No. 11 in Coaches’ Poll; Michigan at No. 14
Former Irish WR “commit” TJ Sheffield chooses Purdue
Michael Floyd signs with New Orleans Saints

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

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 four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, 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

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.