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Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16

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Of the 13 players appearing in both last year’s “Counting Down the Irish” and the present iteration, only three regressed down the rankings. Oddly enough, all three fell into today’s grouping.

No. 25 Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points.
No. 24 Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30 points.
No. 23 Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60.
No. 22 Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74.
No. 21 Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79.

20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven ballots total.

Nominally, Okwara backs up classmate Daelin Hayes, making him the first second-unit player to appear in this polling. While he will play plenty in order to keep both pass-rushers legs’ fresh, Okwara is the truest backup among those yet to be considered. (For example, at least two Notre Dame running backs will see plenty of time, the starting designation contingent on a play call. Neither is a genuine sub.)

That is pointed out as a credit to Okwara. Despite comparatively fewer opportunities, he is expected to make his presence known. A year after making 4.5 tackles for loss with 2.5 sacks, any growth on those numbers will result in that expectation being fulfilled. Lest we forget, he also made quite an acrobatic interception at North Carolina, showing off his athleticism in his homestate.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Okwara for putting in the work to add 12 pounds over the summer, theoretically readying him for the toll exacted by more playing time.

“I think what you’ll see now with this new weight, he’s one of our stronger players,” Kelly said Thursday. “Extremely strong in the weight room. He now has added obviously some power behind that.”

Added durability and power should also make Okwara’s overall abilities applicable in more situations.

19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total.
Last year: No. 15

Williams’ fall four spots absolutely ties to the likelihood of him missing the season’s first four games for unspecified disciplinary issues. A player can make only so much impact in just two-thirds of the season.

When he takes the field, if he remains healthy, Williams is arguably Notre Dame’s most explosive running back. (It is an argument out of deference to the unknown commodity known as sophomore Jafar Armstrong.) If he finds a rhythm on a crucial series, Williams certainly has the tools to single-handedly tilt a game.

Yet, he has not done so to date. He has struggled to remain on the field, both due to injury and inadequacy in passing situations. Now, add to that list repeated transgressions forcing him to the sideline. If the best ability is availability, Williams’ ceiling is lower than his physical gifts suggest, yet those gifts are enough to force him onto this listing, nonetheless.

Alizé Mack finished last season with 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown, numbers he will need to improve upon to warrant these expectations of a worthwhile impact. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 25
Nine ballots total.
Last year: No. 8

Mack is this season’s largest drop in balloting. Returning from a season suspended due to academic missteps created an intriguing allure last year, one beset by dropped passes and a lack of separation. Inconsistent Irish quarterback play exacerbated Mack’s struggles.

Yet, his drop may not tie solely to those struggles. It could also point to the depth chart around Mack. Sophomore tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright both played well last season, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar showed a unique red-zone presence. The position as a whole could not be much stronger, but that depth could limit Mack’s ability to finally break out despite the tantalizing mismatches his 6-foot-4 frame and excellent speed could create.

17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91 points
High ranking: No. 3
Low ranking: No. 25
Eight ballots total.

Barring injury, Jones is likely to end up with the most carries for Notre Dame this fall, and that alone warrants this ranking when considering overall impact. What he does with those carries will determine if that high vote or the low mark was more accurate.

Jones averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season on 44 rushes. He is nowhere near a plodding rusher, though he often prefers to bowl over a defender rather than evade him. Both strategies work.

If he does prove to be deserving of anything resembling that high-water mark (or even the Nos. 7 and 8 rankings he also received), two-back sets will likely play a part in that. Jones gives Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long his best backfield Swiss Army knife, showing excellent ability in pass-blocking and more than competence in receiving and running routes out of the backfield. The difficult situations Jones could put defenses in will not only show themselves in his stats, but also in his backfield counterparts, be that Williams and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush or another running back altogether.

Rarely does a play truly swing a touchdown. Other chances usually follow it up, or the touchdown was not literally a sure thing. When Shaun Crawford forced a fumble at the goal line at Michigan State last season, he genuinely did prevent a score when he recovered the fumble in the end zone. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 24
10 ballots total.
Last year: No. 10

If Crawford finally has all of his fitness back after losing both the 2015 and 2016 seasons to injury, then this mark will likely end up too low. He had his hand directly involved in four turnovers last season, including one of the savviest plays seen in a long time when he stripped Michigan State running back LJ Scott inches from the goal line and recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback rather than a Spartans touchdown. That moment of brilliance has been somewhat forgotten among long Irish touchdown runs, the Citrus Bowl heroics and the sheer weight of time, but it best showed what Crawford is capable of.

Also forgotten, Crawford added 32 tackles in a part-time role, even though the season’s grind gradually slowed him down. It was, after all, his first full season.

The panelists:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Elizabeth Greason, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

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.