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Counting Down the Irish: 10 to 6

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Brandon Wimbush may have finished last season with a completion percentage less than 50 percent, but he also accounted for 30 touchdowns total. That disparity likely explains his complete lack of movement between this ranking and the one published a year ago. He produced, but not in such a way to push the senior quarterback into the top-five of Notre Dame’s most impactful players amid 2018’s expectations.

25: Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points
24: Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30
23: Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60
22: Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74
21: Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79
20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84
19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88
18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89
17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91
16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93
15: Cole Kmet, sophomore tight end, 110
14: Robert Hainsey, sophomore right tackle, 119
13: Troy Pride, junior cornerback, 133
12: Alohi Gilman, junior safety, 135
11: Chase Claypool, junior receiver, 167

10: Khalid Kareem, junior defensive end, 180 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 15
12 ballots total.

Kareem cracks the top 10 because of two very-related occurrences. For starters, he played well last year (5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks with two coming against USC) and continued that rise in the spring. That development gave fifth-year defensive end Jay Hayes enough pause about his final season of eligibility and subsequent playing time to spark Hayes’ transfer to Georgia. That departure put Kareem into prime position to break out this year as the undisputed starter at strongside defensive end.

In that role, Kareem should match last season’s stats and then some. Back then he was a mere supplement to Hayes and senior Andrew Trumbetti. That duo combined for 55 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 1.5 sacks. Not all of those moments will fall to Kareem — classmate Ade Ogundeji stands to benefit immensely, as well — but the majority of them will.

A defensive end with 40-plus tackles, eight or nine for loss and at least five sacks just might make enough of an impact to warrant a higher ranking than No. 10.

9: Miles Boykin, senior receiver, 185 points
High ranking: No. 2
Low ranking: No. 23
12 ballots total.

Considering how Boykin’s season ended/his 2018 began, it is worth noting he did not make this top 25 at all heading into 2017.

Of course, his production this year will hinge greatly on quarterback play, but the offseason praise Irish head coach Brian Kelly continues to heap on Boykin gives the impression he should excel this fall with or without stellar performances from Wimbush.

“Miles Boykin obviously was a guy that we didn’t see much of during the year, but had a breakout game,” Kelly said a week ago. “He carried that into the offseason, into spring ball, and then into the summer workouts. He’s been outstanding.”

Boykin and Wimbush have apparently developed more of a rapport, leading to some intriguing possibilities for situational connections.

“You can take a Miles Boykin now and work on some specific things in the red zone in terms of back shoulder throws and things of that nature,” Kelly said after the first preseason practice. “We weren’t at that point (a year ago).”

Junior defensive end Daelin Hayes is most-praised for his pass-rush abilities, but his overall game has progressed past that one dimension. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

8: Daelin Hayes, junior defensive end, 193 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 19
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 9

A defensive end’s duties extend beyond chasing the ball behind the line of scrimmage. In those regards, Hayes is superior to Kareem to date, but he also excels in racking up sacks, notching three last season. His pass rush has already caused Notre Dame some problems in preseason practice.

“Daelin Hayes was outstanding in what he was doing,” Kelly told WatchND’s Jack Nolan following the second practice. “A lot more confident as a football player. He’s going to be difficult to defend.

“We had to get him off the football field because we had to play with a freshman [offensive tackle] with the second-group and we couldn’t get any plays off.”

Hayes will rarely have such inexperienced players trying to set the edge against him, but his continued development may render that a moot point.

His stats and pending breakout season aside, Hayes moving up one whole spot in these rankings in a year does not give testament to how much better off the Irish defensive line is than in its recent history. Consider this poll a year ago: Hayes was the first defensive lineman listed at No. 9 with tackle Jerry Tillery the second at No. 11. Only when Jay Hayes (no relation) rated at No. 20 did the line reveal its third player of note.

It should hardly be a spoiler to admit Tillery is in the top five this year, meaning three of Notre Dame’s best-10 players are on the defensive line. That is an absolute must in college football.

7: Alex Bars, fifth-year left guard, captain, 228 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 10
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 17

Bars is the fourth offensive linemen to show up in this balloting, and his spectrum was nearly as narrow as his blocking partner’s included in tomorrow’s top five. Bars shores up an offensive line interior in the best way possible when losing a unanimous All-American. He will not be as good as Quenton Nelson, but that is hardly a knock. He will fill those shoes as well as anyone could hope.

Bars’ 6-foot-6 frame is massive for the inside, but it will allow him to aid first-year starter junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg in ways escaping most notice. Eichenberg will have the luxury of cheating just a bit toward the outside, knowing Bars’ reach can handle those extra inches. In that regard, Bars’ excellence improves the entire offensive line.

Expecting a Heisman campaign from Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is to set oneself up for disappointment. Expecting him to improve upon last season should be a bit more realistic, though. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

6: Brandon Wimbush, senior quarterback, 234 points
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 14
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 6

Wimbush’s skewed rankings and overall finish at No. 6 are not inherently a criticism of him, though that is naturally included to some degree. They also point to the strength of the Irish defense. The two ballots that ranked him lowest, at Nos. 13 and 14, each included seven defenders and multiple offensive linemen in front of Wimbush. This iteration of Notre Dame does not necessarily need its quarterback to be outstanding every moment in order to be successful.

It does need him to avoid mistakes, establish consistency and add in a few moments of brilliance. He excelled in two of those regards last year, but a 49.5 percent completion rate is far from reliable consistency. Very far from it, in fact, as is a yards per attempt average of 6.8.

It is genuinely hard to imagine a season in which Wimbush is more than the sixth-most impactful player on the roster. The defense has too many potential stars, and the hype is building for another offensive lineman All-American campaign, if not at least consideration. For the year to end where Kelly & Co. want it to, though, Wimbush will need to fall no lower. The Irish — and Boykin, and Claypool, and Kmet — will need Wimbush to propel such success.

“Brandon is starting to realize who he is as a player and a competitor,” Kelly told Nolan on Sunday. “He’s at his best when he’s playing fast and not thinking about a bunch of stuff.

“He’s got great athletic ability, he’s got great arm strength, he’s got the ability to run. … Play fast, good things will happen.”

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.