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Counting Down the Irish: 5 to 1

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When considering All-Americans, a player is deemed consensus if he shows up on at least half of the recognized lists. Using that definition, all of Notre Dame’s top-five players are consensus top-five when considering the greatest individual impacts expected from the Irish.

The name leading the way was unanimously in the top-five and rates as a consensus top-pick. At least some of that anticipation traces to the game-changing effect he showed on the very first day of 2018.

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
9: Miles Boykin, senior receiver, 185
8: Daelin Hayes, junior defensive end, 193
7: Alex Bars, fifth-year left guard, captain, 228
6: Brandon Wimbush, senior quarterback, 234

5: Drue Tranquill, fifth-year linebacker, 249 points
High ranking: No. 2 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 11
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 7

To use Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s term, Tranquill is a “tackling machine.” He is also a two-year captain and now a three-year starter, albeit at three different positions. It may be Tranquill has finally found the position best-suited to his skillset, certainly to his future.

At Buck (or weakside) linebacker, Tranquill’s duties shift from tracking tight ends as often as running backs to focusing on run keys and dropping into coverage primarily when the offense audibles him into it. These changes will most show themselves with an influx in Tranquill’s tackles, not exactly a low bar to clear considering he made 84 last season.

Playing behind a strong defensive front, Tranquill should not have to worry about too many offensive linemen. He will be able to cut loose and chase after the ball. When handling the myriad duties of the rover last season, Tranquill still managed to recover three fumbles, force another and intercept a pass. He already had a nose for the ball.

Removing other distractions — even with the additions of run/pass keys and keeping a closer eye on blocking backs slipping out for bailout routes — will allow that nose to hone in even stronger.

Julian Love may not return multiple interceptions for touchdowns this fall, but that is far from the only measure of success for the junior cornerback and second-team All-American a year ago. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

4: Julian Love, junior cornerback, 254 points
High ranking: No. 2 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 12
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 12

It is hard to believe a sophomore who was named a second-team All-American would then struggle to focus in the ensuing spring practices, but that was the criticism of Love, one he has come to acknowledge as fair. His first week of preseason practice featured a return to preferred and successful ways, per Kelly.

“He’s stopped worrying about making interceptions,” Kelly said Thursday. “You can be a great player without one interception. … Be who you are, and what he was last year was a technician. He was smart. He knew time and place in the game. He’s gotten back to those fundamentals and it’s really paid off for him.”

Love is best-recognized for his two (and five yards from a third) interceptions returned for touchdowns and 20-plus pass breakups, but he also provides solid tackling, hence his isolation on the boundary. He finished last season with 68.

That combination drastically skews the risk :: reward ratio for opposing quarterbacks. Test Love and the worst-case scenario is he jumps the route and returns it for six points the other way. Even if he gets beat, it is quite likely he makes the tackle before too much damage is done to Notre Dame. That is far from a desirable outcome spectrum for any passer.

If not for the rise of junior cornerback Troy Pride, Love could be in for a quiet season. Pride’s emergence this offseason, though, should force quarterbacks to throw a few passes toward Love. Whereas he could be entirely ignored (a la Revis Island in its brief heyday), having two pertinent cornerbacks forces offensive coordinators to factor in the whole field one way or another.

That should boost Love’s impact this season. He may not score twice or even intercept a single pass, as Kelly said, but how he frustrates the opposition will be all the proof needed to justify this ranking.

3: Sam Mustipher, fifth-year center, 257 points
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 14

Less than two years ago, Mustipher was the figurative whipping boy for a disaster of a situation in a literal hurricane. Now he is a captain, a three-year starter and an undisputed leader. If the Irish coaches need someone put in their place, it is likely Mustipher who has the conversation.

That effect is not why he lands so high in this polling.

He lands here because he determines the offensive line’s success or failure. Mustipher makes the protection calls, removing an item from senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s to-do list. Mustipher creates combination blocks to both the left and the right that elicit celebratory chest bumps before tastefully appropriate. Mustipher holds together an offensive line which, though returning four starters, has three players in new positions.

Jerry Tillery’s career has been checkered by moments of immaturity, but returning for his senior season should set up the defensive tackle for a high note of a finish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2: Jerry Tillery, senior defensive tackle, 264 points
High ranking: No. 1 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 9
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 11

In some ways, it is fitting Tillery and Coney land in these top-two spots, being the two players who most considered heading to the NFL this spring but instead opted for one more year at Notre Dame. Tillery had arguably less to prove than Coney, having contributed for three seasons, but there is much yet to develop in his game, so the return made and makes sense.

If that development takes hold, and there is no reason to think it will not, Tillery could end up with a ball carrier in his hands behind the line of scrimmage more than once per game. He was not far from that mark in 2017, finishing with nine tackles for loss among his 56 total. And that was from the nose tackle position, where a large portion of the responsibilities focus on holding the point of attack, not acting as a disruptor.

Like Tranquill to Buck linebacker, moving Tillery to the three-technique tackle position will set him up to play a bit more instinctively. With a six-foot-seven wingspan (if not longer), those instincts cover a lot more ground than is usually expected from a defensive tackle.

Improving on last season’s 116 tackles would be a tall order for senior linebacker Te’von Coney, but do not put such an effort past him. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

1: Te’von Coney, senior linebacker, 291 points
High ranking: No. 1 on seven ballots.
Low ranking: No. 5
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 23

A conversation during Thursday’s practice open to media viewing included discussion of why Coney ended up in this slot. The answer was simple: “Look at how impactful he was the last time they were on the football field.”

Making 17 tackles against an SEC program does not just happen. Frankly, 17 tackles against anyone does not just happen. Coney was a man on a mission on New Year’s Day, seeing a touch more playing time than he had all season.

Consider, he finished last year with 116 tackles despite splitting time with seniors and captains Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan all season. Rotating with Martini was expected; Morgan’s role needed to be diminished slightly as a shoulder injury hampered him for much of the season. Once Coney got a taste of that amount of playing time, he ensured it would not be taken from him.

There is no longer a timeshare awaiting the Florida native. As impressive as freshman linebacker Bo Bauer looks, he will be no more than the slightest of complements to Coney. This is Coney’s show, his defense, his year.

It would be wildly-unrealistic to think Coney could match Bob Crable’s record of 187 tackles in a season, set in 1979, or even Crable’s third-highest mark of 154 tackles in 1980. (Yes, Crable owns three of the four most-prolific such seasons in Irish history.) Then again, 17 tackles a game would equal … 221. That will absolutely not happen, but could 12? That would push Coney past that latter mark from the leading-tackler in Notre Dame’s century-plus of football.

(Seriously, Crable finished with 521 career tackles, 84 more than Manti Te’o managed in four healthy seasons. Coney has a comparatively meager 191 in his career to date.)

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.