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Counting Down the Irish: Too high? Too low? Just right?

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Notre Dame will rely on its defense and offensive line this season, so when the “Counting Down The Irish” top 25 includes 11 defenders and all five starting offensive linemen, it makes sense. That logic was confirmed when the top five consisted of solely those such players.

I did not submit a top-25 ranking for the annual exercise. Some philosophical piece of me feels the composite polling presents better without the added ballot. An even dozen votes provides enough of a sample size, and the core of the credit then goes to those 12. They deserve it, they took the time to aid this space. Hopefully doing so at least prompted them to organize their thoughts before preseason practice, serving something of a purpose on their ends, as well.

Before the ballots start coming in, I did try to project groupings. That is not inherently a personal ranking, but rather a prediction of the results. Doing so this year left me with a confident 20 names consisting of a few different subsections:

All five offensive linemen.
Nine defensive starters.
One backup defensive lineman. (The more I think about this in retrospect, knowing my beliefs about the vitality of a deep defensive line in college football today, maybe this should have been doubled.)
A quarterback and his top-two receivers.
The running back most likely to get the season’s first carry.
And a kicker who has the demeanor to win a game if ever given the chance.

Those 20 all made the final listing, then joined by two tight ends, a running back who is unlikely to see action until the end of September, a nickelback and a punter.

Those five were among about 10 names I figured would fill out the polling.

That preemptive brainstorming now frames some opinions of players who finished too high and others who landed too low. It needs to be acknowledged, those opinions are now voiced with the benefits of a practice viewing and Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s comments over the last week-plus in mind, not to mention idle time to reflect upon the wisdom of the crowd.

The dozen panelists had none of those opportunities, turning in their ballots at the start of the month.

TOO HIGH: Senior Dexter Williams (pictured above, No. 2) is the most-explosive running back on the roster. He has the most experience. These cannot be doubted.

He is also expected to miss a third of his season. With his injury history and indifference toward blocking, missing more time would not be a shock.

Expecting him to be the No. 19 most-impactful player this season with those large limiting factors is a generous reach. It is not impossible, but it seems quite improbable.

TOO LOW: That thought process then points to sophomores Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong. If combining their votes, they would have finished No. 31, where Armstrong finished on his own. This is not to say either should have been in the top 25, but one of their names should have appeared on every ballot, rather than on only half, with two of those six listing both at the very bottom of the ranking.

The praise Thursday featured Davis, both in this space and in Kelly’s words, but the latter made an interesting point about Armstrong that could bear fruit in October and November.

“He can go all day,” Kelly said. “That kid is incredible. Physically, there’s no drop-off. His GPS numbers, we’ve never had them as high as his, and he bounces back the next day. He’s an incredibly-conditioned football player.”

Will anyone be all that surprised if Williams pulls up with a tight hamstring in his second game off the sidelines and Armstrong steps in with a similar one cut-and-go running style?

Davis and Armstrong probably should not have made the top 25 as a whole, but it is surprising to see them receive so little consideration given the utter lack of experience/proven depth/actual running backs at the position.

TOO HIGH: Both tight ends. Sophomore Cole Kmet finished No. 15 and senior Alizé Mack landed at No. 18. Kmet has two catches to his name. Mack has two seasons of inconsistency sandwiching a season of academic purgatory.

If either proves worthy of those rankings, no one will be happier than offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Tony Jones will not come anywhere near matching Josh Adams’ stats from a year ago, but as Notre Dame’s starting and lead running back, he should put up enough to garner more consideration than he did in the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

TOO LOW: Junior running back Tony Jones fell between the two tight ends. He may not be a star-in-the-making, though that remains within the realm of possibility, but he will be the bellcow through at least the first four games and conceivably much of the season. Even if he finishes the year with a pedestrian 700 yards and five touchdowns on 150 carries, that would warrant more credit than he seems to have been given.

TOO LOW: If senior kicker Justin Yoon wins so much as one game with a swing of his leg, his impact should qualify as no lower than No. 15, yet he finished at No. 21. Given Kelly’s thoughts about Yoon’s leg strength, it is all that more likely he gets a chance to finally knock in a walk-off field goal.

“Justin Yoon is pounding the ball,” Kelly said. “I mean, pounding it. He’s gone from a guy whose cliff was 45, his cliff is (now) 52-55. He’s pounding the ball. That’s on him. He worked so hard in the weight room to get there.”

TOO HIGH: Junior receiver Chase Claypool (No. 11) returns the best receiving stats on the roster and, if locked-in, will make his mark on the season, but should he really have been ahead of …

TOO LOW: Junior safety Alohi Gilman (No. 12) and junior cornerback Troy Pride (No. 13)? Again, Notre Dame will rely on its defense. A long-pined-for starting safety and a physically-gifted cornerback should not be knocked below Claypool by default. To use the words of junior defensive end Daelin Hayes, No. 8 in the proceedings, …

“I think this defense is the heartbeat of our team. This team lives and dies with us.”

A similar argument can be made for junior defensive end Julian Okwara (No. 21) ending up too low, but to make that a legitimate gripe, someone has to slide below him. The best candidate would be senior nickelback Shaun Crawford (No. 16), more of a part-time defensive starter than Okwara is, so the claim is not a strong one.

Try to project Shaun Crawford’s coming season at your own risk. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Crawford’s role as a nickelback somewhat complements the rover linebacker. He is established in his position, though. It is known he will (at least figuratively) start and, barring injury, presumably stay in that slot on the depth chart.

Senior Asmar Bilal, sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon cannot say the same as they compete for rover opportunities. Bilal should start against Michigan, but the beat media’s lack of confidence in him is noteworthy.

In the end, the crowd’s wisdom should be deferred to. Settling on nine defensive starters (missing the rover and a second safety) along with a part-timer in Crawford and a rotational backup in Okwara is an unquestionable conclusion. The five offensive linemen were hardly in doubt. Even acknowledging the reliability of a fifth-year punter is a worthy use of four percent of a ballot.

If curious, the names not yet mentioned in my grouping of 10 to fill five were junior quarterback Ian Book and sophomore defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Kelly may agree regarding Tagovailoa-Amosa, although with the obvious benefit of far more insight than any of these voters had.

“Myron has had a really good camp,” Kelly said. “As a three-technique, his athletic ability and his first-step quickness, he gives us two three-techniques (along with senior Jerry Tillery) that can get up the field and cause some havoc.”

This is not to say Tagovailoa-Amosa, Hinish or Book (or Davis or Armstrong) should have finished in the top 25, but it is to point out how strongly they needed to be considered, even if Davis, in particular, was not much.

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.