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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh

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If there is a trap game for Notre Dame this season, it just may be Pittsburgh, as always seems to be the case when the Panthers are on the schedule. The other prime candidates would be trips to Wake Forest and Northwestern, but the Deacons gave Notre Dame enough of a challenge last year to be remembered and the Wildcats received plenty of votes in the preseason Coaches Poll to be sure they are not off all radars.

Pittsburgh being a headache is not inherently an Irish difficulty. The Panthers upset both Penn State and Clemson in 2016 and topped then-No. 2 and undefeated Miami to close last year.

2017 REVIEW
Pittsburgh went through three quarterbacks last season, originally due to injury and then out of ineffectiveness. Max Browne started five games in the first half of the year before getting knocked out, at which point Ben DiNucci took over. When freshman Kenny Pickett subbed in and nearly pushed the Panthers past Virginia Tech in the penultimate week of the year, he earned the start against the Hurricanes.

Pickett’s first career start marked a high note for all involved. He scored three total touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air.

The other change for Pittsburgh as the season progressed came from its defense. Early in the year, the Panthers hardly stopped anyone — Oklahoma State most notably hung 59 points in the season’s third week. In their final five games, however, only one opponent broke 17 points, winning three of them to push the record to a nearly-respectable posting of 5-7.

WHAT PITTSBURGH LOST
Browne and DiNucci, for starters, but Pickett’s closing and age made him the frontrunner for the starting quarterback gig, anyway. He will need to find new receivers, with leading man Jester Weah (41 receptions for 698 yards and four touchdowns) done and multi-positional threat Quadree Henderson (17 catches for 186 yards; 36 rushes for 251 yards; 46 combined returns for 767 yards and two punt return touchdowns) now working his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.

Pickett will also have to trust a new offensive line, having lost three starters, including first-team All-ACC left tackle Brian O’Neill.

Defensively this listing is rather short. Cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead are the only names not returning among Pittsburgh’s top-15 tacklers.

WHAT PITTSBURGH GAINED
Pickett’s dual-threat abilities make him the almost-certain starter, but if he struggles in his first extended time, the Panthers can turn to former USC and Arkansas quarterback Ricky Town, eligible immediately thanks to a year in junior college. Pittsburgh also added four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin.

Returning nine defensive starters means not much is needed on that side of the ball. First-year coordinator Randy Bates likely will not complain about that, having arrived from Northwestern, where he was the linebackers coach.

Pat Narduzzi. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Pat Narduzzi is a known name for Irish fans. He is, indeed, the same Pat Narduzzi who used to coordinate the Michigan State defense. He did quite well there, but has yet to find a groove in Pittsburgh.

Narduzzi began with two 8-5 campaigns before tailing off last year. Nonetheless, the Panthers are a worthwhile 2-3 against top-10 opponents in Narduzzi’s three seasons.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Pickett gets off to a strong start, he will get the attention. Part of that strong start will presumably derive from a running game, one most likely hinging on a committee of …

Junior Darrin Hall: 128 carries for 628 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Senior Qadree Ollison: 90 carries for 398 yards and five touchdowns.
Sophomore A.J. Davis: Preserved a year of eligibility.

Pittsburgh’s ground attack regressed last year, but that is in part due to losing two-year starter James Conner. Even then, it was an emphasis for Narduzzi. He has kept a balanced offense throughout his Panthers tenure. There is no reason to expect that to change now.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This defense could be vintage Narduzzi. It returns its entire front-seven, its top-six defensive linemen and 13 of its top-15 tacklers, including eight of the top nine.

Last year those players gave up 26.6 points per game, to establish a middling comparison point.

SEASON OUTLOOK
More than looking at 2018, a strong season from Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020, but that is getting ahead.

Staying ahead, November could halt that hype, though that will be a bit of a short-sighted overreaction. Ending the year vs. Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest and at Miami is not anybody’s idea of an ideal finish. That stretch could also short-circuit any chances of the Panthers exceeding the win total over/under of 5.5 or them even finishing as high as No. 5 in the ACC’s Coastal division, as the media projected in a preseason poll, only ahead of North Carolina and Virginia.

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.