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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Northwestern

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Unless discussing Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, do not describe the Nov. 3 trip to Northwestern as a “revenge game.” He is the only remaining Irish roster piece that saw action back in 2014 when the Wildcats pulled off a 43-40 overtime victory against No. 15 Notre Dame, arguably in part because of simple arithmetic mistakes.

In his second career start, Tranquill made seven tackles and recovered one fumble that afternoon.

2017 REVIEW
Northwestern finished last season on an eight-game winning streak, one that survived three consecutive overtimes and culminated with a 24-23 win against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, ending the year ranked No. 17 at 10-3.

A defense that gave up only 20.1 points and 357 yards per game was actually overshadowed much of the year by an offense reaching highs not seen in at least five seasons. The Wildcats averaged 29.2 points per game (best since 2012) and 408 yards (best since 2011), led by third-year starter Clayton Thorson at quarterback.

Though all of that added up to finishing second in the Big Ten West division, Northwestern was never genuinely in the running for the conference title. It lost at Wisconsin before the end of September, and the Badgers never slipped up until the conference championship game.

WHAT NORTHWESTERN LOST
Most notably, all-time school rushing leader Justin Jackson and his 5,440 career yards. Offensively, the only other pieces warranting mention are center Brad North and Thorson’s offseason. He tore his ACL in the bowl game.

Even if Thorson had been healthy, he would not have been seen in the Wildcats’ spring game … since it was cancelled by a mid-April snowstorm.

Defensively, Northwestern will need to replace defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster and his 40 tackles with 9.5 behind the line of scrimmage as well as both of its starting safeties.

The Wildcats return all their linebackers, notable this season and in this category because position coach Randy Bates moved eastward to handle defensive coordinator duties at Pittsburgh,

WHAT NORTHWESTERN GAINED
Much has been made of the state-of-the-art, lakeshore practice facility Northwestern is finishing up. It catches the program up to the modern facilities arms race after lagging behind for, to put it charitably, awhile.

Come September, more may be made of four-star defensive end Devin O’Rourke. The defensive line may not inherently need him to contribute right away, but that does not mean he will not crack the rotation in due time. Holding offers from eight other Big Ten schools, Notre Dame and Ole Miss, O’Rourke chose the campus only an hour from his hometown of Frankfort, Ill.

Entering his 13th season leading Northwestern, it seems less and less likely Pat Fitzgerald ever coaches anywhere else. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
At this point, it feels safe to figure Pat Fitzgerald will spend his entire career coaching the Wildcats, entering his 13th season now. His career record of 87-65 is by no means unimpeachable, but his cache at the school likely insures his job until the program swoons to uncharacteristic lows or he reaches a third decade.

Fitzgerald does not jump to mind when discussing the longest-tenured college football coaches, but he should. More than that, he is one whose name is rarely tied to openings. Only five coaches have been at their gigs longer, starting with Kirk Ferentz entering his 20th year at Iowa and TCU’s Gary Patterson reaching his 19th. The next trio were all hired just a year before Fitzgerald. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy heard his name mentioned alongside this offseason’s Tennessee vacancy; at age 73, Frank Solich is presumably nearing the end of his term at Ohio; and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham flies below the radar just as Fitzgerald does.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
The obvious concerns tie to Thorson’s knee. With 39 career starts to date, he will retake the starting quarterback duties even if he is not cleared for the Aug. 30 season opener at Purdue. (Hey, that is only eight days away!) Even considering him for that evening is a credit to modern medicine. ACL tears used to require 12 months, minimum. Thorson tore his exactly nine months and one day before the trip to West Lafayette. (By the way, he completed 60.4 percent of his passes last year for 2,844 yards and 15 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.)

Without Jackson, the Wildcats will rely on sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin. Even with Jackson running for 1,311 yards on 287 attempts last year, Larkin made his presence known. As a true freshman, he took 84 carries for 503 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per rush. Four offensive line starters, with 101 career starts between them, will return to clear his path.

Both of Thorson’s top targets also come back, led by 6-foot-4 junior receiver Bennett Skowronek (45 receptions for 644 yards and five scores).

Northwestern enjoyed its best offense in half a decade last year. Those numbers should only rise this year, provided Thorson is as healthy as reports indicate.

As a freshman, linebacker Paddy Fisher finished with 113 tackles, including nine for loss, to lead Northwestern and make second-team All-Big Ten. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
However, this remains a program driven by Fitzgerald’s defense, and that defense should also improve this season, returning seven starters and nearly its entire defensive line rotation. That line combined with then-freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher (second-team All-Big Ten and the team’s No. 1 tackler with 113) to hold opponents to 107.7 rushing yards per game.

Fisher was aided by then-junior Nate Hall, who finished with 79 tackles, 16.5 of which were for loss.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Northwestern drew the short straw in terms of 2018 conference divisional crossover opponents. Rather than, ohhh, Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers, the Wildcats host Michigan and travel to Michigan State and Rutgers. If not for those first two, Northwestern would seem a sure-thing to top the bookmakers’ win total over/under of 6.5.

As is, there are six quite winnable games on its schedule. Unfortunately, they begin at Purdue and then against Duke a week later. Not many programs open with two Power-Five opponents. If Thorson is not full-go, those two close ones could easily tilt the other way.

Winning the close ones is how Fitzgerald & Co. found success last year, finishing 4-0 in one-possession games, including those three straight overtimes against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Notching one or two against the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Iowa should set up the Wildcats to cruise past that over/under metric and into another bowl game. Outdoing Wisconsin for the division title may be even more improbable than usual, but a successful season may be on the horizon, anyway.

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.