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Questions for the Week: Who can kick off? Will Notre Dame’s nickel package change with time?


Notre Dame already knows how it will attempt to replace sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa on the field. That duty falls to freshman Jayson Ademilola more than anybody else, with senior Micah Dew-Treadway also getting a chance at the first competitive reps of his career. That is not an injury needing further analysis.

It would seem the effects of senior defensive back Shaun Crawford’s ACL tear shouldn’t, either, but with a week of time to think about it, the depth chart impact may not be as straightforward.

When the Irish had just days to adjust their defense for Michigan after losing the starting nickel back, the preference was to embrace whatever solution would provide the best short-term answer. Now, Notre Dame can look a little further down the road.

Who will be the starting nickel back? His backup? In Saturday’s 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan, senior Nick Coleman joined the secondary when the nickel package was needed. Considering the Wolverines relied on a tight end-heavy offense, Coleman was not called upon often, and a backup was never genuinely shown. The expectations were that would be freshman Houston Griffith.

The likelihood is that pecking order continues moving forward, leaving junior Jalen Elliott starting at safety. But at some point, there will be an impetus to getting Griffith on the field while still having Coleman’s physicality involved. That could lead to Griffith at nickel, Coleman at safety and Elliott knocked a notch down in that rotation.

This was not the greatest concern against Michigan, and even if it was, the Irish had less than a week to adapt after Crawford’s injury. Double — and, as time works, triple — that time and Notre Dame may land on a different long-term conclusion.

Who will handle kickoffs? Because that was a debacle and a disaster rolled into one, and entirely avoidable, it would seem.

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer sent his first kickoff out of bounds. On his second, he picked up a personal foul for a late hit. His third stayed in bounds and there were no penalties, which is a facetiously-optimistic way of saying Wolverines return man Ambry Thomas took the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.

Senior Justin Yoon handled the two remaining kickoffs, sending both for touchbacks.

“You can’t kick the ball down the middle of the field without proper hang time,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s number one. Number two, we have somebody that goes to the ball that folded way too far inside, and somebody is there to make him right, didn’t make him right.

“We’ve got to coach it better and we’ll get it coached better.”

So the touchdown does not lie entirely at Doerer’s foot, but the majority of the concern does.

Why doesn’t Yoon just handle all kicking duties? After his 2016 season, there was reason to believe Yoon was overworked and that negatively affected his place-kicking. Thus, Kelly and newly-hired special teams coordinator Brian Polian found Doerer late in the subsequent recruiting cycle.

Why not kick off into the end zone every time? It concedes field position at the 25-yard line. Yes, with new fair catch rules, that is even more likely already, but it is not a sure thing if the kick is kept in play. Notre Dame would like Doerer to place the kickoff right in front of the goal line, with proper hang time, to force the returner to make a decision. If he chooses to return, and the coverage unit sticks to its design, then the Irish should be able to force field position worse than the 25-yard line.

Doerer got off to a slow start last season, too. It was chalked up to freshman jitters and/or fatigue. That excuse is not available this year.

Is Michigan’s offense as bad as it looked? Of Notre Dame’s opponents, four kick off Saturday in the early slot, including the Wolverines against Western Michigan. The Broncos gave up 55 points to Syracuse last week. It will be worth watching just to see if Michigan and quarterback Shea Patterson can find the end zone in the game’s first 57 minutes. If so, then that speaks well of the Irish defense. If not, then a data point against a more formidable offense is needed before making any further comparisons of Clark Lea’s defense to 2012’s or even last year’s.

And a reminder, polls don’t matter. New top-25 rankings will be released Tuesday. Notre Dame will move up into the top 10. It has no consequence. The first meaningful poll comes Oct. 30 from the College Football Playoff selection committee. All others offer nothing but talking points and context.

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

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 four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, 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

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.