The time may already be now for Notre Dame’s freshmen

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Five Notre Dame freshmen played in the 24-17 victory over Michigan last weekend. Many more than that will debut against Ball State on Saturday.

That is in part because of the lower level of competition. No matter how one looks at it, the Irish simply should not face the same challenge or pressure against a team that went 2-10 last year compared to a top-15 opponent like Michigan. That creates an opportunity for a handful of inexperienced players, just as it always has.

This year is different, as has been abstractly discussed at length. The NCAA now allows players to take the field in up to four games without burning a year of eligibility. This will allow some to get a taste of experience this year without unnecessarily shortening their careers. It will bring added depth to Notre Dame’s special teams and defensive line later in the season. It will give a carrot to chase for an injured player like sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who knows if his rehab goes well, he could get back on the field yet in 2018.

Jayson Ademilola (rivals.com)

There are, of course, those who would have played anyway, beginning with the five who did so against the Wolverines: receiver Kevin Austin, defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola, linebacker Bo Bauer, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Houston Griffith.

While it is conceivable the vast majority of the 23 other Irish freshmen follow their lead this weekend, only a handful of them will see genuine action throughout the season, as in more than four games. Looking at the last three years, Notre Dame has played between 10 and 12 freshmen each season, with 75 percent of them doing so from the fall’s outset.

2015: 11 total freshmen, with 10 of them playing in at least one of the year’s first two games (vs. Texas, at Virginia). The exception? Quarterback Brandon Wimbush providing emergency depth once Malik Zaire broke his ankle.
2016: 12 total with seven playing right away. Another, cornerback Troy Pride, eventually saw extensive action as injuries ravaged the secondary. Khalid Kareem, meanwhile, played in only four games but lost a year of eligibility.
2017: 10 total with eight in the first couple. Kicker Jonathan Doerer needed to regain some strength after hitting the proverbial wall in preseason practice and running back C.J. Holmes was activated to ease the load on some nicked-up ball carriers.

Even with the rule change, similar numbers will likely do more than mop-up against the likes of Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh. That is, in part, due to them theoretically being better than their counterparts may have been in previous years, thus forcing the issue the old-fashioned way.

“A lot of those younger guys, we feel have the ability,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said back at the start of preseason practice when discussing how much deeper this roster is than in years past. “… Our depth is in that 65-85 range, which is going to show itself in special teams.”

With the greatest challenge of most of the first month in the rearview mirror, that depth should indeed start to show itself.

“We’ve got a pretty good plan moving forward how we’re going to use players,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll see how that pans out over the next few weeks.”

That began with Ademilola, whether or not Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot or not. Notre Dame had already identified Ademilola as next man in at a position where a surplus of depth is inconceivable.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Playing Bauer on special teams all season makes sense, considering he is also the backup to senior linebacker Te’von Coney. If Coney can or needs to come off the field, it will be Bauer who replaces him. Similarly, Austin forced his way into the receiver rotation this preseason, now the first option in place of senior Miles Boykin. Bracy moved up on the depth chart when senior Shaun Crawford tore his ACL, and Griffith could end up a starting safety by the end of the month, quite frankly.

Who is next?

That would be linebacker Shayne Simon, no longer in the mix just at rover, but also behind fifth-year Drue Tranquill and sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath at buck linebacker, per the depth chart released Tuesday.

Shayne Simon (rivals.com)

“We just think [Simon is] a really good player that has good instincts,” Kelly said. “I think [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] feels comfortable, as I do, with that three-technique predominantly kicked his way that we can call a game and let him run and hit and play the position for us if need be.”

Then comes Justin Ademilola, Jayson’s twin brother at defensive end. The drop end position may seem set with juniors Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, but adding more depth along the line is always a good thing and Kelly picked up the mantle long carried by defensive line coach Mike Elston, insisting the lesser-recruited twin is nearly just as ready to play.

“He’s really close,” Kelly said. “… They’ve got really good football instincts, so you can play off that a lot quicker, and you can accelerate the teaching and the learning when they come in with some really good football instincts.”

With defensive line in mind, another trip to the injury list would presumably mean it is time for tackle Ja’Mion Franklin to join the fray, so getting some early work would not be a surprise.

The same thought process applies to running back, where it would seem C’Bo Flemister has the edge over Jahmir Smith. If one of sophomore Jafar Armstrong, junior Tony Jones or (eventually) senior Dexter Williams were to sprain an ankle, those carries would not all fall to sophomore Avery Davis. That just is not his role in the offense. At least some would go to the freshmen. Given the nature of football, at least one sprained ankle or pulled hamstring is likely. (See: 2017.)

At this point, deferring to the depth chart turns the attention to slot receivers Joe Wilkins and Lawrence Keys, listed in that order behind senior Chris Finke. One other freshman is listed in the two-deep, Jarrett Patterson at left tackle, but that is only nominal; unior right guard Tommy Kraemer would be the actual next-man-up at left tackle should junior Liam Eichenberg go down.

This is the usual time when the freshmen expected to contribute get their first or second tastes of action. That has not changed with the new NCAA rule. It just means much of the rest of the class will make cameos, as well.


By this space’s count, 10 freshmen played in the 2015 opener vs. Texas and seven of them played again at Virginia: Josh Adams, Nick Coleman, Nicco Fertitta, Alizé Mack, C.J. Sanders, Jerry Tillery and Justin Yoon. Equanimeous St. Brown, Te’von Coney and Dexter Williams played in only the opener.

Seven freshmen played in 2016’s opener, a trip to visit the Longhorns: Chase Claypool, Jalen Elliott, Daelin Hayes, Julian Love, Julian Okwara, Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill. They all played the second week, as well, against Nevada, as did four others: the aforementioned Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones, Javon McKinley and Donte Vaughn.

Aside from Doerer (seven games) and Holmes (8), last year’s contributing freshmen all played at least 11 games, including both of the first two against Temple and eventual national runner-up Georgia: Jordan Genmark Heath, Robert Hainsey, Kurt Hinish, Cole Kmet, Isaiah Robertson, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Brock Wright and Michael Young.

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.