Things To Learn: Chance to see all three Notre Dame quarterbacks

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One might presume Notre Dame’s matchup this weekend has been circled on a few calendars for a while now. Not just those of Ball State alumni and fans throughout Indiana, but also the September pages of the Irish freshmen and understudies. Perhaps it is presumptuous to already speak of a Notre Dame blowout, but anything less than a three-possession victory would be quite the surprise.

Once leading by three possessions at or just after halftime, the Irish coaching staff will presumably turn to the second-string, namely one backup who had and has greater aspirations than mop-up duty against the Cardinals this season, one who will get that chance at some point or another, given the realities of football.

Junior quarterback Ian Book may have hoped to shine last week against Michigan, but that moment did not arrive. This weekend should show Book really can run “the entire offense at a high level,” to use Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s words.

If asked, Kelly would likely still deem Book “1B” rather than a backup quarterback, citing his proven ability to lead the Irish to victory. Kelly’s well-intentioned deference there may not be inaccurate, but it is also far from precise. Book is clearly Notre Dame’s backup, but he is a needed one. The 24-17 victory against the Wolverines proved that, when Irish senior Brandon Wimbush needed to head to the sideline despite having just run Notre Dame into the red zone.

“If we have to put [Book] in the game, the example of when Brandon got his eye poked, he can run the entire offense at a high level,” Kelly said.

In that moment, Book simply made one (correct) read and handed off the ball for a 13-yard touchdown scamper from sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong. Kelly has said, and Wimbush reiterated Saturday, that Book has a specific package catered to him.

“That’s one of the packages, one of those formations where he’s able to make those throws,” Wimbush said.

How much does that playsheet differ from the one offensive coordinator Chip Long uses for Wimbush? An early lead Saturday should give a few possessions of an opportunity to learn that with Book leading the way. It will not inherently be a moment to run down the clock and ease up on the scoreboard, as there is undeniable benefit to getting the backup quarterback repetitions outside of moments when trainers are looking at the starter’s eye.

Once Book notches a few possessions, the Irish should turn to freshman Phil Jurkovec. How will he look in his debut?

This is the most-obvious application of the NCAA’s shift regarding eligibility concerns. The likelihood of Jurkovec playing a few series or even a quarter in a blowout led this space to predict Book will attempt fewer than 75 passes this season, his 2017 total. Expecting him to fall short of that mark was both a statement of belief in Wimbush’s progress and an acknowledgement Jurkovec will take some or all of the 18 attempts Book received last year in mop-up moments.

If Notre Dame is indeed up 24 points or more in the fourth quarter, it will be safe to assume the defense will not give up more than two scores, even if the offense outright stalls. That kind of cushion should give the coaching staff ample comfort in trotting out the true freshman, and thus give Irish fans plenty of reason to stay tuned through the fourth quarter.

This is not to ask Notre Dame to run up the score. Doing so against the Cardinals will serve no greater good, but this is to ask Kelly and Long to let Jurkovec do more than take the snap and hand off to a running back. Seeing him go through a few live progressions and perhaps risk a pass or two into tight coverage would be appreciated, as it is unlikely much of Jurkovec is seen in October or November.

Phil Jurkovec (rivals.com)

Jurkovec may be working behind the second-string offensive line, a unit rarely seen en masse. This does not provide the window to the future like a few possessions of Jurkovec will — if for no other reason than the five line positions do not turn over wholesale like the one player at quarterback does — but it may give some idea of the depth up front. Currently, only sophomore Josh Lugg can be viewed as viable and reliable depth. Every live rep he can get before being desperately needed will further ready him.

When sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey needed to receive an IV last weekend, junior right guard Tommy Kraemer moved out to tackle and Lugg stepped in at guard. The line’s efficiency did not drop off much, but it was clear Lugg was new to the field, just a bit out of step. He deservedly remains the failsafe in most injury situations, but that makes for only six linemen.

The rest of the second-unit: freshman left tackle Jarrett Patterson, sophomore left guard Dillan Gibbons, senior center Trevor Ruhland and sophomore right tackle Aaron Banks.

Patterson likely would not play in any situation but an emergency if not for the same NCAA rule benefitting Jurkovec. Along with the sophomores Gibbons and Banks, a few series of solid pass protection against live competition should offer a bright forecast for both this and next seasons’ line depth and the overall performance a year or two after that.

Irish junior cornerback Troy Pride finished with four tackles in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory against Michigan. More notably, he broke up no passes, though not from a lack of good coverage. He should face more tests, and more opportunities, against Ball State. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Looking elsewhere from the offense and the backups, the Irish cornerback duo of juniors Julian Love and Troy Pride may actually be tested this weekend.

At the least, they will have to do much more than they did last week and probably more than they will next week against Vanderbilt. The Wolverines averaged 6.9 yards per pass attempt, but if generously removing the 52-yard completion Love gave up to start the second half, that drops to 5.6 yards per attempt. That figure encapsulates much of Michigan’s difficulty moving the ball Saturday.

Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal, meanwhile, averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, picking apart Central Connecticut State’s defense with the help of his receivers, sophomore Justin Hall, senior Corey Lacanaria and freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler. Such efficiency should not be expected again at Notre Dame, but Hall is a genuine talent who could portend how the Irish will handle Wake Forest junior dynamo Greg Dortch, and Tyler’s 6-foot-4 reach will be a good test case for when Stanford’s towering junior J.J. Arcega-Whiteside arrives in South Bend.

Speaking of Stanford, USC visits The Farm on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET (FOX). Whoever wins also gets the honor of being Notre Dame’s second-toughest game remaining, behind the Oct. 6 trip to Virginia Tech.

The Cardinal are now favored by six points, that spread moving more than two points in its favor over the last couple days.

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.