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Notre Dame’s offensive line could benefit from struggles with Michigan’s pass rush

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Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich broke through Notre Dame’s offensive line much of last weekend. With the Irish winning 24-17, nonetheless, his successes against two first-time full-time starters at tackle caused no long-term damage, instead perhaps the exact opposite.

As a defense, the Wolverines managed seven tackles for loss for 33 yards, including two sacks. Winovich accounted for half of that on his own, with 3.5 of his six tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage, costing Notre Dame 16 yards, including six on a sack.

“He’s such a fast, athletic player, [sophomore tackle Robert Hainsey and junior tackle Liam Eichenberg] didn’t feel overwhelmed,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “He’s just so quick and athletic.”

Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich hounded Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush much of last Saturday night. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If Michigan had won, Winovich’s success with quickness and athleticism could be viewed as a task failed. Instead, it is an evening to learn form.

“I don’t think they feel as though their confidence has been diminished as much as they feel like both of them had a chance to work against two outstanding players in [Rashan] Gary and Winovich, so I think they leave the game feeling like they really got challenged more than they got beaten up.”

Barring an unforeseen and nearly unprecedented breakout from an end on one of Notre Dame’s 11 remaining opponents, the Wolverines defensive line was far and away the toughest the Irish will face this season. While Winovich had his successes, Hainsey and Eichenberg survived it without the greatest scathing, a loss.

Hainsey may see less time moving forward, albeit as a result of his fitness and build, not as a byproduct of struggling at points against Gary and Winovich. Looking at Notre Dame’s roster, Hainsey is an outlier among offensive linemen. Eichenberg weighs 308 pounds. Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars weights 315 and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher is listed at 306. Junior right guard Tommy Kraemer tilts the scales at 316, while sophomore backup guard Josh Lugg is 314.

Hainsey comes in at 295, not quite the same behemoth, even if usually quite technically sound.

“He’s a guy that would benefit not having an overload of snaps right now,” Kelly said. “He’s 296 pounds. He’s a guy that has had problems keeping weight on. He’s a guy we don’t need to push. We need to be smart with him.”

Kelly insisted this does not derive from the calf strain Hainsey suffered in preseason practice that greatly limited him for two weeks. Rather, this is using the long view, wanting to avoid wearing Hainsey down before the season’s second half. In retrospect, perhaps this thought process was part of the logic to his timeshare with Kraemer at right tackle in 2017. At the time, no one on this side of the podium considered that as a possibility because it was so surprising to see a true freshman emerge as a pseudo-starter at all.

“At his size, we feel like we can rotate people in there and keep him fresh throughout the year,” Kelly said. “We’re really thinking about the long haul.”

In that case, the obvious addition to the rotation is the same player who stepped in when Hainsey needed an IV in Saturday’s third quarter — that likely was tied to the fitness lost to his strained calf. Kraemer moved out to tackle and Lugg stepped in at guard.

If either Hainsey or Eichenberg is injured, the Irish coaching staff plans to move Kraemer to that spot and insert Lugg into the starting lineup. In that respect, he is the practical backup in three different contingencies, so getting him some repetitions serves a purpose beyond just resting Hainsey.

“This is going to be a matter of him continuing to get a little more time each and every week and getting more comfortable,” Kelly said. “He’s got to settle down a little bit and get into the flow of things.

“We like Josh. We think he’s going to be a good player.”

Of all weekends to get the reserves some run, this is the most likely. That applies beyond the offensive line.

Given some of the preseason hype, it was mildly surprising to see so little of freshman Houston Griffith in the defensive secondary against Michigan and quarterback Shea Patterson. Per Kelly, Griffith continues to split his time between safety and nickel back, with Notre Dame likely needing him at both positions.

“I don’t think we have the luxury to just settle him in at one position because there’s competition,” Kelly said. “We made the decision to cross-train him in the hope that that gets him more playing time. The only thing that he lacks is real snaps.

“When we get these kinds of situations, we try to decide are you better off just leaving it at one position or do you try to cross-train him and get him more reps. We think he’s going to be a better player by playing.”

ON CONCUSSION PROTOCOL
When senior tight end Alizé Mack took a shoulder to the head in last weekend’s first quarter and took some time to get to his feet, it was a given he would enter the concussion protocol. Given Mack’s history with concussions and the overall needed sensitivity to the injury in 2018, it surprised at least one member of the media (read: yours truly) when he returned to the game at all, let alone within a quarter.

A combination of advanced medical equipment and more available personnel made that possible.

“A medical tent allows us to immediately get to somebody that may have a head injury,” Kelly said. “Then, with eye scan, which can give us immediate feedback on whether somebody can protect themselves and the immediate feedback on a computer to see what their testing shows.

“We were able to work through a concussion protocol (with Mack) in under a half hour, and I mean all the stages.”

Throughout that process, Kelly said the medical staff kept him updated on Mack’s progress and possible availability.

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.