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Things We Learned: A vintage Notre Dame defense & a questionable change in QB approach

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It never quite became taboo, but the phrase “bend, don’t break” has largely been absent from Notre Dame conversations since former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco took it, and a library of other catchprases, with him to Connecticut following the 2013 season. By no means did that strategy backfire on the Irish back then — even 2013 featured defensive marks of 22.4 points and 366.2 yards allowed per game. Instead, those who came after Diaco preferred a more volatile approach.

Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea may have found a balance between the two. Saturday made it clear the defense will concede yardage, snaps (and snaps and snaps and snaps) and time before necessarily allowing points. Ball State’s 3.6 yards per play average should be described as nothing but paltry. For context, the lowest number forced by the Irish in 2017 was the 3.8 yards per play garnered by North Carolina. Just take a look at the Tar Heels these days to have an idea of what that company is like. (East Carolina: many points, North Carolina: not many points.)

“We’re a big bend-don’t-break unit,” junior safety Jalen Elliott said. “Whenever we get on the field, we take it personally. We have a lot of people that compete at the highest level. When we go on that field, it’s about getting the ball back to our offense and getting off the field.”

The strategy certainly worked. Whenever the Cardinals appeared to have found a rhythm, Notre Dame would suddenly buckle down in the red zone. Just like Michigan a week ago, Ball State scored only one touchdown on three trips inside the 20-yard line, the only touchdowns the Irish defense has allowed this season. It bends, but the breaks are few.

Part of snapping back into place has been the aggressive pressure Lea dials up. Some of that comes from the talented Irish defensive line, pressuring the quarterback with only four rushers chasing the quarterback. This weekend’s sole sack lands on senior linebacker Te’von Coney’s stat line, but it was created by a four-man rush flushing Cardinals senior quarterback Riley Neal out of the pocket, led by senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

That was one of seven Notre Dame tackles for a loss, joining three sacks and seven tackles for loss a week ago. The Irish chase the quarterback and get into the backfield plenty, but Lea is still able to take a, shall we say, flexible approach. Ball State needed to gain an average of 6.2 yards on third down. That may not seem all that high, but realize it faced third down 23 different times. Of 97 plays, that stands out.

Completely independent of how the Irish offense performed, Notre Dame has a defense it can depend on. Per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, it has development ahead of it, too.

“We’re playing better in the back end,” he said. “We’re contesting for the football at a high level, putting pressure on the quarterback. There’s some things we got to get better at. We know what they are. …

“We added some things that had been part of our install that we’d been working on that I think are effective and we’re going to continue to get better at.”

Irish senior rover Asmar Bilal brings down Ball State quarterback Riley Neal on Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Senior rover Asmar Bilal deserves his fair share of credit for the solid defensive performance.

After spinning his wheels for three years, never doing enough to force his way into playing time, Bilal took over at rover this season seemingly by default when Drue Tranquill moved inward to Buck linebacker for his final season of eligibility. Broadly speaking, expectations were low enough of Bilal to create much anticipation around freshman Shayne Simon.

Perhaps Simon’s appearance as third-string Buck linebacker on the depth chart this week should have portended Bilal’s bettering play. Maybe they are unrelated. Either way, Bilal excelled against Ball State.

He finished with five tackles including one for loss and one quarterback hurry. The tackle for loss may as well as have been considered a pass breakup. The Cardinals stacked two receivers, right away creating a coverage read for Bilal that a cynic may have doubted would be made correctly. Neal then threw a screen to the trailing of the two, only for him to immediately be met by Bilal. He had correctly diagnosed the play, shirked the block and stuck Ball State with a three-yard loss.

That paled in comparison to Bilal sticking with Cardinals 5-foot-9 receiver Justin Hall on a first-quarter wheel route in the red zone. That was a mismatch clearly favoring Ball State, yet Bilal blanketed Hall the whole way.

Giving credit where it is due, Bilal has earned his starting spot. (That said, Lea should still move heaven and earth to avoid Bilal covering Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch in two weeks.)

Notre Dame senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush hardly ran against Ball State, be that by design or dictated by the game itself. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now then, about that quarterback play …

Both Kelly and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush insisted the offensive game plan did not specifically reduce the number of designed quarterback runs included. And they know better than anyone outside the meeting rooms, so it seems best to take their word for it, but … it is just hard to believe.

“We had our [run-pass options] and the defense that they played prompted me to throw the ball out,” Wimbush said.

That is believable, especially considering the pressure the Cardinals defensive line brought most of the afternoon.

Yet, Wimbush had seven carries for 18 yards, once discounting the four sacks for 25 yards. Two of those rushes and 10 of those yards came on the final possession of the game, simultaneously burning clock while trying (and succeeding) to pick up one last first down. His only rush in the first half was a circuitous scramble to gain an exceptionally anticlimactic, albeit impressive, two yards.

“I don’t think it was intentional at all,” Kelly said. “I think it was just part of play calling and part of what we’re doing. I think sometimes we look too much into the whole, did you run him, did you not run him.

“The game and circumstances kind of dictate the play calling. Just has to flow with the game.”

With Notre Dame clinging to a 14-6 lead and suddenly-gifted good field position by junior safety Jalen Elliott’s second interception of the day, the first Irish play from scrimmage called in the second half by offensive coordinator Chip Long was, in fact, a quarterback draw.

It was a pivotal point in the game. Capitalizing on that interception gave Notre Dame its winning points and separated the Irish from Ball State, who failed to make the most of turnovers. Being his first play call after the half, Long theoretically had time to ponder the call. And he deferred to what sets Wimbush apart.

When has the Irish offense best produced with Wimbush taking snaps? When he has kept a defense on its heels with his legs. While that is not always possible, and thus developing Wimbush as a passer remains a priority, it is undeniable to this point. Last week, he took 17 carries for 95 yards (sacks adjusted), a 5.59 yards per rush average. When Notre Dame scored 49, 49 and 48 points against Boston College, USC and Wake Forest, respectively, in 2017, Wimbush ran for 207 yards, 116 yards and 114 yards. Yes, there is a cause-and-effect involved, but that only underscores the relationship.

Against speedier defenses (read: Georgia, Miami … perhaps Virginia Tech this season), that dual-threat option is not as readily-available. Taking advantage of the opportunity of a lower-tier opponent to work on the pocket passing game makes sense.

Either the Irish did not do that and instead simply took an odd, to put it generously, offensive approach or Kelly and Wimbush felt the need to deny the pseudo-practice.

Some may call for a change at quarterback, but Wimbush’s performance against the Cardinals absolutely does not warrant that. One of his interceptions was the result of a missed block getting him hit upon release, another was a simple drop by senior receiver Miles Boykin. Factor in another Boykin drop and an utterly-egregious one from sophomore Avery Davis, and Wimbush’s stat line could suddenly look like 21-of-28 for 367 yards with one touchdown and one interception. That is a charitable scenario, but it is also a plausible one.

That hypothetical aside, Wimbush’s legs are what set him apart. The ability to gash a top-flight defense like Michigan’s for 95 yards from the quarterback creates a dynamic no defensive coordinator wants to ponder. Removing that reduces the potency of Notre Dame’s offense. If for just one week to tinker and toy, so be it. If for flow of the game considerations, it seems a dubious decision.

Especially because it is clear the Irish offensive line is not yet a cohesive unit.

Ball State sacked Wimbush four times and made six other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, not to mention four more official quarterback hurries and untold pressures. Notre Dame’s tackles had no answers for the Cardinals’ rush. Wimbush trusts in the line to improve, and it will need to if he is to become the pocket passer perhaps preferred.

“We all have to do our part in being better,” he said. “It’s me protecting myself, getting us in the right protection, and I have no doubt that my guys up front are going to do their job and that’s never an issue for me. Those guys are leaders up front and I know they will take it as a responsibility to get better and improve each week.”

To be blunt, they will need to.

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.