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Friday at 4: From Miami to LA, George was always game

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Dear George,

I never properly thanked you for dragging me to the national championship game in January of 2013. My gratitudes went to Edgar, who found me a ticket at face value. You deserved at least as much credit as he did. My going included too many obstacles if not for your efforts, and my want was not enough to clear those hurdles without your push. After all, you housed all my earthly belongings during that trip, as my lease four days before the game.

It was somewhere between Duval Kamara slipping on a slant route from the four-yard line against USC in 2009 and the second rain delay of the wonder that was the South Florida loss of 2011 that my Notre Dame fandom abated for good. It had nothing to do with Charlie Weis’ ignominious exit, the underrated mishap of “Little Giants” or even the snow preceding the 2010 Sun Bowl along the Mexico border. Rather, it was a reality of watching the Irish so closely as part of professional aspirations.

Walking the concourse in frustrated boredom during the most-absurd sporting event I have ever attended, I realized I was more invested in hearing the Notre Dame underclassmen sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to completion than I was in seeing the Irish beat Skip Holtz and the Bulls. The former happened and I have no expectation of ever again witnessing as few as “59 bottles of beer on the wall, 59 bottles of beer …” Notre Dame lost.

I still went to every game that year. It was an early Saturday morning for us to get to Ann Arbor in time to enjoy the day appropriately. You were there with me when on the way to Pittsburgh to witness Jonas Gray’s fifth gear we found a warehouse filled with carbonated beverages of the adult variety, so brilliantly-named, “Save-on-Beer.” The following week’s trip to Purdue held no such memorable revelations. In fact, we have been to Cranberry, Pa.’s million bottles of beer on the wall since, but not back to West Lafayette.

Even though hardly caring about the outcomes, these trips were still a delight, always at least one other friend joining. Edgar actually made his way out to FedEx Field in November that year and then to Orlando for the Champ Sports Bowl. It was fitting he facilitated my going to Miami the next season.

It was more appropriate you reminded me how much fun those trips could be.

That is about the only emotion I have that still ties to Irish football. Few understand that.

“What do you mean you won’t wear a green tie today?”
Well, Tony, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Also, why would I? Green isn’t a great color for a tie.
“To show support for Notre Dame!”
Tony, you know I don’t care if they win.
“What? Huh? I don’t understand.”
I mean, if they have a decent season, there is a better chance NBC will agree to fly me to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving and I am very much in favor of that, but otherwise, eh.
“Whatever.”

(Sidenote: When my oldest brother reads my thoughts on green neckwear he will text me angrily before even getting to this prediction. He wears a green tie literally every weekday. No one has ever accused a Farmer brother of being stylish.)

How the Irish do affects my travel plans but little else. Spending all week studying, reading and writing about Notre Dame football is enough. Adding an emotional bent to those hours would be too much.

So those emotions dissipated. They probably did so long before “39 bottles of beer on the wall, 39 bottles of beer …”, but that chorus gave the realization a soundtrack.

That was where you chimed in during early December of 2012. I didn’t care about the game against Alabama. For that matter, the 10-point spread was not enough to grab my attention in those naïve days. The idea of trip to Miami with you and a number of the usual suspects, though? I didn’t need much more motivation.

You drove that point home again and again in the last six years. A couple times to the nation’s capital, a race to stay ahead of a tornado across Ohio in trying to get to New York City, a race with a hurricane to get to Florida before it did. Multiple trips to southern California, not that much encouragement was really needed for any of those. Countless treks to Colorado.

You made them all happen George, and that is why your end a week ago brings all these memories back to the surface. Without your stubborn nature, your unflinching resolve, your idiotic forays into the night, Save-on-Beer would not have run out of 40-ounce bottles at one point this summer. A July wedding would not have created a suitable cover story for indulging in multiple vices. And I would not have made it to Miami, which ended up being one of the most-enjoyable seven-day stretches of this life.

They don’t make them like you anymore, literally so, and you deserved a better end than you got. I am probably to blame for that. I just never thought you could die.

You did a week ago at the age of 219,725 miles. That does not include the 1,130 traveled when an electrical short stopped the odometer for a mid-November weekend last year. Notre Dame beat Navy, 24-17, if you were wondering. That gap in the odometer ended up being all-too poetic, as we crossed 200,000 while on Douglas Road in South Bend, heading to lunch with a mentor. He always marveled at your lack of cruise control. He didn’t realize a four-cylinder’s gas pedal pressed all the way to the floor could serve the same purpose.

For a 2003 Ford Ranger, you outdid most. You certainly could not have done better by me. And for that, I thank you, George. I raise the last bottle of beer on the wall to you.

– Douglas.

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.