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Leftovers & Links: Could Notre Dame’s identity be as obvious as it seems?

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Brandon Wimbush was twice asked about No. 8 Notre Dame’s offensive identity after Saturday’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt. Neither of his responses provided a description of that identity, both because it is unknown and because in that moment, immediately following a close victory, he was not about to focus on it.

“Three wins, I don’t care,” if the lack of a distinct identity is a good or bad thing to this point, the senior quarterback said.

“We’re still forming that identity. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly came up to me and said, week three is the time that you kind of form that identity. Just looking back on the first three weeks, I don’t think there’s something we can kind of hang our hat on yet.”

Perhaps there is, though. And it was Kelly who pointed toward it Saturday evening.

“You see us early on in three games, we’re not going to beat you 52-3,” Kelly said. “We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football.”

A day later, Kelly spoke of the physicality Notre Dame had played with in two of the first three weeks, acknowledging the lack of such against Ball State. If discounting that malaise during a 24-16 win as an anomaly deriving from overlooking a MAC opponent, then the Irish offense has shown some tendencies in its two games against Power-Five opponents.

Notre Dame has rushed the ball 45 and 48 times in those two games, averaging 4.25 yards per carry (sacks adjusted). That average is by no means a startling figure, but running the ball that often is. Such a rate over a full season would have put the Irish at No. 15 in rushing attempts per game last season, with five of the teams ahead of them relying on option-based schemes. Even last year’s record-setting Notre Dame rushing attack averaged only 40.77 carries per game (sacks adjusted).

Comparing those two offenses is a recipe for disappointment, one led by a brief Heisman campaign and two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the other not. It was led by Wimbush and junior running back Tony Jones this week. Wimbush’s 19 rushes consisted of 18 designed carries, per Kelly, with the exception a scramble ending in the end zone. Jones, meanwhile, took 17 carries for 118 yards, not to mention two catches for 56 yards. Every number listed in the previous sentence was a career high for Jones, building on his 13-carry, 61-yard performance against the Cardinals.

“It started last week in the Ball State game when he started to run with a demeanor and mindset that he wasn’t going to be tackled,” Kelly said. “He carried that into practice.

“We felt he was getting ready to be the kind of back that we had been talking about, in the way he’s run: physical, kind of being who we thought he needed to be. That’s the way it certainly turned out this past weekend.”

If these trends were to continue — 40-plus carries a game, Wimbush and Jones splitting the workload with sophomore Jafar Armstrong adding some dynacism, theoretically senior Dexter Williams sprinkling in some big-play potential beginning two weeks from now — then this is essentially what was always expected. It just hasn’t been as dominant as 2017’s precedent.

Struggling to pull away on the scoreboard underscores the value of this approach. Running the ball 45 times shrinks the game, reduces the chances for an offensive mistake as well as the opportunities for the opponent to break the Irish defense.

With such a formula, special teams take on added importance. A mistake there counteracts the cautious effects of a “tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar” scheme. Fortunately for Notre Dame, its special teams finally showed up in a positive way this weekend.

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer did not send one kickoff out of bounds. Instead, he knocked four of six into the end zone for touchbacks, and those two returns netted Vanderbilt an average starting field position inside the 20-yard line.

Sophomore Michael Young broke off a 48-yard kickoff return when the Irish needed a spark. The drive resulted in a missed field goal, but that should not diminish the promise shown in Young’s return.

Despite missing that field goal, senior kicker Justin Yoon remained reliable, making hi first three. Kelly took some of the onus for the miss, positing they rushed Yoon on the kick after pondering some clock mechanics.

Fifth-year senior punter Tyler Newsome’s five booms gave the Commodores average field position of the 23-yard line, part of a day in which he averaged 59.6 yards per punt. His final punt was snapped with 12 seconds remaining in the game and was fair caught with five left on the clock. The hang time math speaks for itself.

It was a good week for Doerer and Newsome to step forward, both as it tied to that victory and as to the timing moving forward. Wake Forest junior Greg Dortch has already returned two punts for touchdowns this year and averages 17 yards per return with another 27.3 yards per kick return. Finding a way to limit Dortch’s impact on special teams will be crucial.

One additional note on special teams: Armstrong joined Young on the back line to return kickoffs, not freshman C’Bo Flemister, who had decent success with three returns for 65 yards against Ball State. It is most likely Flemister was an experiment during a week Notre Dame felt it could test out some things or reduce other’s workloads.

ON DEFENSIVE SCORING AVERAGE
If looking at the simple averages kept by the NCAA, the Irish scoring defense is No. 31 in the country at 16.7 points per game. After three games, however, one favorable matchup can skew those numbers greatly. Most of those ahead of Notre Dame have enjoyed an afternoon against an FCS-level opponent, for example.

Only three times have faced only FBS foes and not yet given up more than 17 points in a game: Minnesota, Alabama and Notre Dame.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame escapes genuine test from Vanderbilt
Things We Learned: Not yet ‘great,’ Notre Dame’s ground game and safety play emerge
A more focused playbook could key a more consistent Notre Dame offense

OUTSIDE READING
Some Wake Forest defenders played well, Greg Dortch needs the ball and some confusing play calls
How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad
Syracuse football stock watch: Dino Babers’ 2017 prophecy is coming true
USC kicker Chase McGrath out for the year with torn ACL

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.