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Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame’s offense show up on its first road trip?

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Wake Forest’s BB&T Field is not Hard Rock Stadium, and Winston-Salem is not Blacksburg, Va., but this is still Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season, the first since two debacles away from home back in November. Amid talk of a budding quarterback controversy, praise of the Irish likely-yet-to-peak defense and looking ahead to the arrival of Stanford, some time needs to be spent remembering the horrors of road trips past.

Notre Dame remains in the national conversation, despite those close victories against Ball State and Vanderbilt. In fact, it is still in that discussion because of those victories. That all goes out the window if the Irish lose to the Demon Deacons.

Can Notre Dame maintain its already tenuous focus while on the road? If not, that may not lead to a loss this weekend, but it will bode very poorly for the trek to Virginia Tech in two weeks. If Wake Forest manages to put the Irish behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season — a reasonable thought if the Deacons so much as win the opening coin toss — the rhythms of playing at home will not be available to ease Notre Dame back into the flow of the game.

“There’s a little bit of preparation that needs to occur relative to travel,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Then just understanding that when you’re on the road, momentum is going to usually work against you. You have to close out opponents.”

Sometimes that is all the effect a road game needs to have; just because BB&T is a mild venue barely holding 30,000 does not mean the unfamiliar sidelines, locker room and atmosphere would not be enough to compound an early deficit.

To overcome any deficit at all, the Irish would need to find a reliable offense. Who leads such a foreign concept?
This segment of this weekly piece intended to focus on Notre Dame’s receivers. To draw from the notes scribbled across a legal pad, “At some point, WRs need to stop dropping passes. This is a weak D ready to be run upon. ND running will not surprise anyone, averaging 43.33 carries/week (sacks adjusted) already. Could lead to WF stacking the box. Can ND’s receivers finally not drop multiple passes in a week? Claypool, Finke, Davis …”

Notre Dame senior receiver Chris Finke began the season well, most notably with a highlight-reel 43-yard touchdown grab, but he has been inconsistent since, just like all the Irish receivers. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Before moving on to what has become the week’s topic du jour, let’s emphasis the question at the end of those notes. Can the Irish receiving corps get through a week without dropping multiple passes, including a likely touchdown? Against Ball State, sophomore Avery Davis worried about his next steps before catching a seam route that should have gotten him to the end zone. A week later, senior Chris Finke dropped a crossing route because his head was already turning upfield where he knew he had a clear path to the end zone. Those mistakes are utterly inexcusable, simple as that.

Who will throw the majority of those passes this week?
When various national handicappers begin citing multiple sources within the Notre Dame program saying junior Ian Book will start at quarterback, it is eyebrow-raising. This is not to outright throw doubt on those podcasts and tweets, but their speculation is vague, at best.

Brandon Wimbush has played well this season, but perhaps not well enough to cement his status as unquestioned starter in the minds of Notre Dame’s coaching staff. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Making a change now would not have much to do with senior Brandon Wimbush’s performance against Vanderbilt, finishing 13-of-23 for 122 yards passing with another 84 rushing yards and a score. As mentioned before, a few drops limited his completion percentage. It easily could have (should have) been 16-of-23 for 160 or 170 yards. That may not jump off the page, but it is also hard to find fault in it.

Then why might this shift be afoot now? First of all, let’s again tap the brakes on thinking Book will start. Fully expect Wimbush to start, but perhaps Book gets more action than he has to date, a full series even, if not multiple. Why now?

Two reasons: Looking ahead at the coming fortnight, Notre Dame needs to know exactly what it has at all points of the roster before welcoming Stanford and then traveling to Virginia Tech. That two-week stretch will likely make or break this season.

Secondly, this is the Saturday to experiment with the passing game. The Deacons defense is off to a torrid start. Facing the murderers’ row of Tulane, FCS-level Towson and Boston College, Wake Forest has allowed 310 passing yards per game, ranking No. 120 of 130 FBS teams. Those three threw 10 touchdown passes without any interceptions.

If there was ever a week to look at as a passing exhibition, it was not against Ball State (No. 65 nationally with 205.3 passing yards allowed per game, including 297 against the Irish). It is against the Deacons.

That can reveal itself both in moments of Wimbush intentionally struggling through his progressions and in Book getting extended playing time to pick apart Wake Forest in a scheme that may be ripe for his skill set, an afternoon where his higher floor is more necessary than Wimbush’s higher ceiling.

Somewhere here requisite praise of Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch will show up, right? Of course. He is part of why Book may be called upon, actually. As terrible as Wake Forest’s defense has been, its offense has played just as well. Dortch has played spectacularly. He averages 224.67 all-purpose yards per game, most in the country, including an average of 112 receiving yards per game.

Notre Dame’s secondary is a strength this season, odd as that may sound. Dortch’s 12 yards per catch will test junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride. Looking far ahead, how they handle Dortch will give an idea of how they match up with USC freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, currently averaging 16.9 yards per reception with 304 yards on the season. He has played three games to date — give him another eight of experience and St. Brown should prove to be quite the hassle to defend, a la Dortch already.

How well has the Deacons’ offense played? It should be the first to break 17 points against the Irish this season. In its last 16 games, Wake Forest has averaged 35.25 points, including 36 per game this year. The last team to hold the Deacons to 17 or fewer points was some program called Clemson last October. Wake Forest is averaging 542 yards per game this year while Notre Dame has given up a respectable 358.7.

Something will have to give.

It’s an early game. What should an Irish fan do after the noon kickoff concludes? Stay on ABC. Stanford heads up to Oregon at 8 p.m. ET. It should be both entertaining and an educational opportunity anticipating the Cardinal’s challenge in a week.

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.