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Brian Kelly refuses to tip Notre Dame’s hand amid QB rumors

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Brandon Wimbush will play. Ian Book will play. That much is clear, and it is not a change from the season’s first three weeks.

Which will start? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not divulge that Thursday, though that was probably more an inclination to stick to inane modern coaching standards than it was actual indecision.

“We need them both to win,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks. “They are both ready.”

The questions arose out of speculation from national media personalities the Irish may turn to the backup Book more at Wake Forest, if not even start the junior. Book has seen less than a handful of snaps in each game thus far this season, usually within yards of the goal line.

Notre Dame turned to Book in those spots as they fit his aptitude in read-option packages beginning under center. That does not mean Book was not ready to play no matter the field position.

“He was prepared to play anywhere,” Kelly said. “That’s just where he played in those games.”

Once asked, there was no situation in which Kelly was going to say more than that. Given the Irish have already made it a point to include Book in each game plan, downgrading that status to insist Wimbush is the starter would serve no function but internal confusion. If Book’s role is going to increase, then Kelly gains nothing by warning the Demon Deacons.

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

He did make one unexpected acknowledgement, though. Throughout Kelly’s tenure, the backup quarterback has taken about 40 percent of the reps in practice. That was true with Book during the preseason, but the ratio has apparently since skewed.

“They’ve been pretty close,” Kelly said. “… This has been pretty close to 50/50. We’ve been managing it that way.”

The one quarterback not in the mix is freshman Phil Jurkovec, working primarily with the scout team. Kelly would like to get Jurkovec some playing time in line with the new NCAA rule allowing up to four games of action without jeopardizing a year of eligibility. Any playing time for Jurkovec would come in the specific scenario of a blowout, naturally.

“If we got an opportunity, we would love to get him some playing time, as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in some close, hard-fought games.

“… It’s hard when you’re running someone else’s offense each week. We bring him up [to practice with the offense] and he’s working off a card. What we like most about him is his leadership presence, just the way he handles himself, but I couldn’t really tell you whether he could go in there and run the offense. He hasn’t had that much work.”

Other freshmen are on the verge of contributing in competitive moments, some perhaps not in more than four games. Kelly noted cornerback Tariq Bracy and linebacker Shayne Simon, having appeared in three games and the latter two contests, respectively, as well as cornerback Noah Boykin and receiver Joe Wilkins, neither of which has taken the field yet.

“There’s probably half a dozen guys that we’re seeing that, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to see two or three or maybe four games on some of these guys,’” Kelly said. “I don’t want to say this in a negative way, there’s a list that are moving from suspects to prospects relative to playing time now.”

Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy is not among that grouping at the current moment as he recovers from a concussion, per Kelly. Lenzy was not in uniform last weekend and will not travel to Wake Forest.

ON NOTRE DAME’S NICKEL BACK PACKAGES
Against the Deacons and junior receiver Greg Dortch, the Irish will rely on sets with more defensive backs than the usual base will. Without senior Shaun Crawford (torn ACL), Notre Dame lacks an established nickel back. The luxury of junior cornerback Donte Vaughn allows star junior cornerback Julian Love to spend more time across from the slot and therefore probably Dortch.

“Julian has that flexibility to move inside,” Kelly said. “We taught him the nickel, (he) had known it. It puts three veteran players on the field for us [at cornerback].”

RELATED READING: Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?

ON DARNELL EWELL
The sophomore defensive tackle shall now be described as a sophomore offensive guard.

“We felt as we looked at the depth of certain positions, that was an area that we had some issues,” Kelly said. “We felt like in particular this year he could make some strides there.

“He has. He’s really strong. He uses his lower body very well. He can move people off the point. Early indications are that might be a good fit for him.”

At guard, Bars is in the mix with sophomores Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg and freshman John Dirksen.

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.