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Friday at 4: When applauding Notre Dame’s opponent is appropriate

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It took me four years to watch every episode of “Cheers.” Late at night, wanting background noise while turning notes into coherent sentences, the banter filled the silence at an appropriate rate. The few laughs every 22 minutes were a bonus. Once Sam Malone turned off the lights at the bar for the last time, it was only natural to continue with “Frasier.”

An episode late in season four played on a screen to my side while compiling the needed scores, stats and spreads for this week’s Notre Dame’s Opponents entry. I barely heard Frasier’s son, Frederick, explain he had long known his dad wasn’t perfect.

“You couldn’t fix my computer. You thought Venus was the North Star, and I’ve seen you run.” Frederick told Frasier before explaining why he had never pointed out these deficiencies. “I thought it might hurt your self-esteem.”

I have never worried about those feelings with my father. His shortcomings are too apparent to pretend not to notice. He finishes off the tray of potatoes at dinner without asking if anyone else wants them, before they have made so much as one trip around the table. Calling his handwriting illegible is an insult to any three-year-old who ever picked up chalk.

And, he’s a Boston Red Sox fan.

Despite that terrible mistake, my father still always gave a nod to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as someone he could tolerate. More than that, he outright respected Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Greatness like that should not be clouded by rivalry, no matter how many times Rivera and the Yankees shut the door on the Red Sox.

The same can and should be applied in any sport. Make no mistake, Rivera is the extreme of a fandom’s struggle. He was such a class act while throwing the single-greatest pitch in baseball history, a Red Sox (or Braves or Mets or Phillies) fan could hate how effective he was, but not the player himself. Watching Mariano required a touch of admiration.

By no means are any of the following examples anywhere near Rivera’s caliber. He may be on his own in that right. (After all, more men have walked on the moon than knocked in an earned postseason run against Rivera.)

So early in his career, perhaps Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch should be considered near the other end of this thought process, but Notre Dame fans should watch Dortch tomorrow and expect to marvel at what he can do on a football field, even as he keeps the score a bit closer than they may like. If not rationally capable of that, then perhaps table the appreciation for afterward and provided an Irish victory, return to some of Dortch’s dashes down the field. He is electric with the football in a way not seen often enough. Then again, it is its rarity that makes it so worthwhile.

Dortch has touched the football 45 times in three games this year. He has gained 674 yards. At some point, he will beat Notre Dame’s secondary. Separate the effect on the game from the actual ability for just a moment, and recognize how unfathomably quick Dortch is.

In a year, expect to experience something similar when Boston College visits South Bend in late November. Sophomore running back AJ Dillon may already be the best running back in the country. With another year, he could be approaching the platonic ideal of college football.

It will be tougher to appreciate Dillon than it should be with Dortch, though. The Eagles will be a better team than the Deacons are. Given last week’s result, Boston College already is. Unless a player is as peerless as the Great Mariano — who holds the record for throwing the last pitch in the most World Series. How many did he do so? Answer at bottom. — some ill will remains as they succeed at your team’s expense. Despite Dortch’s best efforts, Notre Dame should still win this weekend, just not by as much as if he was out with another injury. Topping Boston College in 14 months will not be as certain.

That is part of the formula to appreciating individual opponents in college football. An excellent player on a defeated foe is more palatable to reminisce over thanks to the eventual victory. The win makes the remembered frustration feel deserved afterward.

It is why names like Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald are remembered with nothing but fondness. Combined, they went 0-6 against Notre Dame.

In an informal survey of a dozen Irish fans this week asking what past opposing players they had most enjoyed to watch, those names were mentioned frequently, but combined they did not outpace USC running back Reggie Bush. The praises uttered for the Heisman-returnee all included caveats. Those disclaimers did not tie to any of the Trojans’ vacated wins or issues with the NCAA. They boiled down to one thing: USC went 3-0 against Notre Dame during Bush’s time there.

Dortch has not played the Irish. A life-threatening intestinal injury sidelined him last year. He may well end his career 1-0 against Notre Dame, but that is not reason enough to not take a moment Saturday afternoon and mutter some four-letter words under your breath out of respect, appreciation and admiration.

Even my father mustered that much for Mariano after he threw three scoreless innings in game seven of the 2003 ALCS to keep the Red Sox at bay for another year. His handwriting remains terrible and Thanksgiving potatoes are a 50/50 proposition for the rest of us, but he at least got that acknowledgment right.

(Five. Mariano threw the last pitch in five World Series, which includes the 2001 defeat.)

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.