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Things We Learned: No. 5 Notre Dame’s best yet to be seen

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BLACKSBURG, Va. — Notre Dame was here a year ago. The last time the Irish beat ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks? 12 months ago. The last time Notre Dame won three consecutive games by three possessions? Again, 12 months ago. The last time the Irish controlled their own path to the College Football Playoff? You get the idea.

There is something different this time around, though, and it is more than not having two top-20 teams yet on the calendar. (Of course, that helps, and barring a USC charge, there are unlikely to be any remaining ranked opponents.) This year, No. 6 (now No. 5) Notre Dame has not yet reached its peak. More than anything else, that was clear during Saturday’s 45-23 victory at No. 24 Virginia Tech.

The Irish (6-0) let the Hokies (3-2) hang around throughout the first half, missing on big plays and instead gifting the home team field position. Notre Dame was fortunate to reach halftime leading 17-16 rather than trailing by 11, yet the Irish also left points on the board, a 17-3 first-quarter lead one overthrown pass away from becoming reality.

“We were a little uneven in the first half,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… We got outside our boundaries a little bit, trying to do a little bit too much.”

As well as the Irish played overall — and they did — no one phase of the game was particularly dominant. Virginia Tech actually outgained Notre Dame by three yards and converted a respectable 10-of-21 third downs. The 441 yards allowed were a season-high for Irish coordinator Clark Lea’s defense.

Yet, Notre Dame won by three possessions on the road against a ranked opponent. To combine these two sentiments: A flawed Irish performance was still good enough for a statement-making road win.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin has put up career numbers this year, and if the Irish passing game can develop a deep threat, those stats should only spike further. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

How much better could Notre Dame be? That starts with junior quarterback Ian Book. Even if he has been the catalyst to the offensive revival that has averaged 46.3 points per game the last three weeks, the room for improvement is obvious. In Book’s mind, the 45 points scored against Bud Foster’s defense were not nearly as many as they could have been. He floated the idea of 70.

“They’re still a great defense,” Book clarified. “Not banging on them at all. Just saying we had so many opportunities that I didn’t hit.”

He started the day methodically and precisely, completing his first eight passes for 114 yards, highlighted by hitting seemingly-uncovered senior receiver Chris Finke for 56 yards. That was the last deep ball Book would hit, missing a yet again inexplicably-uncovered Finke on the next drive for what would have been a rarely-seen first-quarter backbreaker. Both senior Miles Boykin and junior Chase Claypool also lost out on deep touchdowns due to Book overthrows.

As a good teammate should, Boykin took ownership for at least part of the issue — “Our timing is a little bit off, because we’re open.” — but when all three starting receivers are overthrown in one game, the adjustment needs to be made by the quarterback.

“He was a little flat with throws,” Kelly said. “He missed some of the big ones down the field. When the ball comes out flat, he’s a little excited. Those throws he’ll hit.”

If/when Book does hit them, the Irish offense will have all facets clicking at once for the first time since 2015.

The naked eye’s first glance could see Book with a bounce in his feet as he attempted those deep throws. Rather than his usual clean and quick release, there was obvious concern in those moments. What needed to be lofted passes toward the physical presences of Boykin and Claypool were instead akin to flair singles, well out of their reaches. Perhaps that was nerves, maybe some was compensation for a lack of a truly strong arm, or the answer could be as simple as Boykin’s timing.

“I was being a little skittish,” Book said. “I wasn’t giving my guys a chance, which you can’t do. I put that all on me.”

To point out an offensive shortcoming after scoring 45 against a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator speaks to just how high the Irish ceiling may be.

Irish senior running back Dexter Williams had made his mark with his speed throughout the first three years of his career. He has added an ability to run through contact this season. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The running game has certainly shown up, and any remaining concerns about senior Dexter Williams’ durability can be shelved. As of two weeks ago, he had never taken more than eight carries in a single game. He now has 38 total in the last two, and his final two runs may have been the most impressive.

Notre Dame was not looking to score again with fewer than five minutes remaining and a 15-point lead. Virginia Tech had resorted to an onside kick. Recovering that usually indicates the game is over but for running out the clock. All that was genuinely expected from Williams was staying in bounds.

Instead he broke multiple tackles on two runs, still running hard, covering 44 yards on his own for his third touchdown of the day.

The phrase “running angry” is usually meaningless, but it may be the best way to describe Williams at that point. He had nothing left to prove — 15 rushes for 134 yards and two touchdowns would have been a stellar stat line on its own. The Irish did not desperately need more. Nonetheless, Williams powered through first contact with a determination and certitude not seen in his first three seasons.

Returning to Lea’s defense, in giving up its most yards of the season, it actually showed the quality of its depth up front. Junior defensive end Daelin Hayes did not make the trip due to a stinger suffered last week against Stanford. Classmate Julian Okwara missed the second half due to a targeting call, perhaps the easiest such call in the history of the rule.

That meant Notre Dame was without half its pass rush. Hardly anything seemed lost. Freshman defensive tackle Justin Ademilola is expected to contribute these days, and his three tackles spoke to that. Twin brother and end Jayson Ademilola is not inherently thought of in that role this soon, but he added a tackle of his own.

Junior end Ade Ogundjei flipped sides of the line and made two tackles once Okwara was sent to the locker room. More importantly, the weak side of the line did not become an actual weakness with Ogundeji, remaining a simple alignment description. Junior Jamir Jones made two tackles in his first significant action, playing a supporting role to both Ogundeji and junior strongside end Khalid Kareem.

“He got after it,” fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Jones. This innocuous quote warrants inclusion because it was noteworthy Jones played enough to even merit a post-game thought, let alone played well.

“Those guys are huge,” Tranquill said of the line reserves as a whole. “They work their butts off. A lot of the bigger names get praise, but … to have two or three deep at each position, that’s huge for us, and it’s going to be huge for us accomplishing our goals.”

Freshman linebacker Shayne Simon notched three tackles, his first coming on what is believed to have been his first defensive snap of his collegaite career, entering on a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line and joining senior linebacker Te’von Coney to make a tackle for a four-yard loss. Freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy continues to contribute, making one tackle on special teams and one on defense.

This defensive depth had not been seen to date. It could be the difference between yet another November swoon and a truly special season.

The Irish are through half the season undefeated. The remaining schedule looks less than challenging. The offense has not found its ceiling. The defense has found some depth.

Notre Dame may yet improve, which is not something oft-said about a 6-0 team.

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.