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Leftovers, Links & Questions for the Week: Yoon’s record, freshmen contributions & DL health

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“How was Blacksburg?” Brad asked before I could even say hello and congratulate him on finishing a Sunday marathon. “How was ‘Enter Sandman?’”

One of the better bad influences in my life, I met up with Brad and a few of his friends early Sunday afternoon after my flight back from Virginia. They had flown to the Midwest to idiotically run 26.2 miles, while I had not slept more than three hours in a night since Wednesday amid eastern travel. That did not stop me from appreciating Virginia Tech’s entrance to Lane Stadium on Saturday. As I explained to Brad …

Notre Dame fans should also now look back on it fondly. The Irish had no trouble with the atmosphere, eventually finding their offensive groove to post a 45-23 victory against the No. 24 Hokies. The impressive opening can be viewed as a unique piece of college football theatrics, something which differentiates fall Saturdays from their corresponding Sundays, rather than a thundering crescendo that led to a dream-ending loss.

As much as I looked forward to the moment that would be different than most weekends, I was also somewhat skeptical. I have heard Wisconsin students belt out a few lines of “Jump Around.” They then lose their breath to the accompanying jumping and focus on that task, not the sing-along.

I have heard pockets of the Notre Dame student section join the band in “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada. Maybe 10 percent do so, leading to comedy but hardly all that much volume.

This is where I have to say Virginia Tech was a bit different. The music was loud, the stands shook a little bit, the drama was palpable. What set it apart? All 66,000 sang past the refrain. They may have reached their peak at “Sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight,” following the second verse. I have never heard an entire stadium in unison like that, and I am glad I did.

That said, it was still not as intimidating as no one singing along to “Enter Sandman” while one slender man jogs from the bullpen to the pitching mound, as long as it is the slight figure owning the best pitch in baseball history.

YOON SETS POINTS RECORD
What is most impressive about senior kicker Justin Yoon breaking Allen Pinkett’s (1982-85) career mark of 320 points at Notre Dame is that Yoon did so with seven, maybe eight, games remaining in his career. His 47 points this season give Yoon 322 in his career, and at the pace of 2018, he could end up with as many as 377 points. If the Irish offense keeps up its pace of the last three weeks with junior quarterback Ian Book starting, then accelerate that expected output to 380 points for Yoon.

Either way, his mark should last a long time. To break it, a kicker would have to start four seasons on teams averaging more than 30 points per game, a mark reached at Notre Dame only 20 times in the last 50 years.

FRESHMEN NEEDED
Of the 27 scholarship freshmen in the recruiting class of 2018, 14 made the trip to Virginia Tech. Six of them showed up on the stat sheet. A few more than that played.

“This is a younger group that is a little bit looser in that sense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “But very focused when it comes to doing their job.”

During Saturday’s postgame, Kelly pointed out the caliber and number of players that had not made the trip: sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong (knee), fifth-year left guard Alex Bars (ACL), junior defensive end Daelin Hayes (stinger), sophomore defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway (foot), sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah (foot), senior nickel back Shaun Crawford (ACL). Those absences undoubtedly led to some of the freshmen making the trip, but it is just as noticeable how many of them held up against a ranked opponent on the road.

In only one half of action against the No. 24 Hokies, junior defensive end Julian Okwara made four tackles with half a sack and one additional quarterback hurry. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

SPEAKING OF INJURIES AND DEPTH … Will Hayes be back this week?
To preempt an obvious question: Junior defensive end Julian Okwara will be able to play in the first half against Pittsburgh (2:30 ET; NBC), because his targeting ejection came with fewer than 20 seconds before halftime. All that matters for this concern is that it came before halftime, by 20 seconds or 20 minutes.

The other half of that tandem, Hayes, may not be back.

“[Stingers] usually calm down in 24-to-36 hours,” Kelly said Sunday of an eight-day-old injury. “If they don’t, then the window opens up to six weeks. Once he’s asymptomatic, then he’ll be cleared to play. We’ll go from there.

“He was out obviously practicing non-contact drills because he was still symptomatic. Had some tingling in his hand.”

Quite frankly, Hayes should be able to take this week off without endangering Notre Dame’s season, and then he will have the idle week as more of a cushion. As well as the defensive line reserves played, there is no question about the Irish preference.

“I thought the kids did a really good job of not letting the adversity take advantage of the situation for them,” Kelly said. “… We’re better with Julian and Daelin no question, but those guys stepped up and played to a standard.”

WHAT ABOUT AARON BANKS? Will he see competitive snaps this weekend?
The sophomore is expected to rotate with senior Trevor Ruhland at left guard, but Ruhland handled those duties largely on his own against the Hokies. To some degree, that makes sense. Banks had only one week to jump inside to guard from tackle and prepare. Should his first such action — first real action in any collegiate capacity — have come at Lane Stadium? It would make more sense to give the youngster two weeks of run-up and let that debut occur in friendly confines.

ELSEWHERE … Will Oklahoma be granting media access to its newly-promoted linebackers coach?
Bob Diaco moved into the role as part of the domino effect of the Sooners firing their defensive coordinator after a 48-45 loss to Texas on Saturday. One of the more entertaining personalities in college football, hopefully Diaco gets a few chances to meet with the press.

If keeping track, Diaco does not quite join Notre Dame’s last two defensive coordinators as now holding those positions elsewhere, Brian VanGorder at Louisville and Mike Elko at Texas A&M. VanGorder’s season is not going well, while Elko’s is. Some context against Irish numbers:

Louisville: 32.7 points allowed per game; 413.83 yards allowed per game; 2-4 record.
Texas A&M: 20.2 points; 327.3 yards; 4-2 record.
Notre Dame: 19.5 points; 357.3 yards; 6-0 record.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame, Dexter Williams remove any doubt in 45-23 victory at No. 24 Virginia Tech
Things We Learned: No. 5 Notre Dame’s best yet to be seen

OUTSIDE READING
Yoon celebrates birthday by breaking career points record
Notre Dame and smooth sailing
Mandel’s Top 10: Five teams are firm, five teams are in flux ($)

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.