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Friday at 4: A ‘2’-fold look at Notre Dame’s 2012 hypotheticals sparked by a Pittsburgh possibility

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What if I told you Notre Dame reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2012 only because of a referee’s mistake? What if I told you it would not have mattered in the College Football Playoff era?

The first of those two questions is hard to refute. In the second overtime of an eventual 29-26 triple-overtime victory against Pittsburgh, the then-No. 4 Irish needed a missed call — an objective one at that, black-and-white, no gray area involved whatsoever — to avoid gifting the Panthers first-and-10 at the 11-yard line.

Both Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown attempted to block Pittsburgh’s (missed) field goal attempt in the second overtime. Both wore No. 2 in doing so, a clear and obvious infraction and one that went uncalled. It does not take much in the way of mental gymnastics to figure making that call correctly would have led to a Panthers victory soon thereafter, be it by touchdown or by a made field goal from senior Kevin Harper, who finished 20-of-27 that year, never reaching a third extra period.

That weekend held something in common with this one: Notre Dame was coming off a three-possession road victory at a feared venue against a top-25 opponent.

“Whatever I did (to prepare for Pittsburgh then), I probably didn’t do a very good job,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “I’m not pulling anything that I did that week. I’m sticking with what our preparation has been, and the guys have done a really good job because it’s really how you reach the group you have in front of you right now more so than thinking about what the group was about back in 2012.

“We’re going to stick with the group we have and keep working on what we’re doing now.”

It is hard to envision Notre Dame reaching the top-two with that loss on its ledger, not when eventual No. 3 Florida’s sole loss was by one possession against Georgia (who finished at No. 7 in the BCS standings) and end-of-year No. 4 Oregon’s only fall was in overtime against Stanford (No. 6).

Why bring this up? Because of the second tag to this non-existent ESPN “30 for 30” trailer. A one-loss Irish likely would have still made a four-team Playoff.

Only five teams finished with one loss or fewer in 2012: Notre Dame, some other team, Florida, Oregon and Kansas State. In that order, they made up the top five of the final BCS rankings. To reach the Playoff, all the Irish would have needed was to finish ahead of the Wildcats. Looking at the BCS formulas now, it is hard to believe that would not have happened.

Kansas State was behind Georgia in both human polls considered (the USA Today Coaches’ poll and the Harris Poll) and tied with the Cardinal, and ahead of the Ducks, in the computer rankings at No. 4. There is no reason to think any of that would have changed as it pertains to the Wildcats — it is conceivable Stanford may have fallen a touch in correlation with Notre Dame’s drop.

Considering how human polls have always functioned, the timing of the Irish loss would have actually worked in their favor. Whether or not Notre Dame’s résumé would have been viewed more favorably than Kansas State’s (it should have been), the Wildcats suffered their only loss two weeks later in their season finale at unranked Baylor. For that matter, it was not even close, 52-24. The Irish could have tumbled below Kansas State in the human polls for two weeks, but certainly would have moved back into theoretical Playoff position with the Wildcats’ toes stubbed.

A Big 12 Championship Game victory over then-No. 23 Texas would not have even given Kansas State a proverbial “13th data point.” The Wildcats played only 11 regular season games.

Meanwhile, the BCS computers looked so favorably upon the Irish that it is hard to imagine them falling past Kansas State there, either. The deserved loss to Pittsburgh would have sent Notre Dame past Florida and perhaps Alabama, but probably no further.

Such a scenario would have left the Irish with … a semifinal matchup against the Tide.

This is all to point out the world may not come to a crashing halt if Notre Dame loses a game in the second half of 2018 — a Playoff berth may remain tenable simply due to the natural and inevitable attrition of each fall — and to acknowledge the comedy of how little would have changed if a Playoff existed six years ago and the referees noticed the blatant penalty in that second overtime.

For context:
Notre Dame’s notable wins in 2012: Sept. 15 at Michigan State, 20-3; Sept. 22 vs. eventual No. 18 Michigan, 13-6; Oct. 13 vs. eventual No. 6 Stanford, 20-13 in overtime; Oct. 27 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 30-13.
Florida: Sept. 8 at eventual No. 9 Texas A&M; 20-17; Oct. 6 vs. eventual No. 8 LSU, 14-6; Oct. 20 vs. eventual No. 10 South Carolina, 44-11; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 12 Florida State, 37-26. Lost to eventual No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 27, 17-9.
Oregon: Sept. 22 vs. Arizona, 49-0; Oct. 6 vs. Washington, 52-21; Nov. 3 at USC, 62-51; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 13 Oregon State, 48-24. Lost to eventual No. 6 Stanford on Nov. 17, 17-14 in overtime.
Kansas State: Sept. 22 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 24-19; Oct. 20 at West Virginia, 55-14; Oct. 27 vs. Texas Tech; 55-24; Dec. 1 vs. eventual No. 23 Texas, 42-24. Lost at Baylor on Nov. 17, 52-24.

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.