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Things To Learn: A blowout would do more than just boost Notre Dame’s ego


Considering No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) has won each of its last three games by at least three possessions, it may be odd to hear talk of the Irish needing to put their opponents away more definitively. It was a common theme for head coach Brian Kelly early in the year, and one not entirely done away with yet despite averaging 46.3 points the last three weeks.

It lingers in a different form, though, one of needing to play well for four full quarters, not spurts and starts.

Notre Dame’s offense was outscored 13-0 in the second quarter last weekend at Virginia Tech. A similar struggle unfolded in the second quarter two weeks ago, with the Irish finding the end zone only 39 seconds before halftime, not reaching midfield on two previous possessions in the frame.

“We had a good run offensively, and then maybe not such a good run defensively,” Kelly said Tuesday, implying the vice versa could be just as applicable. “It would be nice to put it all together. We’ve got some room for growth there.”

So when a blowout of Pittsburgh (3-3) is wanted, it is not so much to reduce fans’ stress levels, play underclassmen or even establish bragging rights for the four players from Pittsburgh (three from the city itself, sophomore offensive guard Josh Lugg from near enough to mitigate any debate). Those would all be appreciated, and the second would hold tangible value, but it is more about proving Notre Dame is capable of 60 complete minutes.

To be clear, this is a nit getting picked.

“They’re still winning football games,” Kelly said. “They’re still showing resolve. They’re still doing a lot of really good things, but it’s nice to know that after six weeks, there’s still plenty of room for growth.”

A rout would allow some reserves to play, and that serves more of a practical purpose than it would have a month ago against Ball State. Remember how that was supposed to be a showcase for the freshmen taking advantage of the new rule regarding eligibility?

Obviously, that did not happen, and Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC) could fill that role, but at this point doing so would also get key starters additional rest. A few of them need it.

While junior defensive end Daelin Hayes is good to go, per Kelly, after a stinger kept him from traveling to Virginia, the defensive line is still ripe for both rest for its starters and reps for its backups. Tackle and end Jayson and Justin Ademilola have seen more and more time — the former due to the injuries to sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and freshman Ja’Mion Franklin and the latter due to Hayes’ injury.

Even junior end Jamir Jones stepped in with Hayes, and if such were to be needed again, Jones would need to prove he can be trusted. The former linebacker has yet to have much of that chance. The Panthers may provide it … if the Irish can put together a complete game.

Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill is playing with a cast on his broken hand. That should neither get better nor worse within the game — if the cast wasn’t trusted, he wouldn’t be playing — but a lead and some subsequent time for freshman Shayne Simon would at least save Tranquill some pain.

“You have to acclimate to that cast,” Kelly said, shifting the focus to Tranquill’s on-field performance and away from his dismissal of any pain. “He got caught inside a couple of times with his left hand being the lead hand, and he struggled a little bit trying to get outside. He’s getting used to playing with that cast, and he felt it a couple of times on Saturday.”

Simon broke through defensively against the Hokies, making a goal line stop in his first defensive series of his career. Kelly has seen that coming since the summer; Simon just needed time to adjust to the game at this level.

“He had the athletic ability,” Kelly said. “But the game, it’s the tactical piece that you have to put together. … Everything is now a nice routine, and they’re starting to get a lot more comfortable.”

More pertinent to the point, a hefty lead could spare both junior cornerback Troy Pride and junior running back Tony Jones the misery of playing through a sprained ankle. Kelly was more optimistic about Jones’ recovery this week than Pride’s, but both should be monitored.

Even if Jones’ injury no longer limits his workload, as Kelly indicated Tuesday, some carries for freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister would serve the purpose of protecting against whatever ailments yet await the position group.

An ankle injury hampered Notre Dame junior cornerback Troy Pride a week ago. With the idle week coming up, a reduced workload this weekend would serve even more good than usual. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As for Pride, when asked if he was moving well Thursday, Kelly began his reply with an uncertain “Mehh.”

“I’d say he’s okay,” Kelly continued. “He’s going to probably play, but we think we have to use [junior Donte Vaughn] and him. I think you’ll see probably a couple of corners play, but [Pride is] probably better than I thought.”

The phrase “a couple of corners” points to freshman TaRiq Bracy.

“I trust him,” Kelly said. “It’s just the physicality piece more than anything else. He has great makeup speed. He plays the ball pretty good. I probably wouldn’t want to extend him too much but he’s a guy we can put on the field.”

Finding playing time for Jamir Jones, Simon and Bracy is not about testing freshmen in a blowout like it would have been in early September. Now it is about giving snaps to players who will need to contribute in November so as to also give a rest to starters who will certainly need to produce then, as well.

The situation at nickel back is a bit more dire than that. Neither senior Nick Coleman nor freshman Houston Griffith has taken to the position in senior Shaun Crawford’s absence (ACL).

“We’ve got to get better there,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There’s no question. …

“We’ve got two guys there that we feel are best-suited for the position in Houston and Nick, and they’re going to continue to get work on it. We’re going to spend even more time on it, and those are the two best players in our program for that position.”

Opposing offenses have targeted Notre Dame freshman Houston Griffith when he has been in at nickel back. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

This should be a good weekend to work at it. Pittsburgh ranks No. 102 in the country in passing efficiency and No. 113 in yards per attempt (6.3). Even if Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett were to expose Notre Dame’s nickel back, it would not likely be for much damage.

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh senior receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes is something of a prototypical slot receiver at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. He is the third of Pickett’s three genuinely-contributing targets with 13 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns in six games. (After the top three, no other pass-catcher breaks 65 receiving yards. Context: Six Irish targets eclipse that mark with sophomore receiver Michael Young at 63, as well.)

Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book has completed more than 70 percent of his passes since taking over as starter three weeks ago, despite missing on most of his deep throws. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

This is also an ideal opportunity to (im)prove junior quarterback Ian Book’s deep ball. Pittsburgh ranks No. 91 in yards per attempt against, giving up an average of 7.6 yards per pass. Book has averaged 8.45 yards per attempt, despite struggling to connect downfield. If looking at S&P+ ratings, Notre Dame has been about middling in the deep ball regard, rated No. 52 in offensive passing explosiveness. The Panthers’ defense? No. 108 in the category.

Exploiting that would go a long way toward putting Pittsburgh away early, which would in turn get the hobbled off the field and give the inexperienced an opportunity.

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

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 four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, 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

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.