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No. 4 Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions

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Looking through the first half of this preseason’s 40 predictions showed how much Notre Dame’s offense has changed with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback compared to initial expectations. Walking through the latter half, the defensive and big picture portion, shows …

21) Freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will manage at least eight tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
RESULT: The play of classmate Jayson Ademilola (seven tackles to date) may have always rendered this unlikely, but this projection went by the wayside for good and for certain when Franklin tore his quad from the bone in his first action, ending his season without a tackle.

22) The Irish will have two players with at least sacks.
23) Junior end Khalid Kareem (pictured at top, left) will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
24) Kareem will have more than eight sacks, the most by by someone in an Irish uniform since Stephon Tuitt’s dozen in 2012.
25) Speaking of 2012’s sacks, Notre Dame will match that season’s 34.
RESULTS: The spirit of all four of these was spot on, as the Irish pass rush has been more potent this season than any in recent memory. Even in 2012, when Notre Dame had Tuitt and Prince Shembo wreaking havoc, the overall effect paled in comparison to this year’s with senior tackle Jerry Tillery (seven sacks) leading the way, Kareem (4.5) making the biggest of plays and junior end Julian Okwara doing everything but notching a sack on each drive. Then come junior ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, not to mention Ademilola’s improving play, as well as his twin brother’s, end Justin.

Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was essentially unblockable against Stanford, tying a Notre Dame record with four sacks. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The actual grading of these predictions is varied. Between Tillery and Kareem, it is likely the Irish end up with two pass rushers combining for a dozen sacks. Kareem could still lead that charge — he is only Tillery’s four-sack performance against Stanford away — and he could still top eight. Even if Kareem does not break eight, Tillery should, and that was the underlying intention of the claim.

As for the team total, Notre Dame is on pace for 27 sacks, with 16 thus far. This is more a sign of the times than it is a sign 2012’s pass rush was better.

“We’re much more interested in quarterback hurries and getting them out of the pocket and getting them out of rhythm,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last week. “Today the passing game is a three-step passing game.”

Quarterback hurries are the most subjective of metrics, but being the one at hand, let’s compare 2018 to 2012 … Notre Dame is credited with 41 through seven games, including Okwara’s single-handed seven against Pittsburgh. In the run to 12-0 earlier in the decade, the Irish managed 45 quarterback hurries in 12 games.

The official record of these four projections is currently to be determined for all four, with the first likely to hit and the last likely to miss, leaving the two Kareem-specific speculations unknown yet. The underlying message of the four hits on three, though, if giving credit for such. Unfortunately, the ledger does not.

26) Notre Dame will give up more than 20 points three times, but its scoring defense will still allow fewer than 21.5 points per game, both being 2017’s marks.
RESULT: Threading the needle of such a specific dichotomy was going to be unlikely, yet, here we are. The Irish gave up 27 to Wake Forest — as hinted at — and 23 to Virginia Tech. All five remaining opponents average at least 23 points per game (Florida State) with Navy (28.0) and Syracuse (43.0) looming as the most-distinct threats to the Notre Dame defense, not to mention a bowl game against what is sure to be a high-powered offense, LSU possibilities notwithstanding.

Nonetheless, first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has schemed his way to an 18.71 points against average.

With 56 tackles, senior linebacker Te’von Coney (right) has led Notre Dame’s defense to outpacing even last year’s stellar unit. Coney has added 5.5 tackles for loss, the sack this pose celebrated, an interception and a fumble recovery in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

27) Again using last season as the initial measuring stick, the Irish will allow fewer than 369.2 yards per game. In fact, let’s lower it to 350.
RESULT: That number is currently at 340.9. Opponents would need to average 362.8 yards per game in the remaining five games to bring the season-long average above 350. That could happen, given they combine to average 388.8 yards per game through six games apiece. (The fact that all five remaining opponents have already had their bye week speaks both to the incongruent timing of Notre Dame’s and to a potential scheduling advantage in the second half of the season.)

28) Opposing running backs will catch at least three touchdowns of more than 20 yards.
RESULT: The specificity of this thought is retroactively surprising, but even if it had been vague, it would have been wrong. First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due: Senior rover Asmar Bilal has outperformed all expectations, proving to be a genuine defender and suited, at least well enough, to the hybrid position. He may not remain there next year, but that will be due to a team need rather than his own ill fit, as may have been previously expected.

Through seven games, the Irish defense has given up just two touchdowns of greater than 20 yards: a 23-yard run to Wake Forest quarterback/receiver Kendall Hinton and a 39-yarder to Stanford running back Bryce Love. That’s it. Again, kudos is deserved by Lea.

29) Freshman linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer will not preserve a year of eligibility. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec will.
RESULT: Simon and Bauer have both exceeded the four-game barrier to preservation, while Jurkovec has appeared in just one game.  It would take two quarterback injuries for him to burn the season at this point.

Notre Dame junior safety Jalen Elliott’s greatest statistical contribution this season was two interceptions in the second week, but it was this pass breakup against Vanderbilt that may have saved an Irish victory. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

30) A Notre Dame safety will intercept a pass unlike in 2017.
RESULT: See junior Jalen Elliott, Ball State, twice.

31) Simon will make 10-plus tackles.
RESULT: A lack of comfortable leads combined with worthwhile play from Bilal have limited Simon to four tackles thus far. Let’s call that within range and leave this as to be determined.

32) Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior linebacker Te’von Coney will combine for 220 tackles.
RESULT: Currently at 102, the duo is on pace for 175 through 12 games. Stretching that to one bowl game raises it to 189. A Playoff run could jump it to 204. There just is not a viable reach for 220. Go ahead and call this wrong already.

33) The New York Yankees will not be swept in the American League Championship Series, guaranteeing Yankee Stadium hosts a game exactly one month before the Irish play the Orange there.
RESULT: If only the comma had been a period.

34) The best sporting event of the weekend before Thanksgiving in New York City will not be Notre Dame and Syracuse on Saturday, but rather it will be Connecticut and Syracuse rekindling Big East lore in Madison Square Garden that Thursday night.
RESULT: Obviously to be determined, but it would take something monumental to shift this take.

35) Nationwide win total unders … Texas Tech under 6.5, Washington State under 5.5, Arizona State under 4.5, North Carolina under 5.5.
RESULT: Texas Tech is already at 4-2 with Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor yet on the schedule. Mike Leach has proven to be a coach of absurd means in getting Wazzu to 5-1. The Fighting Herm Edwards started 2-0 but have gone 1-3 since to make that mildly interesting. And the Fighting Larry Fedoras would not reward anyone who actually made this wager because they cancelled a game due to Hurricane Florence, but the Tar Heels are unlikely to even reach five wins (S&P+ projects 3.2 wins), meaning the bet would have cashed no matter how they fared against Central Florida, which is to say poorly.

Considering the margins of these endeavors, 1-3 or even 2-2 does not count as a correct suggestion.

36) Nationwide win total overs … Virginia Tech over 8, Vanderbilt over 4.5, Northwestern over 6.5, Michigan State over 8.5, TCU over 7.5, Arizona over 7.5, Oregon over 8.5.
RESULT: If it was not for the Ducks, this might be an oh-fer, although the Commodores have hope of going from 3-4 to 5-7 if they can knock off not only Tennessee (for the third consecutive year), but also either Ole Miss or, more likely, Arkansas.

37) Notre Dame will not reach the top five at any point in 2018.
RESULT: These days, that should read, “No. 4 Notre Dame …”

38) The Irish will win more than 9.5 games.
RESULT: It is shy of bold to count this as correct, but for now it remains just likely. A 2-3 finish to this season would, however, be a collapse Kelly could not recover from.

39) Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
RESULT: If granting the logic it remains more likely than not the Irish lose a game this season, and not yet believing a one-loss Notre Dame would warrant Playoff consideration, then this could quickly become a 50/50 proposition between the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl.

40) At least 15 of these 40 will be wrong, the Prognosticator’s Paradox.
RESULT: If the trends continue as expected, these currently break down to a 17-15 record with eight unknowns. The 17th correct prediction is indeed No. 40 itself.

What is odd looking at these preseason thoughts is the Irish defense has been about as good as expected statistically speaking, yet it has felt more dominant than that, the sole reason Notre Dame held on against Michigan and Pittsburgh at the least, and arguably at Virginia Tech, as well, considering how that first half went.

It is that defense which has the Irish more in the national conversation than expected as the season enters its second half.

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.