Friday at 4: 4 Things To Learn with Notre Dame starting Brandon Wimbush

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Brandon Wimbush will start for No. 3 Notre Dame against Florida State.

No, that is not a “Jeopardy” clue with the answer of “What are sentences I never thought I would hear?” It is reality. Irish head coach Brian Kelly removed all doubt about junior quarterback Ian Book’s status in an exclusive interview with The Observer, the independent student newspaper at Notre Dame.

“If Ian Book was in a position where we didn’t feel like we would heighten his medical risks, he would have played,” Kelly said. “… We think he’ll be prepared to play next week. We’re very confident that, if everything continues to move in the direction it has up to this point, that he’ll be able to play against Syracuse.”

In other words, there is a chance Wimbush starts next weekend at Yankee Stadium, as well. In that regard, this weekend’s matchup will set the stage for a top-15 spectacle.

How will Wimbush fare against a strong Florida State defense?

Yes, the Seminoles were gashed for 106 points the last two weeks by Clemson and NC State. Advanced metrics consider them the Nos. 7 and 23 offenses in the country, respectively. The Tigers score the fourth-most points per game at 47.8, while the Wolfpack comes in No. 47 with 31.4.

In the first three games of the year with Wimbush as the starter, the Irish did not match those kinds of numbers. Book took the offense to a well-above-average level, but Wimbush had it scoring 23.3 points per game.

Even with those two disasters at hand, Florida State’s defense is considered No. 39 in the country by S&P+. Simply put, the ‘Noles give up all the points in part because the offense is so terrible. If that sounds like an excuse, keep in mind similar logic played a role in Wimbush’s benching.

Florida State gives up just 111.1 rushing yards per game (No. 17 in the country) on 2.84 yards per carry (No. 6). It allows only 55.4 percent of passes to be completed, a figure that was going to be included in this writing no matter who Notre Dame started at quarterback but one even more ominous for the Irish with Wimbush taking snaps — his season average is 55.3 percent.

Kelly said that rate should improve, something heard before.

“To throw the ball with accuracy, there’s a lot of carryover to so many other sports,” Kelly said Thursday. “You watch pitchers that lose the strike zone and they make a couple tweaks in a bullpen session and all of a sudden they’re throwing strikes again.”

At this point, the same old analogies and the repeated praises ring a bit hollow. Showing it on the field could give them credence, but until then it is natural to presume Wimbush is still Wimbush.

That would indicate Notre Dame and offensive coordinator Chip Long might change the game plan for the senior quarterback.

“The offense just kind of moves more toward — he’s a good runner of the football,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see him run the football a little bit.

“You don’t change a ton of what we do other than what has he been successful at and you maybe add a little bit of that to what you’re doing. I don’t think if you watch us play you go, that’s a totally different offense.”

Wimbush’s success running against Michigan in the season opener came behind a better offensive line than the Irish currently trot out. It also came without senior running back Dexter Williams, and sophomore Jafar Armstrong was getting his first action, hardly the quickly-proven commodity he has become.

Arguably Notre Dame’s two best rushes, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured) have not yet shared the backfield this season. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

How will Williams and Armstrong share the load?

If they can both find a rhythm, combined with Wimbush’s legs, Notre Dame could have a multi-pronged rushing attack that overwhelms Florida State, no matter how good the defense may be. The presumption was Williams and Armstrong could finally work together a week ago, but a sprained ankle limited Armstrong to just four carries.

“His play was not at the caliber of what it had been in the past,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It hampered him in the game. He wasn’t as explosive. He knew it. He’ll be better this week because of it.

“No doubt those two are great complements.”

Keeping fresh legs in a game with a reduced passing attack will be vital. Armstrong’s health may matter more than ever. Junior Tony Jones might even need to contribute half a dozen physical carries.

To be clear, Wimbush does have one intangible going for him.

Earlier this season, Kelly reflected on the mistakes made in 2016 that led to a locker room divided by two quarterbacks who believed they should start. It was something not worried about this year, and that is a credit to Wimbush. Kelly has said such repeatedly in press conferences, in that interview with The Observer, and apparently even in less public settings.

Yahoo’s Pete Thamel visited with some of the Irish coaching staff during the off week before Navy, and came away with this synopsis: “Coaches raved about the way Wimbush handled the move behind the scenes. He’s been encouraging, engaged and an ideal teammate through an adverse time.”

That attitude has kept the locker room behind Wimbush. If nothing else, this Senior Day will be about one senior in particular, and the team will buy in.

“It’s awesome to have a guy like that, that first of all, our players really respect and are excited if he has the opportunity to play,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’ll rally around him.

“If he has to come in, he doesn’t have to go win the football game. We have some other pretty good pieces. We have a pretty good defense. If he’s called upon, he’ll do a great job. He’s prepared himself.”

RELATED READING: Wimbush places team success as paramount

That defense alone should give Wimbush a 13th victory as a starter, especially considering how terrible Florida State’s offense is.

Really, it is that bad. Whether preferring advanced or traditional metrics, they are in agreement. The advanced numbers put the Seminoles offense as No. 102 in the country, the No. 124 rushing attack and No. 50 passing.

Traditional numbers include Florida State as the No. 105 scoring offense with 23.8 points per game, No. 128 (of 130) in rushing yards per game and No. 129 in yards per attempt with 2.38. Its passing efficiency is No. 61 in the nation.

The Seminoles offense is bad. Notre Dame’s defense is good. This does not require calculus.

If it really is that simple, might the Irish do something to complicate things?

Like what? You mean wear uniforms that give fans nightmares (USC 2005; Boston College 2002, specifically)? Send the seniors out in a different color than usual? Of course not. That would be absurd.

No, wait, Notre Dame is definitely wearing green this weekend.

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.