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No. 3 Notre Dame breezes past Florida State thanks to Wimbush’s 3 TD passes

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush’s first pass in his return as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback was a well-placed fade for a 3-yard Miles Boykin touchdown. Senior-to-senior on Senior Day, errr, Senior Night — a celebration that began before the game with the crowd only cheering Wimbush’s introduction and extending throughout a 42-13 victory against Florida State.

Wimbush spent the last seven weeks and six games as the good teammate, relegated to a ballcap and supportive words. All he had done was not play well enough in leading the now-No. 3 Irish to a 3-0 record and top-10 standing. With junior Ian Book sidelined by a ribs injury, though, there was Wimbush back as the starter. And that opening touchdown let hardly any time go by before he had reasserted himself as capable of leading Notre Dame (10-0) to a needed win.

“He wants to win for his teammates, he wants to win for Notre Dame,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “He’s a great teammate. He’s been that way all year, whether he’s in a starting role or backup role.”

No matter how the night as a whole went, Wimbush was going to be the focus. Either Notre Dame would remain in Playoff contention thanks to him or it would not because of him. With multiple assists from the Irish defense, Wimbush made sure the Playoffs remain a viable possibility, beginning to border on likelihood.

A Nick Coleman interception off a Te’von Coney deflection put Notre Dame at the 3-yard line only two plays into the game. To stick with a theme of the night, both seniors.

The Seminoles then put together a three-and-out without turning over the ball before fumbling on the first snap of their third drive, forced by junior end Ade Ogundeji and recovered by junior end Daelin Hayes.

“[Kelly] really wanted us to come out and dominate at home,” Hayes said. “A last statement win as we protect our house for the seniors.”

That field position resulted in a 26-yard field goal from Justin Yoon, yet another senior, and a 17-0 Irish lead in the first quarter. Wimbush already had two touchdowns — and at that point had completed 6-of-11 passes for 50 yards. The rout was clearly on.

“It was one of the best first halves that I think the team has had, so it felt natural,” Wimbush said. “Everything was coming. We had a great game plan and we got off to a great start, which was an emphasis throughout the week.”

Wimbush finished with an up-and-down stat line. He began the day an efficient 10-of-16 for 111 yards through about 27 minutes. He then went 2-of-9 for 19 yards with two interceptions the rest of the way, finishing 12-of-25 for 130 yards, three touchdowns and two picks, adding 11 carries for 62 yards.

Oh, and a win. Temperatures in the mid-20s? No matter. Green jerseys? Cool. Senior Night emotions? Channeled as a good thing. Backup quarterback? Hardly a concern.

“We knew Brandon was going to play (earlier in the week), and nobody was worried, honestly,” Boykin said. “I think a lot of people outside this football team were kind of worried.

“We look back at the games that this guy has won for us, the things that he has done for us, he’s tough. If Book’s not playing, there is no other person I’d rather have.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
If the end zone were farther away, Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams would have finished with many more than his career-high 202 yards on just 20 carries. His 58- and 32-yard touchdown runs both featured him in the clear long before he reached the goal line. And just like most of the names already mentioned, this marked Williams’ last appearance at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I think we’re seeing the effects of a back that is coming into his own and getting an opportunity now later in his career, certainly, but seeing things, learning things, and tapping into his potential,” Kelly said. “Notre Dame is the beneficiary, and he will be, too. It’s a win/win situation.”

The Seminoles never really threatened after those two turnovers set up a three-possession deficit, but a touchdown early in the third quarter brought the score to 32-13, soon 35-13 thanks to a 35-yarder from Yoon. Could Florida State give the Irish a scare? Offensive coordinator Chip Long answered that by dialing up a 12-play drive featuring nine Williams runs, two from sophomore Jafar Armstrong and one from Wimbush. The Seminoles could not stop the run, and Williams soon provided the final tally.

“Coach Long, once he sees something, he just rolls with it,” Boykin said. “We’re running the ball well? We’re going to run it.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s second touchdown came on another route to the corner of the end zone, this time targeting tight end Alizé Mack … a senior. Mack clearly caught and controlled the 6-yard pass but where his left foot landed could be debated for a few days yet. The officials ruled on the field the foot stayed in bounds, and replay could not prove Mack’s heel touched white. The call stood, an excellent snag from a player often criticized for not being sure-handed. Technically speaking, it was the winning score.

Mack added another touchdown before halftime, finishing with three catches for 29 yards.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Even when something went right for the Seminoles — an 8-yard Cam Akers touchdown run — it resulted in something abject, a blocked point after attempt by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery returned for two points by junior cornerback Julian Love. Rather than a prototypical 17-7 score and the beginnings of a competitive game, Florida State trailed 19-6 and still had to kick off, which soon yielded Williams’ 58-yard scoring scamper.

By the way, Tillery, a senior.

“Jerry finally got one,” Hayes said, adding special teams coordinator Brian Polian has been encouraging the kick block team to keep pushing in recent weeks, insisting someone was close to altering a kick. He undoubtedly could not have expected the ball to bounce so fortuitously, though.

STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame rushed for 365 yards on 50 carries, a 7.3 yards per rush average. This may be hard to believe considering that output, but the Seminoles are actually stout against the run. Entering Saturday night, they gave up 111.1 rushing yards per game (No. 17 in the country) and 2.84 yards per carry (No. 6). Only 10 touchdowns had been scored against Florida State on the ground through nine games.

None of that mattered, even when the Seminoles knew what was coming, like on that 12-play, 97-yard Long drive. (Pun mostly intended.)

“I talked about how important it was to run the football in November when teams know that you’re going to run the football and exert your will, and I thought we were able to do that today,” Kelly said. “That had a lot to do with the final score.”

With junior Tommy Kraemer starting at right guard, the fourth alignment up front for the Irish this season, a power game emphasis returned. This was the first time Notre Dame broke 300 yards this season, previously topping 250 twice with 254 against Navy and 272 (plus 10 more if adjusting for sacks) against Stanford.

Last year the Irish cracked 300 times seven times, including twice topping 400 yards with the highlight being the 515 at Boston College. Saturday’s 365 yards would have been the fifth-highest rushing performance in 2017. Comparing to then is a request for disappointment. Seeing it in the context of this season shows the progress needed and achieved, for at least one night, to remain unbeaten.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Kelly opened his postgame press conference by outlining Notre Dame’s goals for the year, one by one accomplished to this point.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
13:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 3-yard pass from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 0. (2 plays, 3 yards, 0:34)
6:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Alizé Mack 6-yard pass from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Florida State 0. (14 plays, 81 yards, 5:03)
5:53 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 17, Florida State 0. (4 plays, 6 yards, 0:46)

Second Quarter
13:17 — Florida State touchdown. Cam Akers 8-yard rush. Ricky Aguayo PAT blocked (Jerry Tillery). Notre Dame return, Julian Love. Notre Dame 19, Florida State 6. (16 plays, 75 yards, 7:36)
11:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 58-yard run. Yoon PAT blocked. Notre Dame 25, Florida State 6. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:40)
6:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mack 15-yard pass from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 32, Florida State 6. (6 plays, 67 yards, 1:50)

Third Quarter
13:35 — Florida State touchdown. Cam Akers 7-yard rush. Aguayo PAT good. Notre Dame 32, Florida State 13. (4 plays, 30 yards, 0:45)
10:08 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 35 yards. Notre Dame 35, Florida State 13. (8 plays, 57 yards, 3:27)

Fourth Quarter
13:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 32-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Florida State 13. (12 plays, 97 yards, 5:30)

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.