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And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium

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Entering the season, Syracuse would have been considered Notre Dame’s sixth-stiffest challenge, at best. This particular space lumped the Orange in as a “should-be win,” designating it as no higher than the eighth-toughest opponent awaiting the Irish.

That was wrong, all very wrong. At No. 12 now, Syracuse was overlooked and as a result, it may not be as well-known as it should be. To rectify that, here comes Stephen Baily of The Post-Standard and Syracuse.com

DF: Stephen, I cannot say I ever anticipated this game being, well, this game. Before we dig in, how long have you been on the Syracuse beat?

SB: I’ve been covering the team since the start of the 2013 season overall and since 2014 for Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard.

At 8-2 and No. 12 in the country, the Orange have put this game on the national radar as much as Notre Dame has. Be honest here — not that you won’t be throughout these answers, but this is the spot where you may have reason to change the past — what did you see as Syracuse’s 2018 ceiling back in the preseason?

Honestly, I would say nine wins in the regular season was the absolute ceiling I envisioned at the start of preseason camp. I did not expect Florida State or Louisville to be this bad and, while the team is markedly improved in important areas, Syracuse has also avoided significant injury and taken advantage of its softest schedule since joining the ACC. I thought the Orange would be better in Year 3 under Dino Babers and predicted 6-6 heading into Week 1.

This may be an unfair way to ask this, as some factors depend upon each other, but what percentage of this year’s top-15 performance would you credit to Babers, to senior quarterback Eric Dungey and to a schedule that has been reasonable, but has yet to feature No. 3 Notre Dame or No. 22 Boston College?

I think the majority of the credit goes to Babers (50 percent) for implementing systems and not only sticking to them, but building a roster and culture around them. Everything that goes into the inner-workings of Syracuse football ties into the mindset of winning football games in shootout fashion. From recruiting to conditioning to defensive emphases, everyone understands the ultimate goal and we’re seeing it all come together in Year 3 with a deeper roster.

I’ll say Dungey (25 percent) and the schedule (25 percent) get an even split of the rest, though it’s admittedly a weird way to divvy up credit as the defensive line and special teams play have been considerable factors in the team’s success this year. Regarding Dungey, he’s had an up-and-down season in which he was benched against North Carolina and nearly lost his job the following week. But the competition brought out the best in him. He looked significantly better passing the ball over the next two weeks, and when he’s trusting the timing of plays and throwing accurately, there isn’t a defense in the country that won’t be kept off-balance. He’s truly a monster in the open field.

The schedule has just worked out perfectly for Syracuse. The Orange caught Florida State on a down year and the absolute rock bottom for Louisville. UConn is trash. Seriously, this is a team that could easily be 10-0 if the defense would’ve been able to get a stop at Clemson and Dungey didn’t miss an overtime throw at Pittsburgh.

Let’s focus on Dungey for a moment. A four-year starter, he has never finished a season. Knock on wood, he may this year, even though a couple weeks ago it looked like he could be benched in favor of sophomore Tommy DeVito. Dungey has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, thrown 14 touchdowns against five interceptions, and averages 219.3 passing yards per game. On top of that, he has rushed for 690 yards and 12 touchdowns. I suppose I have a few questions, so first of all, can you (briefly) explain the DeVito situation from October?

So DeVito is a redshirt freshman who is probably the most decorated recruit of the Babers era — Elite 11, The Opening, Under Armour All-American. He split first-team reps with Dungey during camp and played the majority of the Florida State win after Dungey left with eye irritation. He’s played in about half the games this year, with FSU and North Carolina being the big ones. DeVito threw three TDs to lead Syracuse back against the Tar Heels.

That following week, Babers let the two quarterbacks compete throughout the week and only told them of his decision Saturday just before the North Carolina State game. Dungey looked like a completely different player, throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns. At Wake Forest the next weekend, he completed 14 straight passes.

It’s pretty clearly Dungey’s job moving forward, but I do believe if Dungey reverts as a passer for more than a few drives, Babers won’t hesitate to turn to DeVito. Like I said, this team is built to win 50-30. If the offense isn’t scoring the ball, that’s a problem. The perceived margin for error is slimmer there than for most teams.

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey has experience as a four-year starter to go with both rushing and passing skills, making him the most-complete threat Notre Dame’s defense has faced this season. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Would you consider Dungey a true dual-threat quarterback, or is he a pass-first quarterback who happens to be able to run for chunks when available? Presumably, his scrambling played a role in some of his past injuries.

Yes, he’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s consistently a weapon in the running game. If teams don’t account for him or decide to drop back and try to take away the vertical passing game (see Wake Forest), Dungey will take advantage. He’s bigger than he was in past years and has run over multiple defensive backs this fall. He’ll rack up yardage on designed runs (RPOs, draws and sneaks in short-yardage situations) and scrambling. He’s probably at his best in the scramble game when Syracuse goes with its four- and five-wide sets.

Speaking of such sets, one of Notre Dame’s greatest weaknesses this year is its nickel package. Neither senior Nick Coleman nor freshman Houston Griffith has been able to consistently fill the hole left by Shaun Crawford’s ACL tear. The Irish have survived that deficiency thus far, but they also have not faced an offense with four receivers with 387 yards or more, 28 receptions or more, and each with multiple touchdowns. This is an offense that lost its two leading receivers, and last year’s Nos. 3 and 4 are now Nos. 5 and 6. Where did this group come from? Should Notre Dame fans worry about Dungey’s third and fourth (and fifth) options?

This group is balanced across the board and features a bunch of guys who are willing and capable to simply handle their roles. Babers’ offensive approach is almost always built around what the defensive is showing. That’s why you’ll see the tempo offense halt for checks at the line of scrimmage. Playing off coverage against a 2×2 set? Here comes the bubble screen. Going to give Jamal Custis man coverage? Time for the fly. There’s a simplicity to it, but with wrinkles in motions and releases, Babers does a great job of creating matchups and exposing weaknesses. Just ask Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Looking at the players themselves, Custis is the most physically gifted. At 6-foot-5, he has looked like an NFL guy for three years, but he’s only now stayed healthy and performed consistently enough to produce. Slot receivers Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson are extremely efficient, shifty and great after the catch (particularly Johnson). Tight end Ravian Pierce is a weapon in the red zone. I guarantee you the Orange tries to slip him off an RPO look at some point Saturday, and the safety who has watched Dungey run all game will have to be ready to stay back.

In his third year at Syracuse, head coach Dino Babers has already matched his win total from the previous two seasons combined. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

This all comes just a week after Syracuse enjoyed Brian VanGorder’s defense to the tune of 54 points, but most of that came on the ground. While Dungey threw for 192 yards on 14-of-27 passing, the Orange ran for 326 yards on 55 carries. Which would Babers prefer, to run or to pass to a victory?

Babers will take whatever he’s given, but almost always tries to keep the threat of the ground game on the table. Honestly, Louisville gift-wrapped multiple red-zone possessions and penalized its way into a blowout. The Syracuse offense didn’t even have one of its better performance of the year, stalling out in the red zone multiple times.

Since we’ve talked about the receivers, here’s what you should know about the Orange run game. Junior Moe Neal is the top back. He’s got great burst and has become a simpler runner, rarely cutting more than once before hitting the jets. You’ll also see senior Dontae Strickland, the team’s best receiving and blocking back and true freshman Jarveon Howard, a bowling ball who is used most often in short-yardage and goal-line situations. When Syracuse is on the goal line, look out for a jumbo package featuring six offensive linemen, a tight end, two lead blockers and a back. One of those lead blockers is 280-pound sophomore fullback Chris Elmore, who was recruited by most programs to play defensive tackle.

I would usually have spent a question or two by now on the defense, but Syracuse’s does not impress much. This weekend certainly looks to be a shootout. Can you give me any reason to believe otherwise? I suppose it is a defense that has forced 25 turnovers this year (while Dungey’s offense has turned it over only 12 times).

You hit the nail on the head in regard to turnovers. This is a bend-but-don’t-break defense that wants to keep plays in front of it and force teams to earn points. A 15-play drive means 15 opportunities to force a turnover. That unit as a whole, but particularly the secondary, has been opportunistic in regard to ball disruption, though it all starts up front. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chris Slayton is a monster, drawing regular double-teams to open up 1-on-1 chances for defensive ends Alton Robinson (nine sacks) and Kendall Coleman (seven).

Two of Syracuse’s top four corners are banged-up in junior Scoop Bradshaw and redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu, though Babers expects them to be active Saturday.

Before we get to a prediction, let’s return to my initial question. If a top-15 standing was not a preseason expectation, what are the Orange hopes for November at this point? Peach Bowl or bust?

Win out and a Peach or Fiesta Bowl spot seems all but guaranteed. If not, there’s a chance the Camping World Bowl takes a 9-3 Orange team, but there could be more travel-friendly fanbases in play as well. 8-4 seems like a near-lock for the Pinstripe Bowl, which would be disappointing for some considering Syracuse has played in the game twice, but could present a fun matchup with Penn State.

Keeping in mind Syracuse upset No. 2 Clemson last year and nearly pulled off the same feat this season, can it draw anything from those experiences? What do you expect from the Orange on Saturday?

I expect a team that will be mentally engaged and equipped with a solid game plan. I expect a close contest featuring big plays on both sides of the ball and a real emphasis from the Orange defense to get after Ian Book. No one will be overwhelmed by the opponent or the stage. But when push comes to shove, I think a Notre Dame-heavy crowd and outdoor venue make life tough on Syracuse’s offense down the stretch. All of its big wins during the Babers era have come in the Carrier Dome; in fact, before the Orange won at Wake Forest two weeks ago, the team had gone eight straight ACC road games without a win. So I’ve got Notre Dame winning a close one. I went with 41-37 in our predictions, for whatever that’s worth.

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.