Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense undeniably of title quality


BRONX, N.Y. — It is not a comparison to suggest lightly, let alone one to then respond to casually. It is a discussion ripe with overreaction on the surface, questionable in merit but for extreme situations, the highest of praise when deserved. To say it aloud dares accusations of take artistry rather than genuine analysis.

So let’s make it, let’s discuss it, let’s write it publicly and therefore figuratively say it aloud.

Notre Dame’s defense belongs in the same conversation as Clemson’s, Alabama’s and Michigan’s.

Only a few teams can speak of first-hand experience against more than one of that set. Texas A&M lost to both Alabama and Clemson, Northwestern lost to both Notre Dame and Michigan; and Syracuse has now lost to both No. 2 Clemson and the No. 3 Irish (11-0) after Saturday’s 36-3 handling. Orange head coach Dino Babers was reluctant to directly compare the two, but he did not hesitate to put them both in a single piece of lauding.

“All I will say is this, Clemson is extremely talented,” Babers said. “I think there’s no doubt that those two teams are in the top four in the country and rightfully so.”

The stats have lumped that grouping of defenses together most of the year, but now the on-field slowing of worthwhile competition supports Notre Dame’s numbers rather than the other way around.

Before, the Irish were limiting offenses like Florida State’s, Navy’s and Pittsburgh’s, hardly bastions of production in 2018. Then came Syracuse (8-3) at Yankee Stadium. First, the obvious numbers:

The Orange averaged 44.4 points per game before facing No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish gave up zero points in 59 minutes and 50 seconds.

Syracuse averaged 482.2 yards per game. Notre Dame allowed 234.
The Orange had run 822 plays through 10 games, easy math for figuring out the average of 82.2. Only able to gain multiple first downs on four of 13 drives, Syracuse ran 73 plays against the Irish.
2.4 sacks allowed per game? How about six for the loss of 36 yards?
Two turnovers each week? Add another to get to three.

The list could go on through just about every statistical category. What Notre Dame did to that offense was a display of dominance by an array of athleticism warranting worry for anyone awaiting.

“They’ve got really good players,” Babers said. “We attempted to do some things and they closed off some gaps with their length. They’re very, very long as a defensive football team and because of that length they’re able to cover up a lot more space in the gaps.”

Length is like strength and speed and other conceptual nouns describing raw talent. Even when everything else is going wrong, they are still on the field. They are why Clemson’s floor has been so high all season, and why ‘Bama has long relied on its defense, having discovered an offense in 2018 to complement its usual staple.

The Irish realize as much. When did they begin to think about a shutout of the Orange?

“When there was 15 minutes on the clock in the first quarter, that was the mindset,” fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said.

Well sure, but when did they realize it was genuinely possible?

“When they throw a trick formation at us, second drive, and we communicate it, get our cleats in the grass, execute it, and [junior safety Jalen Elliott] picks it off,” Tranquill said.

That begins to go beyond length or any other vague quality. That sounds like game plan, anticipation and development. Indeed, first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea deserves as much praise as anyone else, if not more. Babers acknowledged him by name. Tranquill discussed how prepared the defense was. The stats make that readiness clear.

If the defensive line’s length, the linebacker’s experience and the safeties’ playmaking all serve to raise the Irish floor, that work during the week establishes a defensive ceiling worth comparing to those featured by the two programs claiming the last three national championships.

But Notre Dame remains flawed. Its offensive line is good, not great.

The obvious missteps were the four premature ones drawing false start penalties, three by sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and one by junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg. Irish head coach Brian Kelly felt some of those jumps directly credited Syracuse ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. That may be true, but if so, then fifth-year center Sam Mustipher saw it as a failing of the entire line, not just the tackles.

“We’ll never allow somebody to take the blame for that,” he said. “It’s just getting back to basics, focusing on what you have to do on the play.”

If some of the jumps trace to inexperience or some other noun or adjective describing youth, Mustipher’s confidence was unwavering.

“I told the guys, if you can’t block him, let us know, but I believe in you guys enough that I think you can block anybody,” he said.

The greater concern may be Notre Dame’s run game. Remove two runs of 35 and 32 yards by seniors Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams on the final Irish drive, well past any competitive moment, and the team rushing stats plummet to 110 yards on 30 carries (also adjusting for sacks and kneel downs). A total of 18 out of those 30 rushes went for two yards or fewer, with eight of those 18 not crossing the line of scrimmage. The Irish ran on first down 17 times, creating second-and-long nine times, five of which were 2nd-and-more-than-10. Against better teams, those situations become drive-killers.

The 3.67 yards per meaningful carry average is the third time in the last five games it did not crack 4.0. Adjusting for sacks, Notre Dame ran for 112 yards on 35 carries against Pittsburgh, a 3.2 average, and 121 yards on 40 carries at Northwestern, a 3.0 average.

Down the line, that may not get it done.

Oh, and Ian Book is capable of throwing incompletions.

This is more a reflection of how high expectations had gotten for the junior quarterback. His first five starts this year all featured completion rates greater than 70 percent, including two in the 81-point range. It was absurd.

At Northwestern, Book went 22-of-34, a 64.7 percentage, and his strike rate at Yankee Stadium was 62.2 percent.

Then again, Book went 23-of-37 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He had a very good day, despite an interception. And his season rate of 72.6 percent is still well ahead of the program record of 68.0 percent, set in 2009 by Jimmy Clausen.

Now then, one to go.

It is that simple. When you embarrass the No. 12 team in the country, you end all conversations about worthiness. Babers explained away the fourth quarter field goal attempts as injury prevention, but they will be remembered as the final piece of defeat delivered by Lea’s defense. And Kelly claimed ignorance as to Irish Playoff odds, but that was simple modesty.

Notre Dame is in with a win at USC. That motivation should outweigh the Trojans’ playing for Clay Helton’s job.

“If [the Irish] play the way they played us, they will probably have an opportunity to play for a national championship,” to quote Babers once more.

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.