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Leftovers & Links: Dexter Williams’ pace underscores changes at Notre Dame

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When — not if, but when — Dexter Williams reaches 1,000 rushing yards this season, it will be deservedly regarded as impressive given the Notre Dame senior running back missed the first four games of the year due to an undisclosed suspension. The issues leading to the suspension aside, it will be an impressive feat, whether he accomplishes it in eight games or nine.

With 844 yards on 126 carries through seven games, consider how Williams’ season could still finish and could have played out if he did not miss most of September:

Keeping that pace through 10 games, otherwise known as winning a Playoff semifinal: 180 carries for 1,206 yards.
Through 13 games, a typical season sans suspension: 234 carries for 1,567 yards.
Through 14 games, the general ideal: 252 carries for 1,688 yards.

There is certainly something to be said for Williams holding up so well in November because he has four fewer games of wear on his legs, but that thought does not undercut a vital point perhaps overlooked. Before last year’s 1,430 rushing yards from Josh Adams, the high-water mark in Brian Kelly’s tenure had been 1,102 gained by Cierre Wood in 2011. The leading Irish rusher was as likely to gain just 700 yards in a season as he was to break 1,000.

Then came Adams’ push to within seven yards of the single-season program record and now Williams’ pace which would have set the record if held through just 12 games (a pace for 1,447 yards, 10 more than Vagas Ferguson gained in 1979).

As much as the two running backs have excelled, one other key piece of the puzzle changed before 2017: Offensive coordinator Chip Long joined Kelly’s staff.

When Long was named a Broyles Award finalist this week, recognizing the country’s top assistant, a common refrain was to wonder why defensive coordinator Clark Lea was not included. Well, Notre Dame could nominate only one assistant coach. Picking between the two undoubtedly included some consternation. As good as the Irish defense has been, minimizing Long’s effect on the offense is short-sighted.

Before Brandon Wimbush rushed for 14 touchdowns last year, no Kelly ball carrier had broken 11 in a season (C.J. Prosise, 2015, also the only other previous 1,000-yard rusher by all of 32 yards). Williams has already matched that 11 in his seven games.

Obviously, another piece of that puzzle has been the Notre Dame offensive line. Even if inconsistent this year, the defending Joe Moore Award winners were named finalists for the honor again, although winning this season is rather unlikely. Rushing for only 80 and 121 yards against Pittsburgh and Northwestern is not the best line on such a résumé, pun not intended.

Other award nominees, listed in probable likelihood of winning:
Drue Tranquill for the William V. Campbell Trophy, often referred to as the “Academic Heisman.”

Julian Love for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the country’s best defensive back.
Jerry Tillery for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, a self-explanatory one that seems to have reached by including Tillery, quite frankly.

KELLY ON WIMBUSH THE RB/WR/QB2
From the Yankee Stadium press box, it caused personal confusion when first noticing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush warming up on the sideline. There had been no sign of junior quarterback Ian Book getting hurt, but there was Wimbush throwing with freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Soon Wimbush took to throwing with Book, and it all seemed to perhaps just be an exercise in boredom during a blowout, the Irish already leading 20-0 shortly before halftime.

Then Wimbush lined up next to Book. His one rush attempt in the formation went for no gain, and the look did not last long. Yet, it could be seen again.

“We think certainly his ability to run with the football, but we’d like it to be more than that,” Kelly said Sunday. “Somebody that can catch the football, that has the ability to impact the offense from more than just that element.

“Clearly as you can see we’re trying to integrate him into the offense more than just a play here or there. It continues to unfold. He’ll be part of what we do again this week, and as we feel more comfortable and he feels more comfortable, you’ll start to see a little bit more of him.”

Common sense, however, says any alignment including both Wimbush and Book will be limited to “just a play here or there.” Why take Williams or senior receiver Miles Boykin or junior receiver Chase Claypool or senior tight end Alizé Mack off the field? If keeping all of them, then the addition of Wimbush removes sophomore tight end Cole Kmet, senior receiver Chris Finke or sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong from the equation.

With Book’s dispersal of the ball, those all present as more viable options than a clunky read-option with Wimbush.

Now if this is all a long-con to set up the possibility of a Wimbush pass in a critical moment a month from now, so be it, but do not expect Wimbush to rack up a number of handoffs from Book. That would be a handicap to Long’s progress.

ONE MORE YOON RECORD
Senior Justin Yoon only tied this mark, but presume at some point in the next two games he will break it. His three field goals against the Orange brought him to 57 in his career, tying Kyle Brindza for the Notre Dame lead. Brindza did it in 81 attempts; Yoon in 71, his career percentage of 80.2 very safe as the Irish record. He would need to miss his next seven field goals to drop below John Carney’s 73.9 percent.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s defense shuts down hyped Syracuse offense in rout
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense undeniably of title quality
Notre Dame lands former Georgia commit, consensus four-star LB

OUTSIDE READING:
Give the Irish credit for taking all the drama out of it
If there was any doubt, Notre Dame’s rebuild worked
After losing to Bruins, this looks like the end for Clay Helton at USC
Arrogance-based hatred: Notre Dame at USC
Pitt loses starting center to season-ending ankle surgery

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.