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And In That Corner … The USC Trojans, the last hurdle, the last stop, the last challenge before 12-0

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No. 3 Notre Dame heads west this weekend to face an unfamiliar USC (8 ET; ABC), a downtrodden USC, an in-turmoil USC. To explain the Trojans’ situation, here comes Joey Kaufman of the O.C. Register

DF: Hey, Joey. I realize putting up with Notre Dame questions from folks thinking 12-0 and a spot in the Playoff might not be an urgent concern as you ponder Clay Helton’s hot seat and a winter spent sans a trip to the Sun Bowl.

At this point in the season, it is hard to separate the macro from the micro with USC, but let’s try to start with the on-field items. Offensively the names that stick out to Irish fans are quarterback JT Daniels (because of his national profile) and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (because of his last name), high school teammates just a year ago. Has the freshman duo proven worth the hype this season?

JK: They haven’t, which is in part due to the hype spinning a bit out of control, particularly for Daniels. In the summer and throughout training camp, Daniels was billed as the next great USC quarterback in several magazine-length profiles. He’s proven not to be a bust — which is not nothing because the Trojans have gone through some recent five-star passers that didn’t pan out in the slightest — but Daniels has had some wild highs and lows.

In a sign of his promise, he threw three touchdown passes in a win over Washington State in late September, handing the Cougars, now eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings, their only loss. Neither Matt Barkley nor Carson Palmer threw three touchdowns in a game as a true freshman. Then he completed only six passes in a beatdown at Utah and left the game after three quarters with a concussion. It has not been an easy adjustment for Daniels, who graduated a full year early from Mater Dei High School, the prep powerhouse in Orange County, to join the Trojans. His passer rating is 11th among Pac-12 quarterbacks. A portion of the fanbase would like Jack Sears, the redshirt freshman who replaced him for a game last month, to start. Sears is the more mobile quarterback. None of this has been unexpected, but when the expectation is to be Sam Darnold, it’s a tall ask.

As far as Amon-Ra St. Brown, he’s been a capable target, and Daniels has often leaned on him, perhaps at times too much. But he’s been college-ready from the jump.

Trojans running back Aca’Cedric Ware has gained 757 yards on 112 carries this year, an average of 6.76 yards per rush, salvaging something of a USC ground attack. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

The Trojans running game has been up-and-down, to say the least. Four times this year, they did not reach 100 rushing yards. There were signs of life as October turned to November, but then USC rushed for only 209 yards in the last two weeks, averaging 3.22 yards per rush. Senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware has shown some flashes, but he has been far from a workhorse. Are these struggles a testament to the ball carriers, the offensive line, the play calling, some combination thereof?

Although the Trojans lost Ronald Jones, a 1,500-yard rusher along with Darnold, Ware and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai have afforded their offense some capable running backs. The biggest issue has been the offensive line. The advanced stats have been pretty unkind, according to Football Outsiders: 108th in line yards, 116th in power success rate, 96th in stuff rate. The issues tend to compound, as well. The Trojans have been so ineffective at times running the ball that they give up on it entirely. Their loss at Texas in September was illustrative, with 48 pass attempts to 16 rushes.

That might be all the micro on hand. The Trojans’ season has taken such a turn, it is hard to ignore. Midway through October, it seemed USC could, maybe should, end up in the Pac-12 title game, then 4-2 with a 3-1 conference record. When did you start to think the season would take a sharp turn south?

That moment was after USC’s loss to Arizona State on Oct. 27. Earlier in the season, the narrative surrounding Clay Helton was his teams couldn’t beat the more formidable opponents or punch above their weight. The losses to Stanford, Texas and Utah, while all beatdowns, all came on the road when the Trojans were underdogs. When they fell to the Sun Devils, it set them back and was a sign things could actually tailspin. The loss was their first at the Coliseum under Helton, snapping a 19-game home winning streak that was then the second-longest in the nation behind Alabama’s. It was also only the third time under Helton that they had lost while favored in the game. Similar situations unfolded the last two weeks against Cal and UCLA. The Trojans were favored, but lost. It was one thing to lose to elite non-conference foes, but another to start losing to middling conference rivals.

How much trouble is Helton in? Maybe it is just a national narrative at this point, but last week’s loss to UCLA really seemed to be the end of his brief time at USC.

He’s certainly in trouble. The last time USC finished with a record below .500 was Paul Hackett’s final season as coach in 2000, resulting in his firing, and the Trojans will be 5-7 if they lose, as expected, against the Irish. But it’s hardly a foregone conclusion he will be fired, and people involved with the athletic department believe Swann would like to keep Helton. It might not be a coincidence Helton expects to return and has told players he will be back in 2019. Granted, his return will be difficult to square with the fan base which is raising money to fly a “Fire Clay Helton” banner during Saturday’s game. Everything seems to be in play, especially when you consider his buyout is reportedly at least $15 million.

Of course amid all that drama, giving up 79 combined points in back-to-back weeks to Utah and Arizona State speaks to some defensive difficulties. Might the Irish be able to match those outputs?

It’s very possible, and Utah likely offers them the best template. The Utes pounded USC’s front seven and ran 51 times for 200 yards. Arizona State took advantage as well, picking up even more rushing yards with 283 on 44 carries. UCLA had 313 rushing yards last week, too. Over the past few months, since losing outside linebacker Porter Gustin for the season due to an ankle fracture, the Trojans’ defense has seemed increasingly beaten down.

That question clearly suggests Notre Dame should be able to cruise past the Trojans. They have talent, of course, but it has not been seen much this year. Is it anything but paranoid to think USC’s talent could finally come around this week?

It’s possible. There’s always the chance USC can out-talent some teams and it has enough big-play receivers, led by Michael Pittman Jr., and skill position players to do so. It’d be a great 7-on-7 team. As much trouble as the Trojans have had, their best avenue for success comes on big plays. They rank 34th in the nation in IsoPPP, a stat that measures explosive plays. So Daniels and his targets could make it interesting if they happen to hit on a couple deep ones.

What is your prediction for Saturday night? Will the Irish punch their Playoff ticket?

Much like 2012, the Trojans will play hard. As much trouble as they’ve had this fall, I don’t think they’ve quit. But Notre Dame is too formidable, so I’ll pick the Fighting Irish, 35-17.

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.