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Friday at 4: 40 thanks to give, courtesy of Notre Dame’s unbeaten season

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LOS ANGELES — Hopefully, you spent yesterday forgetting about Notre Dame. On a day reserved for family, gluttony and the NFL, it would be understandable to focus the given thanks on mom’s cooking, dad’s reluctant sharing of the cheesy potatoes and the overall generosity of Matt Stafford.

That was yesterday. This is today. This is Friday, the afternoon before the No. 3 Irish can lock up their first bid to the College Football Playoff. If ever a Notre Dame season warranted thanks, it has been this one. Intermixed with what should be the thanks of an Irish fan, find the thanks of a writer covering Notre Dame. Combined, just more than three dozen appreciations. Thanks for …

— Beating Michigan to start the season. Without that win, the Irish never would have been in the mix as a Playoff contender, even if finishing 11-1. Losing a different game may have allowed for it, but without that win against the Wolverines, Notre Dame’s résumé would not have had enough meat on its bones, kind of like a turkey today.

— NBC’s ratings from that opener show just how much Irish fans were grateful for it even then, the most-watched Notre Dame game on NBC in 13 years with 7.195 million viewers.

In his first career game, sophomore Jafar Armstrong scored twice against Michigan, providing much of the end zone boost in the 24-17 Notre Dame victory. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

— Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong ran for only 35 yards on 15 carries in the season opener, but he did score twice and his performance in the first four games of the year made the absence of senior Dexter Williams survivable. Rushing for 242 yards in that span had Armstrong on pace for nearly 1,000 yards this season before Williams’ return coincided with Armstrong missing three games due to a knee infection. He may not yet be back to full fitness, but Armstrong set the tone early, and in doing so preemptively eased some of next year’s running game concerns.

— The new NCAA rule allowing players to appear in up to four games before losing a year of eligibility. It does not actually change anything in the cases of sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa or freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin, each sidelined by a broken foot early enough in the season the old standards would have still protected them, but it is nonetheless a good rule as a whole. Consider freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola: He has played in three games, made seven tackles and genuinely contributed to the defense. He could be heard from again against USC. Yet, he will still have a fifth year available to him in 2022. Given his potential, yet need for development, that is not a possibility to take lightly.

— Junior safety Jalen Elliott has four interceptions this season, but it was his pass breakup on Vanderbilt’s last drive that needs to be most-remembered. If Commodores receiver Kalija Lipscomb makes his 12th catch of the day, Vanderbilt would have been in the red zone with a viable chance of pulling off the upset. The Irish may not have recovered from that until 2019.

— Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush led that win over Michigan with 229 total yards (247 if adjusting for sacks). Notre Dame managed only 302 total in that 24-17 victory. Wimbush went 4-0 on the field this season, raising his career record as a starter to 13-3.

— And then Irish head coach Brian Kelly benched Wimbush for junior Ian Book. That move has paid off so well, it seems more obvious in retrospect than it was. In a head coaching career covering nearly three decades, that may have been the riskiest decision in Kelly’s career, and it has worked. The whir of the season has deprived the gamble of receiving proper recognition.

— A big part of why that maneuver worked is how Wimbush handled it. After making the decision, Kelly admitted such dynamics cost him the locker room in 2016, two quarterbacks dividing the team. Wimbush has not stirred that pot. He has been the consummate teammate, a professional in every respect, and a winning substitute when needed against Florida State.

— Of course, the other reason Kelly’s switch has worked out so well has been the performance of Book, now No. 2 in the country in completion percentage. Quite simply, be it as a fan, an observer or a reporter, watching the Irish offense has been much more enjoyable with Book at the helm.

10 — Williams’ first run, a 45-yard touchdown to open the scoring against then-No. 7 Stanford, has been somewhat forgotten because of his excellence since. That dash set the tone in a huge-at-the-time win, and it could have been the moment best remembered from Williams’ career if he did not continue to produce week-in and week-out since. At this point, the peak was likely his three touchdowns and 178 yards at Virginia Tech, highlighted by that 97-yard touchdown to demoralize the Hokies.

— 16-ounce cans of Red Bull. A year ago the staple through the season was Five-Hour Energy, and it has proven reliable again this year, but that silver aluminum has been the 4-7 a.m. crutch throughout November.

— Sanity-preserving email filters. When begging for reader questions at insidetheirish@gmail.com, it inevitably brought about a litany of spam. Condemning that to eternal unread status has been quite the blessing.

— Notre Dame’s schedule this year was supposed to be too difficult. The lackluster seasons put forth by Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC all changed that, and fortunately so. If they had been what was expected entering the season, and Pittsburgh and Northwestern proved to be challenging top-25 teams, the slate really may have been too daunting, rather than evidently manageable.

— Speaking of schedules, thanks to the Ivy League for moving an early October game to a Friday evening right when the Irish were already headed to the Atlantic, allowing yours truly to pull off a convenient two-fer weekend.

— If Elliott saved the day against Vanderbilt, the entire Notre Dame defense did so against Pittsburgh. The Panthers gained 242 total yards, averaged 4.0 yards per play and 4.2 yards per pass attempt. That dismal offensive effort reduced the effect of their kickoff return touchdown, making it an unfortunate footnote in the story of 2018, not a stain on a season of lost Irish greatness.

— This appreciation will not be properly recognized until it can no longer be offered. In Kelly’s first five years at Notre Dame, his kickers hit 73.1 percent of their field goals, going 87-of-119. In the last four years, Justin Yoon has made 80.3 percent of his field goals, going 57-of-71.

— Drue Tranquill could have gone to the NFL. He had an engineering degree in hand, two surgically-repaired knees, and a good chance at a practice squad at the worst. Instead he returned for one more collegiate season, a high ankle sprain, a broken hand, 66 tackles and 3.5 sacks, and counting. His stubbornness, toughness and leadership have bound the Irish defense together perhaps as much as anything else.

Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello became very familiar with Jerry Tillery this September, much to Costello’s pain. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

— Jerry Tillery could have gone to the NFL. His length alone made him an intriguing pro prospect, someone worth taking a flyer on. Instead he returned for one more collegiate season and a chance to make plays at the three-technique, which he very much did with an Irish record four sacks against Stanford.

— Te’von Coney could have gone to the NFL. His stock was higher than ever considered following a junior season leading Notre Dame with 116 tackles, including 17 against LSU in the Citrus Bowl victory. Instead he returned for one more collegiate season and some further development, most notably in pass coverage, which showed itself a bit with an interception against Stanford.

20 — Coney’s 17 tackles on New Year’s Day stood out at the time, but he has since reached 14 twice (Ball State, Navy), showing that ball carrier-seeking showcase was not an anomaly. Since becoming a full-time starter against USC last year, Coney has racked up 173 tackles in 18 games.

— Promoting Clark Lea to defensive coordinator from linebackers coach was not a certain choice for Kelly. A first-year coordinator, Lea has made Kelly’s decision look brilliant. The Irish defense is allowing 17.3 points per game and deserves the credit for at least four wins this season when Notre Dame’s offense sputtered. Offensive coordinator Chip Long is a finalist for the Broyles Award, honoring the top assistant coach in the country, but Lea should get just as much recognition.

— This may not be a popular opinion. Rarely are seeming cash grabs later overshadowed by previous accomplishments. (Admittedly, that sentence was hardly a linear one.) But, let’s give a nod to Mike Elko. His exit to Texas A&M was not a good look, but he left Lea quite a defense to work with and clearly had prepared his protege to lead a team.

— 23-year-old rum enjoyed immediately after a massive Cajun dinner in New Orleans, the best drink in a weekend with more than a few libations.

— Vices, don’t undersell their virtue.

— The oversized bag check line available at NBA games, allowing the latter half of this very column to be typed a dozen rows up at Black Friday’s Los Angeles Clippers game. The “clear bag policy” at football games would never allow for this satisfied procrastination.

— That oversized bag policy is not just in effect at NBA games, having first been noticed at a Big East game at Madison Square Garden eight days ago. And no matter what the ACC or AAC may insist, Syracuse vs. Connecticut is Big East basketball.

— The ability to find an 800-square-foot dive bar in Midtown Manhattan and the empty stool there next to a Georgia native now considering going home for next year’s Irish arrival. That is a Georgia native in good standing in this space because she understood the difference between “for” and “about” without hearing the usual rant. We’ll have a drink then, and to stay true to form in these parts, let’s deem you “Claire.”

— The spread at Yankee Stadium. Major League Baseball does some things right.

— Notre Dame’s ability to stage a successful weekend in New York City: Notre Dame pulled off its Yankee Stadium showcase as only Notre Dame can.

The alternative? Syracuse lost a football game and two high-profile basketball games last weekend in the Big Apple, none of them particularly close defeats.

30 — The highlight videos put out each week by Fighting Irish Media, known as the “ICON” videos. In addition to the added camera angles on plays of note, there is almost always a small tidbit or two to enjoy, such as hearing an assistant coach (not entirely sure if it is cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght or safeties coach Terry Joseph) telling his secondary there are four more interceptions awaiting them against the Orange after Elliott snagged the first of what would become three for Notre Dame that day.

— NBC ratings all season were up 40 percent, to an average of nearly 3.5 million viewers. Broader appeal means more conversations at the bar means more enjoyable evenings, right? Those odds are best in Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Myers, Fla.; Dayton, Ohio; and Cincinnati, the top-five markets this season.

— Even streaming was up for NBC broadcasts of the Irish. Try to fathom this: 53.4 million minutes of Notre Dame football were streamed via one service or another this season.

— The ability to sleep on planes, if nowhere else.

— “… a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois.”

— Sometimes you get one right. From this column a year ago: Khalid Kareem “will certainly land in next season’s ‘Counting Down the Irish.’ He did, at No. 10, a moment where those dozen beat writers got one right, as well. Kareem’s season of 37 tackles, with 10 for loss including 4.5 sacks, has made him one of this defense’s most-vital contributors.

— Kareem has managed that stat line despite “fighting through a little bit of an ankle” every week, per Kelly. That determination put Kareem among Notre Dame’s toughest players in Kelly’s mind, along with Tranquill (obviously), sophomore tight end Cole Kmet (ankle) and Book (ribs).

“We don’t have guys that we would say don’t want to go back out there and compete because they’re nicked up,” Kelly said. “If they can’t go, they’re going to give you 100 percent of their 80. … That’s a good thing that we’ve been able to instill.”

— External battery sources are already taken for granted, but they really have been a game-changer. Even this laptop charges off a pocket-sized battery on road trips, rendering hotel wall outlets pointless, if not a fire hazard.

— This should be a stress-free finish to the 2019 recruiting cycle, with 21 commits already in the fold and the early signing period less than a month away.

— A thank you to those who spend any time reading this space, though your judgment is questionable at best.

40 — Now go have a drink. The concession stands at Staples Center are open.

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.