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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s hopes of 12-0, and more, may hinge on trenches

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LOS ANGELES — Only one lesson really matters this weekend, right? If No. 3 Notre Dame wins, it will secure its first trip to the College Football Playoff. Win sloppily, and the Irish are in. Win in a blowout, in. Win in overtime only reached by a touchdown drive in the final minutes capped with a two-point conversion? In.

If Notre Dame beats USC, then the 2018 season will have surpassed any and all summer expectations.

Drawing much more in the way of on-field considerations from the regular season finale can be difficult, both as it always is and as it pertains to the Trojans. No matter how Saturday unfolds, the Irish will not play for another month. That could come after a win, leading to a hyped matchup of unbeatens against Clemson, or after a loss, possibly making for a foreboding and disappointing date with Alabama thanks to backing into the Playoff at 11-1. If not the Playoff, Notre Dame could become the Central Florida litmus test in the Fiesta Bowl.

Whatever it is, it will be a month away. Saturday night’s lessons will be only so applicable by then.

That month off should provide time to fix anything not proven solid against USC. Usually this portion of the week focuses on the Irish opponent’s strengths, viewing them as chances to beat something notable, to win a strength vs. strength challenge. But the Trojans do not really do anything all that well.

Yes, USC has the skill position players to do damage, as always, but those players have not shown up much this year.

Freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown leads USC with 50 catches, putting him second on the team with 656 receiving yards, part of an offense that has underwhelmed this season considering the clear talent it has. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

“A very dangerous football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “When you look at the skill players that they have,” receivers Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Velus Jones. “In the backfield, [Aca’Cedric] Ware has been really good. J.T. Daniels, a freshman who has incredible arm talent, very smart quarterback.

“It’s a big-play potential offense. They can make plays all over the field.”

None of those receivers average more than 4.5 catches per game, St. Brown’s 50 in 11 games leading the way. Team-wide, they have caught passes for fewer than 200 yards in three of their last five games. Ware flashed for two weeks to start the month, but he then managed only 27 yards last week at UCLA. Daniels has nearly matched his 13 passing touchdowns with 10 interceptions.

For the Irish to shut down these players will be a norm befitting the Trojans’ season rather than a stellar showing by a Notre Dame defense already quite established.

If there is any piece of the Irish to stand out this weekend and instill confidence about late December, it is the offensive line.

“What we’d like to be better at is controlling the line of scrimmage, a little bit better, more physically within what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “I thought our sense of urgency was good. … But I want to be more physical at the point of attack on both offensive line and defensive line.”

The Notre Dame ground game has been good, but only occasionally better than that. Since the idle week and a reshuffling along the offensive line, the Irish have just as many strong rushing performances (Navy, Florida State) as stuttering ones (Northwestern, Syracuse). If facing a front like Alabama’s or Clemson’s or even Michigan’s again, a middling performance up front will not be good enough. The Irish line needs to gel once and for all if they want to extend their dreams past a first appearance in the Playoff.

If some combination of Tommy Kraemer (inconsistent), Trevor Ruhland (elbow injury, arguably undersized) and Robert Hainsey (quick feet, too quick) can shore up the right side of the line, then suddenly Notre Dame will have put to rest all debates.

The Irish will be in the Playoff.

They will have rattled off a second undefeated regular season under Kelly, a mark matched at Notre Dame by only Knute Rockne’s five and Frank Leahy’s two. No one game should be considered a referendum on a coach, but the 2018 season as a whole should establish the view of Kelly as an established and successful coach at a place few have found such achievement.

For that matter, Kelly will have notched firm bragging rights over a USC coach and, frankly, over the program as a whole.

To date, Kelly is 5-3 against USC, last year’s 49-14 win over the then-No. 11 Trojans being the most significant, along with the 2012 victory that sealed a moment in the national championship game. Kelly has a winning record against Lane Kiffin (2-1), Ed Orgeron (1-0) and current head coach Clay Helton (2-1), the outstanding loss credited to Steve Sarkisian in 2014.

That is largely a footnote to a rivalry. Kelly’s standing in his ninth season presents a broader view, one in which Notre Dame just may challenge for a national title for the second time under him.

But first, it must … beat SC.

Some other scheduling items:
In order for the Irish to have Playoff life despite a loss to the Trojans, at least some other upsets will need to become realities, namely the Big 12 and/or Big Ten (and maybe the Pac 12) champions will need to pick up a second loss. That is most likely to occur this weekend, as all those front-runners face tougher challenges during rivalry weekend than they will in prospective conference title games.

Friday; 8 ET; ESPN: No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 13 West Virginia. Notre Dame fans should cheer for the Mountaineers.
Friday; 8:30 ET; FOX: No. 8 Washington State vs. No. 16 Washington. Irish fans should cheer for the Huskies.
Saturday; 12 ET; FOX: No. 4 Michigan at No. 10 Ohio State. Notre Dame fans should cheer for the Buckeyes, a potential conference champion the Irish would remain ahead of even with a loss.

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.