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Things We Learned: 12-0 Notre Dame heading to the Playoff, as it long expected


LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame will be the 10th team to make the College Football Playoff. Beating USC 24-17 assured the Irish of that, a chance to truly measure themselves against college football’s best. Thinking back to the preseason, no expectations anticipated this moment, except for those within the team.

An earlier draft of these ramblings added an “apparently” to the end of that initial paragraph, but that would imply some version of doubt of that sentiment. Notre Dame made it very clear after the comeback victory: This was how things were supposed to be. Once in the locker room, social media videos show the Irish enjoyed themselves and relished some sense of relief, but the initial celebrations, the onfield outbursts, the usual moments of exuberance were all very calm, even demurred.

Those in the stands were far more wound-up, holding a front-row sign of “PLAYOFF LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY” and a dozen rows back an even bolder claim of “SEE YA IN NORCAL.” Fans flocked to the tunnel leading to the Coliseum’s innards to serenade the Irish one last time before this month off, chants of “Let’s go Irish” only interrupted when senior kicker Justin Yoon reached the tunnel and a drawn-out echoing of his last name became the prevailing cheer.

On the field, Notre Dame was more animated after its season-opening win against Michigan, by an eerily-replicated score of 24-17. September’s top-10 matchup against Stanford was more hyped in pregame and led to more celebration afterward. The fashion of 45-23 dominance at Virginia Tech resulted in on-field rowdiness, beginning with senior running back Dexter Williams’ final touchdown rush (of three) with 4:50 remaining. From that point on, the Irish felt utterly at home in Lane Stadium, and showed it.

At USC, beating a rival, in a historic venue? Ho-hum.

Notre Dame insists it is not done. 12-0 is not enough as far as this team is concerned.

“I feel like we know, it’s amazing that we’re undefeated, but nowadays there’s more, there’s more to come,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “… We know there is a lot of work to do still.”

Those were just words, but the casual handshakes with the Trojans revealed the truth to Love’s claims. The Irish had probably expected this win, this unbeaten season, since Williams broke two Hokies tackles down the sideline. This was simply their expectations becoming realities.

To do more, Notre Dame will need to improve a few things, including how junior quarterback Ian Book handles playing from behind.

Book’s numbers ended up decent — 22-of-39, a 56.4 completion rate, for 352 yards and two touchdowns with 9.03 yards per attempt — but it took him a long while to start producing and then made the biggest mistake of his career to date.

“He missed a couple here and there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You don’t turn it over in the red zone. He knows all that stuff, but he’s human. He’s going to grow from it.”

Book’s interception at the goal line could have gone down as an all-time debacle. Notre Dame needed a field goal, points of any kind. Leading 17-10 with fewer than eight minutes remaining, any score would have all-but sealed the game. USC’s offense had gained a total of 95 yards on 24 plays since halftime. It was exceptionally unlikely the Trojans could score twice more before the game ended.

On a 3rd-and-12 from the 22-yard line, Book scrambled to the left sideline and threw a pass against his momentum toward a covered Alizé Mack a yard into the end zone. Mack did his best to break up the play, and USC safety Jordan McMillan needed a bit of luck to hold onto the ball, but Book’s toss never should have been near them in the first place. It should have been eight rows into the seats.

That lack of awareness comes with a first-year starter, but it is the type of mistake that could turn an upset bid in the Playoff into a one-sided loss.

Ian Book needed to be ready to scramble against USC, who blitzed the suspect Irish offensive line relentlessly. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

On that particular play, Book was not aided by the offensive line, flagged for holding and only just better than middling all day.

Barring an upset next weekend, the Irish will face Clemson in the Playoff. The Tigers have a defensive line featuring four likely first-round draft picks. While optimism, relief and exultation should rule this day, and perhaps this week, at some point looking ahead to that matchup will occur. At that point, concern about Notre Dame’s line will reign supreme.

Manipulating stats is easier than it should be, so let’s simply present the two possible views for the Irish running game Saturday: Excluding sacks and kneel downs, Notre Dame took 25 carries for 138 yards, a 5.52 yards per rush average. Or, excluding sacks, kneel downs and one Williams dash, the Irish took 24 carries for 86 yards, 3.58 yards per rush average.

Those shorter runs lead to the bigger run. Allowing only three sacks as the Trojans blitzed repeatedly was not terrible, and it is better than that when realizing one of those sacks was of senior receiver Chris Finke on a considered trick play.

“When you blitz us like that, you have to understand a few of those (runs) are going to hit,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “We can’t get impatient or get uncomfortable. We just have to keep on weathering the storm.”

Notre Dame did that Saturday, but in the Playoff, that storm will be far more fierce.

As has been the case since August, the Irish were vulnerable against a three-receiver attack.

Again using Clemson to prove the point, the Tigers offense ranks No. 18 in the country by passer rating, No. 23 in yards per attempt and No. 23 in yards per game. It is explosive and dangerous, and has four different receivers with 472 or more yards this season, each averaging at least 11.04 yards per reception.

Notre Dame could not find itself a viable third cornerback against USC, let alone a fourth. Trojans freshman quarterback JT Daniels would decide pre-snap to target freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy whenever he was matched up in man-to-man coverage along the sideline, and doing so worked for Daniels.

If the Irish tried to turn to a base package, either fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill or senior rover Asmar Bilal would get exposed. The USC quick game allowed Tyler Vaughns to catch 12 passes for 120 yards and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman to each end up with more than 90 yards. Daniels had little trouble starting 16-of-17 in the first quarter and 26-of-31 before halftime.

Notre Dame gave up a season-high 349 yards on 37-of-51 to USC, including this 20-yard touchdown in the waning moments. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Some of this was intentional from Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, but only some of it.

“We needed to take away some of that free access,” Kelly said. “Having said that, this offense is built on the big play, so you’re in-between there in terms of staying on top of routes versus how much you give underneath. We needed to find a better medium in the second half than I thought we did.”

Eventually the Irish relied on senior Nick Coleman as their nickelback, and he finished with two pass breakups. It was enough of a band-aid, but clearly still an open wound, if granting the analogy.

Those are concerns for next week, once a Playoff opponent is set. For today, applause, Notre Dame is heading to the College Football Playoff for the first time.

“It means everything,” Tranquill said. “It means the world. It’s what I came back for.

“We’re not done yet. We’ve got two more games to go, but to put our name on the wall as one of the few teams in Notre Dame history to go 12-0, it means the world.”

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.