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Swarbrick’s patience leads to Notre Dame’s, Kelly’s success

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LOS ANGELES — It would have been easier for Jack Swarbrick to just fire Brian Kelly. In a world as often concerned about the press conferences as about actual results, a change in head coaches could have given Swarbrick a chance to “win” two press conferences, not to mention the built-in excuse for a few more years of Notre Dame football mediocrity.

Instead, Swarbrick stood by Kelly following 2016’s debacle of a 4-8 finish, capped by a 45-27 defeat at USC. He doubled down needing immediate success to count as a payoff. To this day, two years and 22 wins later, Swarbrick has insisted he never considered a coaching change.

“It was never a question,” the Irish director of athletics said Saturday night in the bowels of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, fresh off a 24-17 victory against the Trojans. “The one thing that frustrates me is when I read people sort of reinvent that and say, this happened or that happened so [I] changed my mind. I said at midseason we weren’t changing. We never even considered it, never talked about it again.

“Wins and losses matter a lot, but it’s what you see in practice every day. It’s how you see kids grow in what they’re doing.”

Another season like 2016 would have undoubtedly led to a coaching change, no matter how much the Notre Dame roster may have improved on and off the field. But a well-discussed, both before and after, overhaul of the coaching staff and a reinvigorated Kelly prevented that. Changes do not get much bigger than bringing in a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and strength and conditioning coordinator. In fact, the only move bigger would have been for Swarbrick to default to those press conferences.

Despite USC now copying Swarbrick’s patience it remains the exception proving the rule. When Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann announced the safe job status of head coach Clay Helton, Swann pointed to how Notre Dame’s “administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly.” As shocking as it was to hear USC openly emulate the Irish, it was just as expected to see Trojans fans respond poorly and with vitriol. Such is college football in the 21st century.

USC’s fans’ pregame message made it clear how they would eventually feel about the Trojans’ decision to retain Clay Helton. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, North Carolina paid Larry Fedora $12 million to leave, Auburn boosters started spreading unrealistic rumors once again, and Western Kentucky fired Mike Sanford after a quick two seasons. Yes, the same Mike Sanford the Irish saw leave after serving as offensive coordinator in 2016, part of those widespread changes.

By bucking those trends, Swarbrick did not just keep Kelly around. He kept around enough of a coaching staff, namely Kelly, to deflect Saturday’s credit back to the roster.

“We made changes, but we still had a core and we still had a foundation,” Kelly said. “We made some subtle changes to what we were doing on a day-to-day basis and a lot of them had to do with the way I handled things on a day-to-day basis.

“I don’t want this thing to get away from us — it still had to do with player development. It still had to do with our players going out on the field and executing at a high level. We didn’t reinvent the wheel here. We got our players to play at a higher level with better execution.

“Behind the scenes we did make some tweaks, but the players need to get (credit).”

There has been a lot of development. Five of Saturday’s starters were making their second start at the Coliseum, with a sixth (fifth-year left guard Alex Bars) sidelined only by injury. Five more of Saturday’s starters recorded stats in that season-ending loss two years ago, not to mention both punter Tyler Newsome and kicker Justin Yoon. There was room to grow, but not a lot of it was seeing the field yet in 2016, no matter how injury-plagued that roster was.

Giving the roster time, and more productive time thanks to the new guiding influences surrounding it, worked out.

“If we didn’t have the strong core of young players that needed to be developed, we wouldn’t be winning 22 out of our last 25 games,” Kelly said. “We’d be going, hey we made a lot of great changes, and we’re still 7-5.”

Kelly and his staff led that development, but he is right, much of the credit should go to the roster. Not only is it one now rife with established talent, but also veteran leadership, those players toiling away during that nadir.

Two Irish cornerbacks could be counted on to slow J.T. Daniels’ precision attack Saturday, the same two who started the season finale in 2016: Julian Love and Troy Pride. They were working around a young safety back then; now Drue Tranquill excels at linebacker. On both occasions, Te’von Coney held things together at middle linebacker. Jerry Tillery did not start in 2016, but the defensive tackle did notch three tackles before an ignominious exit. Tillery made a key fourth-quarter sack this time around, a moment both Swarbrick and Tranquill highlighted afterward.

Those veterans, along with three-year starting center Sam Mustipher, led the way in this 180-degree turn, both on and off the field. To them, it was personal.

“I came to Notre Dame because of the tradition, tradition of excellence, tradition of football,” Tranquill said. “For awhile there, we weren’t building that tradition. We weren’t keeping that legacy going. For me, we stared ourselves in the face two years ago and made the choice we’re going to decide where this ship goes.”

Tranquill is now a firm piece of that tradition. The Irish are one of 5 Power Five programs in the country to record multiple unbeaten regular seasons in the last nine years, spanning Kelly’s Irish tenure. The names are the biggest in the business: Ohio State (2012, 2013); Notre Dame (2012; 2018) Florida State (2013, 2014); Clemson (2015, 2018); Alabama (2016, 2018).

Those are the wins and losses that matter “a lot.” The coaching staff changes furthered the effects seen “every day” in practice. And as for Swarbrick’s confidence in how players were growing, he said this is the first semester in his 11 years at Notre Dame in which the entire football roster was free of academic probation.

His patience begat not only the obvious and desired results of an undefeated season and a spot in the College Football Playoff, but also a fruitful and sustainable means to those ends.

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.