Things We Learned: Book, Williams, Lea the difference between Notre Dame’s preseason and 12-0

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Notre Dame’s football season takes up a quarter of the year, but it still flies by. It might as well have been just earlier this week the Irish were readying for a season opener that was supposed to offer a final (negative) verdict on at least one of the coaches involved. Spoiler alert: It didn’t, as no single game should ever be considered a referendum on a coach’s performance.

It might as well have been just the middle of this week that Notre Dame was facing the highest-ranked opponent in South Bend in Brian Kelly’s tenure. Remember when Stanford was considered top-10 and not making up a meaningless game at Cal this weekend?

It might as well have been yesterday the Irish had to survive without backup-turned-starter-turned-star Ian Book against a supposedly alway dangerous Florida State.

Rather than one week, 14 have passed. What have we learned since Sept. 1?

Ian Book was and is far more than a super-sub. He is a bona fide quarterback, and will be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for at least one more season. You don’t win the first nine starts of your career, six of them decisively, and find yourself on the bench anytime soon.

Not that senior Brandon Wimbush was a slouch. He has gone 13-3 as a starter. Give that credit where it is due. But the Irish were struggling through three weeks this season, and it was changing quarterbacks that knocked them out of those doldrums.

Book kickstarted things in a 56-27 rout at Wake Forest, throwing for 325 yards, a number that would have been Wimbush’s career high by 28 yards and one Book would top three more times by the end of the regular season.

As of now, Book sits atop the single-season Notre Dame record books with a 70.4 percent completion rate, well ahead of Jimmy Clausen’s 68.0 percent in 2009. Book’s efficiency rating of 162.50 would also break Clausen’s 2009 record of 161.42.

More importantly, Book sits two games away from tying the school record for most consecutive wins to start a quarterback’s career (Bob Williams, 1949-50).

Book has plenty to improve upon. Following the Irish victory against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium just two real-time weeks ago, head coach Brian Kelly struggled to think of a time he had ever seen the junior rattled. Aside from resorting to drastic measures to make weight as a freshman, Book’s nevers had never betrayed themselves.

“On the football field, I haven’t seen him get rattled,” Kelly said. “He is really steady. Takes the information, processes it very well.”

That may have been a reach at the time, and it was shown to be at USC, most memorably with Book putting the game in unnecessary jeopardy by gifting the Trojans a red-zone interception when a field goal would have served Notre Dame’s needs more than well enough.

But Book’s general poise, uncanny accuracy and handle of the playbook unquestionably changed the Irish offense, the season, the future.

Senior Dexter Williams gashed USC for 151 total yards in the 24-17 victory that sealed Notre Dame’s Playoff berth. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Once Book had stepped in, Dexter Williams soon followed, and once focused on the field, Williams was all anybody had ever dared dream him to be.

The senior running back emerged from his unspoken four-game suspension with a blowtorch of a touchdown against Stanford. He hasn’t stopped running since, racking up 941 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games. During the nine-year Kelly era, those 12 rushing touchdowns are a running back high.

Williams has averaged 6.63 yards per carry, breaking 100 yards four times with one (Florida State) of those exceeding 200. He scored a touchdown in all but one game (Pittsburgh). As Wimbush’s legs headed to the bench, adding Williams to Notre Dame’s backfield kept opposing defenses concerned about all facets of Chip Long’s offense.

Williams earned the doubt he received by not embracing the playbook or abiding by known standards in years past. That cost him a third of this season. But he turned that into a vengeance heretofore unseen on this roster (with an arguable exception of junior safety Alohi Gilman).

Book and Williams changed the Irish offense. It was defensive coordinator Clark Lea who led Notre Dame’s defense.

That combination led to the Irish averaging 124.6 yards more per game than their opponents. But as much as Wimbush’s inaccuracy led to quarterback questions and Williams’ past led to worries about his ability to get and stay on the field, there were at least examples of their talent in the past. A first-year coordinator, there was no such evidence regarding Lea and his ability to put together a plan for a game, let alone a season.

Junior safety Alohi Gilman finished the regular season second among Notre Dame defenders with 76 tackles, adding two interceptions and two forced fumbles to the mix for good measure. (AP Photo/Howard Simmons)

Worry not. Lea proved himself to be one of the better defensive coordinators in the country, and that is not hyperbole. Sure, he had ingredients to work with — the emergence of Gilman cannot be overstated, and the development of junior safety Jalen Elliott should not be overlooked — but Lea orchestrated an aggressive attack for the majority of the season.

It notched 31 sacks. For context: To this point last year, Notre Dame had 22 sacks.
It held opponents to 17.25 points per game, down from 2017’s 21.5.
It gave up 331.5 yards per game, a significant drop from last year’s 369.2.

It was aggressive and effective and then Lea pulled it back at the last possible moment, allowing USC quarterback J.T. Daniels to go 16-of-17 in Saturday’s first quarter. It was intentional and downright savvy.

“It’s tough, because if you look at their games, they have a script for the first couple series, and they’re usually really good on their script because they practice them all week,” Irish junior cornerback Julian Love said following that 24-17 victory. “Then after that it was all on the fly play calling, and that’s when we really got into gear.

“We didn’t want to give up any deep balls. I thought we did a good job of that today, and then limit explosive touchdowns, which they are accustomed to.”

Lea essentially rope-a-doped Trojans head coach Clay Helton into blowing through his script with minimal damage, and then dialed up his secondary’s pressure to keep USC in check through 29 minutes of the second half.

That is not the maneuver of a tentative first-year coordinator. That is the thought process of a coach confident both in himself and his team’s abilities and understanding.

In a mailbag question (still taking submissions at insidetheirish@gmail.com), frequent-commenter nmmargie asked, “Who would you give the game ball to for the regular season? A coach? A player?”

With all due respect to Book and Williams, the season-long honor goes to Lea. With Wimbush at quarterback, Notre Dame may have still found its way to 9 or 10 wins riding that defense. Without Williams, more would have been needed from junior Tony Jones, but he may have been able to fill a serviceable portion of that role.

Without a stout defense, the Irish would have staggered to eight wins. Even with Book and Williams, the offense was not going to outscore Pittsburgh, Northwestern or USC if the Notre Dame defense did not step up when it needed to, and that does not factor in how the first three weeks of the season would have gone. A 2-1 start may have been survivable; a 1-2 start would not have been.

As a result, though, the Irish are suddenly in the mix, broadly speaking. It remains to be seen if Notre Dame is a modern-day title contender — a competitive semifinal would best prove that — but becoming the 10th team to make the Playoff and the fifth Power Five program to record multiple undefeated seasons within the last 14 years are metrics strong enough to put Kelly’s program among those in the conversation of “Who’s next?”

The Irish are not yet on the level of Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State, but they are among Oklahoma, Georgia and Washington, the programs ready to step forward if they can catch just one break, be it an opposing quarterback’s knee injury or their own quarterback shining with a unique skill set.

Entering 2018, Notre Dame did not belong in that conversation. Suddenly, it very much does.

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.