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Notre Dame gets what it expected with Clemson matchup

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If anybody was not worried about making the College Football Playoff, it was Notre Dame itself. Julian Love and many of his teammates spent Saturday night at WeishFest, a charitable music festival organized by fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar’s family in a Chicago suburb. If they kept an eye on a football game, it was Northwestern against Ohio State, not Clemson beating Pittsburgh.

“I thought we deserved to be in,” Love said Sunday. “You’ve just got to be confident in that.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent part of his Saturday moving snow-covered patio furniture, not fretting over the optics of the SEC championship game and their effects on the Playoff discussion. In doing so, he apparently spent a few moments crafting a tongue-in-cheek response if Notre Dame was somehow left out of the Playoff; he would follow Central Florida’s lead from a year ago and lay claim to a national championship, nonetheless.

“I had already talked to somebody about a statue, a Brian Kelly statue,” he said. “We would be the national champs, so a statue, and I would get on the ‘Play Like A Champion’ sign, 12-0, and that would be fine with me.

“I had already convinced myself that if we didn’t get in, that would be fine, too.”

Clearly, it was a joke, one to show how confident the No. 3 Irish were about landing in the field of four, now set to face No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 (4 ET; ESPN). Given the quality of the Tigers’ defensive front, its matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line will warrant more concern over the next month than any Playoff berth did.

The Irish line is among the country’s best — hence its nomination as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award again — but it has also been inconsistent for much of the year. That will happen when two top-10 draft picks depart the left side of the line and a heralded coach also heads to the NFL. A first-year starter at left tackle battling a high ankle sprain will not help the cause, and that has apparently been the case for junior Liam Eichenberg of late.

Getting that ankle healthy will be just a piece of potential betterment brought by a month of practices.

“You have four guys that are getting better each and every week, so there’s improvement there,” Kelly said. “[Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher] is the veteran of the group, and so I see it each and every week as improvement as a group.

“We expect to see that through these next few weeks, as well, that they will continue to grow together. … I see that continues to evolve as an offensive line unit that continues to get better.”

It will need to. While Notre Dame gave up only 19 sacks this year — and that includes one of senior receiver Chris Finke at USC because statistics are absurd — the Irish ground game never found the type of consistency that may be needed to beat Clemson. It averaged 200 rushing yards per game this season (sacks adjusted) but gained 132 yards or fewer three times in the last six games, only one of which was against a respectable rush defense (Northwestern). For context, Clemson has the No. 1 rushing defense in the country per advanced metrics, while the Wildcats rank No. 19.

“Big, fast, physical,” Mustipher said of the Tigers’ defensive line when asked what nuances make them so good. Those broad strokes may actually count as nuances in this instance. “They’re athletic, great ends, great interior linemen, great linebackers. [Defensive coordinator Brent] Venables has those guys with their ears pinned back at all times.”

Further health updates
Aside from Eichenberg’s ankle, Notre Dame will use the first week or so of time off to get junior quarterback Ian Book fully healthy, though he will not admit he may not be so already.

“Once I was cleared by the doctors, everything was good,” Book said. “… Obviously, another week of rest definitely helped. I’m feeling good. Got no problems right now.”

Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill has done away with the cast protecting his broken hand, but he still has his own ankle issues to work through.

“It’s just day-to-day,” Tranquill said. “After playing on it for a few weeks, there’s going to be some soreness and tightness and we’re going to have to work on the mobility piece of it.”

Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa could make an appearance against the Tigers for his first action since suffering a broken foot in the season opener. Kelly said Tagovailoa-Amosa has been cleared for full activity, though he has yet to take part in any football-related items.

Wimbush more probable now, though a role still difficult to find
There was little logic to trotting out senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in a different role since switching to Book nine games ago. The risk :: reward ratio simply made poor sense. But the need for a healthy backup quarterback is much less at this point, so Kelly may be more prone to getting an additional playmaker into the mix.

“If we can get him in and not disrupt the rhythm of the offense, we’re going to play him and not worry about, we’ve got to keep our No. 2 safe,” Kelly said.

But that rhythm aspect can be difficult to navigate. Either Book has to yo-yo between the bench and the game or the Irish need to pull another playmaker off the field.

“We’d like to see Brandon be more involved in the game because we think he can impact it,” Kelly said. “It’s just trying to get him into the flow of the game without disrupting what you’re doing.”

A 2015 rematch in name only
A total of eight current players from the Notre Dame roster took the field at Clemson three years ago for a 24-22 defeat. (That does not include fifth-year offensive lineman Alex Bars, sidelined for the year by a torn ACL.) Those eight totaled six tackles, four by current senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, and 13 swings of the leg from either Tyler Newsome or Justin Yoon.

That’s it.

“I don’t think that there’s much motivation there,” Kelly said. “We’re familiar with a lot of the things that they do, and they are familiar with structurally some of the things that we do. We have two new coordinators. They don’t, so I think we are a little bit more familiar with what they are doing offensively and defensively.”

For that matter, the two programs watch film of each other frequently, having had four common opponents this season. The Tigers are assuredly already quite familiar with all Irish tendencies.

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.