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Leftovers & Links: The ‘Notre Dame can do this, right?’ Mailbag


Notre Dame’s unbeaten season breeds optimism. An opponent the quality of Clemson tempers that into cautious optimism, but it remains a glass half-full outlook, nonetheless. Considering recent Irish history against foes of the Tigers’ level, that may be surprising, but as fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said Sunday, “This team is different. This team is not the ‘12 team. This team isn’t the ‘15 team. … I guess we’ll find out on December 29.”

Look, Drue, your point is not wrong, but that is 25 days away. We are going to speculate until then …

Is Clemson vulnerable to the Irish or is this just me wishing it were so? — nmmargie

At the risk of answering an “or” question with one word, yes.

More in-depth, let’s apply both a real-world example and a statistical one. The former comes from most-recent history: In research preparing for the season finale at USC, it was difficult to find any area of the game in which the Trojans should have outdone Notre Dame. There was nothing that offered any remote indication USC had the abilities necessary to hold up against the Irish. Yet, not only did it, it did so to the extent questions like this now come in …

Do you think having seen USC’s playmakers will help in the preparation for the blazing speed and great athletes of the next game? — Gary H.

The Trojan attack may not help in preparation; Notre Dame knew it had a nickel deficiency long before J.T. Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown broadcast it to the world. Clemson knew it, too, or soon will once Dabo Swinney spends any time watching tape of the Irish victory at Virginia Tech.

To answer Gary’s question before getting back to Margie’s, if there was any Irish benefit to struggling at USC, it came on the other side of the ball. Notre Dame’s offensive line got a taste of an aggressive and capable blitz, and it realized how much work needs to be done to stand up against such. That splash of cold water may help with focus over the next month. Four first- or second-year starters will need to be up to the task of blocking what is essentially an NFL defensive line.

“You’ve got to protect,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “If you can protect, you can get the ball out. There’s an opportunity. But if you can’t, good luck to you, you’re going to be on the ground half the day.”

Now back to Margie — Is Clemson vulnerable? Notre Dame did not seem to be when it went to Los Angeles, not against that version of USC. Otherwise came to be true, as it often does in this sport.

About the Tigers specifically, the advanced numbers are not kind to Irish hopes.

Quite frankly, Notre Dame has not faced a passing defense remotely comparable to Clemson’s. With junior Ian Book at quarterback, the closest thing may have been USC’s, ranked No. 33 by S&P+ numbers, a far cry from the Tigers’ No. 6. If removing the inane 38-yard “Hail Mary” to end that first half, Book went 21-of-38 for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Trojans with one interception. That was his lowest completion percentage of the season and his second consecutive game with an interception and fifth out of six.

The only rushing defense remotely analogous to Clemson’s (No. 1) was Michigan’s (No. 10), but with senior Brandon Wimbush at quarterback and senior running back Dexter Williams suspended, that is an inexact comparison. Northwestern’s No. 19 rating may be more precise, a unit that held the Irish to 3.0 yards per carry on 40 attempts.

Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell is just a piece of a vaunted defensive line that will make Notre Dame’s life difficult on Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

And to be clear, the Tigers defense set these standards while facing opposing offenses better than Notre Dame’s. By the end of the year, Pittsburgh had one of the best rushing offenses in the country, finishing No. 11 in the S&P+ category, far ahead of the Irish mark of No. 74. The Panthers gained 191 yards on 48 carries against Clemson on Saturday, hardly efficient.

We can do this, right? Or am I just drinking too much Kool-Aid? — @dothedrew25

Still, yes. The arguable vulnerability — and again, a concept that could not genuinely be found heading to USC, although that may have derived from the lack of quality Trojans opponents creating viable data — comes in the Tigers’ passing attack, led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Notre Dame intends to remember his youth.

“We always talk about just making them line up and snap it as many times as possible,” Tranquill said. “… If an offense is going to get going on us, we don’t want to give up explosive plays. … You’ve seen many times this year, we’ve taken on water but they’ll get down and end up missing a field goal or something, and we’ll get our offense back on the field.

“We always talk about making him snap as many times as possible to get it into the end zone.”

Lawrence has led the No. 27 passing offense in the country if still deferring to S&P+’s numbers, but the best passing defenses he faced were No. 34 Duke and No. 35 South Carolina. The Irish pass defense is rated No. 8.

Lawrence had success in those two games, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 644 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, but neither was as geared toward a bend-don’t-break methodology as Notre Dame’s is.

The Irish have held arguably better aerial attacks in check. Stanford (No. 7) threw for all of 174 yards, averaging a mediocre 6.44 yards per attempt. Virginia Tech (No. 26) gained 309 yards through the air, but still inefficiently at 5.94 yards per attempt. If Notre Dame hems in Lawrence and makes Clemson one-dimensional offensively, then maybe that Kool-Aid’s sugar high was not entirely misleading.

Defensive line depth has been key to quite a few Irish wins this season. Can we anticipate Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return to the lineup for the Cotton Bowl? — goirishgo

Of course, goirishgo asked this long before Kelly said Sunday that the sophomore defensive tackle has been cleared for practice, but it is too soon to know how much he will be able to contribute. The question still warrants remembering, as Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return only adds to an already deep defensive line, the exact unit that might make Lawrence’s life difficult enough to start the process of limiting him.

The Irish rotated eight defensive linemen this season. A ninth may seem unnecessary, but if Tagovailoa-Amosa can produce on eight snaps in the first three quarters, those are eight fewer snaps tiring Jerry Tillery’s legs on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive.

With the future members of the Class of 2027 having finished their seasons, what are some impact eighth-graders Irish faith—JUST KIDDING!!

The task ahead of Notre Dame in the Playoff appears to be daunting, even when straining to look at the most optimistic scenarios. As an American moviegoer, however, I have been raised on narratives suggesting overcoming impossible odds is not only possible but practically inevitable as long as the “good guys” have enough pluck, grit and determination. What are some feel-good, come-from-behind stories Irish fans should watch to emotionally prepare for the Playoff games? “Miracle” seems to be the most similar to the present situation (college kids, unstoppable team in red), but that might be too on the nose. Any other good movies that are comparable to the present situation? — Pete E., Indianapolis

That started out on a dangerous path.

Given his city of residence, Peter is obviously fishing for a “Hoosiers” reference. But that does not seem applicable. Who would Shooter Flatch be? What is the football version of a picket fence? Would Justin Yoon have to get on Sam Mustipher’s shoulders to touch the goalposts to show all football fields are the same size?

No. This feels more like a story of an unexpected group meeting an unstoppable force from which there is no escape, using innovative, if not questionable, strategy to pull off the needed result. A group with a boss in the business for three decades who is only the best because he works with the best. A group rallying behind a leader initially sidelined, driving through the iron wall, albeit with inconsistency. A group written off by the powers at be only to prevail at the very end.

You know, “Armageddon.” Maybe this was a little bit of a logic stretch.

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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.