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A statistical comparison: How much better is Notre Dame’s defense than last year’s?

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If Wednesday was spent comparing Notre Dame’s offense to those of the previous most-successful teams under Brian Kelly, then it only makes sense to spend Thursday looking at how the 2018 Irish defense rates against those from 2012, a historic unit; 2015, a team pushed by its offense; and 2017, presumably the most similar.

Of course, all those defenses had ebbs and flows, including last season’s November debacles. That is part of the game, and applies this year, as well. Though largely healthy, Notre Dame is currently worn out from a lack of depth at many positions (pretty much everywhere except defensive end) and the natural beating of a football season.

“I think our defense could get better in a lot of ways,” Irish junior cornerback Julian Love said Sunday. “The main component to that is rest and recovery. We’ve been grinding all season, and a lot of guys have been playing a lot of snaps.”

Love then specifically mentioned linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill — the latter sitting right next to him and about to discuss his litany of injuries — as having played nearly every snap.

Even worn down, this defense shines in relation to its predecessors. Again, the five easily-understood yet quite-telling stats under consideration:

Yards allowed per play (YaPP): Pretty obvious as to why, right?
Yards allowed per pass attempt (YaPA): This essentially combines completion percentage and explosive plays into one metric, a quick measure of a team’s passing efficiency.
Rush attempts per game against (RPGa): In other words, an opposing offense’s confidence in its ground game and ability to dictate the game with it.
Third-down conversion rate allowed (3D % a): The ability to sustain a drive.
Turnovers forced (TF): Again, pretty obvious, right?

YaPP YaPA RPGa 3D % a TF
2012 4.78 5.98 27.85 36.52 % 23 (16 int.)
2015 5.57 6.85 36.23 35.11 % 14 (9 int.)
2017 5.05 6.27 37.08 35.27 % 20 (10 int.)
2018 4.53 5.35 33.67 37.82 % 20 (12 int.)

Given its state the previous season, last year’s defense was much-improved and well-regarded. Even in a vaccuum , it deserved that praise. And that makes this season’s showing that much more impressive. It obviously helped to return seven full-time starters, two part-timers (cornerback Troy Pride, defensive end Khalid Kareem) and a division-one starter elsewhere (safety Alohi Gilman). Only senior rover Asmar Bilal was truly  new to starting, and he has become a reliable commodity, not a question mark.

Returning that inventory does not diminish the accomplishment of dropping the average yards allowed per play by half a yard (10 percent, if wanting to look at it that way). The Irish have improved in every one of these categories save third-down conversion rate allowed, not the end of the world for a unit okay giving up long drives if they are forced to be methodical, mundane and, as often as not, misfiring in the red zone. Opponents have turned 33 red-zone trips into just 18 touchdowns, a 54.5 percent conversion rate and No. 35 in the country, similar to last season’s 52.1 percent (24-46) at No. 25.

Looking further back, Notre Dame’s defense in 2015 was a worthwhile one, but it hardly belongs in the same conversation as the rest of these. Its failure to force more turnovers led to the Irish having a negative-6 turnover differential (plus-8 in 2012; plus-3 in 2017; plus-5 in 2018). Even its raw scoring numbers show how much those 10-2 Irish needed their offense, giving up 24.1 points per game (12.77 in 2012; 21.5 in 2017; 17.25 in 2018).

And 2012, well, not much needs to be said about that defense. The rush attempts per game against figure stands out; Notre Dame opponents wanted no part of running into Lou Nix, Manti Te’o and Co.

Not that they very much want to now, either. Aside from the defense that led to national championship game appearance, 33.67 oppoisng rush attempts per game is the lowest of Kelly’s nine-year tenure. To give further context: Only once has it risen higher than 38.54, unsurprisingly the nadir of 2016 at 42.92.

Which only goes to show how far this defense has come, even from that oh-so-close 2015 season.

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.