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Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart not among Clark Lea’s concerns

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Clark Lea was referring to the unproven confusion at linebacker, a morass so thorough Lea does not break it down into starters, backups and depth, but rather simply pairs up players with fewer than half a dozen tackles at their current position with players with no such tackles. Yet, the Irish defensive coordinator may as well have been referring to the entire back seven of Notre Dame’s defense with only two starters returning healthy this spring in their previous positions.

A defensive depth chart through the next 12 practices would be an exercise in boosting egos, only to risk bursting those bubbles within days as positions reshuffle.

“They want to see a depth chart, and I don’t want to see one,” Lea said last week when pondering who might emerge as a starting linebacker leading up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. “I don’t know why we have to determine this stuff until we’re teeing it up, and even then, it’s like, what’s your target for completion?

“This unit has to keep evolving and we’re going to line up and play our first game and by game five and game eight, we need to be better. How that looks, how the parts shift, if I can get a guy who ends up being the two to push himself up until the point that his number is called, then we’ll be better for it when we need the next man in.”

If that is how Lea intends to approach September and October, he clearly has no need for a pecking order this spring.

At linebacker, fifth-year Asmar Bilal has moved inside to Buck linebacker after playing well on the outside at rover last season in 10 starts. That is the extent of the abundant experience, a positional transplant.

Junior Jordan Genmark Heath handled some Buck duties at Northwestern to spell Drue Tranquill’s sprained ankle, a role held the week prior against Navy by rising junior Drew White. Senior-to-be Jonathan Jones made six tackles in 12 games, playing on the rare occasions Te’von Coney took to the sidelines.

The rising sophomore trio of Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb did not get a chance to make an impact in their debut seasons beyond Simon’s appearances in a few goal-line packages, though Lea sees those moments as the needed motivation to push Simon into the starting rover role now ahead of rising junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

“(Simon) never quite got over the hump where we felt like as a rotational player he was ready. He involved himself in some packages,” Lea said. “That experience completely shifts the way the next segment (goes), because he knows now what it feels like to go through the season and, honestly, the sting of not playing as much as he wanted to.”

Such is the state of the Irish linebackers at the moment, that a player’s very limited snaps in the past are seen as a good thing moving forward, and understandably so. Lea does not know what he has on hand. Bauer and Lamb could very well become the next starting duo, perhaps by August, perhaps coming out of the October off week heading to Michigan, perhaps leading into 2020. Or maybe Genmark Heath and Owusu-Koramoah are going to make life difficult for character limits all fall.

His limited duty behind Drue Tranquill did not lend much playing time, but rising junior Jordan Genmark Heath still has more experience than most of Notre Dame’s linebackers on hand this spring. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

The only way for Lea to find out is to give them all chances.

“Everyone has bought into the fact that this is going to be an open competition,” he said. “We’re every day rolling units through. We have kind of paired the guys up, and when it’s time for their pair to go in, they roll in, create some chemistry together. They’re going to earn what they get.”

This rotation may not be confined to the spring. Tranquill and Coney were stalwarts in Lea’s first year as coordinator, playing through injuries and fatigue, playing far more than anyone would consider ideal. There is a reason Lea and defensive line coach Mike Elston have developed depth along the front. Even now, they have such a bounty of talent at end, they may work with a rising senior to preserve a year of eligibility. Of course, the NCAA’s four-game participation flexibility makes that far more tenable these days and more of a possibility for Jamir Jones (No. 44, pictured above).

The depth at defensive tackle might limit that moving forward, but Lea feigns a lack of worry thus far.

“That’s not what keeps me up at night,” he said. “We have a great line coach that is getting young guys ready. We’re going to re-introduce healthy bodies and add some bodies in the summer and fall that will be not just serviceable, but I think will push the standard forward.”

There may not yet be enough defensive tackles for a reliable rotation, three healthy upperclassmen and one freshman somewhat counteracting Lea’s public optimism. There are, however, eight healthy linebackers, along with early-enrolled freshman Jack Kiser. Similarly, there are three healthy safeties with rising senior Alohi Gilman expected at full-strength sooner than later, if still limited in the name of load management. Senior Jalen Elliott currently leads a secondary that also has rising senior cornerback Troy Pride to rely upon. Beyond him, as is the norm, cornerback is another position of possibilities sans experience.

In time, both position groups could mirror the defensive line of last season.

“This defensive system was built on let’s play as many guys as we can,” Lea said. “There’s two effects there, one it keeps your unit rested, and then two, there’s this collective buy-in that goes on when they know they have ownership. …

“If we get to the fall and we can’t do it because we feel like performance suffers, then that’s something we have to confront, but at this point, we’re looking to open the doors up and ask the guys just to earn what they want.”

That chance to earn playing time will extend past the spring, through the preseason and into the fall.

“I don’t anticipate making any decisions up until the point we have to, and even then, it’s how you set the target. The season is about your defense, your unit evolving the entire time. We just want guys to keep pushing.”

Leftovers & Links: Over/under sets outside expectations for Notre Dame’s 2019

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If Notre Dame goes 10-2 next season, many Irish fans will be disappointed. Yet, a third-consecutive double-digit win season and fourth in five years would qualify as outpacing bookmakers expectations. An offshore sportsbook posted the first selection of 2019 win total over/unders Monday morning, setting Notre Dame’s 2019 bar at 9.5 wins.

That book beat this space to its projection by about 24 hours. Part of the weekend was spent pondering win probabilities, and the guess was going to be the line would come in at 8.5 wins. Maybe if not so dedicated to all over/unders ending in x.5, that number would have jumped to nine, but not 9.5.

Remember, this is not a 2019 prediction. Rather, it is an attempt to find the figure which would attract equal interest on both its over and under offerings. Already, the odds indicate the public’s expectations have leaned toward the under, the wisdom of the crowds agreeing with this space’s math.

Looking at Notre Dame’s schedule, five games come across as close to sure-things as possible in a competitive environment: at Louisville, vs. New Mexico, vs. Bowling Green, vs. USC and vs. Navy. Yes, that fourth entry is the University of Southern California, given an over/under of 7.5 wins, with the early tickets indicating the under is also the trendy choice.

Given Georgia has national title odds of 7-to-1, compared to the Irish version of 33-to-1, reason foresees the Bulldogs favored by at least a touchdown Sept. 21. For simplicity’s sake, let’s lean into that and allow a 0.0 win expectation for Notre Dame in Athens.

That leaves six games somewhere between the two absolutes. Virginia and Virginia Tech appear to be on diverging trendlines, neither a genuine threat on the surface. The same could be said of the other ACC duo, Duke and Boston College, though the former is a Notre Dame road game against a savvy head coach in David Cutcliffe and the latter boasts a physical force at running back in AJ Dillon. None of these four are quite sure-things, but all should go the Irish way.

Handicapping wins in all four would be bold. Let’s project three expected wins.

That leaves road games at Michigan and Stanford. The Wolverines have a win total over/under of 9.5, already skewing toward the over, with title odds of 16-to-1. In other words, they are expected to be better than the Irish. Maybe Notre Dame has a 1-in-3 chance of winning in Ann Arbor against quarterback Shea Patterson in his second season under head coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Cardinal have no such lofty expectations tied to it yet, but head coach David Shaw is still there and the Irish have not won at the Farm in a decade. Again, 1-in-3 odds feel applicable.

Those win expectations yield a total of 8.67 Notre Dame victories, hence the thoughts of an over/under at either 8.5 or 9. Not 9.5. That bookmaker uptick could simply be protection against faithful and ambitious Irish fans. Maybe it is a credit to the strength of the returning defensive line. Or perhaps Brian Kelly has just earned that benefit of the doubt.

Irish fans might be disappointed by either figure. Another loss to Duke would be much too reminiscent of 2016’s debacle. Lengthening that losing streak at Stanford would be a red mark on Kelly’s ledger that may never be forgotten, especially as it would tilt the head-to-head record 3-6 toward Shaw. Only a LeBron James defender would consider that split acceptable. And, of course, nobody in blue-and-gold ever wants to fall to blue-and-maize.

Reaching the over 9.5 would necessitate sweeping all games considered favorable and a road victory at either a Playoff contender or a constant thorn in Notre Dame’s side. Those specific thoughts do not inform an over/under, but the season as a whole is.

Just as it was more likely the Irish would finish 9-3 or 10-2 last season than they would 12-0, the same will be true again in 2019. By no means does that mean 12-0 is beyond possibility. After all, another offshore book gives Notre Dame 3-to-1 odds of making the College Football Playoff again, the same as Michigan.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Miles Boykin’s combine success and Notre Dame’s 2022 date with Marshall
Notre Dame’s sophomores set to make spring impact
Book’s springtime mistakes could create Notre Dame’s wanted attack in the fall
The inevitable ‘hope’ of Notre Dame’s offseason

DAN JENKINS ON NOTRE DAME

That legend is loose again (Previewing Notre Dame vs. Michigan State in 1966)
An upside-down game (A recap of ND-MSU ‘66)
This year the fight will be in the open (On the aftermath of ND-MSU ‘66)

OUTSIDE READING
From the hot seat to Notre Dame’s final challenge: Brian Kelly intent on catching Clemson, Alabama
2021 QB Tyler Buchner commits to Notre Dame
How recruiting’s two media giants built an entire corner of the internet around hope
Revisiting the 2012 college football season with advanced box scores
The 2012 S&P+ rankings have been updated
Mandel: The 25 best coaches in college football ($)
Feldman: The 25 best coaches in college football ($)
Steak, booze and a sense of dull dread: Here’s what really happens at the NFL combine
NFL centers seeing shorter career longevity

The inevitable ‘hope’ of Notre Dame’s offseason

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It is a truth inherent to all backup quarterbacks, one amplified by the nature of college football fandom. The unknown — in Notre Dame’s case, rising sophomore Phil Jurkovec — is always one play away from a starring role. Until that chance comes, be it via an Ian Book sprained ankle, lost helmet or move to the next level following the 2019 season, Jurkovec’s potential spurs a fan’s favorite commodity: hope.

Barring injury, none of that will change between now and Labor Day. Book will start for the Irish at Louisville (176 days away), Jurkovec will work through the spring and summer to be ready if needed, and Irish fans will wonder why the unknown promise of Jurkovec cannot be proven to be greater than the established success of Book behind center.

“This is [Jurkovec’s] spring where he really has to show himself in terms of understanding the playbook, being ready,” head coach Brian Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “He wasn’t the next guy in last year. He is now. This spring is crucial to his development.”

There is one of the reasons why Jurkovec will not leapfrog Book before facing the Cardinals; he has not yet mastered the playbook, only now genuinely needing to. He has already made progress overall, though, such that it has been noticed and noted by the coaching staff.

“He’s way better than he was in August when he came in and did it,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said Wednesday. “He’s way more confident. … The little things, every day, taking small steps, taking command of the offense, making sure guys are getting lined up, going through your progressions, all the things that a young quarterback needs to do, just building confidence in himself.”

Those “little things” take time, reps, experience — luxuries Jurkovec did not have without enrolling early last year for spring practice or even without spurning other high school sports to focus on football. The basketball star chased a state title rather than get to South Bend a semester early. By no means should that be faulted, only acknowledged as he now has the time, reps and, slowly, the experience to master those intricacies.

They are, to some extent, what elevated Book from presumed career backup to record-setting starter within the 2018 calendar year. Book also gradually earned his teammates’ trust, proving himself and his abilities to the point no one flinched when Book took over as starter three weeks into September. That faith, perhaps more than anything else, is the most necessary aspect for a backup before he plays.

“The players around him, getting confidence in [Jurkovec] in case he has to go out there and play,” Long said while discussing goals for this spring.

Take every word of Long’s as stated: Book is the starter, Jurkovec the backup. With no other quarterback on the roster this spring, both will take an abundance of snaps, both will get repeated chances to improve.

As the unknown, unproven, unseen possibility of potential, Jurkovec’s improvements will be more abstract while Book focuses on complementing his accuracy with greater potency.

This is where the most-basic instinct of fans’ jumps to the forefront. Book’s faults are known, a middling arm that could not beat Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Jurkovec’s are not, only his qualities raved about during a quiet yet touted recruitment. As a recent SI.com article pointed out, the college football season includes only 12-15 days of action, leaving 350-plus days a year when the conversation around a particular team wanders beyond the field.

“Most of the focus during that time is on roster personnel, what’s going to happen in the future, and then, in a lot of cases, hope.”

The backup quarterback will forever represent that hope. And when Jurkovec becomes the starter, be it in 2019 or sooner, the hope will transfer to incoming freshman Brendon Clark. If not him, then rivals.com four-star Drew Pyne (New Canaan High School, Conn.) in the recruiting class of 2020 or newly-committed consensus four-star Tyler Buchner (The Bishop’s School; La Jolla, Calif.), the first commitment in the class of 2021.

If you ask Ellis Redding, hope is a dangerous thing, it can drive a man insane. Ask Andy Dufresne, and hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.

In college football, hope is simply the constant thing, the driving force behind repetitive conversation throughout the year, particularly as it pertains to the unknowns of a backup quarterback, even if his actual focus is on merely proving himself worthy to be called on if necessary, not yet when.

Book’s springtime mistakes could create Notre Dame’s wanted attack in the fall

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Chip Long was exaggerating to make a point, but he did not need to. Notre Dame’s offense lacked explosion last season, managing just six plays of 50 yards-plus and only five more exceeding 40. In 2017, the Irish broke off 50-yard chunks on a weekly basis, 16 in total, with four additional breaking 40.

That difference stood out during 2018, though perhaps not to the extent the offensive coordinator’s glibness indicated Thursday.

“We had two plays over 50 yards last year and went to the College Football Playoff. That’s very rare,” Long said. “The year before, we averaged that a series.

“We need to take the explosiveness of 2017 with the efficiency of 2018, how we were on third downs and just our ability to move the ball and the grit we had, but we need to be an explosive offense. I don’t think last year we really scared anybody.”

The half dozen plays of that length in 2018 split evenly between the ground game and the air, the former all courtesy of now NFL-bound Dexter Williams, the latter all catch-and-dashes more credited to their respective receivers’ legs than to quarterback Ian Book’s arm.

With Williams gone and no proven gamebreakers at running back, Book’s arm becomes the focus for finding that lost explosion. To some degree, his lack of deep balls in 2018 was intentional. Whether or not his arm could handle those attempts — and numerous inaccurate throws indicated it could not — Book’s inexperience made those inherent risks less likely to reap reward and thus less desirable. Long intends for that to change this spring.

“A big thing I challenged him this spring was, challenge to challenge, test the offense,” Long said. “Make throws you probably wouldn’t have made, because I would have been mad putting the ball in jeopardy. We had to do what we had to do to win games last year.”

This echoes Book’s hopes for the spring. If a mistake is to be made, make it now, learn from it, gain a better understanding of his limits.

“I want to test myself,” Book said a week ago. “I want to make those even harder throws into the smaller windows. That’s what it takes to be an elite offense and an elite quarterback, something that I’m really focusing on every day. I’m not going to go too crazy where I start creating bad habits or anything like that, but I want to push the offense, push the guys, especially receivers. Be able to show them I can make some of those throws.”

Book threw just seven interceptions in his first season as starter, one every 45 pass attempts, a number and rate likely to increase with this more aggressive approach. If and when that shows itself this spring, it should not be cause for immediate concern. A few interceptions following spring break are not the same as an inaccurate August afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.

Book has shown the restraint to stay within himself and Long’s attack. In the weeks immediately following his rise to the starter’s role, it was more vital to rely on Williams, the Irish defense and his own accuracy. Learning the bounds of that accuracy now makes sense.

“You’re going to throw interceptions, it’s going to happen,” Book said. “… I’ll be able to understand where I’m at, the throws I can’t make.”

He can make a screen pass to Michael Young (at Wake Forest for 66 yards). He can throw a crossing route to Chris Finke (at Virginia Tech for 56 yards, though underthrown). He can complete a swing pass to Tony Jones to clinch a spot in the Playoff (at USC for 51 yards). But can he hit rising senior Chase Claypool down the sideline? Or a sophomore speedster on a post route? Or even a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half in the season finale, long enough that a completion actually reaches the end zone?

“Obviously he’s not being careless with the ball,” Long said. “We don’t want him to do that, but I don’t care to see a checkdown. I want to see him try to throw the whole shot, keep working out 50/50 balls with our guys and give them a chance to make plays.”

Book could not do it last season. Be that because of timing, form or strength, it was undeniably the case. Changing that could bring Notre Dame back to the explosive nature seen in 2017. Doing so via the air would nonetheless make quite a different approach, though. During that 10-3 run, the Irish managed only four passes of more than 50 yards, including Book’s 55-yard touchdown to Miles Boykin to beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl, the added one needed to surpass 2018’s inexplosive offense. The running game, led by brief Heisman-hopeful Josh Adams, tallied 12 50-plus yard gains.

There is reason to believe Book’s understanding of Long’s offense could yield the dynamic the coordinator hopes for. Despite the lack of big plays inflating offensive stats, Notre Dame still converted 83-of-193 third-downs last season, a nearly-identical rate as 2017’s of 84-of-192.

Combine that efficiency with a handful more aerial chunk plays, and Book might push the Irish to their ideal hybrid of the last two seasons.

Notre Dame’s sophomores set to make spring impact

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The first headlines of Notre Dame’s spring focused on rising sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, the sudden and unexpected starter. Looking at the projected Irish depth chart, he will not be the only sophomore to warrant attention leading up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 13.

Notre Dame signed 27 players in the class of 2018, pushing the limits of the roster more than ever before in head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure and utilizing the ability to technically count early enrollees as parts of the previous class so as to stay under the limit of 25 scholarships per year. As true freshmen, only linebacker Bo Bauer appeared in as many as 12 games, while six more burned a year of eligibility by playing in more than four games (receiver Kevin Austin, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, linebacker Shayne Simon, defensive back Houston Griffith, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Paul Moala).

Now, though, as many as 17 of the 27 are firmly within the functional Irish two-deep.

“They’re starting to understand what it takes, the grind of it,” Kelly said Friday. “… They kind of ride the bus a little bit in that first year. It’s kind of nice. Now they have to get in. They have to dig. They understand how hard it is now. There’s a different kind of commitment level that this group has. It’s starting to show itself.”

Not coincidentally, a bulk of those 18 are in the mix at the positions Kelly has already identified as the most ripe for competition this spring: linebacker, cornerback and receiver.

Rover Shayne Simon will be up against junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah while Bauer and Jack Lamb get chances in a linebacker derby that could be chaotic enough Kelly advised finding a bag of popcorn to enjoy while watching it.

“A lot of these guys are going to get opportunities to play inside and cross-train at Mike and Buck,” Kelly said. “… It’s going to mix-and-match for quite a bit until we really get a sense of how this is going to shake out.”

Moving from safety, Griffith becomes Bracy’s stiffest competition for the starting role as boundary cornerback, with Noah Boykin perhaps the top backup behind senior Troy Pride. At receiver all four of Kevin Austin (pictured above), Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins look to work their way into the rotation behind senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke.

“To the wide field, that’s where some competition opens up for us,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some guys obviously with athletic ability that can get over the top of coverages.”

In both instances at cornerback and receiver, the very top of the depth chart has proven experience, only for there to be an utter void past that. Not that such concerns Kelly much.

“When you really dig down, there’s some young players, but there’s enough veteran presence at every position that it makes you feel pretty good,” Kelly said. “You’re not just turning it over to some guys who haven’t seen it, haven’t been around it, don’t know what it’s like, haven’t been on the road, haven’t been in that kind of atmosphere before.

“So I’m much more about giving them the opportunity and they know what a standard of excellence is, and they have to live up to it.”

Someone will end up on the losing end of those competitions, no matter how much Kelly might give credence to the concept of an in-season rotation at linebacker. Whomever that is, playing time might be scarce.

While they may not technically be in the two-deep, one of the running back duo of C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith will also end up in that boat, becoming the fourth option behind junior Jafar Armstrong, senior Tony Jones and the sophomore counterpart.

Ademilola will not lack for competitive action, nor presumably will safeties Derrik Allen or Paul Moala, the only backups at the position at least through the spring.

Lastly, there is, of course, quarterback Phil Jurkovec. He is within the two-deep, but barring injury is unlikely to play a vital role this season.

“More than anything else, when you sign that class, they really need this offseason to really understand what it takes to put themselves physically in a position to compete at the highest level,” Kelly said, fittingly just after the critical conditioning portion of that offseason.