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Questions for the Week: Who can kick off? Will Notre Dame’s nickel package change with time?

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Ambry Thomas #1 of the Michigan Wolverines returns a kickoff for a touchdown in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame already knows how it will attempt to replace sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa on the field. That duty falls to freshman Jayson Ademilola more than anybody else, with senior Micah Dew-Treadway also getting a chance at the first competitive reps of his career. That is not an injury needing further analysis.

It would seem the effects of senior defensive back Shaun Crawford’s ACL tear shouldn’t, either, but with a week of time to think about it, the depth chart impact may not be as straightforward.

When the Irish had just days to adjust their defense for Michigan after losing the starting nickel back, the preference was to embrace whatever solution would provide the best short-term answer. Now, Notre Dame can look a little further down the road.

Who will be the starting nickel back? His backup? In Saturday’s 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan, senior Nick Coleman joined the secondary when the nickel package was needed. Considering the Wolverines relied on a tight end-heavy offense, Coleman was not called upon often, and a backup was never genuinely shown. The expectations were that would be freshman Houston Griffith.

The likelihood is that pecking order continues moving forward, leaving junior Jalen Elliott starting at safety. But at some point, there will be an impetus to getting Griffith on the field while still having Coleman’s physicality involved. That could lead to Griffith at nickel, Coleman at safety and Elliott knocked a notch down in that rotation.

This was not the greatest concern against Michigan, and even if it was, the Irish had less than a week to adapt after Crawford’s injury. Double — and, as time works, triple — that time and Notre Dame may land on a different long-term conclusion.

Who will handle kickoffs? Because that was a debacle and a disaster rolled into one, and entirely avoidable, it would seem.

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer sent his first kickoff out of bounds. On his second, he picked up a personal foul for a late hit. His third stayed in bounds and there were no penalties, which is a facetiously-optimistic way of saying Wolverines return man Ambry Thomas took the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.

Senior Justin Yoon handled the two remaining kickoffs, sending both for touchbacks.

“You can’t kick the ball down the middle of the field without proper hang time,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s number one. Number two, we have somebody that goes to the ball that folded way too far inside, and somebody is there to make him right, didn’t make him right.

“We’ve got to coach it better and we’ll get it coached better.”

So the touchdown does not lie entirely at Doerer’s foot, but the majority of the concern does.

Why doesn’t Yoon just handle all kicking duties? After his 2016 season, there was reason to believe Yoon was overworked and that negatively affected his place-kicking. Thus, Kelly and newly-hired special teams coordinator Brian Polian found Doerer late in the subsequent recruiting cycle.

Why not kick off into the end zone every time? It concedes field position at the 25-yard line. Yes, with new fair catch rules, that is even more likely already, but it is not a sure thing if the kick is kept in play. Notre Dame would like Doerer to place the kickoff right in front of the goal line, with proper hang time, to force the returner to make a decision. If he chooses to return, and the coverage unit sticks to its design, then the Irish should be able to force field position worse than the 25-yard line.

Doerer got off to a slow start last season, too. It was chalked up to freshman jitters and/or fatigue. That excuse is not available this year.

Is Michigan’s offense as bad as it looked? Of Notre Dame’s opponents, four kick off Saturday in the early slot, including the Wolverines against Western Michigan. The Broncos gave up 55 points to Syracuse last week. It will be worth watching just to see if Michigan and quarterback Shea Patterson can find the end zone in the game’s first 57 minutes. If so, then that speaks well of the Irish defense. If not, then a data point against a more formidable offense is needed before making any further comparisons of Clark Lea’s defense to 2012’s or even last year’s.

And a reminder, polls don’t matter. New top-25 rankings will be released Tuesday. Notre Dame will move up into the top 10. It has no consequence. The first meaningful poll comes Oct. 30 from the College Football Playoff selection committee. All others offer nothing but talking points and context.

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