And in that corner… the Nevada Wolf Pack

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(“And in that corner” will be a weekly feature where we find an expert on Notre Dame’s opponent to give a look from the other side. Because opposing viewpoints are good, right?)

While Vegas sportsbooks have the Irish hovering a bit above a two-touchdown favorite, there is a solid minority that truly believe that Nevada can come to Notre Dame stadium and shock the college football world. One member of that minority is Juan Lopez, the sports editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, the university’s independent newspaper. 

Juan was kind enough to chat on the phone with me a few times, trade more than a few emails, and let me into the mind of the Wolf Pack. He and about 3,000 other Nevada football fans will be making their first trip to Notre Dame this weekend, and needless to say, they are a bit excited.

Inside the Irish: Let’s start straight, Juan. How nervous should ND fans be this weekend?

Juan Lopez: Very. Nevada’s offense was one of the most prolific in the nation last year. It ranked fifth in the country with 508.5 ypg and scored 41 or more points in 7 games last season. The team speed is much improved this season. Our two stud defensive ends are back (Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped). They combined for 21.5 sacks last season. Colin Kaepernick is one of the premiere dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Rush defense ranked 6th last year.

ITI: (Having Minter-like flashbacks…) Both ND and Nevada went 7-6, although ND ended with a resounding win in the bowl game while the Wolf Pack were thumped. What do you expect from the Wolf Pack this season? Over/Under on wins?

JL: I wouldn’t say the Wolf Pack was thumped. The score was 42-35 against a previously ranked ACC team. I, realistically, expect, at worst, a two-loss season for Nevada this season. 10-2 would be the worst the Wolf Pack could finish. Looking at the schedule, the only two losable games are Notre Dame on Sept. 5 and Nov. 27 at Boise State (haven’t beaten BSU since 1998) The over/under on wins is 9.5.

ITI: Chris Ault has been with Nevada football for a long time. He’s had three different terms as head coach. Can you tell us a little bit more about Ault?

JL: Ault is a very blatant guy — with his players and with the media. If you ask a stupid question, he’s going to tell you it’s a stupid question and then give you a stupid answer. But his knowledge of football is vast. He created the pistol offense in 2004, which has been imitated across the country by other schools and he thinks the pistol has been responsible for putting us in prime time games. (LSU, Hawaii, Syracuse, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech — these are some of the guys who have used a version of the pistol.) I can see how players are drawn to play for him. Yes, he yells at you, but it’s insightful, it fires you up and leaves you a better player. Not many people can get to say they practice in front of a Hall of Fame coach every day.

ITI: The offense has really been the story of Nevada’s success. Most of the people that really follow ND football have heard about Colin Kaepernick, but there are quite a few offensive weapons in Chris Ault’s offense. Can you pump these guys’ tires for a bit?

JL: The running back group should be one of the top groups in the nation. Vai Taua began as a 4th stringer last season, and because of some injuries, he moved up to starter and led the WAC in rushing (1,521) and was eighth in the nation. He’s a big guy at 220 pounds, but he had 17 runs of 20 yards or more last season.

ITI: (Gulp, as I think of Armando Allen…)

JL: Luke Lippincott, he led the WAC in rushing the year before with 1,420 yards and is a standout receiver. Offensive lineman Alonzo Durham is one of the top tackles on the West Coast. He was named first-team All-WAC by a ton of publications, and has started 37 games so far. The other tackle is Mike Gallet, he was picked All-WAC first teams too, and he’s only a junior. 

Receivers are a question. Brandon Wimberly is a projected starter at one of the spots. He has the potential to be big-time. Last season on the scout team, he would torch our first-team corners. Tight end Virgil Green is set for a breakout season. He is about as uber-athletic as they come. Body type reminds me of Vernon Davis. Very fast, pure muscle, runs great routes and has solid hands. He should be a factor in the passing game.

ITI: Can you talk a little about what makes Chris Ault’s pistol so special? Was it his design or was it something that offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis brought in?

JL: It was mostly an Ault creation. The basics of it are this: the QB lines up 3 yards behind the center (a semi-shotgun) with the running back about 2 yards behind him. There are three WRs. What makes this pistol special is Kaepernick. He is a threat to run any time he touches the ball. The zone read uses Kaep’s abilities perfectly. The play gives him the option to hand off the ball to a running back or keep it and take it around the edge.

ITI: Now let’s get to the ugly part. Nevada ranked #6 in the country in run defense, but ranked as the 119th best passing defense in college football, which was dead last. Was your secondary that bad? (Or your run game that good?) What can we expect from the defense?

JL: Very ugly part. The rankings don’t tell the entire truth. There’s a mixture of both that go into the rankings. If teams were to pass and run evenly on Nevada, the run defense would probably rank in the 30s while the pass defense would be somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a reason team’s passed 57 percent of the time versus Nevada.

The defensive backs coach was in his first year, our defensive coordinator was in his first year, and three of the five DBs who played the most were in their first year. Basically, they were young and inexperienced.

To completely answer your question: The run defense was stellar, but not as good as the No. 6 ranking. The pass D was bad. Very, very bad. But not as bad as the 119th indicated.

ITI: If the game unfolded perfectly for Nevada, how would it go? Can you give me a recipe for an upset victory for the Wolf Pack?

JL: The recipe would start with rushing the football. IF Nevada can rush the ball, keep Clausen and the rest of the offensive weapons on the sideline, the Wolf Pack should be fine. 300-plus yards on the ground is not a stretch.

The next step would be limiting and creating turnovers. This goes pretty much for any game, but especially this one. If Nevada wants to go into this hostile environment and win, it cannot turn the ball over more than twice. Its defense must also cause at least two turnovers while pressuring Clausen all game. It might not be possible to slow down ND’s receivers, but it’s very likely Clausen will eat dirt a few times.

Last is special teams. Nevada’s return games were terrible last year. No spark came from that until This year, though, the punt returner is Vai Taua and kickoff returner is freshman RB Mike Ball who has more talent than anyone else I’ve ever seen in person. Special teams will play a role in field position.

If Nevada does these things well, a win by 10-plus points shouldn’t be a surprise.

ITI: (Beginning first Rosary of the week…) What scares you the most about this Notre Dame team?

JL: The scariest thing about Notre Dame is the scariest thing about any team facing Nevada — it’s passing game. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd look very impressive from some videos I’ve seen of them and Clausen has good pocket presence and great arm strength. I don’t think Notre Dame will be able to run the ball successfully so its passing game will be on full display Saturday.

ITL: You’re around the team quite a bit, can you get a feel on the team’s attitude traveling for the first time to a place like Notre Dame? Is it just another game? Or do they understand that this is a historic matchup?

JL: The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in. And they’re very excited to see the sights of South Bend. The team is going to visit the College Football Hall of Fame.  

ITI: Most Vegas books have the Irish as two touchdown favorites. If gambling were legal and we promoted that sort of thing here (it is legal where Juan is), what’s your pocketbook say?

JL: What I’m about to say will extract a lot of “homer” calls, but I truthfully believe Nevada will win. Everyone keeps talking about last season and how the Wolf Pack lost to Hawaii and New Mexico State (very poor teams), but everyone is quick to forget how many near upsets Notre Dame escaped. Last season was last season. I’m sure ND is much improved as well and is ready for the game, but the Wolf Pack is a better team. My money would definitely be on Nevada.

If you’d like more of Juan Lopez and the Nevada Sagebrush’s coverage on the historic Notre Dame matcup, please check it out at http://www.nevadasagebrush.com/notre_dame

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.