And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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There’s really nothing to be said about the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry that hasn’t already been said. It is not just another game. As a wide-eyed freshman, I remember the football season as follows: The Michigan game… and everything else.

Five days ago, both Notre Dame and Michigan were at low water marks. Michigan coming off an embarrassingly historic 3-9 season, and Notre Dame’s wallowing during a 7-6 season that nearly sunk Charlie Weis’ career. Adding fuel to the Michigan fire was the report that Rich Rodriguez and his staff may have committed numerous NCAA violations with regards to practice time and coaching presence since his arrival in Ann Arbor.

Yet Saturday afternoon brought a collective sigh of relief amongst both Notre Dame and Michigan fans. Both teams made marked strides from last season in their debut, easily overmatching their respective opponents.

There’s nobody will as unique of a perspective on the upcoming game as Michael Rothstein. Rothstein covered the Irish beat for almost four years and wrote the popular ND blog “Irish Insights” for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Mike left the Journal Gazette for an opportunity to write for the newly relaunched AnnArbor.com, where he’s covering both the Michigan Wolverines basketball beat, and a certain football team in Ann Arbor.

We’ve been friendly with Mike since back when he was covering the Domer beat, and he was willing to make some room in his busy dance card this week to spend some time chatting with us.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Was there a collective sigh of relief at halftime for the Michigan faithful?

Mike Rothstein: Ha. Probably say the end of the first quarter almost. Michigan was dominant Saturday against Western Michigan in all phases. Offense was crisp in the first half. Defense shut down Tim Hiller. Zoltan Mesko continued to punt like an All-American and Michigan even saw first-time kicker (and fifth-year senior) Jason Olesnavage make a field goal. That’s a pretty good half.

ITI: What was this week like as a journalist? Was there anything like this during your tenure covering the Notre Dame beat?

MR: It was really, really busy. I woke up Wednesday morning thinking it was Friday. Consider that in the span of 72 hours, Michigan had been accused of NCAA violations. Then the revelation that Rich Rodriguez was being sued for defaulting on a loan. And that his business partner was a twice-banned booster from Clemson. And that press conference Monday was surreal. Rough 72 hours for Rich Rodriguez. It also happened to be the first week I started writing regular columns. It’s great because there was a ton of material to work with. None of it, though, was football related until Thursday. Tough to compare to any single week on the Notre Dame beat.

The closest I’d say was the Notre Dame 2008 stretch from after the Pittsburgh loss to the football banquet. That was insane. You didn’t know what was going to happen from week-to-week and each game meant so much to the future of Weis’ career. I remember covering a Notre Dame basketball game the night it broke that Charlie Weis would be returning. It was a long, long night. Got it confirmed just ahead of the official announcement, but I was getting up from my press row seat so much during the game that one of the basketball coaches asked me after the game what was going on. It was that noticeable. Granted, the Irish were well in control of that game.

Remember, too, that Michael Haywood was interviewing at Washington, which opened up the ability for Weis to take back playcalling (although everyone knew it was coming after the shutout at Boston College). And the week everything got crazy before Navy, I was in Washington, D.C. getting stuff for a few Navy stories, a story on Fort Wayne native Jason Fabini (then an offensive lineman with the Redskins) and keeping tabs on everything going on in South Bend. That said, this past week was one that’ll stand out to me for a long, long time.

ITI: Do you think there’s a way that this whole controversy almost engendered Rodriguez to Michigan supporters?

MR: There were a bunch of “In Rod We Trust” signs this week. By the end of the first half, the students were chanting Rich Rodriguez’ name. With the fans, a lot of times, winning cures all. It doesn’t mean the allegations or the lawsuit are going away, it just means Rodriguez and Michigan won a football game. It’ll be interesting to see what happens Saturday if Notre Dame wins, although I think Rodriguez won himself some fans with the way he handled last week and the way his team played.

ITI: You obviously followed Notre Dame closer than most of us the past few years. Is the Michigan-Notre Dame game “just another game” for either of these programs?

MR: I don’t think Notre Dame-Michigan is just another game for anyone within these two programs. If they say that, it’s bunk. This game has been such a tone-setter, too, for the rest of both teams’ seasons in the past that they have to take it seriously. Remember in 2005, much of Weis’ first-year hype came after beating then-No. 3 Michigan. The next year, Michigan used a win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame to springboard a run of 11 straight wins until the Wolverines played Ohio State. And getting back to an earlier question, I’d bet that weekend was equally insane to this past week. Prepping for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game is tough on reporters. Remember that Bo Schembechler died the day before that game, too, sending reporters
scrambling again.

Anyway… I don’t believe it is. Most of the players in this game were recruited by both schools and it’s pretty historic. As an example, Michigan offensive lineman Stephen Schilling grew up just outside of Seattle. He knew about Michigan-Notre Dame along with the Apple Cup. How many people in the Midwest, besides your diehards, know about the Apple Cup?

(I do! I do!!)

ITI: What did you see from Forcier and Robinson that impressed you?

MR: I’ve said it the past few days and I’ll echo it again: Denard Robinson is the fastest player I’ve seen in person in college football. When he gets to top speed, it’s going to be a touchdown if it’s a footrace. In four years covering Notre Dame, I saw one player I think could catch him: David Bruton. And that’s just because of his really long strides. Put it this way, for Notre Dame folk, I’d take Robinson over Golden Tate in a footrace. Easy.

Forcier impressed me with his poise. Some of the throws he made, specifically his second touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway, looked like something a junior or senior would do, not a guy playing less than a half of college football. Same goes for his first scoring drive. He was directing Hemingway to a spot and then hit him perfectly. Don’t see that from freshmen too often. Didn’t see it from Jimmy Clausen as a freshman, although they are vastly different quarterbacks. Now that I’ve said that, both will have bad days this season. They are freshmen. It’s bound to happen. But there is a lot of raw talent and leadership there.

ITI: It’s very clear that Robinson’s speed is legit. Who should the Irish be more worried about?

MR: Forcier will play more, so Forcier. But if Robinson’s on the field, he can turn a botched snap into an electrifying touchdown run (he did it against Western Michigan). Robinson is more dangerous from a quick-strike perspective but Forcier is going to be the guy who takes the majority of snaps, I’d think, as long as he’s playing pretty well. Plus, Forcier has a bit more balance. With him, you have to be concerned about the pass. Not as much with Robinson. So, a long answer to your question is Forcier.

ITI: Brandon Graham didn’t show up in th
e boxscore, but he did suppl
y some pressure off the corner. Is he who the Irish needs to worry about most?

MR: Absolutely. He’ll likely be the best defensive lineman Notre Dame plays this year. He was in the Western Michigan backfield from the first play on. Graham may have only been credited for an assisted tackle, but he seemed to be everywhere. The rest of the line is still unproven, although freshman Craig Roh and sophomore Mike Martin looked pretty good. But if I’m Notre Dame, I’m doubling Graham because he’s the guy who could get into the backfield and into Clausen.

ITI: A Michigan skeptic would say the offensive performance wasn’t all that impressive. The offense still attacks horizontally, and the running game (save Robinson) didn’t do much of anything. Other than actually being competent in running the spread offense, why should ND fans be worried about the new and improved Wolverines attack?

MR: Well, starting running back Brandon Minor didn’t play. He’s been nagged by injuries in camp, but here’s betting he’ll play Saturday. He changes things a little bit. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of speedy freshman running back Vincent Smith, who is another gamebreaker with his speed like Robinson. And I wouldn’t say Michigan did nothing on the ground. The Wolverines gained 242 yards. And Rodriguez let up a bit in the fourth quarter. From watching Notre Dame, I was unimpressed with its defensive line. Nevada was able to gash through the front pretty easily when I watched the game. If Michigan is given those types of holes, that gives guys like Robinson some space to make big plays. And Forcier can run a little bit, too, he’s just not as fast as Robinson.

ITI: Your thoughts on the ND performance Saturday?

MR: Offensively, impressive. Everything seemed to work. Floyd is better than last year. That jump ball that turned into a touchdown elicited an audible ‘Wow’ from me and I was watching it over 24 hours later. I like Kyle Rudolph’s game a lot, too. He could be the difference for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish ran better than I saw the past two years, but Michigan’s front seven is going to be bigger and more talented than the Wolf Pack. On defense, Manti Te’o is as advertised. He’s going to have a great career if he’s healthy. Notre Dame’s linebackers seemed to be everywhere. I got into the defensive line earlier, still think that’s the weakest part of the team. I didn’t get a good read on the secondary, but that’s because Nevada didn’t pass all that much. But I thought coming out of the spring that it was the deepest position group Notre Dame had. I really like the game of Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown might be the team’s most athletic defender and technically he’s not a starter unless the Irish open in nickel.

ITI: Do you think their psyche is fully prepared from the disappointment and downward spiral that last season’s regular season ended on?

MR: For who? Can’t really answer that yet for Notre Dame. I haven’t been around them since late April. At Michigan, yeah, I think the 3-9 season is behind them – for now. Notre Dame fans saw what happened when a team coming off that type of year faced adversity a year ago.

ITI: What do you see happening on Saturday?

MR: Good question. Not sure yet. I think both teams won’t look as good as they did in the opener. Forcier and Robinson will struggle a little bit. Clausen’s going to get hit some, too. I see Notre Dame’s defensive line getting gashed a bunch again, but that’ll be countered by the weaknesses in the Michigan secondary, especially if cornerback Boubacar Cissoko is limited in any way. I won’t give a score yet except to say I think it’s going to be close, a one-score game. I’m leaning toward picking Notre Dame because of Floyd and Golden Tate and that passing game. But I’m not sold yet.

Be sure to check out some of Mike’s work at AnnArbor.com, or read some selected works of his that I enjoyed, (some on the Notre Dame-Michigan battle, some not)  here, here, and here.

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.