Catching up with… Shane Walton

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One of my favorite Irish football players past or present is Shane Walton. Walton’s story has been well documented. Recruited as a soccer player to Notre Dame, Shane was given the chance to walk-on during spring practice. After a handful of practices, coach Bob Davie and the defensive staff knew they had someone special, and the rest is history. Shane was named a consensus All-American cornerback during the magical 2002 season, the Irish’s first consensus All-American since Bobby Taylor in 1994. His 2001 season included two interceptions, one a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown against Purdue quarterback Drew Brees.

It was great catching up with a former classmate, who now lives and works back in his hometown of San Diego. Here’s more from Shane Walton.

ON BEING RECRUITED TO NOTRE DAME:

I wasn’t recruited really at all to play football. My only offer was to play wide receiver at Fresno State. It was actually my soccer coach, Mike Berticelli, who got me my tryout. He originally wanted me to play soccer for two years, and I’d play spring football for my freshman and sophomore years, and make a decision on what I wanted to do then. I don’t know if he thought I’d be a good football player or not, but he was actually the guy who spoke to Coach Davie and the staff, and got me a tryout with the football team in the spring. After three or four practices in the spring, Coach Davie saw that I could play, and he offered me a scholarship.

ON THE TRANSITION FROM SOCCER TO FOOTBALL:

There were parallels between the sports, but I basically had to reprogram my entire body. I went from being able to run fast for a long duration of time to having to add 25 pounds of muscle and being built more for quick bursts. That process took about a year to really transform. That was the toughest challenge. The parallels from soccer to football were tremendous, especially as a cornerback. Being able to read plays and what’s developing, and the balance it takes to play soccer, that’s incredible. The body control really helped me to be a good corner.

ON HIS MAGICAL SENIOR SEASON:

There are three types of people that play sports. There are people who don’t mind losing. There are people who don’t like losing. And then there are people like me, who hate and despise losing. I always expected to win, so when I lost, or when the team lost, I was devastated. That was the mentality of the entire defense. We never expected to lose. We didn’t care what the situation was. I think that mindset permeated throughout the entire team.

ON BEING NAMED AN ALL-AMERICAN:

To be honest, it didn’t really hit me until I was at the All-American things with all the other big time players. It’s actually crazy, I never had a chance to sit back and look at what I accomplished until I was done playing football. I remember my mother and my friends being so proud of me, and I was like “what’s the big deal, this is just what I do.”  You know, you write for NBC, other people go to work and climb telephone polls, and we all just try to do the best that we can. And that’s what I did. It just so happens that what society likes is athletics, so I’m in the limelight. It never really dawned on me. I never changed who I was, it just was something that I happened to do, and I was blessed to have a skillset that made me a decent corner.

ON TAKING DREW BREES TO THE HOUSE:

I used to love playing against Purdue, because that’s when the DBs and corners had the most chance to succeed and shine. We knew coming into the game that Purdue was going to put the ball up 30-35 times. That was always a game I marked in the calendar that was fun.

As for the play, we were in man coverage, and my guy just ran basically a four to five yard cross. The inside linebacker made him bump over the top of him and that gave me the chance to get in front of him, and I just hopped in front of the pass. I don’t think Brees ever even saw me. I just stepped in front of it and took it to the house.

ON GOING IN THE 5TH ROUND OF THE NFL DRAFT:

NFL coaches are egomaniacs. They feel like they can’t coach you to run a 4.3 forty, to bench press whatever, to jump out of the stadium, but they feel they can make you into a player. That’s why you hear of guys who have never done anything in college and they become great players, but you also hear of guys who were supposed to be great, got drafted high, but they never do anything. The NFL drafts on potential. They don’t draft on what matters. They don’t draft on heart, intelligence, because there’s no real way to measure those. They draft off stuff that they can see. But what I had was heart, desire, intellect, and instincts, but there’s no way to measure any of that.

ON A CAREER CUT SHORT:

I hurt my back in preseason. I just kept trying to fight through it. I was probably never over 80 percent at any time in my NFL career. I just remember playing against the Raiders, and I really tweaked my back, and I just kept fighting. They say, “You can’t make the club from the tub.” I was told to fight, to push through the injuries, that is was just sore and tightness. Then I remember we were playing Atlanta, and I couldn’t feel my left leg. I was running down the field and I had no control of my left leg. It was hitting up against my right leg. I remember getting yelled at for not sprinting down the field. They finally determined I was having back issues so they gave me epidurals in the back at the doctor, until I finally flew out to see a surgeon in Los Angeles. He told me I needed surgery 3 months ago. It was just bad business all the way around, and one of the reasons I’m happy I’m not in the NFL right now.

I had a ruptured disc. My disc exploded and spinal fluid leaked onto my nerves, damaging and almost killing my nerves that went to my left leg. I couldn’t lift my foot, couldn’t do a heal raise. If you pinched my left leg I couldn’t feel it. The leg shrunk an inch-and-a-half around. It was miserable. I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, couldn’t sit down for more than two minutes, all I could really do was lay down in bed.

I got put on IR for the rest of the season. I rehabbed back home and was trying to come back in St. Louis during the offseason, but still wasn’t healthy. They released me, then Pittsburgh picked me up for camp. I was out there for a couple weeks, and hurt my back again. I knew right there it was tough to bounce back. I had never had an injury that I couldn’t bounce back from, but this was the one that I couldn’t overcome.

ON DEALING WITH HIS CAREER BEING OVER:

It was tough for one reason. I would have rather been not good enough. I would’ve rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I was 80 percent and I still made an NFL team. That’s what kills me. In my heart and in my mind, I was picking up the game. I really thought that I was going to be one of the best playmakers in the NFL. That’s me having confidence in myself, because that’s what I thought I could do. Never knowing because of the injury is what’s tough. It’s like when a movie ends but they don’t tell you the ending. I’d have rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough, it’d be easier looking in the mirror.

ON THIS YEAR’S IRISH:

I follow them faithfully. As much as I hate saying this word, there’s potential. I feel like they have the guys there, they have the talent, they have the speed, they have the depth, but I don’t think they’re living up to their potential right now.

ON PLAYING WITHOUT MICHAEL FLOYD:

First off, I think Floyd is amazing. He’s a special player that only comes around every so often. But I do think, and I will always think this, it is still
Notre Dame and we still have
some of the greatest players to play college football on that team right now. So somebody needs to step up. If Rhema McKnight doesn’t go down and get hurt, we never know about Jeff Samardzija. Same thing now. The talent is there, and someone needs to step up and become a man.

ON CHOOSING NOTRE DAME:

There were three things I was looking for. I wanted to go to a great
academic institution. I wanted to go to a school with a great sports
program as well. I’m a competitor and I like to be able to compete at
the highest level. The third thing kind of tipped things in Notre
Dame’s favor. I’m a fan of history and tradition of schools, and Notre
Dame outweighed everyone else. I was basically down to Stanford and
Notre Dame. My mindset has always been that I played for my teammates
that were here in the huddle with me, but I also played with all the
people who wore the jersey before me. I don’t think you can say that
with a lot of schools, but at Notre Dame, that means something. 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

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

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.