What's wrong with the defense?

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The Irish enter their bye week with four wins in their first five games. But after a convincing shutout victory in the season opener against Nevada, the Irish defense — a unit many believed to be ready to take a major step forward — has gone backwards.

What’s wrong with this Irish defense?

I won’t admit that I’m up to snuff on the schemes and packages of today’s college defensive coordinators. Yet part of what ails the Irish isn’t complex, it’s simply breakdowns of fundamental principles: tackling, late recognition, and poor execution.

Having reviewed the game tape of the Irish’s three most deficient outings, here are a few things that stand out to me:

TACKLING

Anytime you watch football, bad tackling leaps off the screen. Poor tackling is a large reason why Notre Dame isn’t sitting at 5-0 right now. There are a variety of reasons why people miss tackles, and while I won’t break down every missed opportunity, here is what jumps out after reviewing these games.

In a pressure scheme like the Irish were committed to earlier in the season, open-field tackling becomes even more important. If the Irish are committed to adding a linebacker to the pass rush, that takes away one more of the defense’s surest tacklers from making a play on a ball carrier or receiver. If you’re committed to opening up the middle of the field or isolating your secondary, you need to make sure that the players who aren’t going after the quarterback are able to make fundamentally sound tackles. What jumps off the tape in the Washington game is that from the very first offensive series, UW exploited Notre Dame’s tendencies to bring a linebacker after the quarterback, and threw quick passes to wide receivers. The Irish secondary had a hard time shedding blocks and making plays on the receiver, resulting in big, risk-averse plays for the Huskies. Catch and run plays have plagued the Irish for much of the season, often times a product of having committed too many people to getting after the quarterback.

Missing tackles happens. Yet the way many of these tackles are being missed is a problem. Confidence and control are big parts of tackling. Coming into a play under control and having the confidence to make the play are imperative when you’re going one-on-one in the open field. Too many times Irish defenders are coming onto the scene out of control, giving the ball carrier the advantage he needs to exploit the defender and slip by him. Defenses force turnovers when they come into a play under control and make a technically sound tackle. While defenders are programmed to go for the kill shot, sometimes a sound tackle helps slow a runner down, and the pursuit of teammates help jar the ball loose. On Washington’s opening drive, Kyle McCarthy’s sound tackle on Chris Polk allowed Manti Te’o to come flying into the play, jarring the ball loose from Polk’s arm for a fumble and recovery. In this case, the call was overturned by the replay booth because Polk’s knee was down, but when defenders fly to the ball, good things happen.

RECOGNITION

Recognizing what an offense is trying to do is one of the keys to playing good defense. Too often against Washington, the Irish defense was late to recognize a situation and read a play. In the first quarter alone, the Irish defense had opportunities to stop the Huskies, but a lack of recognition kept the drive alive for Washington, allowing them to convert key third downs and score a touchdown. If Jake Locker is lined up in the shotgun from the 5-yard line, everybody in the stadium should be expecting a quarterback draw. Likewise, too often did the Irish defense get sucked up into the play before realizing a screen pass was called, like the huge 3rd and 9 conversion by the Huskies on their second drive of the first quarter. Simple wide receiver screens gave the Irish defense fits all day Saturday. Steve Sarkisian noted in his post-game comments that they saw some things on tape that the Irish were doing in their nickel defense that they thought they could exploit and take advantage of. If Sark noticed it, you can bet other teams going forward will, too. With freshman Manti Te’o getting more and more playing time, it’s going to be up to veteran leaders like Brian Smith, Kyle McCarthy, and Harrison Smith to do a better job diagnosing plays.

EXECUTION

Charlie Weis mentioned a few weeks ago that the defense needed something to “hang its hat on.” If that’s playing pressure defense, fine. If it’s playing Cover 2, fine. But the Irish can’t be a “jack of all trades, master of none” defense. They just aren’t good enough. Jon Tenuta’s prickly attitude with the media all but acknowledges the fact that he’s frustrated with the defense and its execution. Weis reorganized the defensive coaching staff to put Tenuta in charge of calling the game because he thought it would give the team a better chance to win. Yet Tenuta has been unable to orchestrate an effective gameplan on defense save the Nevada game, and the inability to get to the quarterback, stop the short passing game, or be robust in running defense signals that there are systemic problems with the new scheme.

If the Irish decide that being more vanilla will help the defense, Tenuta and the staff need to make sure that the 11 players on the field understand what vanilla is. There have been far too many broken plays on defense, miscommunications that have cost the Irish points and nearly a football game against Michigan State. If the team is going to be a Cover 2 team, the corners, linebackers, and safeties need to understand the tenants of the scheme, and stop giving up 10 yard uncontested completions in front of corners while safeties roam over the top.

This isn’t an indictment of Coach Tenuta and his schemes. He’s been an elite defensive coordinator everywhere he’s gone and he didn’t forget how to coach overnight. Yet the transition from Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system to Tenuta’s pressure based 4-3 hasn’t been smooth, and for a defense to execute soundly, they’ve got to take thinking out of the equation.  

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.