Carroll understands the challenge ahead

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While you’ll get me thoughts on Charlie Weis’ press conference a little bit later, I thought it’d be worth taking a look at Pete Carroll’s press conference from yesterday and hear what he had to say about the Fighting Irish.

Living in the heart of Trojan country, I have a chance to hear from Carroll on a regular basis, and he truly is a guy that only knows one way. Whether he’s talking about football, stopping gang violence in Los Angeles, the weather, or rush-hour traffic, Carroll is all about positivity and taking on challenges. And after hearing his comments about the Irish, it’s clear that Carroll knows he’s in for a challenge this weekend.

It’s no secret that both Weis and Carroll know that everything they say in these sessions will be analyzed and scrutinized and studied for hints by the opposition. I’m sure much of what is said is said for a reason (like mentioning that a certain wide receiver was practicing in full pads yesterday for the Irish).

Here are some statements Carroll made during his presser yesterday. Allow me to read between the lines and speculate for a bit.

On Notre Dame’s passing attack:

You can’t be much better than they are. The efficiency he’s throwing at
right now, Clausen’s on it. He’s finding receivers. They’re protecting
him well. He’s keeping the negative plays down. Only two picks in all
the plays he’s made so far. These guys are loaded.

I haven’t seen
the rest of the schedule, but up until now, this is the best passing
team by far that we’ve seen. They pose the biggest challenge, and
they’ve got big play guys either coming out of the back field or the
tight end spot. Of course, Golden Tate is just having a ridiculous
start to the season. So this is a very, very good attack, and they’re
challenging the heck out of us.

Slowing the Irish down in the air is going to be a critical area for the Trojans and Carroll doesn’t mince words on the challenges it presents his defensive unit. Much has been said about the revamped and reloaded Southern Cal defense, yet a closer look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily support the thesis that this USC defense is as stout as the ones before it. While the glamor stat of zero touchdown passes allowed certainly strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, a closer look shows that opposing offenses have thrown for just about the same amount of yards against the Trojans as they’re averaging against their other opponents. With nickel back Brian Baucham questionable as he returns from a motorcycle accident, Shareece Wright academically ineligible, and Marshall Jones out for the season with a cracked vertebra, there are opportunities for the Irish to attack.

On the Notre Dame running attack:

Armando Allen is a good football player. When they put Golden Tate back
there, they run like crazy. They have a good running back, an
experienced offensive line. They have all the schemes. If
anything, they’re riding the strength of what Jimmy Clausen brings to
them. They’re such a high-efficiency throwing game, why not? They’re
putting up big time yards and all that, so.
 
But the running game is definitely there. One that has enough
variations to it, it taxes you scheme-wise. They do enough that they’re
not just a zone team. They do a lot of things. So, they’re fairly,
deeply committed to the whole wildcat system and all of that. With
Allen and with Tate back there, they’ve got a lot of different things
that they can do. They give you a very difficult spectrum of things to
prepare for.

It’s clear that Carroll has noticed the difference running game coordinator Frank Verducci has done with the offensive line, as well as the commitment to the Wildcat offense. It’s no longer just a gimmick, but something that opposing coaches need to game-plan for. That said, former Trojan defensive coordinator Nick Holt had success against the Wildcat with Washington’s defense this year, so it’ll be interesting to see if Carroll finds a similar solution. Interestingly, Carroll gets sidetracked again on the Notre Dame passing attack, which makes me wonder if he hopes the Irish make themselves one-dimensional, so they can just go out and cover the pass, or if he’s hoping the Irish throw the ball around the field, and USC will try to impose their will through a time-consuming ground game.

On preparing for Golden Tate:

It’s really a challenge. Really a challenge because they move them in
all their receiver spots, and then he winds up behind the center
getting the football. He is like a running back at receiver. He’s a
bigger, stronger, more physical guy when the ball’s in his hands. So
they have realized that. They’ve used him all over.
So we just
have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There
are so many things you can do it’s very difficult. They’ve done a
really good job of utilizing their special guys, and he’s the
beneficiary of that.

Carroll saw first hand what UW’s passive coverage on Tate did to destroy the Husky defense. Expect him to have everyone on the defense well-versed in Tate’s tendencies, and be ready for every possible outcome when Tate’s playing the X, roaming the slot, lined up in the Wildcat, or motioning from the fullback position.

On Notre Dame’s attacking defense:

They’re the most aggressive they’ve been. Last year they started really
coming after people, and this year they’ve picked up on that. They’re
pressuring well over half of the time which is a tremendous percentage
of pressure from the defense. In certain games they’ll get it up higher
than that.
 
So what that causes is they’re taking chances to come
after you. It’s very aggressive, and they cause bad plays. You can
protect really well, then there are some are opportunities, because the
coverage is more limited.
 
It’s just whether or not we’re able to handle the heat that they bring.
If we can, we can have a chance at moving the football. If they can’t,
they can control the game and cause some bad things and create some
negative plays and give you issues that you don’t want. They’re doing a
nice job now. It’s difficult.

There’s risk and reward here. That’s part of it. When you’re committing
people to the line of scrimmage, there is more space in the secondary.
That’s why protection is so important and the rhythm of the quarterback
is so important to get the ball out so you don’t get hit and disrupted.
 
The whole point of pressuring is to disrupt the offense. If you
can minimize that there are opportunities to make plays, and we have to
create some space and see if we can do that
.

Carroll has to believe he can take some shots down the field. Expect to see Damian Williams involved in this game plan early and often, as well as the play-action passing game utilized early, especially if the Irish have early problems stopping USC’s ground game. Carroll also realizes how essential it’ll be to protect his quarterback, so I’d think max protection, two-man routes with the potential for big plays is a sound strategy against a defense that has proven susceptible to big plays. 

On Notre Dame’s run/pass tendencies:

They’re a team that’s interesting. They’re willing to throw the ball a
bunch if they think that’s what’s necessary in the game plan. Sometimes
they’ll go the other way. They’re not a set style that you can tell
what they’re going to do in a game plan.
 
The Michigan State game
they came out and played empty the whole first quarter, you know, ran
the ball like twice or something. Were moving the ball up-and-down the
field. They adjusted from there and did some other things.
 
This is a team that you have to see what they think of you. It’s going
to take a while. We have to be flexible early in the game and adapt.
See if we can get situated once they declare how they want to play it
from that side of the ball.
 
That’s how they’ve always been. It is kind of a wait and see what they think they need to do to win every time we play them.

This is one of the more interesting evaluations of Charlie Weis’ offense I’ve ever read. Carroll admits that scheming and game-planning for Weis’ attack is useless. Instead of guessing, he lets Weis dictate what he’ll do and counter-attacks. This has to be one of the more underrated aspects of Pete Carroll the coach. His ability to think on his feet, make in-game adjustments, and adapt his defense to match what the opposing coach is trying to do. When you think about USC defense, you rarely think of a team that let’s the opponent dictate terms. Yet here’s Carroll admitting that he does as much when facing a Charlie Weis run offense, even using Weis’ perception of Carroll’s own defense to guide his decision making. This is a fascinating revelation.

It’s apparent that while there is a rivalry between Carroll and Weis, it’s one based in admiration. While neither may like each other especially much, it’s clear that both need the other to succeed at their job. Weis needs to beat Carroll, and Carroll greatly enjoys the satisfaction that comes with out-smarting Charlie Weis at his own game.

Expect a chess match on Saturday. 

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.