Thoughts on the Presser

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Charlie Weis met with the media Sunday to wrap up the Boston College game and was pretty candid with his thoughts. Here are the greatest hits.

* Weis was asked to talk about the evolution of Armando Allen, who has quietly built himself into a very solid all-purpose running back, in many ways similar to his predecessor, Darius Walker.

He’s kind of a lot of elements of Darius. He’s a little faster than
Darius, but Darius, he had one skill that was underrated; he was very
good at pre-snap reads of fronts, therefore he knew where to run with
the football. I think that Armando is a little bit different in that
he’s a stronger runner for his size, but there are a lot of elements
there.

When Armando Allen first came to Notre Dame, many thought the Irish were getting a back that had the chance to break a long one every time he touched it. That certainly hasn’t been the case with Allen, but he has become a dependable running back that’s be one of the Irish’s toughest interior runners. I still haven’t given up on the big play with Armando, only because he’s made such great developmental strides this season, and I expect to see even more during his senior season.

* Weis was asked about the divergent directions the Notre Dame defense is moving with regards to run stopping and pass coverage, and was later asked to expound on the problems of the secondary. I’ll just do a little cutting together, and give you all the relevant comments made in regards to stopping the pass.

When you stop the run, you leave yourself vulnerable
in the pass. But you have to find a happy medium because what we can’t
do, as much as our run defense has improved for the last four and a
half games let’s say, where it’s just gotten better in good production,
we have to get some things fixed in coverage because they’re not just
getting yards, they’re getting too many easy yards.

I really believe our best play on defense is yet to come. I think at
the beginning of the year we had a whole bunch of problems. I think
that we had problems stopping the run, we had problems giving up
chunks, we were giving up a lot of points. We had a whole bunch of
problems.
 
Slowly but surely we’re starting to solve some of these
problems to the point now — remember, defense gives up two touchdowns
in that game… The defense gives up 14 points in that game. You’d have
to say most games you play, you give up 14, you’re going to win. It
doesn’t make a difference who you’re playing against. Most times you’d
have to assume that the defense holds them to 14, you’re going to come
out on top.

At least now what I understand the problems are, if I thought the
problems for the most part were just no good, it would be a bigger
problem with — we’d have to fix it. And I would think that with the
exception of about one ball that clearly was a jump-ball situation
where anyone could have — either guy could have made the play or could
have knocked it down, all the other plays were just a high-low, getting
beat inside, more technique things than anything else.

And I
think that because I know now what the coverage are and the answers to
the test, I think there are some things that — like I said, we’ve
previously already addressed today. There’s some things that we can do
to try to get that number down.

There’s a lot here, and there’s even more that we’ll get to later in the week when the video team can get us some visual aids to help better understand what the problem(s) is (are). I think some of the adjustments the Irish made to shore up the run defense might have hurt the passing D, so hearing Weis speak about a “happy medium” is encouraging. Also encouraging is Weis saying he understands the problems.

To me, they’re pretty obvious. This is a team playing a lot of Cover 2. Unfortunately, they play a shoddy Cover 2. Going back to Weis’ “hang your hat,” comment, if you’re hanging your hat on a coverage scheme that you’re mediocre at playing, well — that’s why you’re giving up explosive plays by the dozen.

The coverage was better Saturday, even if it didn’t feel like it. And as the defensive backs get better at knowing their roles, they’ll get better at making plays on the football. It may feel like baby steps, but the Irish have two weeks against mediocre passing defenses to get things figured out.

* Mr. Floyd is close. Very close.

We’re waiting for that CAT scan a week from Monday or Tuesday and we’ll
see how that goes. Look, Michael and I — my guess is that the CAT scan
is going to come back and say, okay, he’s healthy enough to go.
Now, every week longer you wait is better. Every week longer after
you’ve been cleared to go is better. But then I think it’ll come a
point where the doctors say to Michael and myself, okay, it’s your
decision, realizing the longer you wait, the better it is. Knowing me,
I’ll leave it on Michael, and knowing Michael, he’ll want to get out
there as quick as he possibly can. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. We don’t want to be stupid
here. But we’ll just have to wait and see what the CAT scan says first
before we jump to any conclusions.

As a fan, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the Notre Dame offense back at full throttle. With Floyd back across from Tate, I expect the offense to be in a different stratosphere. All the complaints about Rudolph disappearing and the red zone struggles, I expect those to be silenced.

* After Ben Turk’s performance, the punting competition has reopened.

I had that discussion with Brian this morning, and I think after what
we saw in the game, yes, I think we have to at least let Eric have a
shot in practice and see how it goes.

I’ve mentioned before how important field position has been, but our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky had a nice nugget illustrating just how badly ND’s specialist play has hurt.

The Irish continued to lose field position on the exchange of
possessions due to inferior special teams play. BC averaged 42.0 yards
per punt to the Irish’s 32.7 average. BC had two punts of 50+ yards; ND
had none. BC had three punts downed inside the 20; ND had one.
Additionally, Boston College’s second touchdown drive started at the 44
following poor coverage on the opening kickoff of the second half. I
would probably peg the cumulative field position advantage BC obtained
through superior special teams play as comparable to a turnover or two.

ND needs to figure out a way to get this problem figured out. Whether it’s scouring the soccer team for a kickoff man or just getting the cobwebs between the ears of the punter cleaned out, the Irish have to get a better performance out of their kickoff man and punter.

* I probably got 100 comments asking where Shaq Evans was on Saturday. Rumors swirled that he was in the doghouse, but it turns out he just wasn’t in the offensive game plan.

There’s not a disciplinary issue. There was a sickness issue where he
came back from — came back and had spent some time in the infirmary
and stuff, and then Thursday before the USC game was the first time he
had been back to practice. So he really wasn’t ready to play in the
game plan for that game.
 
In this game plan he was ready to play
in the game plan as an outside receiver, but it was for Duval, and
Duval actually had one of his better games, so I wasn’t looking to get
Duval off the field the way Duval had a lot of production for us in
that game yesterday for us.

People had high hopes for Evans, but it’s been clear that he isn’t quite ready to step onto the field for the Irish yet. I’ve got to say that I was surprised — shocked, actually — that Robby Toma was playing before Evans, but it makes sense if we take Weis at his word that Toma’s a slot guy and Shaq’s an outside guy.  

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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. 

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.