And in that corner… the Washington State Cougars

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It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know
the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal,
63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable
injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all
played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has
been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But
the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation
when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a
weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go
wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge
blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002,
WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the
conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s
tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what
happened next – Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still
unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide…..but the problem was leaving
the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down,
Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and
Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human
being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the
head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal
issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had
been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man
to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to
really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting
targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8
scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25
arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So
back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left
in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate
the backstory of Paul Wulff.
He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late
80’s.  He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and
was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw
talent.  He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many
believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU.  H
e
has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age
to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day
he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his
life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable
amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at
a fairly young age.


Wulff is regarded as a man of high character,
and he has gone to great lengths to 
install  a tough, structured, disciplined
program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players
are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good
recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of
building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can
put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason
play on a yearly basis.


That said, there is a contingent that believes
this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was
successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a few
  conference titles as well as coach of the
year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the
BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been
absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.


Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated
on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff should
shoulder much of
the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final
stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of
Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to
help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10. 
Go to
Martinstadium.org for more!  Operators are standing by.  :) 
But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the
losses on the field
combined
with a brutal economy 
haven’t exactly helped the fundraising
cause off the field.


The true measure of Wulff will be what the team
does in 2011. By then, his first two
 recruiting classes will be
upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach.
But we just aren’t there yet.

ITI: The Irish have done a very nice job
making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same?
What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?

SH: Jeff
Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at
QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with
an impressive combo of mobility and a
strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and
combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by
the end of September.


As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still
hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs.
USC, 2) a di
sasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make
it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and
finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with
two Td’s and zero turnovers.


A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some
major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up
front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal
last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven
Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able
to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the
ball to the right players at the right time.


As to his weapons, well,
they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong
sophomore we
hope will turn
into
Jeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino
Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging
as
one  of
Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada
who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target.
He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous
68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of
wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.


ITI:
Is this game a
big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the
needle for fans and players or is this just another game?

SH: Absolutely
moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV
against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest
to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will
definitely be JACKED for this one!

ITI: If you were playing the probability
game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner?

SH: Slim to none. Sure,
it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year
(sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend
to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more
times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too
often?

ITI: What’s the recipe for an upset?

SH: Turnovers and a fast start
would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the
takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in
interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one
they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first
quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to
when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona
, 11/8/08).

I
think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two
early, combined with some Irish mistakes
  giving WSU some confidence. And Notre
Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year
olds are going to do on a weekly basis. 
It’s probably easy to
assume
Notre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who
knows.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate… I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.

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.