Frazer's return highlights recruiting's challenges

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Zach Frazer will walk onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday and start at quarterback, fulfilling a dream he had when he became the first high profile recruiting commitment of the Charlie Weis era.

That the dream is coming true isn’t a testament to Frazer’s patience, but merely a coincidence that Notre Dame is playing Connecticut, where Frazer transferred after his freshman season. UConn will play Notre Dame for the first time in either schools’ history.

Frazier came to Notre Dame as the hand-picked quarterback of Weis and then quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe, the man responsible for grooming the Manning brothers. When asked to look back on Zach’s recruitment yesterday, Weis still remembered plenty.

“Zach was interesting. You know, his junior year he was surrounded by a bunch of front line players and a lot
of weapons,” Weis said. “They were really, really
good his junior year. Then they lost a lot of players going
into his senior year, and he was kind of a one-man gang. He came here and was a good player for
us. We went through a spring where things didn’t
work out in the depth chart for him, and he decided it would be in his
best interest to try to find another opportunity. It was a very cordial way he handled it. I’m glad to see him playing. I just hope he doesn’t play very well this week.”

Frazier’s wayward road was a common theme Charlie Weis’ much heralded 2006 recruiting class. Twenty-eight players gave their commitment to Notre Dame, headlined by Sam Young, James Aldridge, Matt Carufel, Demetrius Jones, Konrad Rueland and Frazer. The fact that of those blue-chip recruits only Young has turned into a front-line player shows the difficulties that come with projecting a recruiting class.

Jones, Carufel, Reuland, Richard Jackson, Munir Prince, Luke Schmidt, Bartley Webb, Jashaad Gaines, Will Yeatman, every one of those recruits came to Notre Dame and left without their promise fulfilled. For Schmidt and Webb, injuries derailed them. For Yeatman, a much-publicized fall out with a rigid Student Affairs office got in the way of a promising two-sport career. For others attrition came from transfers for various reasons.

Of the vaunted 28-member class, let’s take a look at the contributions they’ve made, working down from one to twenty-eight.

1) Sam Young: Even if he has yet to become the player many hoped, he started every game he suited up for in his Notre Dame career. I don’t think many other offensive tackles can say that.

2) Eric Olsen: Heart and soul of offensive line. Would’ve been great to let him redshirt.

3) Robby Parris: Turned into the lone offensive weapon out of this recruiting class.

4) Chris Stewart: Transformed his body to be solid contributor on offensive line. Catalyst for recruiting class as high schooler.

5) Darrin Walls: Career hasn’t been what many hoped, but still has a year left to fulfill his promise.

6) Sergio Brown: Sometimes you notice him for the wrong reasons (tackling against Pitt), but he’s one of the only play-makers on the defense.

7) Dan Wenger: Took one for the team this year while providing depth along the line. Helped start the Aquinas pipeline with Young.

8) Raeshon McNeil: A forgotten man that still ranked 11th in school history in passes broken up heading into this season.

9) John Ryan: Looked lost early in his career, but has become a nice role player at defensive end.

10) James Aldridge: A high school knee injury never let us see the five-star recruit that signed with the Irish. A valuable contributor at fullback/halfback when not injured.

11) Toryan Smith: Notre Dame’s best run-stuffing linebacker lost his job with the emergence of Manti Te’o. (Would’ve been valuable against Navy…)

12) Paddy Mullen: Recruited as a tight end, has become nice presence as goal-line nose tackle.

13) Barry Gallup: Found his niche as special teams ace/kick returner.

14) George West: Never broke through as a offensive threat, but deserves kudos as one of the school’s first early enrollees.

15) Leonard Gordon: Hybrid corner/safety that also contributes on special teams.

16) Morrice Richardson: Promising edge rusher that loss reps with the emergence of Kapron Lewis-Moore.

17) Kallen Wade: Ditto.

18) Zach Frazer: Now the starting quarterback at UConn. Can’t blame him after coming out third in the 2007 quarterback derby behind Demetrius Jones and Jimmy Clausen.

19) Luke Schmidt: Promising H-back robbed of career from lingering concussion and injury issues.

20) Will Yeatman: Two-sport threat probably won’t be donating to university after getting mistreated by Student Affairs. Transferred to Maryland to play football and lacrosse.

21) Bartley Webb: Tackle prospect lost to a career ending shoulder injury.

22) Munir Prince: Running back/cornerback transferred to Missouri after getting passed in depth chart.

23) Richard Jackson: Seldom used receiver transferred to UCF. No longer on the roster.

24) Jashaad Gaines: Seldom used safety now plays linebacker for Texas Southern.

25) Konrad Reuland: Former blue-chip recruit struggled to break through at Notre Dame and transferred to Stanford. Has five catches this season for the Cardinal.

26) Ryan Burkhart: Hometown product still on scholarship, one of four kickers on the Irish roster.

27) Matt Carufel: Promising offensive guard that transferred home to Minnesota after losing his starting job to Eric Olsen.

28) Demetrius Jones: Former team leader walked out on team after losing his starting job after one game in 2007 to Jimmy Clausen. Nearly enrolled at Northern Illinois before heading to Cincinatti, where he now plays linebacker.

It’s pretty easy to see why this Fighting Irish squad is still struggling with veteran productivity, because this class was almost a complete punt. Even it’s best player failed to live up to his potential, and guys like Robby Parris — good glue guys — shouldn’t be the top skill contributor of the group.

You can’t blame Weis for some of the injuries and attrition that took place, but if you actually go back and look at other top recruiting classes (scroll through USC’s one day), you’ll see that this kind of thing is pretty normal.

Looking at this class today, there isn’t a great defensive player on the list. Walls has the potential to be a good cornerback, but there isn’t a starting caliber front-seven player in the group, which is as good of evidence as you’d want to why this defense is struggling.

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.