And in that corner… the UConn Huskies

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It’s tough not to cheer for UConn. After what the school has gone through in the month since Jasper Howard was murdered, the football team has seen games slip from their grasp in every conceivable way possible.

While I’ve tried to watch as much of the Huskies as possible to get ready for this Saturday’s tilt, nobody has seen more UConn football than Russell Blair, a football writer for the school’s Daily Campus. He’s chronicled the football season first-hand and covered the Jasper Howard tragedy as well. I had a chance to exchange emails with Russell the past few days and asked him a few questions that will give us a better clue of what to expect this weekend when the Huskies play their first ever football game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Talking strictly football, how heartbreaking has this season been?
Losing by 2, 2, 3, 4 and 4 points? You’re sitting at 4-5 and you could
just as easily be in the discussion for the Big East title. What is
morale like?

Russell Blair: I don’t think that the fans have given up on the team yet but a loss on
Saturday could cause many fans to lose faith in the season.  A lot of
the local writers picked us to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and that 7-5 mark is a
possibility but we need to get wins over the Irish and USF, two tough
games, to make that happen.  Furthermore, if we fall to 6-6 and Notre
Dame takes the Big East berth in the Gator Bowl we may be fighting for
an at-large bid that might not come.  The hardest thing to deal with is
that it sometimes seems we find ways to lose games that we should be
winning.  The safety in the end zone against UNC, the 81-yard touchdown
with under 40 seconds to go against Rutgers, these are the kind of
inexcusable plays that have cost us games we had a good chance of
winning.  Most people expected UConn to make a bowl this year and if we
don’t make a bowl I think that would be one of the toughest things for
fans and those in the program itself to swallow.

ITI: Let’s talk about the tragedy of Jasper Howard. What has it been like to
be a student at UConn through all of this? We’ve seen how the football
team has tried to battle through this, but how has the student body
reacted?

RB: As terrible a tragedy as the murder of Jasper Howard was I think if
anything, it has brought the student body that much closer together.
 From the candlelight vigils to the way that the students acted at the
first home game following his death against Rutgers I think the
students have bonded together over this common tragedy and have done a
great job reminding the national media that Jasper wasn’t just a
football player but a fellow student as well.  It’s been a month since
the incident and I think most students are well on their way moving on
with their lives but it’s something that nobody here at UConn is ever
going to forget as long as they live.

ITI: Talk a little bit about the quarterback situation. Zach Frazer was the
first quarterback recruit of Charlie Weis. He was a promising get by
head coach Randy Edsall, but hasn’t really lit it up since he got his
chance. What’s the future of the QB position for UConn?

RB: I think Frazer has shown flashes of excellence but he hasn’t really
panned out in the end.  He’s got a cannon for an arm but he often
doesn’t make the best choices as shown by his 7 interceptions to just 4
passing touchdowns.  The QB situation for UConn has been shaky all
season long, Frazer was the starter coming into the season before his
injury and Cody Endres did a fairly good job replacing him and actually
earned the starting job for himself.  Even when Frazer was deemed 100
percent healthy, Endres remained the starter.  Now the shoe is on the
other foot and Endres is out for the year so Frazer got his job back
but maybe not the way he wanted.  I think if Zach has a good
performance over these last three games and leads UConn to a bowl
victory it will be hard to take away the job from him next season.
 However, if his performance continues to be mediocre look for a
three-way competition in the spring between Frazer, Endres and redshirt
freshman Mike Box.

ITI: It looks like the running attack has gotten going and the
Notre Dame defense has done it’s best to make everyone look good. Who
can we expect to torment the Irish will big plays, either on the ground
or in the air?

RB: The Notre Dame rush defense is giving up over 150 yards per game and
UConn has a strong tandem of backs in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman.
 Todman actually earned back the top spot on the depth chart this week,
partially due to Dixon getting banged up but Todman has also shown
promise and a newfound ability to run hard between the tackles and not
just around the outside.  Look for Todman to try to exploit the Notre
Dame front seven and with UConn’s sturdy offensive line I wouldn’t be
surprised to see him break off another 100-yard rushing game with maybe
a 20-plus yard run somewhere in there.  As for the passing game, the
Huskies’ 10 touchdowns  this season is already double their total from
last year but give credit to Marcus Easley for that.  Easley has 5 TDs
and has shown the ability to make big plays so he will probably be the
guy the Irish have to look for in the passing game.  He has a touchdown
in each of his last five games and has racked up 80 yards at least in
those five contests and I expect him to find gaps in the Notre Dame
secondary.

ITI: Notre Dame’s season has swooned, and Charlie Weis is now squarely on
the hot seat. Does that take away from the historic nature of this
game? We’ve heard that it’s just another football game, but does coming
to Notre Dame for the first time mean something?

RB: While Notre Dame is nowhere near the powerhouse they were in the late
1980s and early 1990s, this game still does have some sense of
historical implication given that it may be the only time the Huskies
ever travel to South Bend.  Though a series was in the works, albeit
not a true home and home as UConn’s “home” games were at Giants Stadium
and Gillete, those plans have been scrapped and it looks like it’ll be
just a one time deal.  But this won’t be the only big time game for
UConn, signing home and home series with Tennessee and Michigan has
given the Huskies a handful of big time games and while Notre Dame has
a large national following this game will likely not be what it might
have appeared to be when it was initially planned several years ago.
 As for Charlie Weis, the fact that he is fighting for his job and
UConn is fighting for their first win since the loss of Howard only
adds to the emotion of the day.  I expect both teams to leave it all
out on the field and it should be a pretty entertaining football game.

ITI: The Huskies staged a furious rally and nearly caught Cincy. Any
thoughts on the Bearcats and the apple of many Irish fan’s eye, Brian
Kelly?

RB: UConn kept Cincinnati much closer than many people expected, especially
at their own place in Nippert Stadium.  I think that Cincinnati is the
real deal and if they run the table they should have a shot at the BCS
National Championship.  Say what you will about Big East football but I
think that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even West Virginia to an extent,
have proven that there are always going to be a few good sides that
come out of what many consider to be the weakest of the BCS
conferences.  The fact that there were no Big East teams in the AP Top
25 to begin the season may have made some of the coaches and players
play with a little chip on their shoulder but the conference has
cemented itself as having teams as good, if not better, than those in
the Big 10, Big 12 or SEC.  I think Brian Kelly is a great coach and
the excitement he brings to his team is unparalleled.  Cincinnati is
trying to keep him around and I know he’s not the first choice for the
Irish but if Notre Dame comes calling I think he’ll have a hard time
saying no.  Losing Brian Kelly would be a big blow for the Big East.
 Take West Virginia for example, losing Rich Rodriguez has hurt them
over the past few seasons.

ITI: Prognosis for Saturday’s game?

RB: This is a tough one, earlier this season when both teams had
higher expectations for the season I would have said Notre Dame would
win big.  I still think Notre Dame is going to win, but I think it’ll
be a closer game.  Losing Jasper Howard is going to hurt us in the
secondary, especially against the likes of Michael Floyd and Golden
Tate.  Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a great kid but he’s a redshirt freshman
and he’s got a lot of work to do to get his game to the level that
Howard was playing at.  Not to mention that Clausen has proven himself
to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.  UConn’s defense,
which has been their anchor the last few seasons, gave up 47 points to
Cincinnati and I think Notre Dame shouldn’t have trouble finding the
endzone.  I really hope the Huskies win, it would be a big time win for
the program, but I just don’t see it happening.

My prediction:  Notre Dame 35, UConn 24 

Special thanks to Russell for the in-depth analysis, and sparing all of us from my attempt at learning the A to Zs of UConn in a week. For more of Russell’s writing, check out his column at the Daily Campus.

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.