Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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The end is here.

Even with the usual heroics from Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen, and Michael Floyd, a punishing performance by Robert Hughes, and 448 yards of offense, the Irish lose to Stanford. Like many teams before them, the Irish failed to contain Toby Gerhart, who ran for 205 yards on 29 carries for three touchdowns, even adding a touchdown pass of his own.

Even when Jack Swarbrick did his best to refute speculation this evening, reports are coming fast and furious that a decision has already been made on Charlie Weis’ future. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reports that Weis has already cleaned out his office and the next few days will be full or rumors, speculation and hearsay, as reporters race to confirm the official ouster of Charlie Weis.

Here’s what we learned tonight:

1) Notre Dame’s defense cost the Irish this season.

When Robert Hughes was stuffed on a 3rd and short, you could feel the game slipping away from the Irish. The second half started to feel like a tennis match between two power servers, and when the Cardinal broke the Irish offense’s serve, it was a foregone conclusion that Stanford was going to score.

You don’t need stats to back up an argument that Notre Dame’s defense was terrible this season. They struggled in every segment of the game, a toxic mix of an inability to get pressure with down linemen and linebackers unable to stuff the run. Notre Dame’s secondary missed David Bruton’s ball-hawking presence, and for all the credit Kyle McCarthy deserved got this season, he’s a poor Cover 2 safety.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Weis’ demise was his inability to recruit front seven players early. The heralded recruiting class of 2006 had zero impact players, and Notre Dame seemed to stockpile tweener defensive ends in hopes that they’d become Justin Tuck. Morrice Richardson, Kerry Neal and Kallen Wade never developed, and players like John Ryan never became more than marginal reserves.

Weis’ inability to find a suitable defensive coordinator will be the number one reason why he loses his job, and his gamble to bring in Jon Tenuta, a well-respected defensive coach was the one that likely cost him the most. It would’ve been interesting to see what this Notre Dame defense would’ve looked like in a 3-4 base, utilizing the plethora of edge-type players that Notre Dame seems to have, and also giving the defense a better chance to hide their blitzes, something the Irish never did very well this season.

2) Golden Tate is a transcendent player.

Tate went for 205 yards tonight, pushing his receiving yards to an even 1,500 for the season on 93 catches. He’s scored 14 touchdowns in the final 8 games. Those are MONSTER numbers. People that fancy themselves technicians are eager to pick on Tate for some inexact routes and a few head scratching decisions, but why can’t we all just appreciate the incredible season that #23 has had? I understand that the Heisman has now become college football’s version of the MVP, but what does a .500 record have to do with a player’s greatness?

Tonight, ESPN’s announcing team was hellbent on recognizing Toby Gerhart as a legitimate Heisman contender, yet never seemed to mention the wide receiver that matched Gerhart’s numbers on the opposite sideline, doing it in a fraction of the touches from a position that’s much harder to make an impact. In a season where no single player stood alone, I’ve got no idea why Golden Tate isn’t getting more respect from the national media, even if it’s for a .500 team. If Notre Dame pulled that game out tonight, what’s the difference between a five loss Stanford squad and a five loss Notre Dame team?

3) Jack Swarbrick will certainly earn his salary this week.

A friend of mine with very good sources heard from two people in positions to know that both Bob Stoops and Brian Kelly were done deals. That two people with connections deep inside Notre Dame’s athletic department had such conflicting news goes to show you that Swarbrick is truly the man pulling the strings in the athletic department.

We can only take Swarbrick at his word that no decision has been made and no coach has been contacted, but I’d be shocked if a new coach isn’t announced within the week if Weis is out as head coach. The differences between Swarbrick and his predecessor Kevin White are startling, and Notre Dame fans should feel good about the man in charge of the university’s athletics.

4) The Irish football program is at a tipping point.

The decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will determine the fate of the Notre Dame football program. If Charlie Weis is fired, Jimmy Clausen is as good as gone. If Clausen goes, Golden Tate likely follows. Even with weapons like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Armando Allen, the Notre Dame program could look vastly different with a new coach roaming the sidelines. Add to that equation that the new coach will be running spring practice without Dayne Crist and no true backup quarterback, and spring installation will likely be limited as well.

Nobody knows for sure the thought process of Clausen or Tate, but they’re two players that are fiercely loyal to Charlie Weis. No player is bigger than a football program, especially one as storied as Notre Dame, but the decisions made off the field in the coming weeks, could greatly determine what happens for the next few seasons.

5) Charlie Weis is a great ambassador for Notre Dame.

Whether he’s the coach of Notre Dame’s football program for another season or another week, Charlie Weis was a true ambassador to the school. As Jack Swarbrick mentioned during his interview with the New York Times, the difference between perception and reality for Weis is stark. No coach has taken a larger beating these past few seasons than Weis, and it’s a puzzling dichotomy that has turned Weis into such a polarizing figure.

Watching ESPN’s GameDay this morning, I was touched by the story of Pete Carroll and young Jake Olson. It’s an uplifting story that shows us how important college football is to many of us, and how important Carroll and the Trojans are to a boy fighting insurmountable odds.

After watching that story, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had in the press box during the USC game. I chatted with a national reporter that had covered college football for years. Her image of Charlie Weis and Pete Carroll, two coaches that both do incredible work in the community outside of football, was so divergent.

I can’t help but think that Notre Dame needs to do a better job letting people see the true head coach. With a school that so obviously understands branding and tradition, they failed Weis for five seasons, allowing him to be a punching bag in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, and rarely letting people get a glimpse of the great humanitarian that has run the football program the right way.

Just looking at the media relations team that USC has put together around Pete Carroll — whether it’s his official website, the cutting edge Heisman campaigns for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, or the incredibly visible work Carroll does with “A Better LA” and his other charitable work, USC has created an image that promotes its coach and his beliefs.

While Notre Dame has made great strides in the past few years and the Sports Information department is filled with true professionals, they’ve struggled to fight a very real battle with negativity that’s b
eing waged in the media, on
the recruiting path, and in the collective psyches’ of college football fans. Whether you want to believe it or not, that negativity is a large reason why the football program is on shaky ground.
 
If Charlie Weis loses his job this week, he surely has these last three seasons of mediocre football to blame. But if Notre Dame ever wants to truly win again, it’ll need to be as proactive protecting and managing its head coach as it is with its heralded tradition. 

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.