Stepping up… The wide receivers

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If there was a undisputed area of strength for the Irish last season, it was the wide receivers. Yet if you looked at this position going into the season, you might not have been so sure. While many (me at the front of the line) were high on the potential of Michael Floyd, he was still a true sophomore that missed three games due to injury his freshman season. And while Golden Tate put together a 2009 season for the ages under the Golden Dome, he was coming off a sophomore year where he could both dazzle and disappear at a moment’s notice.

After that, the Irish had a solid, if unspectacular, group of receivers headlined by the cagey veteran Robby Paris and former number-one receiver Duval Kamara, with John Goodman also in the mix of guys that looked to get into the rotation. When was the last time the Irish could run out five receivers with experience that could make defenses worried? Pair that with sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph and a promising freshman recruit like Shaq Evans it’s no wonder that the Irish were expected to be dangerous through the air.

Entering the 2010 season, not even the biggest skeptic would’ve guessed that Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen, and Charlie Weis — the three biggest factors in Notre Dame’s offensive output — would be gone this season. Who would’ve guessed that Tate would win the Biletnikoff Award, Clausen would be a candidate to be the first quarterback chosen in the NFL draft, and Weis would still managed to get fired?

The Irish need to replace half the minutes played at wide receiver this year, and transition to a completely new passing system. Let’s take a look at the key losses, who’s coming back, and the receivers that need to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

There is no bigger loss than Golden Tate. Alone, he accounted for more than 35 percent of the playing time amongst wide receivers and did so at an incredibly elite level, producing his best in games that were the closest. The Irish also need to replace the veteran presence of Robby Parris, a clutch performer who became a viable option to move the chains. George West also departs from the Irish, exiting quietly after being one of the Irish’s first early enrollees. There’s no one on the roster that will be able to fill Tate’s dynamic shoes, but the transition to Kelly’s spread attack will lessen the offensive reliance on one playmaker.

RETURNING STARTERS:

There’s no better returning wide receiver in the country than Michael Floyd. The only thing Floyd needs to prove is that he can stay healthy for an entire season, after missing significant chunks of both his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Floyd also has to deal with his first off-the-field setback, an embarrassing drinking ticket that drew negative attention to the rising junior. Duval Kamara will once again find himself in the starting lineup, hopeful to fulfill some of the promise he showed as a true freshman in 2007.

STEPPING UP:

It’s a clean slate for the Irish receivers, though their position coach is the only holdover from last season in Tony Alford, who will be working with receivers for the very first time. Expect Spring Practice to be heavy on installation, fundamentals, and a large amount of “motivational challenges” from the booming position coach, never short of a verbal barb.

There’s no reason to think that the Irish won’t be talented enough to produce an effective aerial assault next season, but they’ll be hindered by the fact that Dayne Crist won’t be able to fully participate in practice as he recovers from a torn ACL. For the Irish offense to stay consistent as they transition in a first year quarterback and replace an All-American wide receiver, here are a few guys that’ll need to make the leap:

Shaquelle Evans: Maybe Irish fans expected too much out of Evans, billed by recruitniks to be a Michael Floyd-level talent. Evans only made seven catches for 61 yards his freshman season, and sadly is best remember for the play he didn’t make, the third down incompletion in Ann Arbor that gave the ball back to Michigan with time to spare. From there his confidence dwindled, and while Weis adamantly denied it, Evans never seemed to regain the coaching staff’s favor. Evans will have a clean slate with Kelly, a new offense to immerse himself in, and the ability to use his sizable talents to help fill the void created by Tate’s departure.

John Goodman: The news that Goodman might get some time at quarterback this Spring should’ve lit a fire under the rising junior, as Goodman has the potential to be a top-notch receiver. Goodman only had six catches last season, but the 64-yard touchdown pass between him and Crist had to give everyone a glimpse of what he can do. Weis using Goodman as a read-option quarterback shows the respect that the previous staff had for his athleticism, now it’s up to the junior receiver to take the leap that another small-town Indiana receiver made with a coaching change.

Barry Gallup: I was one of the many people who raised an eyebrow when it was announced that Gallup was returning for a fifth year, but I think he may be one of the guys that benefits most from a coaching change. Gallup’s skillset as a running back, kick returner and wide receiver profile perfectly for some of the unique wrinkles in Kelly’s spread attack. While Gallup was mostly used as a blocker in front of returner Theo Riddick, I was also pleasantly surprised by the burst he showed as a kick returner, and I expect the offensive staff to find interesting ways to get the ball into Gallup’s hands.

Dark Horses: I’m interested to see what the graduation of Tate does to someone like Deion Walker, who found himself behind both Tate and Floyd as outside receivers. Expect the Irish offense to improve dramatically inside the red zone, where Kelly’s spread formation will add some flexibility, and allow Kamara to dominate with his size advantage. Also looking forward to seeing Tai-ler Jones contribute early and often. Prediction: I expect the Irish to have back-to-back Biletnikoff winners when Michael Floyd accepts the award.  

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.