The thing about Jimmy…

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Over the next 50 days, both Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford will somehow see opinions on their quarterbacking play seesaw back and forth without ever taking a snap. That’s what happens in the days before the NFL Draft, a season in and of itself that’s powered by television viewers. The consensus top two quarterbacks in a draft that before the season started looked heavy on quarterbacks, will be flogged by pundits on television and radio on whether either truly deserves to be picked at the top of the first round.

This is a Notre Dame blog, so I’m going to skip the analysis of Sam Bradford. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve seen enough of him play to make a true judgment on his ability to lead an NFL football team. (Not that something like that should stop someone in the media from expressing an opinion…) That being said, Bradford’s sophomore season was one of the most impressive statistical seasons I can remember. If people simply compare apples to apples and look at Bradford’s body of work against the other top quarterbacks drafted in the past few years, I’ll take Bradford every time. The injury that derailed his final season in Norman is an understandable cause for concern. But the case against Jimmy Clausen is much more complex.

There is no easy narrative with Jimmy Clausen. Statistically, his junior numbers are far more impressive than Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez, two quarterbacks taken in the top five last year. His junior season was a triumphant finale to three seasons that followed an impressive career arc. His ability to play at a high level even after suffering a foot injury that robbed him of his mobility did plenty to show his toughness to teammates, opponents, coaches, and most importantly, NFL scouts. As a pure specimen, he’s adequate athletically, he’s got enough size to handle the physical nature of the NFL, and his arm strength and accuracy are already well above average.

Yet Clausen will forever be plagued by an image problem, and for plenty of good reasons. Our first impressions of Jimmy Clausen seemed to be managed by PR handlers, handlers that should’ve been fired for the job they did. Clausen was never just a blue-chip high school quarterback, he was the “LeBron James of high school football.” He wasn’t just adored by the recruiting websites, he was adoringly profiled by magazines like Sports Illustrated. Here’s a snippet from the nation’s introduction to Clausen by SI’s Kelli Anderson:

But Clausen throws enough to both impress and depress opposing coaches. “He is as technically perfect as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Carpinteria coach John Hazelton, whose team lost 48–10 against the Lions on Oct.
28. “He has every ball. He can throw a 50-yard ball on target to the
corner of the end zone. He can throw a rocket up a seam between
safeties. He has the deep ball over the top, with a perfect touch on
it, very accurate. And he has great, great feet. He is beautifully
coached. I’m sure he could play at some Division I colleges right now.”

In fact, no one can think of many flaws Clausen needs to correct, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t continuing to work to improve. In addition to the time he spends with Clarkson –at least 10 hours a week in the off-season, less during the season– Clausen
watches an hour of film every night, and he talks with his brothers
almost daily. “What amazes me is his ability to keep things in
perspective,” says Clarkson.
“He knows people are there to watch him, but he is able to shrug that
off and play. People don’t think he can live up to the hype, but in
most cases he exceeds it.”

It was all too much even before his notorious press conference announcing his commitment to Notre Dame. The ridiculous pomp and circumstance, the infamous Hummer stretch limo and  College Football Hall of Fame announcement, still memorialized as the first image in a google search for the quarterback. Frozen in time, a high school junior smirks as he flashes his championship rings. From what, exactly?

In many ways, Clausen could never live down the horrible first impression he made. While his collegiate career could hardly be considered a failure, he’ll never go down in history as one of the greats at Notre Dame. He’ll never deliver on the stated goal of “four national championship rings,” that he mentioned during that introductory press conference. (He never even managed to lead the team to a .500 record, though hardly a fault of Jimmy’s.) Unlike many of the greats to play at Notre Dame, Jimmy Clausen will never be defined by his time in South Bend. He always felt like a hired gun, a quarterback merely working as an apprentice before moving on to the NFL. It never felt like Clausen bought into the Notre Dame experience, at the very best it was a short-term rental. (Or possibly just a quick real-estate flip, like the house purchased by his father for Jimmy’s South Bend years.)

Clausen hit the Combine unable to workout, yet intent on changing his public image. Still, he was predictably dogged with the familiar storylines. Lately, there has been surprisingly little written about Clausen’s actual play on the field. But were there questions about Jimmy Clausen’s leadership ability? The USA Today thought so. So did Sports Illustrated. And ESPN. And Sporting News.

I’ve never sat in a room with Clausen or interviewed him. For the most part, I’m guessing that the people questioning his leadership ability never did either. But I spent some time talking with people that did cover Clausen these past three years and there was surprisingly little fire behind all the smoke. If there was one universal complaint, it was that Clausen never truly opened up. Every answer sounded rehearsed, every statement, cliched. Too many times, Clausen opened with “to tell you the truth,” only to make it seem like he was doing anything but. Clausen’s familiar refrain this season of not considering his NFL future until after his junior season didn’t jive with the fact that he gathered his family on the field for a photo after the devastating UConn loss, the final home game of the season. Walking away with Jimmy’s helmet tucked under his brother’s arm after the Stanford loss certainly isn’t something a player considering another season does either.

There’s something almost refreshingly honest about the football player that uses college football as a vehicle to the NFL, but it’s just not something that happens regularly at Notre Dame. While Clausen may not have admitted it while playing under the Golden Dome, every step of his athletic career was done to put him in the position that he is today. While that may not make him the best dorm-mate or the guy that you sell jerseys of in the bookstore, it makes him an extremely attractive NFL prospect.

It took longer than expected, but Clausen’s teammates eventually grew to respect him as a leader. They wouldn’t have named him a junior captain if they didn’t. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Clausen that NFL teams have the same preconceived notions that just about everyone else does. But once they see past the antics of a hot-shot high-schooler enabled by his family and handlers, they should look carefully at the quarterback that absolutely carved defenses apart, all while playing on one good foot.

Clausen may have blown his first chance at being the face of a franchise, but he was never intent on making his name in college. Whether it’s the Rams or another team at the top of the draft, somebody is going to get a quarterback that’s as close to NFL ready as any prospect in years. And if he learns from the mistakes he made his first time around, he’ll enjoy making teams pay for the mistake of not picking him for the next 10 to 15 years.

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

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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.