Spring Practice: Your A to Z guide

35 Comments

The Brian Kelly era of Notre Dame football hits the practice field today for the very first time. After months of offseason evaluations, recruiting, community commitments and press obligations, it’s time for the former Cincinnati coach to being doing the thing that got him the Notre Dame job in the first place.

The Irish kick off Spring Practice today with their first workout at 3:30 ET. Here’s an A to Z guide to get you up to speed.

A is for Attitude Adjustment. The Irish football team is in desperate need for one, and Kelly has put it at the top of his list of talking points. “I’m tired of hearing about the next NFL player coming out of Notre Dame, quite frankly,” Kelly quipped earlier in the week. The message? Get back to the roots of Irish football, and remember what made this program special.

B is for Bob Diaco. The new defensive coordinator is tasked with the hardest job in the program: to turn around a defense that failed. Diaco has already proven himself a passionate, articulate, energetic coach. But he’s also a wildcard with a fraction of the track record previous defensive coordinators Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta had. For the Irish to succeed, Diaco will have to transform an underachieving crew into a unit capable of big things. No small task.

C is for Camp Kelly. Every coaching staff has something like this, and Camp Kelly is designed to build team chemistry through the tried and true practice of working people out until they leave their lunch in the garbage can. Some of the best team-building activities have little to do with football, and these workouts will bring the team closer together. (Hopefully not just at the trashcan.)

D is for Dayne Crist. The future is now for Crist, who takes the reins of the Irish football program while still recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Washington State last year. Crist was as highly touted as they come, and he’s wowed people with his unique blend of size, speed, and arm strength. Now its up to the Southern California native to run Kelly’s spread attack, something he’ll be able to do in Spring Practice after being medically cleared by the team doctors.

E is for Edge players. Kelly claimed there are five players competing for two roles on the edge of the defense, and former inside linebacker Brian Smith is one of them. Smith will be joined by Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal, Steve Filer, and Dan Fox, all completely interchangeable in the new system. It was interesting that Kelly made it clear that Smith is strictly an outside backer, moving him inside only in an emergency. Only two guys will emerge as starters, making this one of the most interesting battles on the roster.

F is for Fourth Quarter. The Irish need to become a team of closers, and Notre Dame’s inability to close teams out physically in the fourth quarter was the demise of Weis regime. The strength and conditioning staff has already made that the mission of the offseason, and players have either shed or redistributed weight in the short time since Kelly and his staff arrived in South Bend.  

G is for Ground Game. While the emphasis of Kelly’s spread attack is throwing the ball, he’s also put together a far more prolific running attack at Cincinnati than Weis did at Notre Dame. With Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, and Cierre Wood all hoping to get reps in the backfield, there’s no reason that the Irish offense won’t have a capable ground game, something that plagued the Irish the past few years.   

H is for Harrison Smith. There was no player that drew more criticism than Harrison Smith, an athlete that wowed Irish coaches with his raw skills and frustrated fans with his inconsistent play. Moved back to a safety position after spending his sophomore season as a undersized linebacker, Smith struggled to adapt to his new job, and eventually went back down into the box. There’s no contingency plan for Smith. “If he can’t play safety, he can’t play,” Kelly said. 

I is for Inside Linebackers. With the shift of Brian Smith outside, Manti Te’o is set to anchor one of the middle linebacker positions. Who fills the other role on the inside is anyone’s guess, and while the candidates are numerous, their playing time is not. Carlo Calabrese, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny, and Steve Paskorz are all candidates for the spot next to Te’o.  

J is for Johnson, Ethan. Irish fans are still waiting for the heralded recruit to become the player many expected when stepping onto campus. Johnson has the athleticism and size needed to be a force as a defensive end, but he’s disappeared far too often on the football field for a guy of his stature. Coming into his junior season, Ethan needs to become the force many expected the past two seasons.

K is for Kapron Lewis-Moore. KLM was mentioned specifically by Kelly in his opening comments today as one of the leaders in the offseason workouts. He’ll be leaned on heavily with Ethan Johnson to provide stability at defensive end, where he’s got the size and frame to be a force at the point of attack.  

L is for Longo Beach. There’s no more highly-anticipated torture chamber than the ballyhooed Longo Beach, strength coach Paul Longo’s summer creation devised to whip his football players into shape. Longo trucks in sand pits that maximize core strength while lowering the impact of the high intensity workouts. 

M is for Michael Floyd. While he’s dazzled many of us with his play, Kelly was very candid when he said Floyd had a lot of work to do. Off the field, Floyd’s embarrassing citation for underage drinking and a fight got him into the news. But Kelly praised Michael’s offseason training, and his ability to transform his body. “He’s lost a lot of weight, he’s down to 216 to 217, down from about the
230 range he was at when we got here.” Floyd lost the weight to better fit the fast-paced tempo of the new Irish offense. 

N is for Now. As Kelly said in his opening remarks, “We don’t have five years to put this thing together. We’ve got to do it right away.” That is music to the ears of Irish fans, who have endured a 15-21 stretch over the past three seasons after consecutive BCS appearances. 

O is for Offensive tackle. With the move of Lane Clelland to defensive end, that leaves three scholarship tackles left on the roster. But Kelly didn’t seem overly concerned, citing the spread as reason to believe that he’ll be able to cross-train guards and tackles more freely. Expect guys like Trevor Robinson and Matt Romine to be beneficiaries of the change, as they’re a more athletic breed of tackle that could flourish in the new system. 
 
P is for Position Changes. While Lane Clelland, Theo Riddick, and Steve Paskorz are the three players switching positions for Spring Practice, Kelly made it clear that player evaluation happens every day. There’s no reason to think that there couldn’t be a few more shifts before the spring session is over.

Q is for Quarterbacks. While Dayne Crist is certainly getting the first chance to win the job, Kelly is relying on Nate Montana to provide competition, while Tommy Rees learns the role. One thing Kelly made certain. “This is a quarterback driven offense. I’ve got a library, I just need to know what they can handle first.” Kelly will install as much as Crist and Montana are able to absorb. 

R is for Return to Roots. When asked what he’d like to accomplish this spring, Kelly remarked that he’d like to “Get the fight back in the Fighting Irish.” That means going outside in the snow at 5 a.m. for a surprise workout, and not necessarily taking advantage of all the amenities that the Irish have at their disposal with the first-rate facilities at The Gug.  

S is for Stopping the Run. No defense can succeed without stopping the run, and Kelly has made it known that it’s the first order of business for Bob Diaco’s troops. The 3-4 alignment should help, and Ian Williams will be the guy at the point of attack. Last year’s defense struggled because they had no way to stop a running game. 

T is for Tackling. The Irish stunk up the joint when it came to tackling. Whether it was a lack of practice time, a lack of will, or a combination of both, the defense missed way too many tackles last year, and it’ll likely be a big point of emphasis for Spring Practice. Going back to the basics and Football 101 should be a big part of Spring Practice.

U is for Up Tempo. Kelly equated the difference in the Irish offense from the previous one to the difference between a half court set in basketball to a run-and-gun attack. Everything will be up-tempo this spring, from the two hour practices to the 24 five-minute segments that each session breaks down into. 

V is for Volume. Work Volume is one of the most important facets of Spring for Kelly. What can this team handle? Volume is also for sheer volume, as Kelly’s emphasized the need for players to trim down. “Change in cargo load. Too much cargo, it needed to be lowered. It’s absolutely crucial to what we do. We’ve got to have guys that can run.”

W is for Wide Receiver. The battle on the perimeter is the Spring’s best. No longer will the Irish be playing a majority of two-wide sets, they’ll be an opportunity for three, four, and five receivers on the field, who they’ll be is anyone’s guess.

X is for X receiver. Golden Tate is gone from the X spot, and the job will likely be filled by senior Duval Kamara, who at one time was considered the next big thing among Irish wide receivers. But expect John Goodman, Shaq Evans, and Deion Walker to get a shot at winning this wide open battle to play opposite Michael Floyd, and Theo Riddick, Roby Toma, and Tai-ler Jones to fight for time in the slot. 

Y is for Youth Movement. With the exception of Manti Te’o, the bottom of this roster has yet to step up and provide a difference maker. At times of transition, the Irish football program hasn’t struggled with its veteran players, but its been the underclassmen below them that failed to keep things going. Weis was doomed by his inability to get the youngest members of his roster ready to play, something that Brian Kelly and his staff pride themselves on.

Z is for Zibby. The Notre Dame defense is in desperate need of a tough guy leader like Tommy Zbikowski, the last blue-collar leader who seemed to leave it all out there on the football field. Zibby may have had some limitations as a football player, but toughness was never one of them. For the Irish defense to get back their swagger, they’ll need to channel their inner-Zibby. 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
Leave a comment

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)
Getty
12 Comments

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
Getty
6 Comments

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)
28 Comments

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.