Friday notes: Assistants hit the road

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It’s officially the spring evaluation period for college recruiting. Thanks to a recent rule change, head coach Brian Kelly won’t be able to hit the hallways of high schools, but his assistant coaches will.

The Irish coaching staff will fan across the country, with each assistant working their region or position grouping for key recruits. Expect to see Bob Diaco on the east coast, Tony Alford covering Florida, Mike Denbrock on the West Coast, Chuck Martin covering the Midwest, Ed Warinner all across the country meeting with linemen, Kerry Cooks in Texas, Tim Hinton doing his best to lock down the state of Ohio, Mike Elston also working the Southeast as Charley Molnar sets sail to reel in an elite quarterback. There’s only so much time to be on the road, and with Kelly relegated to alumni functions and awards dinners, the assistant coaches will do much of the heavy lifting this spring.

Here are a few interesting headlines from a quiet week of Notre Dame football, as we cross the 120 day mark until the Irish kick things off against Purdue.

* Tim Prister at IrishIllustrated.com broke down the remaining offensive linemen in play for the Irish after receiving big verbal commitments from Matthew Hegarty, Jordan Prestwood, Conor Hanratty, and Tony Springmann.

The Irish have offers out to Maryland tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson, Arkansas’ Brey Cook, Arizona native Cyrus Hobbi, Georgia tackle Watts Dantzler, Colorado tackle Brendon Austin, and Virginia’s Jay Whitmire, according to Prister. If I had to guess the next guy to pledge to Kelly and the Irish, it’d be Austin, although the staff would be happy to take any of the guys on this list.

* It seems Jimmy Clausen didn’t need to show up in a stretch Hummer to get people wondering if he’s still too cocky or a bad teammate. Arriving at Carolina’s mini-camp with a 12-pack of Cactus Cooler that was requested by star teammate Steve Smith, Clausen had all eyes on him during an impressive mini-camp. But it wouldn’t be a football season without some Clausen controversy, and PFT’s Mike Florio seemed to supply it, with a well-placed source claiming that Smith thought Jimmy was “a punk.”

Smith didn’t take too kindly to that quote and has been on a warpath denying a report he labeled “all BS.” He was eager to challenge Florio on-air earlier today, but Mike passed on the confrontation, knowing that he wasn’t going to give up a source that Smith would’ve demanded be named.

Regardless of all the manufactured noise, it was interesting that the reports that did come out about Clausen all kept the familiar theme of his questionable off-the-field personality. Some of the more interesting reports quoted veteran teammates who were surprised that Clausen would reach out to them with text messages and introductions, something maybe not that common with rookies, but something essential in a quarterback expected to lead. If you’re looking for a comparison, there’s no articles questioning Tim Tebow’s decision to reach-out to his new teammates, and Clausen is far closer to seeing the field that Denver’s new first road quarterback is. Jimmy will battle rumors until he’s actually given the opportunity to go out on the field and play football, which I’ve got a hunch comes sooner than later.

* Uber-freshman T.J. Jones is making some noise on the national scene with his surprise ascendancy to the top of the WR depth chart after only a semester at Notre Dame. The guys at Rivals.com took a look at the top early-enrollees who made an impact during spring practice, and they listed Jones and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills as the two wide receivers that created the most buzz.

Here’s what they had to say about Jones:

Jones, whose first name is Tai-ler, moved his way onto the first team
midway through spring drills and stayed there the rest of the way. He
caught an 18-yard TD pass in the spring game. Notre Dame is looking for a
complementary receiver for star WR Michael Floyd, and Jones could be
that guy. His dad, Andre, was a defensive end at Notre Dame from 1987-91
and played on the Irish’s 1988 national championship team. His uncle is
Philip Daniels, a veteran NFL defensive end.

I’m eager to see what Jones can do out of the slot for the Irish. After watching him during the Blue-Gold game, it’s clear that he’s one of those athletes that won’t shy away from the big stage, a crucial trait for a true freshman that wants to see the field.

* The news that the Pac-10 and the Big 12 are in discussions on a possible collaboration for a television contract is interesting news on the conference realignment front. While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is out looking for potential additions to the conference as a way to build their TV empire, the Pac-10 and Big 12 are taking creative looks at building their negotiating power with the TV networks without mortgaging the history and affiliations of the conference.

Both the Big 12 and Pac-10 have expiring TV contracts that pay them much less than the Big Ten and the SEC, so they’re looking for every possible way to build leverage, including building a TV network that takes advantage of the fact that six of the nation’s top 13 media markets are in the heart of Pac-10/Big 12 country.

While people consistently believe that the Irish either need to relinquish independence or merely go it alone regardless of the consequences, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott are looking at an outside-the-box solution that could give their universities the revenues needed to compete with the other conferences, while not hurting the other athletic programs at their respective universities.

It’s interesting now that Jack Swarbrick is moving closer to a 6-5-1 scheduling model instead of continuing to try and work with the ridiculous 7-4-1 template Kevin White installed, the Irish could put themselves in a better position to forge creative alliances that could be both lucrative for the university financially while also allowing them to hold on to their independence.

* One final note: It’s SHOCKING, just shocking, to see that NFL defensive rookie of the year and former USC Trojan Brian Cushing has been suspended for performance enhancing drug use. Rumors of steroid use have dogged Cushing since his days at USC, and pictures like this one have been around for years.

Cushing had appealed the suspension, but was rejected earlier today. Cushing will sit out the first four games of next season for the Houston Texans.    

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.