Spring Solutions: Offensive Line

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(For more Spring Solutions, check out the wide receivers, linebackers, and running backs.)

If Charlie Weis and his offensive staff stressed cross-training offensive linemen, Brian Kelly has taken cross-training to a new level. During the 15 spring practices, Kelly seemed to play musical chairs with his offensive lineman, shifting people inside and out, moving guards to tackles, tackles to guards, and guards to center, for the most part keeping everybody guessing on what five lineman would be starting come fall.

Positional battles raged at everywhere except at Chris Stewart’s left guard spot. Many assumed fifth-year senior Dan Wenger would reclaim the starting center spot after losing it to Eric Olsen, but Braxston Cave has charged his way up the depth chart and looks to be the guy to beat at center. (Even guard Chris Watt got some snaps at center.) With both tackle positions vacant, Kelly experimented with shifting Trevor Robinson outside along with veteran Matt Romine and Taylor Dever, but by the end of spring practice rising sophomore Zach Martin, a redshirt last season, took control of the job to protect Dayne Crist’s blind side, while Dever looked in control for the right tackle position.

All of Kelly’s lineman start with a blank slate with offensive line coach Ed Warinner, who is well known for getting the most out of his offensive unit, especially in the running game. Warinner has been incredibly complimentary of the players he inherited, and there’s no reason to think that’s completely lip service. With a more player-friendly blocking system and quicker developing plays, there’s reason to be hopeful that replacing 60 percent of the line won’t be as painful as it was back in 2007.

          OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
          2010: Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger
          2011: Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss, Trevor Robinson, Matt Romine
          2012: Braxston Cave, Lane Clelland, Mike Golic,
          2013: Alex Bullard, Zack Martin, Chris Watt
          2014: Christian Lombard, Tate Nichols

Senior Chris Stewart anchors the line at left guard where he’ll spend his days tackling his second semester of law school. Stewart is a perfect example of an offensive lineman growing for five years in a college program, and I expect Stewart to have a great year. This is also the fifth year for center Dan Wenger, who is battling Braxston Cave for the center spot, but might find himself in the mix at guard if Trevor Robinson slides outside. Wenger never seemed to seize a starting position, battling injuries and a lack of physicality during his first four seasons.

Trevor Robinson headlines the juniors on the roster, his versatility key for the Irish offense. Robinson was a highly touted recruit, showed toughness battling through ankle injuries last season and should be an above-average player for the Irish. Taylor Dever looks to have the first shot at replacing Sam Young at right tackle after backing Young up the past three years. Dever seemed to win a crowded race for the position, battling with classmates Matt Romine and Andrew Nuss, who has the capability to shift inside as well. Romine was a highly-touted recruit in his own right, but has also seen injuries and a lack of elite size slow down his ascent into the starting lineup.

Braxston Cave’s season-ending injury his freshman year against San Diego State likely saved him a year of eligibility, but Cave took his prodigious weight room numbers and applied them to the football field, where he’s likely taken the starting center job away from Dan Wenger, who many assumed would slide back into the middle for his fifth season. Cave’s a great leader that could be poised to play some significant football this season. Mike Golic Jr. also adds depth at center, though he needs to spend more time in the weight room for him to have any chance to see the field. Lane Clelland originally shifted to defensive end for spring drills, hoping to shore up a thin depth chart on the other side of the ball, but shifted back to offense by the middle of spring. Clelland’s return could have been because he didn’t take to the defensive side of the ball, but was likely because of the tragic death of Matt James, who many expected to find his way to the two-deep at tackle quickly.

None of the three freshman lineman last season played for the Irish, preserving a year of eligibility. Yet Zack Martin went from an afterthought to the front-runner for the starting left tackle position, ready to replace Paul Duncan on the blind side. Martin impressed coaches with his athleticism, footwork and competitive nature. Chris Watt also caught the staff’s attention this spring and spent some time working at center toward the end of practices, adding depth at center, and giving the Irish more options at interior positions. Alex Bullard, who the previous regime was very high on, also took reps at right tackle, getting a look both inside and outside during the spring.

The three player offensive line recruiting class took a tragic hit with the loss of top-liner Matt James during a Spring Break accident. That said, the Irish locked in a key interior recruit early with Christian Lombard committing to the Irish back in January of 2009. Lombard had a great offer list and was an Army All-American. After Kelly and his staff took over, they targeted Tate Nichols, a high school tight end that profiles as a offensive tackle in the Irish’s spread system. Nichols has great size and he’ll have time to grow in Paul Longo’s strength program while using his athleticism to eventually succeed in the spread offense.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

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
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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.