Friday notes: Saracino, Bubba, Expansion, etc.

6 Comments

With just days remaining until Irish athletes report for summer school and begin unofficial preparations for the upcoming season, football news should begin to pick up. Until then, you’ll have to consider Steve Filer jumping out of a pool newsworthy.

(Might have to get Notre Dame Film & TV department to help with the video preparation, but Filer’s ability to jump out of the pool — and to have the common sense to put a towel down to curb the chances that he’ll hurt himself — remind us that Filer is an elite athlete ready to explode on the scene, not to mention has a solid head on his shoulders.)

I’ve got a small announcement coming up about some exciting posts for next week, but until then, let’s run through a few interesting notes I saw this week.

*****

My column on the departure of Notre Dame admissions czar Dan Saracino brought in quite a bit of feedback. Some of it was anti-Saracino, some in support. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with former Irish assistant and recruiting coordinator Bob Chmiel, who was center stage for the recruitment of T.J. Duckett.

Chmiel is a wonderful man, continues to love Notre Dame, and still lives and breathes Irish football. Let’s just say Chmiel’s characterization of Duckett’s recruitment doesn’t quite jive with that of Duckett’s fathers, as portrayed by Sports Illustrated. For as much grief as Saracino received for the Duckett recruitment and the SI article, Chmiel had nothing but positive things to say about Saracino’s treatment of Duckett or any recruit. He also believes that the Irish didn’t have much of a shot to begin with, as Duckett had all but packed his bags and made the decision to be a Spartan.

I’ll say it again, Saracino has one of the hardest jobs in college sports, and I’ve heard from many that he only has the best intentions of student athletes and the university when dealing with the often subjective process of undergraduate admissions (athletes or not). While the university might have been late to the party, Notre Dame has changed their philosophy on recruiting and scholarship offers quite a bit from Holtz/Davie years.

Here’s a quote from an article on Saracino back in 2005:

“If you’re not interested in being a student-athlete (after looking at
the academic requirements), then Notre Dame is not a good match for
you,” Saracino said. “We are who we are, and we’re proud of it. (The
academic requirements are) not a hindrance to the program, it’s to want
the young man not to be used for just his athletic abilities.”

News reports over the last five years said that talented players like
Randy Moss, Carson Palmer and T.J. Duckett could not get into Notre
Dame for academic reasons, and Saracino admits that Notre Dame will not
be able to admit every top athlete in the country.

“Are there going to be young men who are great athletes who we cannot
admit? Sure,” Saracino said. “Of the top 100 (recruits), maybe there
will be 50 that we can’t sign. I don’t know whether that number is 20,
30, 40, 60, I don’t know. All we know is we just need 20 (recruits) each
year who academically can make it through Notre Dame and athletically
can help us.”

For as long as Notre Dame plays football, there’ll be student athletes that don’t fit the profile of the university. The key, as Saracino points out, is to get the ones that do.

Final thought: Whoever ends up taking the place of Saracino should run and hide if a photographer from a magazine wants to take a shot of them with their arms folded in a menacing pose.

*****

Blue-chip quarterback Bubba Starling will be on campus again this weekend, and this time he’s bringing his mom with him. That’s a very good sign for Irish fans, and Pete Sampson over at IrishIllustrated.com writes that the Irish might be receiving a much needed commitment from an elite quarterback.

“This trip is about seeing the same stuff, but it will be different
because this will be my mom’s first time at Notre Dame,” said Starling,
who’ll arrive on campus Friday night and leave Saturday afternoon.
“She’s going to be a big role in my decision. She wants the best for me
and I like her opinion. I’m sure she’ll love it up there.”

Coincidentally, Starling has been in touch with quarterback
Dayne Crist, who wanted to pull the trigger for Notre Dame during his
own spring visit three years ago but held off because his mom wasn’t on
the trip.

“I was just telling Dayne that if I’m feeling it and I like it
up there that I could commit,” Starling said. “You never know.”

Starling has a tentative visit scheduled for Nebraska in two
weeks but admitted his decision might be made by then.

Sampson reported earlier in the week that Starling ran a forty-yard dash timed electronically in the 4.3s, which is absolutely preposterous speed for a quarterback. I’ve come to trust 40 times as much as I do those email forwards promising you money if you send it to seven of your friends, but Starling would be a great get even if he runs the 40 half a second slower. (Basically, what Robby Paris ran on his Pro Day.)

Now Irish fans have to talk Major League Baseball scouts into thinking that Starling and his 95-mile-per-hour fastball want nothing to do with professional baseball.

*****

Yesterday, news broke that the Pac-10 was making a run at six Big 12 teams — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado, and for the first time in a while, there might actually be some substance behind the rumors.

“We’re led to believe that that may be the case, but, again, there are so many different reports and different dialogues and different developments within our league and outside our league that prevents me from being able to predict what will happen,” Colorado AD Mike Bohn said.

Big 12 commission Dan Beebe canceled a news conference that was set for yesterday and is pushing it until later today, but if this happens, the Big Ten will likely do their best to respond, and then we could have one of those Armageddon scenarios everybody loves to talk about. 

(Although I refuse to fan the flames until something real actually exists.)

For as much heat as the Big East has taken, the Big 12 wasn’t necessarily all that rock solid either, and the potential fracture of six teams, including crown jewels Texas and Oklahoma, proves this. News today from the Columbus Dispatch has emails exchanged between Big Ten commish Jim Delany and Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee, taking about the other apple in their eye: Texas.

Texas president athletic director DeLoss Dodds didn’t do much to quell the rumors either.

“You’ve known me for very long; I am not hanging back,” Dodds said,
according to the Associated
Press. “I’m not waiting to see what other people are going to do. I’m
going to know what our
options are, so that’s not going to change. My hope is that the Big 12
survives and you and I
retire knowing it’s a great conference. It’s been very viable, and if it
stays in place, it will
continue to be very viable.

“If we need to finish it, we’ll finish it,” he said. “We’re going to
be a player in whatever
happens.”

Expect a long weekend of rumors, rhetoric, and reactionary measures by the Big Ten, who might have missed their chance at manifest destiny with these potential moves by new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott.

If anyone sees Jim Delany standing outside Father Jenkins window tonight, holding a boombox over his head and playing Pete Gabriel’s Your Eyes, don’t be alarmed.

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
2 Comments

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
1 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.