Fantasy Camp: The golden rules

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They say a football game isn’t won on Saturday, but in the work put in Monday through Friday. Well, it’s tough to make that translate when game day is Thursday afternoon, but I’ll do my best to try.

The Blue-Gold game was most likely won Tuesday night. That’s when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the head coach of the Gold team and an eater that could put Kobayashi on notice, maneuvered to put together a team that offensive coordinator Charley Molnar could not counter. With Friday’s coaching staff lunch on the line, and having personally witnessed Diaco polish off two Filet Mignons and two full plates of pasta at dinner, I’m guessing Diaco’s epic appetite was an imposing figure in the draft room, especially for the Blue head coach that has nine other mouths to feed at home.

At Tuesday night’s dinner in the Monogram Room, Brian Kelly announced the game rosters, alternating between Gold and Blue teams. Here’s one talent evaluator’s breakdown of the rosters:

GOLD TEAM:

Keith Arnold: QB/CB — Schmuck blogger. One of youngest guys in camp, always a plus.
Frank Bagatta: TE/LB — Old school player with great instincts and better hair.
Country Balitsos: RB/FS — Second cousin to waterboy Bobby Boucher. A little crazy.
Tom Britz: WR/FS — Silky smooth athlete who looks 30 years younger than his real age.
Jonathan Brooks: RB/LB — Bulldozer that battled hamstring injuries throughout camp.
Joe Colgan: TE/LB — Locker room leader who has a penchant for hoarding socks.
Patrick Dolphin: WR/DB — Deep threat and shut down corner. Definite RKG.
John Harris: OL/DE — Jersey’s finest brings an attitude to the trenches.
Bob Johnson: OL/DL — Tough interior player anchors offensive line.
Larry Leamy: WR/DB — Elder statesman of the camp just makes big plays in space.
Dave Libs: OL/LB — Veteran presence brings great intangibles to team.
Scott Litwiller: OL/DL — Physical force inside, key to line as shotgun snapper.
Bart McGloin: QB/LB — Veteran QB and Mike backer brings ice-water veins to huddle.
Hubert Oates: RB/LB — Hard-charging ball carrier and great locker room presence.
Dennis Rios: OL/LB — Battled through injuries to contribute with solid defensive play.
Bill Robinson: NT/OL: Undersized battler brings smiles to teammates and frowns to enemies.
Tom Tague: OL/DL — Windy City rookie brings rare blend of youth and power to interior.

BLUE TEAM:

Gene Bicego: WR/DB — Pint-sized receiver with great shake.
Mike Brennen: WR/DB — Another little guy with wheels. Joey Getherall type player.
PT Brent: WR/DB — Former Marine who brings leadership to the huddle.
John Paul Condon: TE/LB — Half of the Canadian contingency for the Blue squad.
Keith Cross: WR/DB — Boston-based starter that battled injuries and criminal charges.
Gene Faut, Jr.: WR/DB — Speedster looked to play the role of #1 wide receiver.
Gene Faut, Sr.: WR/DB — Veteran presence that can make a defense pay.
Rob Gothier: QB/DB — Hotshot new QB with rocket-arm and a balky hamstring.
Michael Haveard: QB/DB — Veteran signal caller that brings presence to the field.
Joe Hession: TE/LB — Veteran player brings old-school attitude to the field.
Tim Kopp: WR/DL: Injuries kept him from contributing on-field, but brings plenty off the field.
Ned Lesnick: RB/LB: Veteran running back dangerous inside the tackles.
Rich Maynhart: OL/DL: Anchor in the middle of line also in charge of shotgun snaps. 
Michael O’Donnell: WR/DB — Veteran from California brings savvy to Blue team attack.
John O’Neill: WR/DB — Lanky Canadian battled foot injuries to make highlight reel catch.
Rick Peltz: OL/DB — Longtime player brings size to the trenches.
Terry Philbin: OL/DL — Monster along the interior, premiere lineman on either roster.
Mark Smith: RB/DL — Fifth-year camper didn’t let balky knees stop him.

What made game day so special was just how close to script we played things compared to the actual Irish football team. Both teams met for a training table meal at The Gug, where breakfast options were waiting as well as an omelet chef to prepare one of your choice. After that, we broke into team meetings, where Diaco, Chuck Martin, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Jon Carpenter and Scott Booker gave quick pregame talks, as well as going over our keys to success. We knew our offensive line gave us a great chance to get our running game going, and our two corners let us roll a safety down into the box and challenge the Blue team to try and beat us through the air, because they weren’t going to be able to run on us.

After meetings, it was off to the Basilica, where Father Doyle, the team Chaplin for the football team, said mass for us before leaving every team member with a small pendant, just like he does with the football team. From there, we took the same walk from the chapel to the stadium, minus a few thousand screaming fans and a marching band. Even preparing for a game played in front of maybe only a hundred fans, it was pretty hard not to get fired up for the game we were about to play.

Strapped up in the new Irish uniforms and heading down the stairs out of the locker room, we slapped the same Play Like A Champion Today sign that Irish football players have been slapping for years. Introduced on the public address system, running out of that tunnel to your waiting teammates, this was the closest thing to playing for the Irish I’ll ever experience.

As for the game, many of the Gold team’s suspicions came true. With an offensive line that helped game MVP Country Balitsos break two long touchdown runs, and a suffocating pass-rush that kept the Gold Team from getting any type of rhythm going, our offense and defense had dominating performances. Trading off series with Bart at quarterback, I only had the chance to throw the ball once, a quick bubble screen that was a missed tackle away from going the distance, but I ran the option a couple times and moved the team for a touchdown drive capped by a run by tugboat Jonathan Brooks.

On defense, we pitched a shutout, and I nearly took an interception to the house but chose the far sideline instead of the near one, before I was tracked down inside the red zone. Coach Carp’s defense, where we rolled safety Larry Leamy into the flat, worked perfectly with fellow freshman Patrick Dolphin playing a perfect shutdown corner opposite me with our linebackers stuffing the run nearly every carry.

While the lopsided scoreboard made for an anticlimactic finish, the game was a success because nobody got hurt and everybody had fun. Touchdowns by Country, Brooks, and Leamy, plus a couple extra points made by Joe Colgan, put an exclamation point on a perfect draft and game plan by Diaco and company. The defense also held strong after a long catch and throw between Rob Gothier and Jon O’Neill that brought the Blue down to inside the ten, only to be held scoreless.

The scoreboard didn’t matter (26-0! 26-0!), the experience did. That experience was punctuated by an incredible dinner with family and friends at the top of the press box, where Brian Kelly handed out the postgame awards to every player. As a first year camper, I was given a game worn helmet that’ll go next to the rest of the Notre Dame memorabilia on my bookshelf. Sophomores received a monogram jacket with a special Fantasy Camp logo in place of the interlocking ND. Juniors received class rings, which seemed to be the talk of the camp. Seniors, fifth-year players and graduates all received watches and framed photos, an impressive keep sake, especially when you consider that the photos were all taken in the three previous days.

While I’ll continue to call it as I see it, it’s hard for me to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid after spending four days with the coaching staff. To a man, every single guy on staff was great, and they honestly enjoyed every mome
nt they spent with us, just
as we loved spending it with them. While I never had an experience like this with the previous coaching staff, it’s clear that this group has a great working relationship, is completely on the same page, and that Brian Kelly is a dynamic leader. Whether it was the offensive coaches, the defensive guys, or the dynamic strength and conditioning staff that will be a twelfth man on the field come this fall, I heard from people high and low that this was the group that was going to return Notre Dame to prominence.

We’ll ultimately find out come this September, but for four days in June, Brian Kelly and his staff certainly were perfect. 

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
Rivals via Twitter
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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

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.