Friday Notes: Worley, Women, and Weis

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As the month of June cruises to an end and the 4th of July holiday weekend rapidly approaches, we are getting seriously closer to some actual football.

One of the better quotes that I just remembered last night came to me from offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, when we shot the breeze after the Fantasy Camp banquet. He mentioned how nice it was to have our group in town, just because all he’s been thinking about — from the moment he wakes up, to the second he goes to bed — is Purdue. It struck me as crazy that the focus would already be on week one in early June, but that’s the life of a college football coach.

All that leads me into a nice preview of the opening game match-up from the opponents point-of-view, where the Purdue website Hammer & Rails profiled the 2010 Irish team. (I’ll give him a link, even though he forgot about me in the Blog Representation…) It’s always interesting getting an opponent’s perspective on the team you follow, so if you’re interested in what Notre Dame’s 6-6 season looked like from a Boilermaker, have at it.

Moving to the notes…

*****

With Bubba Starling headed to Nebraska or the route of Carl Crawford (another dynamic quarterback that signed with Nebraska, only to pick the MLB Draft path), all eyes are on South Carolina’s Justin Worley, who heads to South Bend this weekend with his family to spend three days on campus.

While many Irish hearts and minds were set on Bubba, a quick look at Worley’s game tape shows a quarterback that already plays in an offensive very similar to Brian Kelly’s. After noting his 8,000 yards and 90 touchdown passes over the past two seasons and the prolific throws he’s making as a high school sophomore and junior, it’s pretty easy to get on the Worley train as well.

That said, Steve Wiltfong of IrishSportsDaily.com picked up an interesting quote from Worley’s father that sheds a little light on why quarterbacks are hesitant to jump at the offer to play for the Irish.

“Obviously, Notre Dame would be number one on that list from an academic side,” Worley’s father said. “Also relationship with the coaches, and the type of offense they run, and the number of quarterbacks they already have in the pipeline, which Notre Dame has a lot.”

Worley’s the top quarterback on Notre Dame’s board, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Irish either locked in Worley or took a pass on quarterbacks in this class all together. Regardless of how quarterback friendly an offense is, it’s going to be tough to sign a national recruit when you’ve got a crowded depth chart like Notre Dame’s.

*****

Brian Kelly already made headlines with he and his wife Paqui’s $250,000 donation to Notre Dame for cancer research. He’s taken another step with the Kelly Cares Foundation, which had its official kickoff with Football 101, a guide to helping women understand football.

A sold-out group of women gathered in Notre Dame stadium to go through the ABCs of football and meet the new Notre Dame coach.

Even more interesting, is the heroic journey Paqui Kelly has gone through, which Eric Hansen detailed in the South Bend Tribune.

The shape of the Kelly Cares Foundation dates back to December 2002,
when a baseline mammogram that Paqui’s doctor suggested she have
revealed a lump in her breast. She was 37 years old at the time.

She
acknowledges that if she had waited until she turned 40, the benchmark
some women use to push them to get the test, her story might not be
teeming with so much hope.

It wasn’t until six months later –
June 2003 – that the diagnosis came back as cancer. Paqui had three
children – ages 6, 3, and 2 – at the time and a husband whose career window had
just opened to the kind of jobs he had been dreaming about.

Paqui
accelerated through the “Why me” stage and attacked the Stage 1 cancer
almost like a coach would.

“We had a game plan,” she said. “And
I’m not making light of how people deal with stuff, but Brian and I tend
to use humor, more than get real serious. We’re not heavies that way.

“I
remember when we were waiting for the tests to come back to see (if the
lump) was cancerous. At first they told me it was 999,999 out of a
million chance it would come back (benign). Brian kept calling, asking
me if I got the tests back.

“When I did, I said, ‘Honey, I’m one
in a million. Just not the one you want me to be.'”

The next even for Kelly Cares will be a golf tournament at the Warren Course at Notre Dame on July 12 and another on July 19th at Kemper Lakes in suburban Chicago. For info on the ND event, call (574) 631-4116 and the Chicago event, call (847) 609-1147. It’s always a nice excuse to play golf for a good cause and get out of some work.

*****

Another nice nugget from the South Bend Tribune was on Charlie Weis’ return to South Bend for the Hannah & Friends events that took place last weekend. Former Irish players Rocket Ismail, Tony Rice, Chinendum Ndukwe, Brady Quinn, Golden Tate, Ryan Harris and a slew of others came back to town to support Weis and his charity as well as to place some golf at Blackthorn. (A pretty great track for those that haven’t played it yet.)

Eric Hansen spent some time with Charlie, and while he offered him plenty of opportunities, Weis never bit when given the opportunity to drop a juicy quote.

Here’s the best he gave, when asked about all the conference affiliation talk.

“As a Notre Dame fan, I think whatever the powers-that-be feel is best
for Notre Dame, that’s what they should do,” Weis said. “I don’t really
have an opinion one way or another. It never really crossed my mind when
I was coaching. Same thing with scheduling.

“The only thing I
was happy about — and this might sound weird — was that the Big 12 held
together. I’m living about 35 minutes away from Kansas. Kansas State
sits an hour and a half away and Mizzou is about two hours away. I think
a conference break-up would have really hurt those teams.” 

 

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.