Friday notes: Knee-high by the fourth of July

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The links are a little thin today, mostly because I’m on my way to northern Minnesota, where the air is fresh, the lakes are clean, and the internet is scarce. I’ll do my best to keep everybody posted, but there’s likely to be little Irish football news this weekend, so enjoy a few days with the family and stay safe around fireworks.

As we head north, we usually pass a nice long stretch of farms, where inevitably we’ll look out the window and my dad with say, “knee-high by the fourth of July.”

If you think about it, that’s where this football season is: growing, coming quickly, and hopefully head-high and ready to go come Labor Day. (Or September 4th versus Purdue.)

Here are a couple interesting tidbits that you might enjoy:

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As hard as it is for me to say it about a former player from my alma mater, the Irish missing on Seantrel Henderson was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to them. While academics were always an issue, and Henderson kept the Irish in his top five until the end, there was really no shot that he was coming to Notre Dame, and the coaching staff never even sent him a letter-of-intent for his signature on Signing Day. (Not that it would’ve mattered…)

With Seantrel making a very-late pledge to USC after being assured by new coach Lane Kiffin and staff that sanctions wouldn’t effect the team, after the NCAA dropped their bomb, Henderson was the only incoming freshman not to report to summer school, and is now supposedly waffling on his commitment, exploring other college options and even prep school. Whatever his choice, Henderson is either playing college football next year at USC or not at all — transfer rules won’t allow him to play without sitting a season. Even though his options are limited, Kiffin and his staff are re-recruiting Henderson all over again, trying to get him to campus as soon as possible, as the summer conditioning and weight-room time are most critical for offensive linemen, especially those that expect to see the field early.

While Henderson is as talented as any offensive line prospect in recent memory, Notre Dame fans should be happy to say, “not my problem.”

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Speaking of recruiting, ESPNChicago’s Wes Morgan had a nice article on how futbol helped defensive line coach Mike Elston recruit newly committed Ben Councell.

From Morgan:

Fighting Irish assistant Mike Elston (defensive line/special teams), who
recruited the Asheville, N.C., talent, took useful mental notes during
his time interacting with the recruit and his family.

“He kept in constant contact with my father,” said the 6-foot-5,
225-pound Councell, who’s set to enter his senior season at Reynolds
High. “That was a big deal, because no other school had done that. He
formed a good relationship with my parents.”

“It was a big deal for dad to watch the U.S. soccer game [vs.
Algeria], and [Elston] planned the schedule around that,” said Councell,
who chose the Irish over Georgia Tech, West Virginia, North Carolina
and South Carolina. “The whole coaching staff was hospitable. But he
took care of dad.”

Dad, who played soccer at N.C. State, had his pick from many
swanky viewing areas within the Guglielmino football complex at Notre
Dame to take in the American’s crucial World Cup tilt. 

I’m hesitant to give Elston credit because he didn’t draft me during the Fantasy Blue-Gold Game, but after spending a few days with him, it’s clear that he’s a smart and thoughtful guy. (Even if his drafting prowess is suspect.)

This article does a nice job of reminding you how much the little things matter during recruiting. While making a college choice is often a forty-year decision instead of a four year one, it’s only human nature to let small details like this play a key role in the choice.

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One of the truly national recruits on Notre Dame’s big board is New York’s Ishaq Williams, a defensive end that has already received 28 scholarship offers from just about every big-time program across the country. 

Williams plans to hit as many colleges as possible this summer to get a list of favorites. The New York Post reports that one of those summer visits is to South Bend.

Considered the top prospect in New York State by several scouting
services and a four-star prospect by Scout.com, Williams certainly has
his pick. He has received 28 BCS scholarship offers. The who’s who of
elite Division I programs includes USC, UCLA, Stanford, Penn State,
Syracuse, Maryland, Rutgers, Alabama, Miami, Notre Dame, Texas Tech and
Florida.

“I’m looking forward to it because I know it’s a necessary part of
the recruiting process,” said the 6-foot-5, 225-pound rising senior who
has already qualified academically for college and will graduate from
Lincoln in January. “I’m looking forward to narrowing it down.”

Williams,
a 17-year-old Clinton Hill native, has already visited Penn
State, Syracuse (his parents’ alma mater), Pittsburgh, Rutgers,
Maryland, and Miami. He plans to visit Notre Dame on Aug. 5, his father
Shaun said; take a trip down south to see Alabama, Florida, and Miami
again the second week of August; and go out west for USC, UCLA, and
Stanford the following week.

Williams would fill a great need for the Irish and would be one of those playmakers that could help turn the Irish defense around. Brian Kelly and staff have already made a commitment to recruiting and reestablishing their footprint in New York, and no recruit would be a better get that the New Yorker. With Bob Diaco prowling the northeast, expect the Irish to be in it until the end.

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Finally, thanks to Brendan who pointed out ESPN’s College Football Live team, who made their bold predictions for next season. While Brock Huard tried to make a splash by calling Boise State in the BCS Championship game, the real headline for Irish fans was when arch-nemesis Mark May picked Notre Dame to win 10 games under Brian Kelly.  (Andre Ware probably made the most ridiculous claim, picking Wyoming to beat Texas next year in Austin.)

Don’t believe me about May?  Take a look:

Have a great holiday weekend everybody…

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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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.