And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

3 Comments

It was a tale of two seasons last year for Purdue. The first half heartbreak and despair, the second half hope for a better day. Maybe that’s overly dramatic, but the Boilermakers went on a nice run in the second half of the season, including an upset victory against Ohio State, finishing the season 4-2 and putting up a respectable 4-4 record during Big Ten play. Even though the season ended 5-7, Purdue fans had to believe that three or four of those games could’ve gone a different direction.

One of those was obviously against the Fighting Irish. Travis Miller was at Ross-Ade stadium that fateful night when Jimmy Clausen scored his “signature win” against the Boilermakers, marching the Irish down the field for a last minute touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Miller runs the very entertaining Purdue website Hammer & Rails, and was kind enough to chat with me earlier this week as the Irish and the Boilermakers prepare to kick off the season.

I also answered some questions for him over at his blog, so check those out when you get a chance. I’m especially proud of his title for the blog: “Inside the Irish: Quality, sane Notre Dame discussion. I like that.” (Might put that on the book jacket…)

Inside the Irish: How bad did the loss last year feel?

H&R: I’ll admit, it stung. I sit in section 128 , so the play
happened right in front of my seats. Just deflating. I felt like we had the game,
but once again our defense failed to get stops on a long drive at the end. That
has been our MO forever. If we take a lead with more than five minutes left and
all we need is one stop we never get it.

ITI: Following up on that, was it the timeout that hurt the most? From Purdue’s
standpoint, did you feel like it was your game to win and you blew it or would
it have been a stolen W?

H&R: I think it was ours to win and I can’t believe we called the
timeout. At the very least you force either a hurried play or a spike to stop
the clock. They then have less time to call the fourth down play. Instead we
gifted the Irish time to script the two plays we wanted. To me, it was an
inexcusable decision, and the worst one Hope made all year.

ITI: You predicted Keith Smith last year. Who’s going to do it this year?

H&R: I am high on three guys: Al-Terek McBurse, O.J. Ross, and
Ricardo Allen. McBurse is the new guy at running back, but a four-star recruit
who has a ton of talent. I think he can have a big game if we commit to the run.
Ross and Allen were high school teammates at Daytona Mainland and the top two
guys in our recruiting class. Allen seems to be taking control of one of the open
cornerback slots immediately and may even be an upgrade over David Pender and
Brandon King. Ross. Is a speedy receiver that will see time in the slot. He is
a lot like Dorien Bryant, only with better hands. He could also be used on
kickoff returns.

ITI: What does an outsider think about the hiring of Brian Kelly? Would you
rather be facing a Charlie Weis team or does BK signify a dangerous precedent:
An above-average coach of the Irish?

H&R:  I’m not sold on him because we have heard the same thing for
a decade in South Bend. A new guy comes in, he’s the greatest coach in the
history of the sport, then loses a few and gets canned. Remember that Ty
Willingham was once fantastic after an 8-0 start. He could do no wrong at that
point, but was fired three years later. Charlie Weis came in, had success immediately,
but then started to struggle. The fans blamed it on “Ty’s players”, which was a
joke of an excuse because Weis was in his third year. He had his own players by
then and went 3-9. In fact, he nearly lost to Washington with “Ty’s Players”
playing for the Huskies last year.

Brian Kelly has won at Division II, Central Michigan, and
Cincinnati. That’s all good and well, but we all know that unless he brings a
national title, and soon, there will be grumbling. Notre Dame fans are far from
patient, and Kelly is the type of coach they need to be patient with. I have no
doubt that he is a good coach and can be successful, but the real question is
can he be successful to Notre Dame’s elevated standards? Weis had success that
would be phenomenal at many schools, but not in South Bend. Shoot, Bob Davie
even took the Irish to a BCS bowl without a quarterback for most of the year,
but was gone after the following season.

ITI: You went on the record saying you didn’t want Robert Marve last year. Are
you drinking the Kool-Aid yet?

H&R: Yes, I have changed my mind. I’ve been most impressed with the
maturity he has shown off the field. I got to meet him at Big Ten media Days
and he was calm, cool, and collected. I think this maturity, as well as the
fact that he is no longer sharing snaps with Jacory Harris, will help him most.
He always needed the maturity to go with his talent. That seems to have come
with the move to West Lafayette.

He also gives us a running element from the quarterback that
we haven’t had since Brandon Kirsch. Part of what made Purdue so good under
Drew Brees was his decision making. He ran for over 800 yards as a senior and
read defenses so well thathe knew exactly when he could take off for 10-15
yards. If Marve can utilize that skill it will make Purdue better fast. 

ITI: How bad do you think ND’s defense will be this year?

H&R: It is hard to say. On paper, there is a ton of talent, but
it hasn’t produced yet. I know you guys are changing schemes yet again, so
there will naturally be a learning curve. Against Purdue I can see them
struggling because we have talent and depth at a lot of skill positions. We can
through six solid receivers out there with Keith Smith, Cortez Smith, Justin
Siller, Ross, Antavian Edison, and Gary Bush. Siller and the Smiths are big
guys, while Bush, Ross, and Edison are speed guys. Siller and Keith smith are
also former QB’s, so we will very likely use trick plays (and have successfully
with Smith). Rob Henry, the backup quarterback, may play in the wildcat. Dan
Dierking, Jared Crank, Reggie Pegram, and Derek Jackson can help McBurse in the
run game. Basically, we have the talent to move the ball in a lot of creative
ways.

ITI: I know you like Michael Floyd. Anybody else on the Irish roster give you
anxiety?

H&R: Kyle Rudolph is a solid tight end that can exploit our
inability to cover the middle of the field. As far as other receivers, it is
hard to say. I am optimistic that we have so many guys emerging as possible
starters in the secondary, but most of them still have yet to play a game at
this level. I think they will be excellent and deep in time, but this is still
game one.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory?

H&R: Hold on to the ball. Turnovers cost us at least three wins
last year. We can’t let that happen again. If we don’t turn the ball over we’re
a very good football team.

ITI: Gut feeling?

H&R: Strangely, I have been feeling like this game could turn out
like 2004 for some reason. I know that is very likely wishful thinking, but it
would be nice all the same. Last year I was in the minority predicting a win at
Oregon. Had we not handed them a pair of defensive touchdowns it would have
happened too. I think we’re going to see a high scoring game where the efficiency
of Notre Dame’s offense is the difference. I think these teams are nearly
equal, but my gut tells me Purdue wins.

*****

If you’d like to stroll back to Memory Lane, here’s what we had to say before the game last year. 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
4 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.