Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season

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In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second
ary.

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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. 

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.