Pregame Twelve Pack: Purdue edition

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Welcome to the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we head into the Purdue game.

1. Notre Dame has owned the season opener against Purdue.

For those Irish fans looking to the past for a preview of future results, the Irish are 6-1 in opening games against Purdue, the only loss being the last time the two played on opening day, a 23-21 loss to the 8th ranked Boilermakers in 1984, a game played at the Hoosier Dome. Only two other programs have faced off with the Irish to start the season more often than Purdue: Michigan and Northwestern.

2. The Irish offensive line versus the Purdue front seven is the battle to watch.

Ryan Kerrigan is arguably the most dangerous pass rusher in the Big Ten this season. He’ll be matched up against Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two offensive tackles making their first start, and in Martin, a guy taking his first snaps in a college football game. Kerrigan led Purdue with 18.5 tackles for loss and finished first in the Big Ten with 13 sacks. The rest of the front-seven has plenty of experience as well, making this the key match-up of the game.

But before Irish fans get too worried, just because the front seven is experienced doesn’t mean they’re any good.  The Boilermakers run defense finished 94th in the country, getting sliced up for 173.4 yards per game. The defense gave up 29.1 points per game, 89th best in the country. They were also terrible on 3rd down, finishing 80th in 3rd down efficiency, ranking 90th in opponent plays per game. Those are statistics that make you scratch your head when you consider Kerrigan’s production.

3. There will be emotions swirling before the opening kickoff against Purdue.

That’s because Notre Dame will be honoring members of the football family that have passed away during the past year as part of the pre-game flag presentation. There will be a moment of silence after the national colors are presented before kickoff, the start of a tradition that will take place on every home football opener honoring those that have died from the football family.

This year, the colors will be presented by six individuals:

Receivers coach Tony Alford and his mother Gloria Alford, who lost father and husband Robert Sr. back in June.

Offensive lineman Alex Bullard and his mother Dorothy Bullard, who lost father and husband Louis in April.

Jerry and Peggy James, who lost son Matt, a member of the incoming freshman class in a tragic accident back in April.

These six will be joined by athletic director Jack Swarbrick and his wife Kimberly and will represent the 24 members of the football family that have passed away in the past year:

Bill Ahern (FB 1960-62), Paul Burns (G 1949-51), Jack Bush (HB 1949-51), Paul Djubasak (G 1955-57), Don Gmitter (SE 1964-66), Art Hunter
(T 1951-53), Paul Lillis (RT 1939-41), Mike Malone (C 1968), Fred Mann
(E 1951-53), Tom Mittelhauser (HB 1963), George Nicula (T 1953-55), Phil
O’Connor (RE 1945), Tom Roggeman (DT 1983-84), Norb Roy (G 1959-61),
Bill Russell (LT 1945-46), George Terlep (LH 1943-44), Tom Pagna
(assistant coach 1964-74), John Bermingham (student manager, 1942
graduate), Harry Lavery (student manager, 1944 graduate), Ted Rademaker
(student manager, 1946 graduate), Robert Alford Sr., Louis Bullard, and Matt James.
 

4. The press box will be filled with plenty of offensive and defensive coaches.

With Brian Kelly roaming the sidelines, it’s interesting to see how the coaching staff breaks up responsibilities in the press box.

Offensively, the Irish will have coordinator Charley Molnar, tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, and running backs coach Tim Hinton all in the press box. Per Kelly, Hinton will be analyzing protection schemes along the line while Molnar helps spot the ball for down, distance, and hash mark, as well as analyzing some of the defensive coverage schemes. Only offensive line coach Ed Warriner and receivers coach Tony Alford will be on the sidelines along with Kelly. 

Defensively, coordinator Bob Diaco will be up in the box. He’ll be joined only by graduate assistants Jon Carpenter and Michael Painter. The rest of the defensive staff — line coach and special teams coordinator Mike Elston, secondary coach Chuck Martin, and outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks, will be on the sideline.

5. Every Thursday, the Irish strive to be perfect. On Friday, they focus. 

Once the Irish get within 48 hours of the game, Kelly and his staff have a rehearsed routine. It starts with a brisk 15 period practice on Thursday and even less activity on Friday.

“Our last practice, we call it perfect practice Thursday,” Kelly said yesterday afternoon. “We want perfection. We go fast and we demand that our players are locked in with the details in mind at first… We spent a lot of time in special teams, a lot of times in two minute offense. and then usually finish up with four-minute end of game scenarios and controlling the clock.  

Friday is spent mostly inside, and Kelly calls it “Focus Friday.”

“We focus in on the game plan. We’ll watch a little film, move the guys around a little bit to stretch them out before we get to the pep rally.”

At the pep rally, Kelly will announce his game captains, a change from the usual tradition of naming team captains for the season.

6. Kelly and staff take preparation to the 49th level.

As a young coach back at Grand Valley State, Kelly and his team worked on 16 to 18 different scenarios that the team might find itself in when caught in an odd spot. Over the past 20 years, Kelly is up to 49 scenarios, creating contingency plans for every imaginable instance on the football field.

“I don’t know if that says a lot about my experience dealing with different things in the game or the obsessiveness of the coach trying to cover every scenario that may never occur, but you want to be covered anyway,” Kelly said.

Two years ago, Kelly installed number 47: Turtle punt.

“We had a 19 point lead with about a 1:03 left on the clock. Every scenario, we had to make certain played out, and it did. And that was to decide do you take the safety or punt the ball. So we put in what we call turtle punt now which kills approximately six to eight seconds and you can hold. We had the whole team just hold because we don’t care if we get a penalty in that situation. But we have to get eight seconds off the clock.”

I’m guessing Bob Davie didn’t have that one in the playbook when he asked Jarious Jackson to take an intentional safety in the back of the end zone against LSU.

7. Like the guy before him, expect Kelly to receive if he wins the coin flip.

While Charlie Weis eventually caved on his always receive mantra on the opening kick off, Brian Kelly also prefers to receive the kickoff.

“I
like to have the football. I think the only time I look at deferring is
if there’s weather. But by and large, my career has been about trying
to get the football. That’s been me traditionally, and that’s probably
what’ll happen if we win the toss Saturday.”

No word on whether he calls heads or tails.

8. If you see LT walking around campus, be careful — he’s not cheering for the Irish.

While his current legal entanglements might make this a moot point, if you see Lawrence Taylor walking around campus this weekend, it’s not because he’s an Irish fan. It’s because his son, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Brandon Taylor is suited up for the Boilermakers. There are three current Purdue players with fathers that had careers in the NFL. The other two are running back Dan Dierking, whose father Scott played running back for eight seasons, and quarterback Robert Marve, whose father Eugene played linebacker for 11 seasons.

9. Danny Hope and Brian Kelly will be telling their quarterbacks different things before kickoff.

While this is Dayne Crist’s first start, Robert Marve’s already made his starting debut, as a freshman quarterback at the Swamp in Florida. But both quarterbacks are returning from a torn ACL and will likely be battling opening day jitters.

The difference is how the coaches will handle them.

“There’s nothing I can do to help him once they kick off,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “He has played in some big games. It’s important that we have a package put together for Robert that he’s comfortable with. Can’t go in there with the whole playbook. It’s too much.”

For his part, Brian Kelly will take a different approach, when talking to Crist before he takes his first snap.

“You
don’t have to win the Heisman today. Take what they give you, be
patient, let the offense come to you, you don’t have to force it. There
are plenty of answers for you out there. Let the game come to you. If
you do that, you’ll be fine. And for me, have confidence. We would not
put you back there if we did not think you’ll do a great job.”

10. Looking for a true freshman from Purdue that could impress? Try Ricardo Allen.

Normally, coaches shy away from playing a true freshman, especially in the secondary. That’s not going to be the case with Ricardo Allen, who is hardly your average freshman.

“A lot of times freshmen will come to camp, they’re an outstanding player,” Hope said. “He has shined since the day he got here. Most of us that have been around here for a while think he’s one of the better ones we’ve been around as a freshman.

“He’s an outstanding football player. One of the great players on his position in our football team, in our league, possibly on a national level. He’s an outstanding defensive back prospect.”

Allen will have a chance to match up with one of the best in Michael Floyd. That’ll be a battle worth watching.

11. The bad luck for tight end Mike Ragone continues.

After fighting through multiple knee injuries earlier in his career, Mike Ragone looked finally on track to contribute at the tight end position. After narrowly avoiding the wrath of Student Affairs after a summer traffic arrest where marijuana was found in the car, Ragone hasn’t had a bit of good luck since.

After suffering from a serious heat illness that kept him in the hospital overnight during the humid summer training camp, Ragone’s come down with an inner-ear infection that’s so serious he’ll likely be unable to play Saturday.

“He was seen again this afternoon,” Kelly said as he updated Ragone’s condition.
“Headaches. A little bit better, but clearly has vertigo and an ear
infection. He’s on antibiotics. I would think he is doubtful for
Saturday.”

The Irish will go with a now healthy Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert as the top-two tight ends, with senior Bobby Burger and freshman Alex Welch next in line.

12. Opening day has been a mixed bag for Brian Kelly.

Kelly is 3-3 in his opening day starts. He lost all three of his opening days at Central Michigan, falling to Indiana in 2004 and 2005, and barely losing to Matt Ryan’s Boston College in 2006. At Cincinnati, Kelly turned that trend around, blowing out Southeast Missouri State in 2007, Eastern Kentucky in 2008, and Rutgers in 2009.

This Purdue team will be the best opening day opponent Kelly has seen since facing Tom O’Brien in 2006.

 

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.