Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan edition

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Round two of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we into towards the Michigan game.

1. Mother Nature might be playing a factor in this one.

Maybe it was Rich Rodriguez’s premonition during his Tuesday press conference, but it looks like rain for South Bend this Saturday. Here’s what Rodriguez said about his recollection of Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s an intimate setting, just like the Big House,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “You’re in a confined area. It seems like it always rains when we go down there, I don’t know what the forecast is. The few times I’ve been there it seems like it’s always raining and the grass is usually high. Because of the rain, I guess.”

Tossing Rodriguez’s dig of the field aside, the weather is going to be a factor on Saturday and the Irish are already preparing for it.

“Today we did a wet ball drill in (special teams), in particular because
the snapping, punts, field goals, things of that nature,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Wet ball in
7-on-7, we did that in camp. We have to play in the elements. You have
to practice them. but I don’t think I over-coach it. I think we have
great balance in our offense and defense that if we have to take shape
differently during the game because of the elements, we’ll do that.
Thirteen years of being on Lake Michigan at Grand Valley State, I think
I’ve seen every kind of weather pattern that’s blown through here.”

2. With Jamoris Slaughter limited, walk-on Chris Salvi is the next man in.

Much of this week has been dedicated to looking at the thin depth chart in the Michigan secondary, but with Jamoris Slaughter being held out unless it’s an emergency situation, walk-on safety Chris Salvi now serves as the primary back up for Zeke Motta.

Want the dish on Selvi? How about this blast from the past from the suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald on November 9th, 2007.

Salvi is a two-year starter for the 9-2 Corsairs, who
will take on De La Salle Saturday night in the Class 7A quarterfinals. A
cornerback turned safety, he’s become a focal point of the defense with
his textbook tackling and hard hits.

He ranks second on the team with 93 tackles. He also has
4 interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt against Notre Dame that he
recovered himself and ran in for a touchdown.

“Last year, Chris had a good year, but this year he’s
had a breakout year,” Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. “Part of it has to
do with the fact that he switched from cornerback to safety and safety
seems to suit him a lot better. He’s great against the run and he’s the
kind of player who really loves to hit people.

“But the other part of it is that Chris has worked so
darn hard to improve himself and establish himself on this team. He was
in the weight room so much over the summer that I had to practically
kick him out. I think I’ll be able to use him as an example for many
years about what you need to do to really get ahead. This is a kid who
is just extremely motivated to do his best.”

Brian Kelly’s confidence in Salvi seemed to be similar to that of Carmel coach Andy Bitto.

“I’m good with four and Salvi is a real solid player for us. He’s on all of our (special teams),” Kelly said. “He’ll be our fifth guy and we’re not afraid to put him in the game if we have to.”

3. Barry Gallup Jr. filled the role of Denard Robinson this week.

No word on whether or not Gallup actually laced up his shoes, but he did take the scout team reps at quarterback, trying to replicate the offensive prowess of the speedy Michigan quarterback. He might not have the top-end jets of Shoelace, but Kelly was happy with the work he did.

“You can pay attention to pursuit angles, how you’re working in
different levels defensively, and not have a guy who’s 4.3, 4.4,” Kelly said after practice Thursday. “Though I will say Gallup did a nice job running that offense for us, because you
get banged around a bit running the ball as much as he did.

4. The Irish just added a much more visible sign of tradition to the football offices. Seven of them.

Brian Kelly added some serious hardware to the lobby of The Gug this week, bringing in the school’s seven Heisman Tropies to be displayed alongside a National Championship trophy and a bronze bust of the Four Horseman. Kelly’s rationale was simple:

“The tradition here can be talked about all we want and it can be read
about, but you can also see it tangibly when you walk into this football
facility now,” Kelly said. “Obviously, with the national championship trophy on
display, it’s real when a recruit or an alumnus or a former letterwinner
comes in. You can tangibly see the success of Notre Dame. It’s not just
what was talked about.”

5. That tradition will be on display for some pretty impressive recruits.

The Irish welcome a nice collection of recruits to South Bend for the big game against Michigan. Irish fans better hope that the potentially stormy weather doesn’t wash a few of the uncommitted targets away.

Some of the expected visitors that are still being recruited by Notre Dame:

      George Atkinson, WR
      Josh Atkinson, CB
      Wayne Lyons, S
      Stephon Tuitt, DE
      Maty Mauk, QB (2012)

Here are the recruits already committed to the Irish that will join them in South Bend.

      Kyle Brindza, K
      Jalen Brown, CB
      Brad Carrico, DE
      Jarrett Grace, LB
      Eilar Hardy, S
      Justice Hayes, RB

Wayne Lyons is a five-star prospect that has just about every team in the country chasing him. The Atkinson brothers are also a pair of prestigious national recruits, and Stephon Tuitt has offers from SEC powers like Georgia, Florida, and LSU. With scholarships opening up with the departure of Derek Roback and Shaq Evans, this weekend could be a big one.

6. Looking for the last time Brian Kelly squared off with Rich Rodriguez?

November 17, 2007. Pat White and the No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers survived a fourth quarter run by Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats, and held on to a 28-23 victory. Ben Mauk (Maty’s older brother) led the Bearcats with 323 yards passing and two touchdowns, as well as paced the rushing attack with 52 yards on 15 carries. Pat White and Steve Slaton both had 100 yard days, with White getting 27 carries for 155 yards, and Slaton ran for 103 yards on 23 carries.

7. Looking to see how Kelly’s offense has done against a Greg Robinson defense?

After holding Cincinnati offenses to 22 and 17 points in Greg Robinson’s first two seasons coaching at Syracuse, the Bearcats exploded for 52 points in Kelly’s first match-up against the Orange in 2007, scoring double-digit points in each quarter, on their way to racking up 544 total yards.

In 2008, a week after handing Notre Dame a 24-23 loss on Senior Day, Cincinnati coasted to an easy 30-10 victory over the Orange in what was Greg Robinson’s final game as head coach of Syracuse. Tony Pike did most of the work, throwing for 272 yards and two TDs, with the Bearcat defense also forcing two turnovers.

8. ND’s offensive line vs. UM’s defensive line could be the story.

Michigan’s secondary may be a mess, but this game will be won or lost in the trenches for the Irish. The Wolverine defense played pretty stout against a UConn running attack that many thought was lethal. Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and Craig Roh will be the main threats battling Zack Martin, Chris Stewart, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

The 3-3-5 system of Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez relies on bringing pressure from different places, so if Ed Warinner’s group can identify who is coming and where he’s coming from, there should be holes up front to run between, and time for Dayne Crist to dissect a porous secondary.

9. Dayne Crist will have the opportunity to play a breakout game.

How big of a deal is Dayne Crist? Even though he only joined Twitter in June and has exactly one start as a college quarterback, he’s got over 2,750 Twitter followers already. In fact, Crist’s right arm even has its own Twitter page, with “The Cannon” starting to rack up followers all around the Notre Dame blogosphere.

Crist played a solid game, completing 73 percent of his throws for 205 yards and a touchdown, but he missed on two or three more explosive plays, including potential touchdowns to both Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd (twice). Crist will need to harness some of the emotions and energy that maybe had him missing some easy opportunities last Saturday. If he does that, expect a very nice day from Crist. And his right arm. (They can both tweet about it later that night…)

10. This is a big game for defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Elston played football for the Wolverines, lettering from 1994 to 1996 as a linebacker. After his playing career he worked in the football department for four years, starting as a camp coordinator his first two years, then climbing to the ranks of graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000.

Elston had to leave Ann Arbor to get a full-time coaching position, and went to Eastern Michigan, before joining Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004. The two have been together ever since. This will only be the second time Elston has faced off against his alma mater since he began coaching over a decade ago. The first was a 41-17 loss in 2006 when Central Michigan was beaten by a Michigan team that would walk into South Bend the next week and blow out the Irish.

11. Denard Robinson certainly announced his presence with authority.

In his first start, Denard Robinson set a Michigan record for most yards rushing for a quarterback, with 197 yards on 29 carries. His 19-of-22 passing moves him to second all-time on the Michigan lists for completion percentage in a single game behind Elvis Grbac. Robinson’s 383 total yards is the sixth-highest total yardage mark in Big Ten history and the top mark for the Wolverines in school history.

Even more bizarre, while Robinson may have burst onto the scene with his performance against UConn, he led the Wolverines offense in rushing last year with 351 yards on 69 carries last year, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 5 touchdowns.

12. Coach worth watching? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

The opening performance by the defense against Purdue was impressive, but if Diaco really wants to earn the adoration of Notre Dame Nation, he’ll need to orchestrate an equally-impressive performance against Denard Robinson and the Michigan offensive attack.

Diaco discussed what the defense needs to do to stop Robinson.

“It’s a real challenge,” Diaco said. “All we’re going to do is do the best that we can in selecting from the menu of installation that we have, preparing the players mentally, focusing on the nuts and bolts of defense in terms of block destruction, tackling and effort. Then they need to just clearly know their assignment and do their assignment the whole time.”

Kelly already hinted earlier this week that the Irish wouldn’t send a lot of pressure after an option quarterback. We’ll see what Diaco has in store for Michigan Saturday afternoon.

 

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.