Pregame Twelve Pack: Stanford edition

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Week four of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Purdue game.

1. Kelly and the Irish are going dark.

You can’t blame me as I’m never at practice, but somebody broke the practice policy for reporting, and as a result media will no longer be allowed inside LaBar Practice complex for the remainder of the season.

The entire system of what was reportable and what wasn’t was kind of vague to begin with, but beat-writers and media members won’t have access to Wednesday practices for the rest of the season. This ban is likely to stop reporting on things like injuries, which as Jim Harbaugh has proven this week, is something some team’s like to play close to the vest.

2. Is Stanford a Rose Bowl contender or paper lion?

We’ll most likely find out in the next three-game stretch, but the $64,000 question really seems to be, how legit is Stanford? While the early returns are certainly promising on the new 3-4 defense, I’m not sold on this group after three games against Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. From listening to Brian Kelly yesterday, you can tell that he and the staff aren’t quite sure of what to expect either.

“To be honest with you, it’s hard to evaluate them,” Kelly said. “Sacramento State,
the game was out of hand. It as 17-0 early. Got to 28-0 against UCLA. I
can tell you it’s a whole different scheme from last year. They’ve
employed a 3-4 defense and a lot of man to man coverage. They matched up
really well against an offense like Wake Forest, because they could put
nine, 10 guys on the line of scrimmage. They overwhelmed Sac State, and
quite frankly, UCLA, I don’t know what they were doing offensively.
They visited Nevada and put in the pistol offense and I don’t know what
was going on there.

“This will be totally different than what they have
seen, relative to our offense. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a different kind of scheme
for us. It’s going to be a great challenge on both ends.”

3. Looking for a scouting report on Chris Owusu? Try calling Jimmy Clausen.

Owusu will likely be at full-strength this weekend after being held our of the first two games of the season. His two two touchdowns against Wake Forest last week are a reminder that the preseason All-American is one of Stanford’s most explosive athletes. While Notre Dame has seen plenty of tape on Owusu, one person they could call is his high school quarterback, some kid named Jimmy Clausen, who connected for nine touchdowns and 750 yards during Jimmy’s senior season.

If Owusu runs wild against Notre Dame, they’ll only have themselves to blame. The Irish were one of his favorite schools during recruiting, but never came to the table with a scholarship offer.

4. There will be some familiar faces wearing Stanford uniforms this Saturday.

There will be some memories revived for a few Cardinal players, with former Irish football players Konrad Reuland and Nate Whitaker returning to South Bend after transferring from Notre Dame.

Reuland was a highly-touted recruit for Charlie Weis but never found his groove on the Irish roster, transferring out early in the 2007. He’s a big-bodied tight end that’ll be part of the depth chart for the Cardinal.

Whitaker was a walk-on kicker for the Irish, eventually becoming a kick-off specialist in 2007 before transferring to Stanford. He converted over 72-percent of his field goal attempts and was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 last season. Talking about his decision to transfer, Whitaker feels like he didn’t get a fair shake with the Irish.

“To be honest, I have tried to stay away from this but I don’t feel like I got a completely fair chance because of the fact that I was a walk-on,” Whitaker told the South Bend Tribune. “But other people have different opinions on that factor, and it’s up for discussion. But personally I don’t think that I had the fair chance that I deserved.”

Whitaker has certainly proved his worth, coming through with a great season as Stanford’s primary kicker, doing it under the same special teams coach he had at Notre Dame.

5. It’s not just players returning to South Bend…

The Stanford coaching staff also is ripe with connections to Notre Dame, with former special teams coordinator Brian Polian now holding the same position under Jim Harbaugh and defensive line coach Randy Hart back on the West Coast after spending the 2009 season at Notre Dame with Charlie Weis.

Polian spent five years at Notre Dame, recruiting the West Coast for the Irish, making him a pretty logical fit for Harbaugh.

6. How good is Andrew Luck? Well, Mel Kiper thinks he’s pretty good.

ESPN’s NFL Draft guru has just moved Luck to the top of his 2011 Big Board, his projections on the best player available in next year’s draft. Kiper has this to say about the Stanford quarterback: “Great arm, NFL smarts, solid footwork. Prototypical size and intangibles. Checks down with a veteran’s savvy.”

Luck still has another year of eligibility, but if he continues to play great football, it looks like Harbaugh will be replacing the best quarterback he’s coached.

7. Harbaugh playing coy with injury to one of his top receivers.

While Brian Kelly has shown in his first three weeks that he’s pretty candid about injuries, Jim Harbaugh has taken a page out of Bill Belichick’s book when dealing with injuries, specifically one to veteran wide receiver Ryan Whalen, who dislocated an elbow and his highly doubtful to play on Saturday.

When asked at his press conference if Whalen was going to play, Harbaugh went stealth.

“As soon as I tell you, you’re going to tell Notre Dame,” Harbaugh said. “I’d want to know about the status of every player on their team, what percent they are, how many plays they are going to play. That’s valuable information.”

Whalen was wearing a shoulder sling at practice this week, giving reporters an ability to read between the lines.

8. The Tunnel Workers’ Union is a blue-collar bunch.

As Stanford Daily sports editor Kabir Sawhney mentioned, the Stanford offensive line has established quite a reputation. Dubbed “the tunnel workers’ union,” by Stanford fans, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips, Chase Beeler, David DeCastro, and Derek Hall combine to create a formidable running game.

Let’s take a quick look back at their recruiting pedigree — often times a hard evaluation when dealing with linemen.

Jonathan Martin — Three Stars. UCLA and Utah Offers. California native.
Andrew Phillips — Three Stars. Northwestern and North Carolina offers. Maryland native.
Chase Beeler — Three Stars. Oklahoma transfer. Oklahoma native.
David DeCastro — Three Stars. Oregon State and Washington offers. Washington native.
Derek Hall — Three Stars. BC and Michigan State offers. Defense end recruit.

While the group may not wow you with their star-power, it’s another good example that you find great football players in all shapes and sizes.

9. The Irish need to play some solid red zone defense.

That’s because Stanford looks like a juggernaut in the scoring zone, going 19-for-19 thus far on the season, with a staggering 16 touchdowns. What makes a team like Stanford so dangerous close to the goal line is a solid running game and a mobile quarterback that is also accurate, two traits that make Andrew Luck very valuable. For the Irish to win this football game, they’ll need to punch in their own opportunities, as well as hold the Cardinal to field goals instead of touchdowns.

10. Look for the Irish to make a big play on special teams.

Last week’s fake field goal is a gigantic stain on a special teams group that prides itself in being one of the best in the country. Kelly and special teams coordinator Mike Elston have put the troops on notice that things better turn around quickly.

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically. Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams,” Kelly said. “This has been more of a, look, this is your last shot or you’re
not going to go to BC. I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.
This has been more challenging our players to play at a higher level.”

11. The defensive line will be front and center on Saturday.

It’ll be mass-on-mass up front, with the winning line likely dictating the game. Defensive linemen Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore know they’re up for a challenge. When asked how Stanford compared against the Irish’s two previous opponents, Lewis-Moore saw some subtle differences.

“I feel like Stanford is a mix of Michigan State and Michigan, the way
the offensive line plays,” Lewis-Moore said. “The offensive line, they’re moving in space.
Michigan State is coming straight at you.
Stanford, they can do a combination of the both. They’re fast, quick,
have good pad level. They’re going to try to knock us off the ball. I
think it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The front-three will need to stay on their feet, and take advantage of their opportunities to make big plays in the backfield.

12. Irish need to break a very ugly streak this Saturday.

Talk about a trend that needs to be reversed: The Irish have lost 10-straight games against top-20 opponents. Four of those games have come inside Notre Dame Stadium.

This is the highest-ranking the Cardinal have ever had when they played Notre Dame, and the Irish are a 4.5 point underdog according to Las Vegas, a number that might not make sense for people that look at the Irish record and Stanford’s three-game start. The good news for Irish fans? Brian Kelly is 8-2 against ranked opponents, so it looks like something has to give.

 

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.