The good, the bad, the ugly: Stanford

45 Comments

After a evening of reflection and breaking down game tape, Brian Kelly said something incredibly interesting when discussing preparation for opponents.

“One of the unique things I’m learning at Notre Dame, early in the season, you’re not going to get great film sometimes,” Kelly said. “So you have to prepare for every eventuality. I put a lot of that on my shoulders.”

The Irish’s 37-14 loss to a now No. 9 ranked Stanford team saw the Irish take a large step back offensively, largely because of Dayne Crist’s confusion when Stanford dropped eight men into coverage in a three-deep zone.

“They were dropping a lot of guys. They had eight guys in coverage a whole bunch,” Crist said after the game. “They hadn’t shown it really at all in the film that we had. You don’t want to sit and make excuses, but tip your hat to Stanford.”

Stanford’s never dropped eight men into coverage this year because they haven’t had to yet. With convincing victories over Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest, Kelly admitted earlier in the week that he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and if Crist’s play and Kelly’s analysis are any indication, the Cardinal coaching staff won a key strategic battle yesterday, handling Crist just like defenses handled a young Jimmy Clausen during his sophomore season.

The game inside the game is what has me convinced that this Stanford team is a better version of last year’s squad — finally in possession of a defense that can slow teams down with a 3-4 system that’s highly versatile and capable of disguising schemes. (How long that lasts? We’ll see next weekend when the Cardinal travel to Eugene to take on Oregon.)

Before we turn the page to Boston College, let’s look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 37-14 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

All good things must start with Manti Te’o’s performance yesterday. His 21 tackles against Stanford move him up in the statistical rankings to the top tackler in all of college football, averaging more than 13 tackles per game. He’s also giving his teammates a model of how to play the football game.

“One young man that played with that kind of intensity, if you will, we talked about that nastiness, was Manti Te’o,” Kelly said. “He played differently. I know he had a lot of tackles, but he played the
game differently. He’s a great model for us to have that we can point
to you defensively…Whether he knows it or not, he’s going to be pushed out in front quite a bit because of how he handles himself.”

Another group that should be highlighted were the cornerbacks. Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all played very good games, with Gray becoming a tackling force in addition to displaying great cover skills. The next step for the corners will be turning great positioning into interceptions. While the Irish got the first two interceptions of the year on Andrew Luck, they’re going to have opportunities in Chestnut Hill to pick on a very raw quarterback, as Boston College will be starting either Mike Marscovetra or Chase Rettig at quarterback, after head coach Frank Spaziani decided to bench incumbent Dave Shinskie.

THE BAD

The Irish couldn’t get their ground game on track, and it turned Notre Dame into a one-dimensional offense, something that Stanford capitalized on as the game continued. Kelly acknowledges the need for better balance.

“”I felt after the Michigan State game we established where we wanted to
go offensively,” Kelly said this afternoon. “We took a bit of a step back in this game. We’re in the
process of evaluating where are the things we were missing in this
ballgame. I’d like to have a little more balance. We’re 300-something (passing yards) to 110 (rushing yards), that’s not really where want to
be offensively, in terms of run-pass… We know we can throw the football provided
we’re prepared and put kids in a good position to succeed. We have to
evolve a little further in running the football.”

One of the biggest reasons that the Irish are struggling right now adapting to the new offense is their reluctance to use Dayne Crist as a running quarterback. The zone-read running game necessitates a quarterback that’ll sometimes keep the ball and run, and after the staff saw what was behind Dayne Crist on the depth chart, Kelly conceded that he could be protecting his quarterback too much.

“”You have to say that’s probably true. I don’t think that way, maybe. I
think it’s more towards, let’s make sure we do things that are his
strengths,” Kelly said. “Maybe there’s a little in my mind that we’re protecting Dayne. I don’t know that we can continue to do that.”

At 1-3, it might be time for Notre Dame to take their lumps and develop Crist as a complete quarterback for this system. If that means exposing him to a few more hits, then so be it.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s 23-point loss was the first lopsided defeat since the end of the 2008 season, when USC trounced the Irish 38-3 to end the regular season. Since then, the Irish haven’t lost a game by more than one score, splitting the 16 games decided by a touchdown or less.

Obviously, the Irish losing nail-biters is far more gut-wrenching for players and fans, but a blow-out loss points to a larger issue and a team that’s just not close to getting back to the championship level they’d like to be.

While close losses sting, Kelly rightly understands the danger of blowouts on the psyche of a young football team.

“As it relates to our kids, as I told them after the game, if you break it down, it’s 19-6, fourth down and a foot and a half from midfield and we can’t convert,” Kelly said. “Then third-and eight we have a missed assignment where they pick up a first down. Really, a hard-fought game, those are the key plays that turned the game eventually to where it was finished.”

With three straight losses, the Irish will now recalibrate and get back to chasing a victory.

“We’re well past ‘we need a win,” Kelly said. “After the Michigan game, we needed a win. I don’t know that anybody goes around here saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay, be patient.’ We’re at the point now, no question, we need a win. Our players will continue to show up and work. We need a win. There’s no question about it.”

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
4 Comments

Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
1 Comment

After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
12 Comments

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Getty
6 Comments

Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy.