Pregame Twelve Pack: Boston College edition

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We’re back for week five of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Boston College game.

1. Get ready for a larger dose of Bennett Jackson.

Remember that streak burning down the field during the opening Saturday against Purdue? That was Bennett Jackson, covering kickoffs to the tune of four tackles and immediately making his speed and presence felt.

After the kick return game has gone backwards the past few weeks, Kelly is turning to Jackson on the opposite end of the kick team to hopefully bring some energy to a unit lacking much excitement.

“Right now, I think you’ll see Cierre Wood, you’re going to see probably Bennett Jackson, and that rotation will also be pretty fluid,” Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday afternoon. We think Theo is going to help us back there as well. It’s going to be a three-man rotation. I would say right now probably Cierre is going to be our lead guy again.”

Last week’s kick return game was held in check by the excellent placement and strength behind Nate Whitaker’s kicks, but Wood didn’t do anyone any favors by being indecisive with kicks three yards deep in the end zone. While Cierre’s the primary return man, it’ll be exciting to watch Jackson if he’s as fearless on the return side as he is covering kicks.

2. The Chase Rettig era likely begins this weekend.

It’s been the worst kept secret in Boston this week that true freshman Chase Rettig is exchanging his redshirt for a Crimson one and will likely be starting for the first time in his Boston College career.

Kelly and staff dug up some tape of Rettig in high school so they could get a look at him.

“We watched some high school film on him,” Kelly said earlier in the week. “We dug up some high school film, and he’s like the other quarterbacks. He’s tall, he’s got a big arm, he’s got escape-ability. We feel like we don’t have to prepare for a guy that may take off and run the ball 20 times.”

I also dug up some high school dirt on Rettig, and find some common threads that lead back to some familiar names. While Rettig only had scholarship offers from Boston College and Tennessee, it wasn’t for a lack of tutelage — Rettig worked with QB coach Anton Clarkson, the son of self-marketing whiz and personal quarterback tutor Steve Clarkson, who worked with Jimmy Clausen.

Here’s what the younger Clarkson had to say about Rettig when he committed to playing at BC:

“He’s a very smart kid and a hard worker,” Clarkson said. “He will run
through a wall for you and I think he has the strongest arm in the
country. He can easily make all the throws and he’s one of my favorite
kids to work with. He played in an offense last year where he had to run
the ball a lot and that’s not his strength. He’s a drop-back guy who
can gun the ball and he didn’t get to do that enough. I think that’s one
of the reasons he didn’t have a bunch of early offers. But he’s got the
right fit now in Boston.”

I’m sure Rettig’s arm is strong, but I like that the penchant for hyperbole was transferred from father to son.

3. The difference between Kelly’s Irish offense and his Bearcat offense? Try the second quarter.

An astute member of the media pointed out a pretty interesting stat to BK yesterday afternoon, when he noticed that Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcat offense scored 172 points in the second quarter last year. Right now at the one-quarter mark of the season, the Irish have only 9 points and zero touchdowns in the second quarter. Does Kelly have a reason for the drastic difference? Not really.

“Those numbers, I don’t spend a ton of time on them. But nine points, regardless of whether we scored 100-something or not, that’s not enough points in the second quarter,” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress
offensively. We see some really good signs. I don’t know that it has much to do
with an offense that has been bogged down by a particular player as the overall
understanding of what we’re trying to get done. All 11 guys. It’s not one guy.
This isn’t about the quarterback. This is about 11 guys getting on the same
page from an offensive standpoint.”

4. You want 21 tackles? I’ll show you 21 tackles.

The fine staff over at UND.com took it upon themselves to cut up the video and find all 21 tackles that Manti Te’o made last week against Stanford, not an easy feat when you consider that the coaching staff only had Te’o for 19.

But Al and the team found those two missing tackles, and put together an awesome look at the work Manti did last weekend.

While it’s partially depressing to watch the big-gainers that Stanford put together on the offensive side of the ball, the kill-shot Te’o makes on tackle 13 (get to the 1:50 mark) makes it worth it. That’s the hit of the year so far.

5. Twenty-one tackles? Luke Kuechly sees Te’o’s game and raises him 12.

While Te’o’s 21 tackles is the most in the FBS since 2007, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly has a pretty impressive stat-run of his own. With 16 tackles against Virginia Tech, Kuechly extended the nation’s longest streak of games with double-digit tackles to 12 games. A Cincinnati native, Brian Kelly tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to the Bearcats.

“Couldn’t even get him to visit Cincinnati,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Couldn’t get a visit out of Luke. He wanted to go, he was looking at Boston College, East Coast schools. Stanford was one of his choices. Great student, great kid. Very, very good football player, which obviously we’ve got to find a way to block him now.”

6. Boston College is playing the disrespect card.

There’s nothing better in a rivalry than when one team starts saying the other team “disrespects” them. Consider that a prerequisite for a true rivalry game. And thanks to tight end Alex Albright, who grew up in the Cincinnati area, we know that the Eagles think the Irish disrespect them.

“The Boston College community feels a little disrespected just because BC is
considered a lesser program. But for me, personally, being from that
area, I’ve been growing up with Notre Dame in my face my entire life,”
the Boston College senior defensive end said Wednesday, three days
before the “Holy War” at Alumni Stadium. “I feel like I know the monster
that’s coming in a lot more ways than people that don’t have experience
with Notre Dame.”

tn1_BC_turf.jpg I think a few Notre Dame fans would probably beg to differ with Albright’s interpretation of what team is disrespectful.

7. Jonas Gray is doubtful, but the rest of the Irish are healthy.

Talking about injury luck is usually the kiss of death, but through four games the Irish have down fairly well at staying healthy, losing only Steve Paskorz with a significant injury and Dan Wenger to concussion problems. Kelly updated the Irish injury status, which looked iffy with running backs Jonas Gray and Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and defensive end Ethan Johnson all going down with injuries against Stanford.

“Jonas is the only guy right now that is questionable for
Saturday,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Everybody else — we’re better this week going into Tuesday
than we were last week after the Michigan State going into Tuesday.”

While a balky hamstring and a stingy Stanford defense held Kyle Rudolph to one catch for one yard, Kelly confirmed Thursday that Rudolph was better.

“He was better today. I
expect him to be better,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t be worse.”

8. Notre Dame is good business for Boston College.

If Boston College wants to tee-up a sellout crowd, all it needs to do is schedule Notre Dame. The Eagle blog BC Interruption tells us that the Irish have helped Boston College sell out every home game since they started playing Notre Dame in the new Alumni Stadium, a streak that started back in 1994.

Boston College has only sold out Alumni Stadium 31 times since they expanded Alumni Stadium to 44,500 seats, and the Irish are the only team that’s sold it out every time they played.

Here’s the top sellouts:

     Notre Dame — 6 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2008
     Virginia Tech — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Syracuse — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Miami — 4 sellouts — 1995, 2001, 2003, 2007 

The Holy War is a must-see ticket for Eagles fans. Something that’s obviously pretty rare for Boston College football.

9. It was a students-only affair at the going-away pep rally this week.

There’s nothing that’s lost its allure like the famed Notre Dame pep rallies of the Lou Holtz era. Those JACC centers filled to capacity gave way to social gatherings at the Irish Green, and somewhere along the line the event lost the must-attend allure that pep rallies held a generation ago.

But this week a students-only pep rally was held for the Irish, and 2,300 student packed into Stepan Center to wish the Irish good luck before BC:

“I think that last year’s student-only pep rally was universally
considered the best pep rally of the year, and even the last few years,” Barrick Bollman, the chairman of the pep rally organizing committee told the Observer.

“It’s students-only, so we are free to get as absolutely crazy as we
want and it’s a little more uncensored. It will be like those crazy pep
rallies that people’s parents always talk about,” Bollman said.

What’s crazy is thinking that current students need to ask their friends’ parents about the time when pep rallies were actually crazy.

10. Boston College’s offense might be dreadfully bad.

It’s hard to get too confident if you’re an Irish fan after what happened last week, but consider that Boston College might have an absolutely dreadful offense. (We’ll find out Saturday night.)

Consider: Boston College ranks 92nd in total offense after three games. That’s bad, but when you consider they’ve played the the 109th most difficult schedule in their three games, that’s pretty terrible.

Dave Shinskie got the hook as the starting quarterback after three games because the BC offense has been down right offensive to start the year. He put up mediocre numbers against Weber State, completing only 10 of 20 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. Boston College only mustered 305 total yards against Kent State, relying on 20 second-half points to beat the Golden Flashes 26-13. Against their first FBS opponent, Boston College could only put up 250 yards of offense, throwing for only 180 yards and running for just 70, while turning the ball over three times.

Obviously, we had questions about how good Stanford was after their first three games. It turned out they were plenty good enough to defeat the Irish. We’ll find out how good the Eagles are on Saturday night.

11. When ND and BC play, they don’t just play for one rivalry trophy, they play for two.

If you want a good indicator on the importance of the Irish/Eagles rivalry, consider that there are two rivalry trophies up for grabs. The first is the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl, which honors the shared history where Leahy led both the Notre Dame and Boston College football programs.

The second trophy is the Ireland Trophy, which is presented to the winning team by the opposition’s student government. Starting in 1994, the trophy — designed in the shape of the country Ireland — honors the rich Irish history that both countries share.

I don’t think anyone will get these mixed up with the Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyon’s Axe, but it sounds like both prizes would look good on in the trophy case.

12. The Irish need a win, and Brian Kelly is still confident.

Not that you’d expect anything different from a head coach, but Brian Kelly’s confidence has not been shaken by the slow start to the season.

“I’m very confident we’re going to win the football game,” Kelly said. “I think it’s still about our ability to close out games and play turnover-free. That’s been a thing that’s obviously hurt us. But I’m very confident that our team is prepared to win.”

If Kelly and the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to move the football against a stingy Eagles defense, but also control the field position battle. To do that, they’ll absolutely need to get some better punts out of Ben Turk. Special teams coach Mike Elston has diagnosed Turk’s struggles.

“It’s like a baseball player. He’s in a slump,” Elston said. “Before the first game, Ben Turk was punting the best I’ve ever seen him punt.
He was peaking at the right time. His leg was getting back from the fall
camp.

“Now you hit a couple bad punts, you’re in front of 80,000
people, and he’s got to get his confidence back. He has to focus on two
or three things that are going to make him better, and that’s what he’s
done this week. And actually he’s had a really good week.”

Boston College has really struggled to put together long drives, so if the Irish can keep the Eagles in the long field and avoid turnovers, the Notre Dame defense should feast on an inexperienced quarterback playing in a underwhelming offense.
 

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.