And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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It’s hard to believe that a little over eleven months ago, the No. 8 ranked Pitt Panthers were welcoming in a Charlie Weis-coached Notre Dame squad that had just lost to Navy without ever punting the football. It was the beginning of the end for Weis and the 2009 Fighting Irish, as Golden Tate’s heroics and the trio of Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen and Tate’s fourth quarter rally weren’t enough to spring the upset in Heinz Field.

One coaching change, two star players, and a season later, Brian Kelly’s Irish welcome Dave Wannstedt and company to South Bend. The Panthers’ 2010 season has already hit two speed bumps, with an overtime loss to Utah opening the season and a 31-3 pasting at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes giving Pitt two early losses in the first four games of the season. Alex Oltmann, the sports editor for the student run Pitt News, has been there every step of the way covering the Panthers.

He was nice enough to answer some questions for me as the Irish prepare to take on Pitt this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Pitt fans knew that the opening four games had two tough
opponents: Utah and Miami. The loss to Utah was a heartbreaker, the
Miami loss, disheartening. Where does the psyche of this team and its
fanbase site after a 2-2 start?

Alex Oltmann: After starting 1-2, both the team and the fans were very disappointed.
The team had two primetime Thursday night games with a lot of
anticipation building up for both and they ended up as losses. The team
was embarrassed after its 1-2 start, but the win last Saturday over FIU
gave them and the fanbase some confidence heading into South Bend this
week.  But even with the win, there’s still plenty of pessimistic fans
around the city and on campus.

Most people expected big things from Dion Lewis this year. Yet after
four games its another sophomore, Ray Graham, leading the team in
rushing, while getting less touches than Lewis. Is there a running back
controversy at Pitt? How will Wannstedt distribute carries on Saturday?

There’s no real controversy over who will start at running back, Dion
Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year, was a front-runner for the
Heisman trophy going into this season and will start when the offense
takes the field against the Irish. But with that being said, Ray Graham
has earned more carries and coach Dave Wannstedt said he will get more
going forward. So look for Lewis to still get more carries than Graham
on Saturday, but still expect to see Graham heavily involved in the
offense.

Notre Dame fans remember the bludgeoning that Jonathan Baldwin gave to
Darrin Walls and the ND secondary last year. Obviously his production
has suffered with Tino Sunseri at the helm of the offense. What is Pitt
getting out of their passing game
this year?

Sunseri has struggled at times this season, but he hasn’t gotten much
help from his offensive line. Without much time to stand in the pocket,
it hasn’t allowed Baldwin’s routes to develop downfield. Fans know what
they’re going to get from the future first round pick Baldwin, but
fellow receiver Mike Shanahan has been a pleasant surprise. Pitt’s No. 2
receiver has stepped up this season with 14 catches for 190 yards after
being a reserve last year. Sunseri has a strong arm and a good grasp of
the offense and with more game experience and added confidence, has all
the tools to be effective with those receivers and the others as well.

Pitt’s defense suffered a big loss with injuries to Greg Romeus and Dan
Mason. Brian Kelly is obviously familiar with Pitt’s defensive scheme
and personnel. How do you stack up the battle between the Irish offense
and the Pitt defense.

Losing Romeus and Mason definitely hurt, but the defense is forced to
move on without them and has. Romeus’ backup, Brandon Lindsey, has
performed well and is very quick off the edge. Dom DeCicco was moved
from starting safety to weakside linebacker to provide more speed there,
but it’s essentially the nickelback position right now. They will need
that speed and athleticism if they’re going to have a linebacker
covering Kyle Rudolph. Pitt’s defensive backs could struggle to cover Michael Floyd much like they struggled in the second half against him
and Golden Tate last season. Both starters, Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary
are capable of having big games, but are first year starters.

Put into words the Dave Wannstedt era so far, from a Pitt fan’s perspective.

The Wannstedt era at Pitt has had mixed reviews with two schools of
thought. The first is that he’s helped to turn the program around,
beating West Virginia in the huge upset in 2007, winning 10 games last
year for the first time since 1981 and serving as a great recruiter
especially in Western Pennsylvania. But the other side of the argument
would say that he hasn’t won enough big games like the ones against
Cincinnati the last two seasons and against West Virginia last year, and
that he’s mismanaged some games with questionable play calling like in
their 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in 2008. There’s always
going to be pessimists, so I would say that the majority of fans are
pro-Wannstedt.

What’s your gut feeling about Saturday. What does Pitt have to do to win the football game?

My gut feeling says the game will be close on Sunday. In order to win
Pitt has to get pressure on Dayne Crist which will fall primarily on
the defensive line since defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is not a big
proponent of blitzing. Secondly, Pitt has to establish the running game
with Lewis and Graham early. This will take some pressure off Sunseri
and set up the play-action pass.

Check out Alex’s coverage of Pitt football at the Pitt News as the game approaches this weekend.

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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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
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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)
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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.