IBG: Life at the half-way point

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With Western Michigan not exactly the sexiest of opponents and the season exactly half-way finished, the guys at We Never Graduate hosted the Irish Blogger Gathering with a fairly meaty selection of questions.

I’ll do my best to answer the bonus question without getting Jack Donaghy calling downstairs for my head.

The Irish have posted back-to-back victories over teams that have
given us fits the past decade to pull back to .500, but when you head to
the message boards on ND Nation, Rivals, etc. all you see is
unrelenting negativity. Some cry Kelly’s in over his head and doomed to
fail, others bitch and moan about the run-to-pass ratio, and many more
say that even though we’ve won the last two there’s no improvement over
last year’s team. What’s your take on the negativity that’s swirling
around the program on the internet? What message would you like to
convey to ND Nation?

Cynicism and negative are hardly anything new for Notre Dame football, and definitely aren’t relegated to the websites mentioned above. (Just take a look at some of the comments around here.) I’m not old enough to remember the early days of Lou or much of anything before, but I’m guessing since Knute Rockne, the Irish fanbase has been filled with a small — but incredibly vocal — group of blowhard windbags.

Here’s a few comments that I feel work for just about every one of “those guys.”

1) College football coaches know more about football than you do… I promise.
2) The techniques you learned back when you played are most likely wrong… I promise.
3) This isn’t the Rockne or Leahy era. It’s a lot harder to win football games now.
4) Installing a new offensive system with an unproven quarterback, three new offensive linemen and without your All-American wide receiver brings some growing pains.
5) For those worried about the run/pass ratio: If you look at the stats — the Irish run more on non-scoring drives than on scoring drives.

All that being said, I don’t blame Irish fans for taking a wait and see approach. We’ve been burned badly by the last two coaches, and there are far too many intelligent people to fall head-over-heels in love again.

When Western Michigan and Tulsa were announced as 2010 opponents last
fall there was a full-throttle meltdown among ND fans that was surpassed
only by The F-Word Incident
in April in terms of sheer outrage. Well, if the opinions expressed
then are the same now the apocalypse has finally arrived and a MAC squad
is about to forever sully our field by stepping foot on it. Have your
thoughts on the Western Michigan/Tulsa games changed since they were
announced? Would you rather ND Stadium sell out and continue the streak
that extends back almost 40 years or see the streak broken so that the
powers-that-be know just how disrespected you feel by the audacity they
showed in scheduling such inferior opponents?

Jack Swarbrick needed to fill a schedule that was left for him, and Tulsa and Western Michigan did the Irish a favor by signing on the dotted line. That said, if you want to get angry, get angry about how front-loaded the schedule is. Six straight games against tough competition is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re starting a season without an experienced quarterback.

I’d much rather see a game with Tulsa or Western Michigan in the opening two weeks of the season, when teams start to find their identity and players get readjusted to the game. If Notre Dame’s schedule allows them to get back to BCS Bowls consistently, I don’t think Swarbrick and the ND brass will be apologizing for a non-traditional opponent anytime soon.

Most people painted AD Jack Swarbrick as the villain when the Western
Michigan/Tulsa games were made public. Since then he’s made drastic
moves in locking down opponents on future schedules, went through the
process of firing Weis and hiring Kelly, and navigated ND through the
murky waters of conference realignment. Has your personal opinion on
Swarbrick been altered over the past year?

Maybe I’m the only one, but hiring Jack Swarbrick is the best decision Notre Dame athletics has made since they hired Lou Holtz. I wrote a column a few months ago calling Swarbrick the knight in shining armor that saved college football, and after spending a few weekends back on campus and talking to people that are well-connected at the university, they all seem to agree with my theory.

It’s hard for my personal opinion to change much on Swarbrick, just because I’ve had so much respect for the job he’s done since day one.

We’re at the halfway point so it’s a perfect time to step back real
quick and evaluate what’s happened thus far. What have been your two
biggest surprises at this juncture of the season? Choose one positive
and one negative.

My one positive surprise? Call it a tie between David Ruffer and Ian Williams. When a group of us selected the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, nobody put Ruffer on their list. Right now, he’s probably running second place for offensive MVP behind Armando Allen. Add Ian Williams to the list because he’s been an absolutely force at nose guard. Williams made himself a lot of money with the work he’s done this year, and he’s a perfect example of the maturation process of a defensive lineman — and a good reminder why it pays to redshirt big bodies if you can. (Imagine if Williams was coming back for a fifth year?)

My one negative? It’s got to be the two last-second losses. The Irish still have struggled to become closers, something that I’m expecting to see change in the second half of the season. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, there’s nothing that could feel worse than taking a loss in the last minute to both the Wolverines and the Spartans. 

Which player that hasn’t contributed much to this point in the season do you see emerging as a contributor down the stretch?

I expect to see more out of Darius Fleming, who hasn’t been the player that I expected. The CAT linebacker is a position that should thrive in Bob Diaco’s system and while Fleming played a nice game last Saturday, he still disappears too often and struggled mightily against the roll-out boot pass in coverage as well. (Dishonorable mention should probably go to the entire outside linebacker position, who I’m expecting a gigantic second half from.)

Scholarships are running thin and some tough decisions are going to have
to be made this spring when it comes to offering 5th years to current
seniors. If you’re Coach Kelly who do you offer and who is left out in
the cold to make room for the incoming freshman class?  Here’s a link to the 2011 scholarship chart for a list of potential 5th years.

This is a tough question, and I’m going to hold off going too far into detail, only because I don’t want to offend any of the guys that might not be asked back. Here’s a few names that absolutely need to come back without question:

Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Michael Floyd
Kyle Rudolph

If the Irish can get both these four back on campus for their senior seasons, they’ll probably feel better making the tough decision on guys like Matt Romine, Emeka Nwankwo, and Steve Paskorz. Depth at places like the secondary and defensive end will likely play a role, as will the depth chart along the offensive line.

BONUS: You’ve been challenged to a Tailgate Olympiad by some chaunce from
Southern Cal and you need to assemble a dream team of your fellow Irish
fans to compete in the following events: Flip Cup (four-man
team), Beer Pong, Hamburger Eating Contest (two-man team),
Cornhole/Bags/Whatever You Call It, Individual Race (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you), and
Thunderdome (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you, too). Your captaincy role on this team is Ryder Cup style so you’ll be
monitoring the proceedings rather than actually partaking. Throw some
internet love out to your fellow tailgate All-Stars that have delivered
through the years and let us know who you’d put in each slot to make
sure Troy fell in the parking lot as well as on the field…and while
you’re at it, tell us what three songs you’d be blasting as you rolled
to victory.

I’ve long retired from competitive tailgating, but have plenty of great memories of some Hall of Fame performances back in the college days. I was never a flip cup guy… didn’t see the point. As for throwing ping-pong balls, I’d call on he thunderous right arm of former Irish great Drew Duff. I’ll steer clear of anything called the Thunderdome that didn’t include the 1987 Minnesota Twins, as well as an individual race — that never ends well. But if it comes to a two-man hamburger eating contest, you could do no better than the dynamic duo of former Irish hockey players Connor Dunlop and Brett Henning. These two would steal candy from a baby, as long as it had enough carbs and saturated fats.

As for the three songs — I’ll defer those choices to good friend and former hockey great John Wroblewski, who would pull the plug on my music and put on his iPod anyway…   

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.