Pregame Twelve Pack: Western Michigan edition

8 Comments

We’re back for another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Western Michigan game.

1. The Irish will be wearing new uniforms this Saturday.

Thanks to some new technology from Adidas, the Irish will be donning the new TECHFIT compression jersey this Saturday.

“They’re really excited about them,” Kelly said about his players, who practiced this week in the uniforms to get used to them. “They’re 30 percent lighter. It’s a compression fit and we put them on today because there are some fitting issues relative to the pads.

“But they look great, the kids love them, and we’ll put the defense in them so we can have everybody get a feel for them. It’s a terrific product by Adidas.”

If you’re looking to get a first look at the jerseys, check out some guy carrying Dayne Crist’s jersey while reciting the fight song.

2. Game four of the Brian Kelly vs. Bill Cubit era happens Saturday.

So it may not be Frazier/Ali, but there’s quite a bit of history between the Western Michigan head coach and Kelly, a duo that’ll be squaring off for the fourth time — with Kelly coaching his third different squad against Cubit’s Broncos.

Kelly’s got the upper-hand against Cubit, winning two of three against the Broncos, including the rare feat of beating Cubit’s squad with two different teams in the same season — Central Michigan in November of 2006, and Cincinnati during their International Bowl victory over WMU in January 2007.

“Bill Cubit is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said this week. “I know Bill very well and I know
his teams will be prepared and this will be, for them, an opportunity
that they are not going to want to come in here and not play their very
best.”

3. Mike Ragone is ready for his shot to contribute.

It’s been a winding road for the tight end from New Jersey, who finds himself in position to really contribute with the injury to Kyle Rudolph. After a trying offseason, a major health scare during preseason camp, and injuries that hobbled him in previous years, Ragone seems confident he’s ready to contribute.

But instead of quoting him here, I’ll let him speak for himself — with an accent that Mike, Pauly, Vinnie, and Snooki would even be proud of.

4. While he’s not getting carries, Theo Riddick is still contributing to the run game.

We talked about the run/pass ratio in our previous post, but the short passing game also factors into what the coaching staff considers the run game.

Dayne Crist does a good job describing the “half pass” plays in the offense.

“In the spread and this is something that I learned since I just continue
to gain knowledge of spread philosophy, you really want to work with a
five to six man box in the run game. You can get away with running with a
six man box, but it’s a little more difficult, because I mean,
obviously you’ve got five guys blocking most of the time. So it really
depends on your box counts. We normally have a player that we are
throwing off of; so if he’s playing in run support, we are throwing to
where he can’t cover. So that’s just a lot of times that you see what we
are doing with swings and just things like that. So I mean, that’s part
of the spread philosophy and how we run things, and you can say, well,
man, they are really not running the ball that much, why aren’t they
running more. Well, then you see Theo catch the ball and has a seven
yard average on catching swings, that’s basically like a great run for
us. That’s just kind of how that will develop and continue to develop.
Teams will either play one way or another, but that’s just kind of why
that run stat is a little off.”

Charlie Weis always believed that his quick throws to Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, or any of the other receivers catching hitches operated as defacto run plays as well.

At seven yards a play, a quick swing pass is a great weapon to keep defenses honest.

5. The Irish are in need of more explosive plays.

With playmakers like Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Mike Floyd, Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, there’s no reason why the Irish offense doesn’t make more big plays. Last week, Notre Dame won in spite of only having one explosive play, a diving 37-yard catch by TJ Jones.

Part of the problem was the Irish shooting themselves in the foot, losing two 40-plus yard plays by Floyd and some poor accuracy by Dayne Crist on seam throws have hurt the Irish as well.

Look for the Irish to force the issue this week with match-up problems and speed, trying their best to get their playmakers out in the open field as well as getting Cierre Wood some room to run the football.

If the Notre Dame offense is going to put the Irish on a roll, they’ll need to make a few big plays this Saturday.

6. The first points for Western Michigan will be their first against Notre Dame… literally.

While this is the third time the Broncos have played the Irish in football, their first points will be the first in school history against Notre Dame, one of only two opponents to never allow a point against WMU (Virginia Tech is the other).

The 1919 and 1920 Irish shut-out Western Michigan, the Irish blanking WMU 53-0 in 1919 and 41-0 in 1920. 

While I think there are plenty of reasons to be really excited about watching this game, the Broncos rate out as the Irish’s softest opponent on the season, with the Sagarin ratings putting them at No. 97 in FBS football, 11 slots ahead of Army.

There offense has been the strong point of the season, averaging 29 points a game and putting up 45 last week against Ball State, but the Irish defense should have a goal of keeping the shutout streak alive.

7. While it may not have seemed it, the Irish had their best running game against Pitt.

No one should be slapping high fives about a 2.8 yards a carry, but the Irish actually graded out as having their most efficient running game of the season.

I’ll let Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explain:

But grading Notre Dame by land in a offense designed for the air
requires a curve. Not only do the Irish coaches go inside the numbers,
the reinvent them too.

“We were 72 or 73 percent efficient in our run game which was 20
percent higher than we’d been in any game this year in terms of what did
we need on this play,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “Are we
trying to get five yards? Are we trying to get a first down? We were
real pleased with the efficiency.”

Here’s where it takes some digging to understand Warinner’s point.

Notre Dame faced five second or third down plays against Pittsburgh
needing one yard to move the chains. The Irish picked those up on the
ground all five times, gains of one, two, three, four and five yards.
That’s five carries for 15 yards, a modest three-yard average nobody
inside the Guglielmino Center will complain about.

Three times the Irish picked up six yards or more on 1st-and-10 runs,
meaning the offense stayed ahead of schedule. That doesn’t include Dayne
Crist’s 10-yard touchdown run on 2nd-and-goal that doesn’t need next
level explanation.

I don’t feel like making excuses for a ground game that’s still rounding into form, but I think this is a very interesting way to look at how the coaching staff views the run attack. It’s a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle.

8. Commitment? Not a commitment? Recruiting doesn’t end until Signing Day for Kelly.

Earlier in the week, Irish fans received a bit of a jolt when they found out offensive tackle recruit Jordan Prestwood reopened his recruitment, bringing back into play home-state schools Florida and Florida State.

While Urban Meyer’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, it seems proximity to home is an issue with Prestwood, who committed to the Irish way back in April.

Under Charlie Weis, the coaching staff adopted a firm stance on commitments and visits, taking a “if you’re looking, we’re looking” stance. Under Kelly, the Irish aren’t going to stop recruiting until Signing Day.

“”The reality of it today is, there is so much scrutiny
relative to the kids in the recruiting process. I’ve told our staff,
unless I see a letter of intent, you need to keep recruiting them,” Kelly said.

“Certainly we would all like to say the value of a person’s word is a
bond, but there are so many shifting and moving pieces out there that
I’m not tripping over that. Would I like somebody to be that guy that
says, that’s my word and it’s a bond and we’re not going to break it?
Certainly. Because we’re not going to do it on our end. So I’ve told our
staff, gotta keep recruiting. It’s the University of Notre Dame.
Nobody’s going to give it to you for free.”

From the sounds of it, Prestwood is still considering the Irish, with his high school coach, Wayne Ward telling the South Bend Tribune, “(Notre Dame) is a golden opportunity. But at the same time he is a
kid,” Ward said. “I don’t really think he thought things through before
he made that decision.”

Good news for Irish fans: Tony Alford is on the case.

9. Kyle Rudolph is set for surgery on Friday.

After discussing his options with his family, tight end Kyle Rudolph is staying local with his hamstring surgery, choosing Dr. Brian Ratigan of the sports medicine program to operate on his detached hamstring.

“Dr. Ratigan will be doing the surgery,” Kelly said. “So he’ll stay within the sports medicine program here at Notre Dame. We will get it done here.”

The decision for Rudolph to talk with the media was a good one and showed how good a kid the star tight end is. Even though he was surprised about the devestating prognosis, he’s kept a good attitude.

“We went in with a positive mindset with the MRI,” Rudolph said earlier this week when he met with the media. “We were expecting to get good results and go get an ultrasound and take a week off and go from there To come back and get that news was a little shocking.”

Rudolph is in the hands of someone that knows first hand what it’s like to play college football under the Golden Dome, with Ratigan playing linebacker for Lou Holtz from 1987-1990, before moving on to the NFL. 

Ratigan is truly an amazing story, one of the most impressive Notre Dame graduates you’ll ever read about and an alum that truly gives back to the school. No doubt, Kyle picked the right doctor for the job.

10. Dever sitting for second straight week, Romine and Nuss to fill his shoes.

Taylor Dever is going to spend another week getting healthy, one of the benefits of finally taking a step back from six consecutive BCS opponents. And thanks to the good play by Zack Martin at right tackle and senior Matt Romine filling in for him, there shouldn’t be much of a step back in play.

“Taylor, I would say right now will probably be a backup on Saturday,” Kelly said. “Matt and Andrew have handled that position well. We’re going to stick
with them and make sure Taylor is 100 percent. I think he would be
afforded to us if we needed him. But right now we’ll move with the plan
we had last week.”

One of the great benefits of playing Kelly’s offensive system is the fact that positions like offensive tackle are more interchangeable. Under Weis, there was so much stress on the left tackle position that great defensive ends could neutralize the offense, like Pitt did last year to tackles Paul Duncan (and to a lesser extent Sam Young). You could only imagine what would’ve happened if Duncan or Young went down.

Give credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for cross-training versatile players like Andrew Nuss, who should get significant snaps at tackle to help speed the development process.

11. Luke Schmidt and Dan Wenger see first hand the dangers of concussions.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune did a great job on his article about concussions, as he followed the decision process for center Dan Wenger, who has to decide if an application for a sixth year makes sense, in light of the lingering brain injuries he suffered this year with two concussions in the first month of practice.

Lesar caught up with Wenger’s classmate Luke Schmidt, the former Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana who was forced to walk away from football after three concussion by his junior year that ended his career involuntarily.

“It was very tough,” Wenger told the Tribune. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. There were no maybes for me. I knew it was over. At least Dan’s got a chance.”

After listening to Wenger, it’s clear that he’s not sure what choice he’s going to make, but he’s glad that he’s still got the chance to play the game.

“I’m not ready to be a coach yet,” Wenger said. “Do I wanna be a coach? Yeah, but not just yet. I’m 22, I still want to play. I love this game. Practice, lifting, games — it’s a different feeling.

“Be patient, get healthy, then make a decision. Think with a clear mind. You’re emotions run wild with this thing. It’s up and down. One day, you’re thinking about hanging in up. One day, you’re thinking about ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still play.’ It’s looking at the overall picture. But then again, you’ve worked so hard for what you love, what you love to do.”

It’s great to see Schmidt making the most of his Notre Dame degree, working as a credit analyst at a bank in Greensburg, Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

12. Gary Gray just got reckless.

In one of my favorite stories of the week, Gary Gray has officially joined Team Reckless — an unofficial weightlifting/condition/bizarro group consisting of Mike and Jake Golic, Dayne Crist, Braxston Cave and Kyle Rudolph.

In one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while, the crew covering sports for the Observer got an absolutely priceless interview with Gray, detailing the process of joining such an illustrious team.

Observer: You are currently vying for a spot on Team Reckless. What made you decide to attempt to join?

Gary Gray: Dayne had said a long time ago that I should join, but we never got around to it. We’re trying to set that up.

Observer: Is it a very selective process?

Gray: I’m not ever sure what the process is. We’ll see in the next couple of days what I have to do.

Observer: How reckless do you think you’ll have to be?

Gray: I think I’m pretty reckless. So I don’t think I’ll have to be too much more reckless than I already am. I think I’ll fit right in.

Observer: Would it be an honor to be the first member of the Notre Dame defense on Team Reckless?

Gray: Yeah, it’d be a great honor, first defensive player. It’d be nice.

Consider this my standing ovation to the Observer staff for an absolutely terrific interview with Gary Gray. You can see the actual copy here.

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
11 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. 

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)
28 Comments

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
247 Sports
13 Comments

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.