The good, the bad, the ugly: Western Michigan

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Before we put Saturday’s 44-20 victory in the rear-view mirror, let’s talk about what was gained from the win against Western Michigan, the first MAC opponent to play the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish were able to pull out their first three-game winning streak since early last season, erasing the three-game slide that put the Irish season in danger after only four game. They were able to continue developing depth along the offensive line, with reserve linemen Mike Golic, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Lane Clelland, and Andrew Watt getting significant playing time, in addition to tackle Matt Romine starting for a second straight week at left tackle.

Between depth building along the offensive line and a group of freshman playing significant minutes, the Irish made the most of their first (and likely) last game against a MAC opponent in South Bend.

Here’s a look at the rest of the good, bad, and ugly from Saturday’s victory over Western Michigan. 

THE GOOD

Running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes combined for 162 yards on just 19 carries, effectively controlling the clock in the second half and wearing down an undersized Western Michigan defense. Wood’s 39-yard touchdown run was the longest for an Irish running back since Hughes galloped for 45 yards against Stanford in 2007, and was the longest touchdown run for an Irish running back since Ryan Grant broke a 46-yarder against the Cardinal back in 2003.

While Wood was held a yard shy of the century mark, he was able to establish a rhythm running the ball, and afforded Brian Kelly and the offensive staff the chance to rest Armando Allen, who only played briefly as he nursed a hip flexor injury.

“He’s a guy that needs to get into the flow of the game,” Kelly said about Wood. “At
times you wonder some of the things he’s doing out there, but once he
got enough carries, he showed, obviously, that he’s got great athletic
ability and it was fun to watch him.”

Wood was able to get those carries because the Irish offense called his number more often after halftime.

“Coach Kelly really couldn’t say anything to me at halftime because I
only got one carry in the first half,” Wood said after the game. “In the second half I decided that
whenever I got the balI I was going to make something happen.”

Wood showed his big-play ability with his burst around the right end for a touchdown. He also showed great elusiveness as he pin-balled his way through Bronco defenders making some electric cuts in the open field.

This is the time of year that Wood will be a valuable change of pace for the Irish, and his development will be crucial for the Irish.

Robert Hughes also reminded the coaching staff that he’s a viable option in the backfield, running with purpose, power, and great pad-level as he powered the Irish offense through the fourth quarter. With the Irish struggling on first down, Hughes is a great option to get the Irish offense in 2nd-and-favorable situations, a potential option against a Navy defense that’ll be out-sized at the line of scrimmage this weekend.

THE BAD

The Irish committed nine penalties for 80 yards, easily their sloppiest game of the year, and a considerable step back for a disciplined unit that had been one of the least penalized teams in college football.

That lack of discipline showed up particularly in the first half, with both the offense and defense missing assignments and playing lackluster football. Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder was able to pick up good yardage by throwing against inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese, something opposing coaches will likely notice with cornerbacks Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton playing at a high level.

Kelly mentioned in his postgame comments that both Te’o and Calabrese made bad decisions when defending curl patterns, and it’ll be important for both linebackers to fix those mistakes down the stretch, with teams like Utah and Tulsa likely throwing the ball early and often against the Irish defense. 

(Honorable mention bad: Dayne Crist’s fourth quarter interception, a laser-like throw that was behind tight end Mike Ragone and tipped into the air for a WMU interception. Crist has got to develop some touch on his underneath throws, and rockets like that have some fans worried that while he’s got a canon for an arm, it only delivers balls one way — not necessarily a good thing for an offense that relies on precision and accuracy.

THE UGLY

The injuries are starting to pile up for the Irish, and this time it’s wide receiver Theo Riddick that’s going in for an MRI on a tweaked ankle.

“Theo was in a boot today,” Kelly revealed on his Sunday teleconference. “He’s going to have to probably get an MRI. The X-ray was clean and the
MRI would tell us if there’s any further damage there. We’ll do that
today.”

Riddick’s injury means Kelly will likely reshuffle his receivers.

“TJ Jones would probably be the guy who would move in there,” Kelly said today. “Goodman would then go to X. I’ve always tried to put the top four guys
on the field. Toma would back up the Z, Bennett Jackson would
back up the X.” 

Riddick’s injury will just add more defensive attention to Michael Floyd, and the offense’s productivity will depend on Jones’ ability to learn the slot position.

Jamoris Slaughter is also suffering from ankle pain, with Kelly ordering another MRI for Slaughter after his ankle has been slow to respond to treatment. While Zeke Motta has stepped up in Slaughter’s place, the Irish would be better served having Slaughter opposite Harrison Smith, especially in a game against Navy, where play-action throws will depending on the safety biting on the run fake, something both Zeke and Harrison have been known to do.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

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.