IBG: Better late than never

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I missed out on the Irish Blog Gathering last week, and even though most Irish fans are still dragging, Subway Domer did too good of a job assembling this week’s questions to ignore them completely.

Here we go with this week’s edition, proposed Monday evening:

1. A young man of 12 arrives in the United States from the city of Moroni, on the island of Comoros. He has never seen the game of football before, but notices you watching a game. He seems to really like watching it with you and asks what team he should cheer for. You, of course, tell him Notre Dame in attempt to have more company for your misery. He asks, “why Notre Dame?” Without using any of Notre Dame football history prior to 1995 and without spewing off nonsense about academics (which has no real bearing on a football game); give him your best answer. His name is Tonokiuyt Paluifirtaginerto.

Tony (It’s Tony from now on):

Run and hide. That’s my first piece of advice. Run and hide when you see football being played on Saturday, because the game will eat you up and spit you out. But if that won’t stop you, and you want to be there when the ship finally turns around, cheer cheer for ol’ Notre Dame.

It’s been a tough 15 years to be sure, but when it turns, you can say you were one of the millions that were there all along, even if you just jumped on the bandwagon after leaving Comoros. (Relax, Tony. The bandwagon will be so filled with newbies nobody will notice if you’re Adidas hat still has the tag on it.)

Sure, Notre Dame hasn’t been great — heck, even better than good — in the last decade, but if you find yourself in South Bend on a crisp Autumn Saturday, wander from the Grotto to the Basilica, across the quads and into Notre Dame Stadium, you’ll end up just as demented as the rest of us.

2. If you are anything like me, you trolled around the Notre Dame message boards after the loss to Navy. We don’t need direct quotes, but what was the best line, subject heading, argument- whatever? Should Irish fans be banned from the Internet for at least a couple of days after the game, win or lose?

I would ban all Irish fans from the internet from thirty minutes before kickoff until just before Sunday Night Football starts the next evening. By then, most of the absolute insanity will be worn off, and you can either go deeper into the doldrums if your NFL team loses, or at least feel like the weekend was a wash if you’re squad wins.

There’s no more difficult thing to do than troll message boards after a Notre Dame loss, and the game against Navy was probably the worst it’s been since… well, last year.

Here’s my favorite argument — slightly changed to protect the poster who wrote it:

I’ve never coached a sport, but in past years I’ve been a music director, with both instrumentalists and singers. I have always felt, in that area, that as long as I paid attention to fundamentals, and then rehearsed intelligently, that I could get a group to sound much better than anyone would have expected. Why? Because of my direction. With faulty direction, they could give 110%, but it wouldn’t matter if cues were missed, cutoffs were not together, pronunciation was not uniform–it could easily be a 110% mess. In any group effort, proper direction is key.

This kind of liberal use of the transitive property always just kills me. I’ve got no problem with the ideas presented, but here’s a guy that admits to never coaching a sport in his life, who then equates directing a group of musicians singing notes or reading sheet music to coaching one of the most high-profile teams in all of sports.

I can’t say it enough: Just because you played high school football or coach your kids Pop Warner team doesn’t mean you have even the slightest concept of the expertise needed in today’s major football. Believe me — I’ve spent a lot of time studying playbooks and trying to at least learn the latest lingo, and these guys make me look like I’m coloring with crayons outside the lines.

There are a lot of intelligent people that root for Notre Dame. But a good rule of thumb: the transitive property might be sweet for geometry, but it doesn’t work in critiquing sports.

3. Tulsa is a scary team after a loss to Navy. Before the Navy game- not so much. Give me your most dramatic nightmare scenario as well as your fairybook ending for this weeks game against the Golden Hurricane. Which one is closest to a possible reality?

I hid the fact that I was petrified of Navy last week pretty well, but I’ll be WAY more open about how scary Tulsa is, especially with the tragedy earlier in the week adding another layer of complexity to this game.

Nightmare: No Michael Floyd, same green offense struggling to throw the ball and Dayne Crist looks lost out there again as the defense gets cut up by both the passing and running of Tulsa, led by a breakout performance by G.J. Kinne.

Fairytale: A cathartic Saturday where Notre Dame comes together as a community and dedicates a Saturday to a great kid and family that loves the Fighting Irish, topped off by a convincing win.

Frankly, I’ve got no idea what’s going to be closer to reality, I just know I’ll be glued to the edge of my seat.

4. Most of these IBG’s have had a rather dark tone to them because of the season Notre Dame is having. If we would have beat Navy, we would be 5-3 and riding a 4 game winning streak. I had rather hoped to use that cheerfulness, and ask a few light-hearted questions. Seeing as how we lost, I think we need these more than ever. They’re not the wittiest questions, but you better answer them:

a) What college football team would you blog about if Notre Dame did not exist?

That’s an awesome question. Probably someone like Nebraska — a school with a really deep tradition and generations of fans that care about the Big Red. Backup: Maybe UCLA — it’d be great to write about a team that’s only 10 miles away, especially one that’s been on a rollercoaster like the one that’s permanently parked in Westwood.

b) Change Notre Dame’s colors. No blues, gold, or green please.

That’s ridiculous. Notre Dame has to have those colors — the only one you could consider getting rid of is blue. Green is mandatory because of the Irish. Gold helmets because of the Golden Dome. Replacing the blue with just about anything else would be really ugly.

c) Change one play in Notre Dame history. What was it, and how did it help?

That’s an easy one for me. Matt Leinart. 4th and 9. The pass is batted out of Dwayne Jarrett’s hands and Notre Dame shocks USC in 2005, as the Irish carry Charlie Weis off the field and the student body parades around campus with the goal posts.

One soon-to-be blogger who “hypothetically” joined financial fortunes with two of his best friends would’ve hit on a hypothetical moneyline parlay, living rent free for three hypothetical months, instead of drowning his sorrows at Finnegan’s.

d) Turn one loss into a win, and one win into a loss for one season. What season and what games are they?

I don’t know enough about the old days, but of games that I watched, I’d have loved to see Notre Dame knock off #1 Nebraska in 2000, the game where Nebraska fans tried to take over Notre Dame Stadium. That was one of the more ridiculous games I saw in person, with special teams returns from Julius Jones and Joey Getherall getting the Irish to overtime before Eric Crouch won it in overtime.

5. Tell me more about this Tulsa matchup. Tell me anything you like- but use at least one real stat.

I’ll shy away from math, and go with this feel-good note for Irish fans. Lovie Smith will be in attendance on Saturday, cheering for his alma mater Tulsa. It’s always good luck for opposing teams when Lovie Smith is in the stadium, right?

6. Phil Steele now has Notre Dame picked to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Pinstripe Bowl is in New York City and will be played in Yankee Stadium. Agree or disagree. Give me your bowl scenarios- if there are any.

I’d agree to just about any bowl game right about now. That means the Irish win at least two of the final four games, and possibly upset Utah or USC — two wins that would be absolutely huge for Brian Kelly’s squad.

BONUS: Please tell me that we can turn this season into a positive learning experience for 2011. How?

For fans: Changing systems and cultures isn’t an overnight switch, regardless of how well Year One went for the previous two regimes.Nobody is getting fired after one season, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the changes.

For the team: This season is already a positive learning experience. But the Irish must continue to develop Dayne Crist, an offensive line that’ll only need to replace Chris Stewart, and 2011 could potentially return both Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, a very exciting proposition. Defensively, the Irish need to keep developing depth in the secondary, but the linebacking corp returns, as does a defensive front with everybody but Ian Williams.

For fans (again): Don’t start drinking the Kool-Aid for 2011 until after the 2010 season ends.

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.