Kelly talks bye week

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Having not met with the media since his emotional press conference after the Tulsa game, Brian Kelly spent roughly 20 minutes answering questions as the Irish prepare to take a well-deserved weekend away from football.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Unfortunately, Kelly’s suspicions are confirmed, and Armando Allen has played his last football game in a Notre Dame uniform, with the damage to his hips extensive.

“Armando had surgery today in Tennessee, and it was a specialist. Had only one of the hips repaired. He’s going to have to have another one,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of things in there that showed that maybe this was an injury he’s had for many, many, many years. They’re talking about the timetable to be between 3-4 months.”

Allen exits Notre Dame with the fifth most all-purpose yards in school history, behind Julius Jones, Autry Denson, Allen Pinkett, and Tim Brown, and just in front of Raghib Ismail and Golden Tate, pretty illustrious company.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Allen’s football career, and I suspect that the NFL team that gambles on signing or drafting Armando won’t regret it. He’s a versatile guy, has a nice burst, and if Ryan Grant’s NFL success showed us anything, it’s that a Notre Dame running back doesn’t have to have great collegiate success to have a rock solid NFL career.

*****

With Dayne Crist out for the season, Kelly has moved true freshman Andrew Hendrix into the third quarterback position. When asked if Hendrix was ready to be thrust into game duty, the answer was pretty emphatic.

“His head is spinning. It’s a lot,” Kelly said. “We really tried more than anything else to slow it down. He’s not involved much right now in game-planning. It’s more about just understanding the big picture. Want to make sure he can get the snap, hand it off, if he needs to do that. We’re really going slow with him at this point.”

Hendrix may turn out to be the quarterback of the future for the Irish, and his work on the scout team this year has been impressive by all accounts. But Crist’s injury exposed one of the biggest worries Kelly had going into the season, a gaping lack of depth at the quarterback position.

*****

During the off week, Kelly held a scrimmage for the guys who haven’t gotten a lot of playing time, almost a development report for those freshman and sophomores that haven’t broken into the two-deep. Kelly pointed out a number of players that stood out.

“A number of players. Cam Roberson did a very nice job,” Kelly said. “Alex Welch. Christian Lombard. Kendall Moore was all over the field. To name a few. I was really pleased. Louis Nix, a very difficult guy to block. It was good to see some of those kids play.”

Irish fans expected a guy like Louis Nix to potentially see the field as a freshman, but Nix didn’t show up to camp in optimal shape, and Kelly and his staff have been wise not to play too many young players along the offensive and defensive lines, saving some much needed eligibility.

I was really impressed with what I saw out of Roberson in preseason camp, and with the running back depth as thin as it is with Allen hurt and Gray not yet getting on the field after suffering a knee injury, I wouldn’t have been shocked to see Roberson work his way into the two-deep.

*****

With the Irish getting an extra week of preparation for Utah, Kelly was asked if now-starting quarterback, true freshman Tommy Rees, has taken a more vocal role as “the man” running the Irish offense. Kelly laughed the question off.

“None of that. I would’ve liked to have him walk in and say, coach, don’t worry about it, I got this thing, it’s on my back, let’s roll,” Kelly almost jokingly said. “He’s still a true freshman. He’s got really good savvy, he’s got a great understanding of our offense in a very short period of time, but let’s make no mistake about it. He’s a true freshman that has had one game, and he’ll continue to get better. He loves the game, he’s a great, competitive kid, but we have to take into account that he’s a young player.”

Rees really impressed me with his ability to throw the ball on the short completions, with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated pointing out that Rees went 11 for 11 on passes that covered five yards or less, but missed on every throw that went over 20 yards.

(Let’s hope Utah doesn’t notice this trend.)

*****

While many traditionalists would revolt, sign me up for the Irish changing the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium to field turf. And while Kelly tried to be diplomatic about it, it sounds like he wouldn’t mind the change either.

“The offense, obviously, is such that we like to play fast. And I think it’s pretty clear that that surface plays very fast. It’s not going to be my decision,” Kelly said. “I know that I’ll have my say, and that’s all it will be. I want the best for our football players. I want the best for our team and the best for the kind of offense that we run. I know we’ve been able to play really fast on those surfaces. Don’t know that that’s going to be enough to push it over the top, but it’s more about the kind of team we’re putting together.”

I’ve been pretty vocal in my complaints about the grass in Notre Dame Stadium, and every game you seem to see the turf monster reach out and tackle someone, often times to the detriment of the Irish. I’m not advocating a big Jumbotron or Muscle Milk advertisements on the stadium walls like USC does, but Michigan made the switch to field turf and nobody seemed to really notice.

The Irish offense is going to be predicated on speed and the Irish have done a very good job upgrading that part of the football team, and will continue to do so under Kelly. It only makes sense for Notre Dame to consider changing the surface, considering that the grounds crew hasn’t found a good way to keep the grass in good condition for even half a season, let alone an entire year.

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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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
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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.