Tulsa v Notre Dame

Pregame Twelve Pack: Utah edition

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After a much needed week off, here comes another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play No. 14 Utah.

1. Let’s get it out of the way.  Michael Floyd isn’t talking about the NFL.

Brian Kelly wouldn’t talk about it, and Michael Floyd won’t either, leaving any decision to be made about the NFL until after the season, when Floyd can get some accurate advice on whether or not staying for his senior season is the best thing for him and his family.

When asked about Senior Day and whether or not this would be Floyd’s last game running out of the tunnel, Mike brushed the question off quickly.

“I never think about it. If that comes to a decision that I need to make, then that’s down the road,” Floyd said. “Right now I’m just trying to look for Saturday and get a big W under our shoulders.”

2. How difficult will it be to get that ‘W’ against No. 15 Utah?

Well, for Charlie Weis, a win against a team ranked in the Top 15 was a pretty tough task. Want a good reason why Weis isn’t on the Irish sidelines right now? It’s his record against teams in the AP Top 15: He was 1-11.

A quick recap:

2005: W against #3 Michigan — 17-10
2005: L against #1 USC — 34-31
2005: L against #4 Ohio State — 34-20
2006: L against #11 Michigan — 47-21
2006: L against #3 USC — 44-24
2006: L against #4 LSU — 41-14
2007: L against #14 ranked Penn State — 31-10
2007: L against #4 ranked Boston College — 27-14
2007: L against #13 ranked USC — 38-0
2008: L against #5 ranked USC — 38-3
2009: L against #6 ranked USC — 34-27
2009: L against #8 ranked Pitt – 27-22
Overall: 1-11

The good news for Irish fans? Weis’ lone victory against a top 15 team was in his first attempt. This will be Kelly’s first shot against a Top 15 team.

3. How legit is Utah’s Top 15 ranking?

Back when the Irish were prepping for Stanford, I openly questioned how good Stanford really was. It turns out they were really good, their only loss coming against Oregon, a team they lead at the half but gave up 28 unanswered second half points as the Ducks ran away from the Cardinal.

Anthony Pilcher over at Clashmore Mike did some statistical digging into Utah, and the results seem to tip the scales back towards Notre Dame. Vegas is also keeping the Irish in this game, with the Irish opening as only a four-point underdog, though it now sitting at 5.5 points.

According to Pilcher, Utah has played the 104th best schedule in college football, while Notre Dame’s ranks 4th, part of why the Irish are still predicted to keep this game within a touchdown, even with Tommy Rees making his first start at quarterback.

4. Even in a doomsday situation, don’t expect to see Andrew Hendrix.

While I didn’t write about it, I was a little bit surprised to hear that Andrew Hendrix was going to be inserted into the three-deep QB depth chart with the injury to Dayne Crist. While Hendrix certainly warranted getting some practice reps after Crist went down, I would’ve been shocked if Kelly ever let Hendrix step a foot onto the field with only three games left in the season.

Turns out, if Doomsday presents itself, it won’t be Hendrix captaining the Irish ship, but walk-on quarterback Brian Costello.

“Brian Castello will play this week,” Kelly said before cracking a joke. “Is it Brian Castello? Good. Got that right.”

Castello and Kelly have quite a relationship, with Castello the head of the “Red Army,” the group of back-up quarterbacks responsible for signaling in the plays to the starting quarterback. It was Castello who joked that he was the player on the roster that drew the ire of Kelly more than anybody else, and he’s never even seen the field. (Kelly also approved Castello as the guy on the team you’d most want to do your taxes.)

When will Andrew Hendrix be ready to see the field?

“I would say right now, I can’t see a situation where Andrew would play in the game,” Kelly said. “It would have to be Army, USC.”

By then, I’d be shocked if Kelly didn’t stick with Castello, saving Hendrix the year of eligibility. Still, these weeks in the depth chart will be illuminating for Hendrix, who walked onto campus as the most physically talented, but incredibly raw scholarship quarterback on the roster.

5. Checking in from Ecuador, it’s freshman safety Chris Badger!

The South Bend Tribune‘s Eric Hansen took to his email account to track down Irish freshman Chris Badger, who is roughly 3,000 miles away from South Bend this weekend, working in Ecuador on a 21-month long Mormon Mission.

This Saturday’s game had to be a tough one for Badger to miss, with it being against his home state Utah Utes. But Badger has his life focused on things much larger than a football game.

There’s no TV in the mission; there are no movies. I honestly am leaving the world behind for two years to serve, to do nothing else but to try and make someone else’s life better,” Badger told Hansen. “It’s more rewarding than I can describe.”

While the timing wasn’t perfect, there’s no faulting Badger for taking his mission, though the Irish could’ve used Badger in a secondary that was decimated with injuries this year.

6. Key No. 1 for the Irish this weekend — play better special teams.

Two weeks ago, a punt return touchdown and a blocked extra point returned for two points were the difference between winning and losing against Tulsa. This week, the Irish prepare to face Shaky Smithson, one of the country’s most dangerous returners.

Kelly was asked what the Irish needed to do to limit explosive returns.

“Two things. Number one, they do a great job building a wall for him and allowing him to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss,” Kelly said. “He makes that first guy miss, they’ve got a very good scheme that allows him to get to that wall. Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him so he doesn’t get to that wall. If that wall gets set, Utah does a very good job. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of corralling. There are probably going to be some times where we have to decide whether we’re going to kick to him or not. I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan.”

I’ve been harsh on punter Ben Turk, and I put the touchdown return against Tulsa on him, even if there were four Irish defenders in place to make the play. Turk has got to get better with both hang time and direction of his kicks. While he’s improved since the beginning of the season, he’s been far from consistent kicking the football.

7. Brian Smith, we hardly knew thee.

Outside linebacker Brian Smith will be playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. If there’s a guy on the roster that’s polarized fans more than Smith these past four years, I’m not sure who it is.

Smith shot out of the gates during his freshman season, supplying one of the lone bright spots during a terrible 2007 season after being offered a late scholarship by the Weis regime only after the Irish decided to switch to a 3-4 defense. But from there, Smith plateaued, with his work at inside linebacker in the 4-3 during 2009 far from impressive.

But Smith got a fresh start in Kelly and Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, and from day one was inserted as the starting field-side outside linebacker. But he failed to keep the job, bumped for Kerry Neal during fall training camp. But after being relegated to a reserve role, Smith has played some of his best football, filling in admirably in the middle of the defense when Carlo Calabrese couldn’t play against Tulsa.

Thursday afternoon, Brian Kelly illuminated on the changes and maturity he’s seen Smith exhibit, a far cry from the person he observed at the end of last season.

“Maybe this isn’t right to say, but I wasn’t a big Brian Smith fan early on,” Kelly said candidly. “I thought he looked maybe a little too much at what he could do instead of what the team could do. I told him today, if I had anything to do with making the decision on a fifth year, which I certainly don’t, I’d be the first one in line advocating for Brian Smith to come back for another year. I would not have said that early in the year.”

Thanks to early playing time in 2007, Kelly won’t have that option, but Smith has three more games — and hopefully a bowl game as well — to continue that evolution.

8. Dan Wenger could try to return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Forget about a potential fifth year for Brian Smith, injured center Dan Wenger is trying to do something even more rare, successfully receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after missing two seasons with injuries.

The process is hardly a streamlined one.

“Here’s the specifics on how this moves forward: We cannot even file for a request for a sixth year until the end of the season. So even if that thing is postmarked and all done, we can’t turn it in,” Kelly said.

“First it goes to the Big East, and the Big East has to say no, and then it gets pushed to the NCAA. Essentially, they’re going to turn down a request for a sixth (year) unless there are circumstances that warrant it. And there are only about two or three of them. It has to be something that is extraordinary. This will not meet extraordinary. What it will be, did he lose two seasons of competition due to injury? That’s what it will come down to.”

Got that?

Kelly went through one of the more contentious sixth year battles ever, with former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk losing his plea for a final season with the Bearcats, even though he filed a lawsuit to try and overturn the ruling. Wenger case is much more clear-cut than Mauk’s, with Dan sitting out all of the 2007 season with an injury and missing every game of 2o1o with lingering concussion symptoms. If the doctors clear Wenger to play and he and his family weight the consequences, the Irish would be adding some veteran depth to an offensive line that’ll be graduating only Chris Stewart.

9. It’s brotherly love for Tony and Aaron Alford.

In one of those subplots that’ll surely have Alex Flanagan getting some screen time, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Tony Alford will welcome his brother, Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford, to South Bend this weekend, as their respective teams prepare to do battle.

And Alford’s making his family pick sides, laying down an ultimatum to his mother Gloria.

“My mom flew in. She’s sleeping at the house,” Alford said jokingly. “I told her, ‘Listen, if you don’t pick the right team and cheer for the right team, you can stay somewhere else.’ She can stay in Michigan City. I think that’s where Utah stays. She’s more than welcome to stay there Friday night.”

Joking aside, the relationship that Tony has with his brother Aaron is a strong one, with Tony providing plenty of support for his younger sibling.

“He’s done everything on his own merit. He seems to really enjoy what he’s doing, and I can’t tell you how proud of him I am,” Tony said. “I’m more proud of the young man he’s become, just the type of person he’s become.”

The relationship is an illuminating one, and after listening to Alford talk about his younger sibling, there’s no question why he’s renowned as a recruiter.

10. Key No. 2 for an Irish victory? Tommy Rees controlling the turnovers.

While most people would like to see the Irish establish some kind of running game, if Notre Dame is going to win the football game, they’ll have to do it behind the arm of Tommy Rees. Sure, trusting a true freshman to throw the ball to win the game doesn’t always work (see Tulsa for details), but the difference between this Utah team and some of its predeccesors is its inability to force turnovers.

Utah has only forced 14 turnovers, but when they do, they capitalize on them. For Rees to win the football game, he’ll need to minimize the mistakes, while also taking advantage of a surprisingly susceptible Utes defense against the explosive passing play.

Rees has shown the ability to be accurate on short, precision throws. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, in only his second year, will likely have taken notice of that trend, possibly tempting the Irish to throw the ball down the field. If they do, it’ll be up to guys like TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert to work down the seams, if Utah decides to try and double team Michael Floyd.

11. After spurning them in recruiting, Manti Te’o has a chance to terrorize the Utes in person.

With his Mormon background and Hawaiian heritage, Manti Te’o was an early target of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has stocked his roster full of similar prospects to Te’o. But after initially considering the Utes, Te’o brushed aside the opportunity to play for Whittingham, narrowing down his choices to Notre Dame and USC, before eventually choosing the Irish in a Signing Day upset for the ages.

That didn’t stop Whittingham from singing Te’o’s praises this week:

“He’s a beast in the middle. He is someone  who is playing at a very high level,” Whittingham said.

“We would have loved the opportunity to have him, but he had his five official visits and we weren’t involved. We certainly knew about him and followed him since his sophomore year. There isn’t any team in the country who wouldn’t love to have him. He is just a talented kid, an exceptionally talented kid.”

Te’o’s inclusion in the Bednarik semifinalists is a sign that Manti’s made the leap from good to great this year. What’s even more amazing to consider is the fact that we’ve all seen Te’o miss quite a few tackles and run himself out of his share of plays, indicating a ceiling that has yet to be reached.

Nobody is looking towards next year yet, but with Te’o at one middle linebacker and Carlo Calabrese at the other, the Irish will have their best set of interior linebackers since the Lou Holtz era.

12. Irish fans should hope November 13th is still a magical day at Notre Dame Stadium.

The last time the Irish played on November 13th? Try 1993, when the No. 2 ranked Irish knocked off the No. 1 rated Florida State Seminoles, winning one of the highest-profile college football games ever played.

Jumping out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Irish held on to beat Charlie Ward and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, with Shawn Wooden knocking down a Ward pass as time ran out to ensure a victory.

With Lou Holtz in town earlier this week, I’d be shocked if this day in Notre Dame history wasn’t mentioned to a squad that’ll run onto their home field for the last time this season, hoping to win on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.

 

 

 

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.