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Tuesdays with BK: USC edition

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As he does every Tuesday at noon, Brian Kelly met with the assembled media to discuss the upcoming game and the state of the program. This week’s subject, the vaunted USC Trojans.

Here’s what Kelly had to say about playing Lane Kiffin’s troops, the walking wounded on the Irish roster, the transformation of his team, and a few other things…

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*****

While there are plenty of rivalry games on the Irish schedule, there’s only one rivalry week.

“Each and every week we’re confronted with the rivalry game, whether it started with Purdue, with the Shillelagh, or the Leahy Bowl with BC, Michigan, Michigan State,” Kelly said. “But I can tell you from my perspective, this is rivalry week at the University of Notre Dame. This is a rivalry game against USC. You can tell that in the very first meeting with our players.”

It didn’t take long after dispatching of Army for the players to look toward USC, which is promising because it was clear from their performance on Saturday night that the Irish certainly didn’t overlook its opponent. That said, Kelly was emphatic that something needed to happen from Notre Dame’s perspective to make this a true rivalry.

“I got to tell you also, from my perspective again, rivalries are such when it’s not one-sided,” Kelly said. “This one has been one-sided. It’s our job to make this a true rivalry. That is winning the football game.”

Throughout the Weis era, people critized the coaching staff for its inability to get the players to the same emotional level as the Trojans. We’ll see if that’s a problem for Kelly and his staff, but I’m guessing it won’t be.

*****

There’s a lot of good news and a little bit of disappointing news when it comes to injuries. Kelly announced that TJ Jones and Theo Riddick are both back in the depth chart, with John Goodman sliding in front of Duval Kamara opposite Michael Floyd. Neither Jones nor Riddick are in starting spots however.

“We have a couple of guys back. T.J. Jones, we’re going to dress Theo Riddick, he will practice this week,” Kelly said about his wideouts. “They are not in starting positions. But we’ll see how that works out as we go through the week. They’ll get more work as they feel more comfortable. Carlo is in the depth. He was last week obviously. But he’s certainly somebody that will see some playing time. We have a couple guys back that, again, won’t be in starting positions, but will give us some depth from an offensive standpoint.”

I mentioned it during the live blog on Saturday night, but Theo Riddick looked pretty smooth in pregame running around in shorts and a t-shirt, and if I had to guess, I expect to see him on the field. (Then again, I thought Carlo Calabrese looked fine, too, and he didn’t see much time at all.) If Irish fans were looking for good news on the Ian Williams front, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to go Kelly said this afternoon, with the senior nose guard most likely sitting out until the bowl game.

*****

One of the more under-reported stories of the year has been Tyler Eifert’s rise at tight end. Eifert was a guy that I all but counted out after hearing about the severity of his back injury. Playing only a few snaps last year against Nevada, Eifert missed basically the entire season with what looked to be a career threatening injury. Now Irish fans see the vertical threat that’s helped keep the Irish offense running without star tight end Kyle Rudolph, and if Rudolph decides to play his senior season, the Irish could have the best 1-2 punch at the position in all of college football.

When asked about what helped Tyler emerge after Kyle’s injury, Kelly pointed to the work Eifert’s put into the program.

“I just think a couple things. First and foremost, his health. He had a back surgery last year, and it required him to gain a lot more of a conditioning base and strength level, to be able to go out there and take really the pounding at that tight end position,” Kelly said. “As you know, we use him in power and outside zone as well as running down the field. I think it’s just the maturation process for him.  You know, I know we list all these guys as sophomores, but they’re freshmen. It’s a combination of freshmen. So really what you’re looking at is the development of a freshman throughout the season.”

The Irish have had a pretty incredible run at the tight end position and all reports on incoming freshman Ben Koyack and freshman Alex Welch have been promising as well.

*****

I was one of the pundits that thought Trevor Robinson was ready to make the leap into an elite collegiate lineman. Watching tape this year, that hasn’t been the case. But Kelly discussed Trevor’s season, and why it’s currently on the rise.

“What we really wanted from Trevor is to play more physical. He was not the strongest of our offensive linemen. We felt there was a deficiency there in his overall strength,” Kelly said. “He has gotten stronger physically as the season has progressed. That, I think, has begun to separate him in terms of his ability now to really strike, get up on a second level. Braxston has to help him out a little bit more. Braxston gets a little bit too anxious to get out on the second level and leave Trevor alone. But I would say clearly it’s his physical strength that he’s improved on during the year that’s allowed him to be more consistent.”

Robinson was listed on quite a few preseason watch lists, which had people understandably bullish on his future, but he’s also played through quite a few injuries that likely curtailed his ability to weight train the way he should have the past two years. If Trevor can make it out of the season healthy, put in a good offseason of work, he and Chris Watt should be a very nice pairing at guard next year, with Braxston Cave also developing more next year at center.

A healthy offseason with Ed Warinner and every starter but Chris Stewart returning could get the Irish running game up to speed.

*****

If you’re looking for the quote of the year, Brian Kelly supplied it when answering Pete Sampson’s question on how the Irish are playing their best football without some of their best players.

“Because we’ve moved Notre Dame from being a collection of individuals to being a football team,” Kelly said. “I felt that some of the things that maybe we inherited that we needed to move in my direction, how I feel philosophically, was to get this more as a team, as a next man in, everybody pulling in the same direction, and not about a collection of individuals. When we get those players back, we’ll be a better team because we’ve put the foundation of team first.”

It’s hard to argue with Kelly’s statement. While many of us predicted better things this season, it’s clear that this football team has become a cohesive unit as opposed to falling apart, the Irish’s m.o. the past two Novembers.

 

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.