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And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

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Can you believe this is it for the 2010 Irish football regular season? In many ways it feels like the Charlie Weis era is so far behind us with all that’s transpired, but it feels like Year One of the Brian Kelly era has just begun.

We’ll have one more game after this Saturday to discuss, but there are none more important than the date that’s been circled on the Irish calendar since Jimmy Clausen’s pass hit the grass at Notre Dame Stadium after Duval Kamara slipped on his out cut. With that, the Trojans withstood the Irish’s furious comeback led by Clausen and Golden Tate and Pete Carroll’s Trojans snuck out of South Bend with another win, seemingly on track for another Pac-10 championship.

When you consider all of that’s happened last October, so much has changed for both programs. While we were tempted to get into all that’s changed at Heritage Hall, it’s probably best we stick with the football. For the first time since Frank Leahy and Sam Berry met in 1941, both the Irish and the Trojans will have first year head coaches on their sidelines. While I’ve lived in the heart of Trojan territory for the past six years, I thought it wise to defer to an expert on what’s gone on with the Trojans in their first year under Lane Kiffin.

Enter Dan Weber, who covers the Trojan beat for USCFootball.com. Weber is a native of Northern Kentucky, a graduate of St. Xavier High school in Cincinnati and counts jobs as a sports information director at Northern Kentucky University and Xavier as well as writing gigs at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Riverside Press-Enterprise as lines on his impressive resume. Dan was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions for me in advance of Saturday night’s game between the Irish and the Trojans.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1. Assess the season so far. Seven wins, four losses, two really bad ones (Washington, Oregon State). Obviously, this season came under rather bizarre circumstances, but what do you make of the Trojans after 11 games of Lane Kiffin?

So far, some good, some not so for this USC team this season. Transition seasons are often difficult for no other reason than they’re transition seasons. The adjustment to a new staff is almost never easy. Whoever came in after Pete Carroll was going to face a challenge which Lane Kiffin has handled extremely well.

Discipline, academics, and morale for much of the season has been improved over last year despite all the hard knocks these kids have had to take that were absolutely no fault of their own. Losing two games on the last play could have knocked this team back for good but it didn’t. But that’s not to say there’s an excuse for the Washington loss. There’s not. That was an awful effort all the way around.

The Stanford loss is another question with USC being cheated by an incorrect clock operation at the end of the game that stole 30-35 seconds and left three seconds on the clock for Stanford to kick a game-winning field goal in a game USC outplayed the Cardinal. The Pac-10 assures us that secret measures have been taken since that game to prevent another similar occurrence.

No way to excuse USC’s third straight loss in Corvallis. After beating a ranked Arizona team on the road, USC wasn’t mentally ready at all for Oregon State and was embarrassed for the third time in two seasons by an opponent able to run the score up on a hapless Trojans team that pretty much didn’t attempt to compete.

What USC has done is not allow the fact that its opportunity to play for a bowl game and a Pac-10 title was taken away. Or the fact that the NCAA allowed upperclassmen to transfer without penalty at any time in an unprecedented ruling. The players have pretty much hung in there with the program and the new coach. It’s been inspiring what the seniors have done even though their careers haven’t turned out the way they thought they would.

2. What has surprised you the most about this year? With the talent returning, did you expect any facet of the team to perform better?

Obviously the defense has been a disappointment, especially the pass defense. Linebackers might have been expected to fall off as heart ailments knocked out two of the second year players and USC lost four players two years ago to starting spots as NFL rookie linebackers. You don’t replace numbers and talent like that.

And all four secondary starters also graduated so USC was starting anew there. And the lack of experience and difficulty in adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s schemes have been obvious as USC is 114th in NCAA pass defense this week allowing 272 yards a game.

The tackling and pursuit angles have suffered because USC hasn’t been able to tackle live in practice all season. Having just 51 or 52 scholarship players available for some games will do that to a team.

3. The Notre Dame/Southern Cal rivalry has been one of extremes, with long winning streaks for both teams dominating the past few decades. With Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis gone, do you expect things to even out?

Whether the rivalry evens out, it would seem, depends on Notre Dame, I’d imagine. Even the unprecedented sanctions, the two-year bowl ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons, a penalty of unprecedented severity and without any historical basis that the NCAA Committee on Infractions including Notre Dame deputy AD Missy Conboy inflicted on USC** probably won’t completely even things out unless the Irish improve.

**Editor’s Note: We expanded on this subject, but Dan thought it better to remove it from our Q&A. I agreed.

4. Are you impressed with the job Brian Kelly’s done, especially considering the injuries (starting QB, TE, 2 WRs, MLB, DT, FS) and off-the-field tragedies he’s had to deal with?

The way Notre Dame has bounced back the last two weeks is impressive. The Irish suffered some tough early losses as well as the off-the-field tragedies and seem like they still want to compete and that has to please fans of this series. No one wants to see either of these teams so far down that the rivalry is diminished. As a Cincinnati native who always paid attention to the program, I was well aware of the job Kelly did there and a strong believer in his ability to put together a winning program at Notre Dame.

5. Back to the game. It looks like Mitch Mustain has a chance to form a pretty compelling two-game legacy for the Trojans. What are the keys to a Trojan victory on Saturday? Can USC bounce back after last week’s demoralizing loss?
Mitch Mustain does have the opportunity to become a USC legend in two games for staying, and winning, the archrival games for USC when he easily could have left. And it could maybe only happen at USC since the Trojans are the only program in the country with two major and almost equal archrivals in Notre Dame and UCLA. No one else has two archrivals like that and gets to play them in back-to-back weeks. And if Mitch can get it together, and USC can, it’s there for him. I think USC can get its act together this week — but then I thought it could last week, as well. Shows how much I know.

6. Gut Feeling?

Gut feeling? I think they’ll bounce back. Notre Dame may not have quite as much talent as Oregon State but it’s close. So USC’s players have to know what could happen if they don’t show up ready to play.

*****

Read more of Dan’s coverage of the big game all week at USCFootball.com

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.