GarrettandCarroll

Revisionist history shouldn’t comfort Trojan fans

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We’ve done our best to stick to just football this week. Whether it be unsettling reports in the media regarding the Lizzy Seeberg case or sticking to just on-the-field matters when it comes to discussing USC and the major sanctions the NCAA imposed on its athletic department, we decided to stay in the football writing business because that’s what this is, a Notre Dame football blog.

That said, it’s been hard not to discuss the elephant in the Coliseum this weekend, the USC Trojans and the massive sanctions handed down by the NCAA in June, a ruling nearly four years in the making after Yahoo! Sports broke open the Reggie Bush scandal.

I have no desire to recap or judge the findings of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, a committee that Notre Dame deputy athletic director Missy Conboy serves on, one of ten members. (For an in-depth article on the members that heard USC’s case, read George Dohrmann’s excellent piece at SI.com) But there seems to be an undercurrent flowing through the USC fanbase that both points blame at Notre Dame’s role in their athletic department’s demise and pointedly questions why the NCAA committee that a Notre Dame administrator sat on could levy such serious penalties on Heritage Hall.

Dan Weber, the writer who we exchanged questions and answers with via email earlier this week, writes for USCFootball.com, a website that’s been incredibly critical of the sanctions on the football program. Earlier in the week, the website launched a campaign targeting Conboy:

For those who paid close attention to the NCAA’s embarrassing Committee on Infractions USC saga, next week will offer an opportunity. The Trojans host Notre Dame for the 43rd time in the nation’s most historic intersectional college football series that opened here in 1926 and helped make Notre Dame a national name. Much of that is thanks to a respected West Coast school like USC willing to play the Irish when a number of Midwest powers — Ohio State, we’re talking about you — would not.

Next week will also be a time to remember that Notre Dame’s senior deputy director of athletics, Missy Conboy, joined with the gleeful Mr. Dee in the scandalous over penalizing of USC in a manner that branded the Trojans as one of the all-time rogue programs in college football history.

We know a number of you haven’t understood how anyone from Notre Dame could have possibly come to such a conclusion about the school that’s been there toe-to-toe with the Irish academically and athletically for 84 years.

All we know about the actions of Conboy, a Notre Dame grad with a law degree who’s been an athletic administrator there for 23 years, is that she recused herself when the Committee unbelievably talked about penalizing USC by taking the Trojans off TV. Recused herself because that could have hurt Notre Dame.

But what we don’t know is what in the world was Conboy thinking? One ineligible player, 30 scholarships? Could she possibly be serious? Should she have recused herself on the entire case? It would seem someone at Notre Dame would have to because they would know USC couldn’t possibly be as guilty as the Dee scenario called for it to be, allowing his Miami program not to go down as the most lawless in modern history. Wouldn’t a Notre Dame administrator just recuse herself for fear of looking like she’d given up on the Irish ever beating USC again unless someone took 30 scholarships away from USC.

So here’s your chance. We’re creating a thread on The Peristyle this weekend called “Ask Missy” where each of you can list the one question you’d like to ask a person on the Committee on Infractions about the USC case. Sure, she won’t answer them. But we’ll work to get them to her, or to South Bend, or to a place where maybe, just maybe, she’d have a chance to read them. And think about what she and Dee have done.

No profanity. Be respectful. This is serious business.

In our original Q&A, I asked Dan two questions about the NCAA’s rulings. The first was asking for an explanation of why he thought the sanctions were heavy handed and the second dealt with his critical comments on Dee and Conboy, and what blame he would hand to Mike Garrett, Pete Carroll, Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo, and Reggie Bush. His responses were extensive and pointed, especially his characterization of Conboy, so I asked for a response from Notre Dame before I posted any of his responses.

Here’s the response I got from Notre Dame after I shared the original question and answer:

NCAA Bylaw 32.1.5 entitled Conflict of Interest states that a Committee member should not participate if the member is directly connected with an institution under investigation or has a personal, professional, or institutional affiliation that reasonably would result in the appearance of prejudice. In this case, Ms. Conboy did offer to recuse herself from the case precisely because she was concerned about the appearance of prejudice. After a discussion with the Committee Chair, her participation was deemed appropriate in light of no discernible Conflict of Interest. It is important to note that even if the Committee member does not believe that his/her involvement would prejudice the institution, the institution is also able to raise an objection to the participation of a Committee member whom they feel might prejudice their case. USC did not choose to raise an objection to the involvement of Ms. Conboy.

After talking with Brian Hardin at Notre Dame, he explained that Conboy has stepped off the committee multiple times before, like when UConn basketball came in front of the committee, or when Arizona State baseball coach Pat Murphy came in front of the board, because Murphy is the former baseball coach at Notre Dame. She even asked to be recused during the recent Michigan hearings, but was asked specifically by Michigan that she stay on.

In a posting yesterday, a few days after I agreed not to publish our questions and Notre Dame’s response, the “War Room” was at it again, this time pointing to the Kim Dunbar scandal, which resulted in the Notre Dame football program being placed on probation for two years and losing one scholarship for two consecutive seasons, the first major violation of NCAA regulations by any Irish athletic program.

From the War Room:

One thing that you realize quickly if you engage in this dialogue with the ND folks is how much they don’t know about the USC case, and never will. And do not care.

Sure, they’ll still argue, more than a decade after the fact, how unfair it was what the NCAA Committee on Infractions did to Notre Dame. How it had to go to a tiebreaker vote to declare the Notre Dame booster club member and $1.4-million-dollar embezzler who just liked to “date” Notre Dame football players, a “booster.”

Sure she took trips with them and showered them with presents over a five-year period, something an Irish assistant coach admitted he knew about but never bothered to inform the NCAA because, as one ND official said, the rules were “convoluted.”

What a miscarriage of justice, they’ll tell you, costing the Irish one whole scholarship a year for two years.

But they’re little concerned that the NCAA, after the fact, declared a whole slew of passers-by in the lives of Reggie Bush and O.J.Mayo USC “boosters.” After all, the USC case was about a lot more than that, they’ll tell you. You USC fans just “lack introspection” to see your program as others see it, they’ll say. Sure, ask them to name the other USC athletes involved, unlike the eight from ND, and all you’ll hear is crickets chirping.

And that’s when you realize where this case was lost. We’d forgotten about the USA Today national survey of nearly 25,000 readers published the day after the NCAA’s ridiculously unprecedented penalties were revealed in June.

Only 16 percent thought the USC penalties too harsh. A whopping 42 percent thought that the loss of 30 scholarships and a two-year bowl ban for one player on the take from outsiders encouraging him to leave was letting USC off way too easy. Another 41 percent thought that was just right.

So there are the numbers: 83 percent thought the NCAA was either too easy on USC or got it right. Just 16 percent understood what had happened. And that’s what the NCAA was clearly counting on.

Nearly four years of relentless hammering had done its dirty work. Nearly four years of failing to answer back, to respond in any way, to make the USC case, to let others fill in all the negatives, well, even if USC’s lawyers had gotten the Trojans off, it might not have mattered. USC was guilty as charged, or guiltier — if that’s a word. And as dirty as a program could be. It had to be.

How else do you win three Heismans in four years to tie the almighty Irish? How else do you play in seven straight BCS games and win 34 straight games and seven straight Pac-10 titles and hammer four straight SEC teams whose names begin with the letter “A” if you’re not doing something outside the rules?

And if you come to South Bend next October to play the 85-scholarship-strong Irish with the same number of 51 scholarship players you took to Stanford this season, well, that will be just fine, Notre Dame fans seem to be saying. It’s about time the playing field was leveled.

Comparing the Dunbar case to the violations committed by the Trojan athletic department doesn’t make much sense when you look closer at what actually happened. That Dunbar was convicted of embezzling $1.4 million from her employer wasn’t an NCAA violation. That Dunbar, starting at the age of 20 and until she was arrested at 25, dated a few different football players, had a child with one, and occasionally purchased travel and gave them gifts also was not an NCAA violation. What turned the Dunbar fiasco into an NCAA violation was that she gave $25 in 1996 to a (quickly defunct) Quarterback Club that supported Notre Dame athletics, which turned her into a booster.

It was far from an easy decision for the NCAA, who — as the War Room points out — needed a tie-breaker to determine if Dunbar was a booster, making the comparison of the then-22-year-old Dunbar to Lloyd Lake, Michael Michaels, Rodney Guillory, or any of the other unsavory characters in the USC case not too appropriate.

USC will go in front of an appeals committee in the near future, asking to cut in half the sanctions they received, and athletic director Pat Haden believes that USC has a strong case, even if only 10 percent of all sanctions are overturned in appeal. For the sake of the student-athletes that were in junior high when Reggie Bush was committing violations, maybe lessening the penalties is the best thing that could happen, with most of the major player long gone from the Trojan athletic department.

But even though Garrett, Carroll, running backs coach Todd McNair, Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo and Reggie Bush are a memory now doesn’t make any revisionist history including Missy Conboy, Notre Dame close to appropriate.

Harsh or not, any penalties levied on USC were their own fault.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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

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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.