Jack Swarbrick

New hires put coaching vacancies into perspective

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Filling a coaching vacancy is tough business in major college football. Your pool of potential targets is always shifting, already happily employed, and also filled by men who have to act as if they’re absolutely uninterested in switching jobs right until the point they sign on the dotted line. Adding to the complications, there’s an unruly group of fans and media watching your every move, and even tracking your flights, as you set about scouring the country for your next head football coach.

Yet when Jack Swarbrick went about looking for the next head coach of Notre Dame after dismissing Charlie Weis after 21 losses in three seasons, he did so in a relative cloak of secrecy, only turning up after securing Brian Kelly as the Irish’s next football coach. While there was smoke surrounding Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, there were no leaks from the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, no outsiders with advanced knowledge of the search, and no real idea of who else was in the running for the job until Kelly’s name was announced by Notre Dame.

Maybe the fact that Kelly was the overwhelmingly logical choice is what rankled many of the feathers of those that didn’t like the hire. Perhaps it was the workman like apprenticeship Kelly had served, with six years spent at the D-I level at Central Michigan and Cincinnati after an illustrious run at Grand Valley State, a solid, but certainly not dazzling CV. Sure Kelly put up near historic numbers in the Big East, but that incredible run came with the built-in caveats that come with playing in a conference that now lacks the traditional powers of the other automatic qualifiers.

But after watching elite football programs like Miami miss on Domer fantasy Jon Gruden and “settle” for Temple coach Al Golden, while Florida AD Jeremy Foley replaced fellow Domer dream Urban Meyer with Will Muschamp, the defensive coordinator of the worst Texas team of the decade, and it might be time for Irish fans to either recalibrate what kind of coach should be coming to South Bend next time the head job comes vacant, or come to grips with just how good of a hire Kelly was by Jack Swarbrick.

Thanks to some research by the hibernating website Blue-Gray Sky, let’s take a look at the hires of some of the other “big name” colleges since 2006:

School Outgoing Incoming Days Elapsed
Florida Urban Meyer Will Muschamp 2
Miami (Fla.) Randy Shannon Al Golden 14
Tennessee Lane Kiffin Derek Dooley 2
Southern California Pete Carroll Lane Kiffin 2
Florida State Bobby Bowden Jimbo Fisher 0
Notre Dame Charlie Weis Brian Kelly 10
Oregon Mike Bellotti Chip Kelly 0
Tennessee Phil Fullmer Lane Kiffin 28
Washington Tyrone Willingham Steve Sarkisian 39
Clemson Terry Bowden Dabo Swinney 49
West Virginia Rich Rodriguez Bill Stewart 18
UCLA K. Dorrell Rick Neuheisel 25
Arkansas Houston Nutt Bobby Petrino 15
Nebraska Bill Callahan Bo Pelini 8
Texas A&M Dennis Franchione Mike Sherman 3
Michigan Lloyd Carr Rich Rodriguez 28
Stanford Walt Harris Jim Harbaugh 14
Alabama Mike Shula Nick Saban 37
Miami (Fla.) Larry Coker Randy Shannon 15
North Carolina John Bunting Butch Davis 21

Above are arguably the 20 most high-profile coaching transitions of the last five seasons. Taking a look at the list, you get the idea of just what type of coach jumps from a job that they have to a job that opens up.

Of the head coaches on that list, regardless of what you thought of the job that Kelly did in his first year at Notre Dame, it’s hard not to rank him above every head coach on this list with the exception of Nick Saban, Rich Rodriguez, and probably Bobby Petrino. Obviously Rodriguez’s struggles at Michigan help frame the discussion, while Petrino’s “personality” make him a tough fit at a place like Notre Dame.

Simply put, no matter the shine of the Golden Dome, or any other college program, here’s empirical evidence that shows no coach — regardless of the history of the football program — flees a top job at an elite college or NFL team for another school.

Even new Florida coach Will Muschamp addressed the concerns of his lack of head coaching experience in his opening press conference, surely as a reaction to the news of a defensive coordinator getting his first head coaching job at a place like Florida.

“I know that there will be criticism about maybe not hiring a guy without head coaching experience and I certainly understand that,” Muschamp said. “But I do think if you look at it you can really look at all the examples across the board of guys that had no head coaching experience and did an outstanding job because they were the right fit, for the right job, at the right time. And you can look at a lot of examples of guys that had head coaching experience and went to situations like Florida and didn’t have success like you thought they might have.”

Muschamp’s comments might as well be taken verbatim from Swarbrick’s introductory press conference where he called Kelly “the right man at the right time for Notre Dame.” Only in Kelly’s case, he also put together one of the best six year runs of any coach in Division I-A football in his two stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

Neither Swarbrick nor Kelly are happy with being 7-5 after one season on the job. But if you look at the process of hiring a new coach at a major college football program, there’s every reason to believe that Notre Dame and its administration actually made the best move possible when considering their options. That may be a tough pill for some Irish fans to swallow, but it’s probably a far better one when you consider Kelly would likely have been the front-runner for both the Miami and Florida position had he stuck around another season at Cincinnati.

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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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
Rivals via Twitter
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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.