HughesUSC

Pregame Twelve Pack: Sun Bowl edition

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We get teary-eyed just thinking that this could be the last of these monsters for nine months. But before we crack a cold one to celebrate (ice pack for my hands, that is), here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Miami at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

1. The Irish defense will have a chance to prove it truly is ‘B.I.A.’

At first, there were chuckles among fans when they heard the Irish defense took to barking ‘B.I.A’ — Best In America — when they frenetically ran around the practice field. What an optimistic goal, many thought, without ever considering it could actually become (even close) to true.

Maybe it wasn’t all that far from the truth it turns out. Sure, the Irish defense only clocks in as a Top 40(ish) defense, but Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out a few very impressive trends when you look at Notre Dame’s defense in the season’s final month.

Projected over an entire season ND’s November numbers would place it as the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense (93.3 yards per game), No. 6 in third-down defense (31.3 percent conversions), No. 2 in first downs allowed (12 per game), No. 2 in total defense (233.3 yards per game) and No. 1 in scoring defense (7.3 points a game).

And passing defense? The Irish haven’t allowed a 200-yard passing performance since Oct. 16 against Western Michigan and didn’t allow a passing TD after Halloween. The only rushing TD they’ve yielded since the Oct. 23 Navy meltdown came on a four-play, two-yard drive by USC.

Statistically speaking, Miami is the fifth best offense the Irish will face, behind Tulsa (#5), Michigan (#6), Stanford (#14), and USC (#27). If Diaco’s troops can hold strong, there might be some truth to the BIAs we hear come spring practice.

2. Regardless of the defense, the Irish need some offense out of Tommy Rees.

Any full blown quarterback controversy was effective cooled in the Coliseum, where Tommy Rees played like a true freshman in hostile territory, making some bad decisions with the football in the second half before driving the Irish down the field for a much-needed victory.

But if the Irish are going to win tomorrow, they’ll need Rees to limit the mistakes he made when the Trojans dropped seven men into coverage. Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talked about the post-USC Rees, and what the coaching staff did to prepare him for the Sun Bowl.

“He did struggle a little bit, some of that was due to the big arena we played in and the talented defense we went against,” Molnar said. “Really what we did at the beginning was just get Tommy’s confidence back, and went back to basics, did things he really felt comfortable with. And then we slowly but surely installed the game plan as the week went on. He’s had really a good 12 days of practice so far.”

Last week, head coach Brian Kelly admitted that the offense was “in flux” and simply doing anything it can to win football games. For the Irish to beat the Hurricanes, they’ll need Rees to do more than just limit turnovers.

“Tommy has to be part of the equation,” Kelly said. “We can’t go in there and say things like, well, he just has to distribute or he just has to manage the game. Tommy has to play well. and if we’re to win this football game, he has to use the experience he had as a starter and go play the game the way he’s capable of.”

3. With one quarterback injured, Hurricanes will ride Jacory Harris.

Miami interim head coach Jeff Stoutland had been playing coy with his choice at quarterback, repping both freshman Stephen Morris and junior Jacory Harris until Morris injured his ankle earlier in the week during practice in El Paso. While Morris’ ankle is “way better than we thought he would be,” according to Stoutland, he announced this afternoon that Harris will get the start.

According to Bob Diaco, the Irish won’t change their strategy depending on what quarterback plays, but if they’re looking for a blueprint on how to shutdown Harris, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave it to them last year. (Courtesy of EDSBS)

So what did they do? Play soft coverage and hope Harris made some mistakes? Revamp the offense to catch Miami’s speedy defense off guard? No. Foster and Beamer basically said f— it, we’re going after Miami. That early fumble by Jacory Harris that set up the Hokies’ first touchdown? Well they did what I said they wouldn’t be able to: Foster dialed up a hide-the-children, all-out, man-to-man blitz with no free safety with the cornerback, Dorian Porch, coming off the short side of the field. (Miami was in a three receiver set with a tight-end backside. Foster put two guys to this backside: one played the tight-end in man coverage and the other, Porch, just blitzed, and of course Harris never saw him.)

This sounds like a Jon Tenuta-approved recipe for defense, but Diaco’s been far more disciplined with his use of blitzers. Still, expect to see Robert Blanton, who has shown a great knack for coming off the edge, to hear his number called quite a few times.

4. The Irish secondary will have its opportunities to make plays.

Regardless of what quarterback starts, the Irish secondary should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. Now that we know it’s Harris, he’s shown a propensity to make some very bad decisions against good passing defenses, which Notre Dame certainly qualifies as.

In Harris’ three games against Top 30 passing defenses, he’s completed only 53 percent of his throws for 6.6 yards an attempt, throwing seven touchdowns, but eight interceptions.

On the season, the Irish are giving up only 6.2 yards an attempt, good for 19th in the country, only nine touchdown passes, which is 4th in the country, so if the Hurricanes throw the ball, Chuck Martin’s boys better be ready.

“We won’t do anything outside of our working system,” Diaco said when asked about taking advantage of interception-prone quarterbacks. “We’ll operate within our framework as far as how we call defense and how our players play structurally inside of it. As the game unfolds, then we’ll see where it goes.”

5. The Sun Bowl brings in two teams in opposite directions.

On paper, many see this match-up favoring the Hurricanes. But a look at the state of each program shows that these two teams are trending in very opposite directions.

The Irish are playing for their first four-game winning streak since the 2006 season that saw Notre Dame rip off eight straight wins. They’ve done it behind a resurgent rushing attack and elite defense.

Miami enters having lost three of their final five games, including ugly losses to Virginia and South Florida, the finale all but costing Randy Shannon his job. More uniquely, the Hurricanes will be playing a football game that their head coach won’t have anything to do with, as Al Golden is merely observing the Hurricanes while he gets started recruiting, the only lame-duck/new incumbant coaching situation of the bowl season.

6. The Brian Castello, king of the Red Hats, get another moment in the sun.

It turns out those triumphant final snaps walk-on quarterback Brian Castello took in the Irish’s final home win over Utah were only the beginning. Now he’s got a guest spot at the South Bend Tribune, running the “Red Hat Diaries.” (Not to be confused with the shoes…)

In his three different entries, Castello has talked about the opening night talent show, which featured an original piano score by freshman linebacker Danny Spond, the difficulties of picking properly at the Hyundai Gift Suite, where Castello scored a 22-inch flat screen, and going through weapons simulations at Fort Bliss, where Castello lit up 21 targets with a military assault weapon.

They’re entertaining reads and give you a great idea of what bowl week is actually like for players that both hit the field and roam the sidelines.

7. Darrin Walls, Notre Dame will miss you.

It’s the final start for cornerback Darrin Walls, who walks away from Notre Dame on a high note after a up-and-down career. Walls came to South Bend one of the top defensive back recruits in the country and went toe-to-toe with All-American Calvin Johnson as a true freshman. But Walls played unspectacular football on a miserable 2007 team, spent the 2008 season away from the team due to personal reasons and played just average in 2009, managing only one interception.

But Walls’ senior season has been a different story, and Bob Diaco had high praise for his graduating cornerback.

“Darrin is a benchmark for professionalism,” Diaco said. “He is someone you can point to on any given day to say this is how you come to work, this is how you come to meetings, this is how you look when you’re on campus, this is how you conduct your business. He’s clean cut, he looks good, he wears nice clothes. I don’t know whether he has the approach that any given day he might meet someone that can change his life, so he better be ready for it. But that’s how he operates and conducts his business. He’s going to be very successful in whatever he does.”

Walls is the only member of the secondary out of eligibility, but he’ll leave big shoes to fill both on and off the field.

8. Ian Williams, Notre Dame will miss you, too.

After injuring his knee against Navy, Ian Williams will be back on the field for the final game of his career against his home state Hurricanes, a school that didn’t think Williams was worthy of a scholarship offer.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” Williams said. “I’ll be glad to be back and the team is very excited. I’m 100 percent right now. I feel great.”

With Williams back in the fold, it gives the Irish an interesting dilemma — incorporating their best defensive lineman into a unit that’s played their best football without him. It doesn’t sound like a problem Bob Diaco seems to worried about.

“There’s no disruption of chemistry,” Diaco said. “The players know exactly where everyone fits all the time. That’s our core belief. That’s how we operate. We communicate clearly every day with the players as it relates to where they stand. The vision is clear, so there’s no backdoor, behind-the-scene conversation. As it relates to Ian, there’s no loss of chemistry. We’re excited he’s back. he’s got an opportunity to play in his last college game. He was able to grind it out and work hard to get himself back on position to be healthy enough to contribute.”

Williams comes back at a perfect time, as the Irish defense will be facing another stiff rushing offense, with Miami the seventh Top 30 rushing offense the Irish will face this year.

9. Notre Dame fans will get their first look at Seantrel Henderson.

Once the apple of every Notre Dame fans eye, the Irish will finally see gargantuan freshman right tackle Seantrel Henderson on the field.

While Henderson initially considered Notre Dame during the high-stakes recruiting process, many Irish fans thought they’d get their first look at the 6-8, 360-pound freshman against USC, where Henderson initially pledged his commitment. But after the NCAA hit USC with major sanctions, Henderson decided to take his talents to South Beach too, where he’s started nine games for the Hurricanes, even though he joined the team late in preseason drills.

Called Miami’s “Great Wall of China” by quarterback Jacory Harris, Henderson has spent the week talking with fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Michael Floyd, who counseled Henderson during the hectic recruiting process.

The Irish will send Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams and Darius Fleming against Henderson, who bookends with senior left tackle Orlando Franklin to form a formidable duo.

10. Both Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph have received their NFL grades.

And that’s about all we really know about that.

“There are so many different factors that go into making that decision,” Kelly said, as if he read the 1200 words I wrote about Floyd’s decision yesterday. “All I can tell you is, as the head football coach, I’d love to have them both back. We’ll be able to get clearer information as to what their status is in the next week or so.”

Last year, both Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate made the announcement that they’d be forgoing their senior season on December 7th, which was incredible early, considering the Irish weren’t playing in a bowl game. That early decision, coupled with the fact that neither went to the NFL Advisory Board, is a good example of not doing your homework, which is something that both Floyd and Rudolph hopefully are doing.

Floyd and Rudolph leaving early is one of the necessary evils that come along with recruiting elite prospects to your football program and I know most of us would take a multimillion dollar job offer after our junior year, especially if we were on track to still get our diplomas. That said, leaving early for a late second round contract isn’t the optimal use of early entry.

From the sounds of it, we’ll find out soon enough whether or not Rudolph or Floyd will be playing for the Irish in 2011.

11. The Irish offense will have Theo Riddick back at full strength.

If you’re looking for a quarterbacks best friend, Theo Riddick should qualify. And for the first time since Tommy Rees took the reins of the offense, he’ll have Riddick in the slot at full strength, who Brian Kelly plans to utilize.

“You’ll see a much more expanded role for him in this game,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t been part of our game plan for over two months. He’ll be an integral part of what we do.”

The Irish offense lost a huge component when Riddick went down with a severe ankle sprain against Western Michigan, and while the Irish bulked up their running game to counter his loss, Riddick’s return could also help the ground game, both by quick handoffs to the speedy slotman and by spreading the Miami defenses splits.

12. Robert Hughes, this Sun Bowl could be for you.

Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar gave an insight into why it took running back Robert Hughes so long to get consistent carries this year.

“As we went through spring ball and summer camp, he ran like he was a 172-pounder,” Molnar said, more than hinting at a problem that’s plagued the senior running back.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the light switch flipped on, as Hughes took his garbage time carries against Western Michigan and reminded both the fanbase and the coaching staff that the senior anvil was a weapon worth using down the stretch.

“I wanted to play,” Hughes said. “That was the tipping point.”

Coupled with the loss of starter Armando Allen, Hughes emerged as the ‘boom’ in the Irish offense, nowhere more evident than in the Irish’s game-winning drive against USC, where Hughes trucked his way through a Trojan defense that was gasping for air.

Kelly made it clear that both Hughes and Riddick will have “expanded roles” in the Sun Bowl, meaning that if the Irish are going to establish the running game needed to help Tommy Rees, they’ll do it behind the power running of Hughes, playing his final game in a Notre Dame uniform.

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.