Michael Floyd

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Miami

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Irish fans have heard this story before. Two storied programs come into a bowl game with millions of eyes watching. One walks out a shell of its former self. The other, with sky-high expectations for next season after an impressive performance. Only this time, it’s Irish fans buzzing with excitement after their team took another proud football program to the wood shed, flipping a script almost 20 years in the making.

In a battle of two 7-5 teams, Notre Dame looked like the only team that wanted to play this afternoon, with the Irish scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, taking a 27-3 lead into halftime before cruising to a 33-17 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Paced by junior wide receiver Michael Floyd’s six catches, 106 yards, and two first half touchdowns, an Irish victory was never really in doubt against a Hurricane’s team that was favored walking into the snow-covered El Paso stadium.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl, giving the Irish their first 8-5 season in school history.

1. If this is it for Michael Floyd, he certainly left us with something to talk about.

Receiving the Sun Bowl MVP trophy after the game, fans serenaded Floyd with “One More Year!” chants, a sentiment quickly taken up by the junior wide receivers teammates who joined in the shouting.

We’ve had our say (more than once) about Floyd’s NFL decision, but if he does decide to walk away from Notre Dame, he’ll do it as the school’s leader in touchdown receptions with 28, his two touchdown catches against Miami surpassing Jeff Samardzija’s 27. That’s 28 touchdowns in 28 games for the junior from St. Paul, Minnesota, who lost quite a bit of time during his three seasons thanks to a knee and collarbone injury.

Miami opened the game in press coverage on Floyd with talented cornerback Brandon Harris, another junior mulling a departure to the NFL draft. That decision backfired, as Floyd beat the Hurricanes on both short and long patterns, showing a diversity in his game that didn’t exist in his first two seasons in South Bend.

There might still be questions about Floyd’s speed, but it’s hard to take those worries too seriously when you watch the 6-foot-3 receiver run past potential first round cornerbacks on his way to dominating a team that made the receiver their defensive priority.

We’ll find out soon enough what Floyd and fellow junior Kyle Rudolph are going to do, but if Floyd’s performance in the Sun Bowl was his swan song, Irish fans should be happy whether or not they get an encore.

2. Regardless of what the future holds for Tommy Rees, he saved Notre Dame’s season.

The baby-faced freshman quarterback who loves Glee may become the next great signal caller for the Irish or may go the way of former freshman starter Matt LoVecchio. Either way, he deserves a great deal of credit for stepping in at quarterback and helping the Irish finish their first season with four straight wins since 1992.

The season could’ve gone a lot differently for Rees, who had an ignominious start to his career even before he threw the game-ending interception against Tulsa in field goal range. But Rees showed moxie far greater than you’d expect in a true freshman, and the decision to forgo his high school basketball season and the second half of his senior year and enroll at Notre Dame early is one of the main reasons why Rees has put himself at the front of the line in the competition to be the quarterback of the future for the Irish.

Rees only completed a shade over 50 percent of his throws, but was efficient in his decisions, didn’t turn the ball over, and showed great poise in the face of a Miami pass rush that battered and bruised him. Rees consistently stepped up and made big throws, whether they were first half completions to Tyler Eifert, or game-icers to John Goodman and TJ Jones.

Before the game, Kelly said Rees had to play well for the Irish to win the football game. Throwing two touchdown passes against zero interceptions (and being a few finger tips away from two more touchdowns) certainly qualifies, especially against a team that had only given up seven passing touchdowns all year.

Only time will tell us Tommy Rees’ legacy at Notre Dame, but his impact on the 2010 season can’t be overstated.

3. Even without a 100-yard rusher, Hughes and Wood provided the ground game needed to win.

Sure, Notre Dame finishes the season without a 100-yard game from a running back this year. But both Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood provided the thunder and lightning needed to control the game clock and balance an offense that couldn’t just rely on a passing game.

While Brian Kelly isn’t one for the time of possession stat, he used Hughes and Wood to dominate the playclock, with the Irish winning the battle convincingly, holding onto the football for over 37 minutes to Miami’s 21. Hughes only averaged three yards a carry, but his 27 carries were a career high for the senior playing his last game in a Notre Dame uniform, and his bulldozing style wore down a Hurricanes defense that spent a lot of time on the field.

Hughes’ inside running provided a perfect counterbalance to Cierre Wood’s afternoon, where the sophomore broke multiple big plays and showed a great burst in the open field. After starting slowly, Wood finishes the season as the team’s leading rusher, besting Armando Allen’s total by eight yards and averaging a very respectable 4.9 yards per carry.

With Theo Riddick providing some Wildcat looks, the Irish ran the ball 47 times amongst the trio, for a very respectable 4.7 yards per carry.

4. Harrison Smith embodies Bob Diaco’s defense.

For Irish fans that kept Harrison Smith in their doghouse for much of the last two seasons, it had to border on the bizarre to see the senior safety turn into a ballhawk right before our very eyes this afternoon.

Smith led the team with six solo tackles and intercepted Miami quarterbacks three times in the first half, leading the charge for Bob Diaco’s defense as it finished the season with another dominating performance.

Smith’s development both on the field and as a leader (he leads all Irish defenders, being chosen game captain four times) embodies the development of Diaco’s entire defense, turning a misplaced misfit into a elite defensive player.

While we joked about it earlier in the week, Diaco’s fable about the scorpion and the frog is a telling parable for a defense that has been in need of a identity for the last five years. This unit has bought in completely to the ideals and philosophy Diaco constantly preaches, understanding that they truly are 1/11th of a unit, and must simply “master their musts.”

With Smith coming back for a fifth year, the Irish will have an anchor for their secondary. It may have taken a long time to get there, but Smith’s intellect on the field has finally matched the athleticism he’s flashed in his first three seasons in South Bend.

5. Don’t look now, but the 2011 season could be a special one for the Irish.

Notre Dame fans will have the next nine months to get overly excited about 2011, but the pieces are in place for the Irish to be BCS contenders next season. If Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph decide to return, the Irish will have their leading quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end back on offense, with four of five lineman returning to protect them. They’ll return both defensive ends, three of four starting linebackers, and three of four starting defensive backs as well. That’s a lot of continuity as the Irish head into year two of the Kelly era.

Kelly made comments during Sun Bowl interviews that he’s confident that he can manufacture the offense needed to win football games, and he’s shown that he’s been able to do that since Rees took control of the team. With his sights set squarely on defensive talent, the Irish finally have a coach that not only understands that the Irish need an elite defense to win BCS games, but is willing to put an emphasis on it during recruiting.

There will never be a coach at Notre Dame that admits publicly he’s in the midst of a rebuilding year, but the 2010 season was exactly that for Notre Dame. Replacing three of five starters on the offensive line, an All-American caliber quarterback and the Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver all but gutted an offense that also had to learn a completely new philosophy and scheme (with a first-time starting quarterback recovering from major knee surgery). The challenges were just as significant on the defensive side of the ball, where a beleaguered unit needed to relearn just about everything it had been taught in order to get back to playing just mediocre defense.

Kelly certainly didn’t pass every test he faced this season, and a few decisions he made cost the Irish dearly. But he’s instilled a confidence and optimism in both the team and the fanbase that’s been absent for a long time.

“I was confident that when I took the job here at the University of Notre Dame, I would bring the program back,” Kelly said last week. “Now I know we will. Stay tuned. It’ll be a fun ride.”

After the program hit a low not seen even during these last 15 seasons, the Irish picked themselves up from the ground, dusted themselves off, and won the final four games of the season, dispatching programs like Utah, USC, and Miami along the way. That was something just about all of us didn’t see coming.

246 days until the Irish take on South Florida in Notre Dame Stadium. All of ND Nation awaits…

 

 

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

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.