Michael Floyd 3

Floyd returns: How Brian Kelly brought back his star receiver

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Apologies to Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but the Irish coaching staff landed their biggest recruit of the offseason with Michael Floyd’s return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a plan to have Floyd graduate next December, and a detailed focus on how he’ll be used in the second iteration of the head coach’s offense, Brian Kelly and his offensive coaching staff essentially re-recruited the 6-3, 227-pound junior from St. Paul in a closed door meeting yesterday, bringing back the most important member of the Irish roster for a season basically nobody saw coming.

“This was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life,” Floyd said.

Heading into the holiday break, many assumed Floyd had said goodbye to South Bend. Reports on the internet quoted his dislike for the city and weather (never mind that he’s from Minnesota), his lukewarm relationship with Kelly, and his family’s modest economic standing as reasons he’d all but decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft.

But Monday’s initial reports that Floyd was already set to announce his intent to leave misunderstood the key elements that went into Floyd’s decision to return for a fourth season in blue and gold.

“I’m returning to Notre Dame for three reasons: to earn my degree, return Notre Dame to the top and improve myself as a player,” Floyd released in a statement. “First, I promised my mom I would graduate from Notre Dame and I am 40 credit hours shy of attaining that goal. I chose to attend Notre Dame in part because I knew it was a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision. Graduating from Notre Dame will help me for the rest of my life. Second, I want to get Notre Dame back to a BCS game. I believe we are very close to returning the Irish to where we belong and I want to be part of something great. Lastly, I want to show everyone in the country that I’m the best wide receiver in college football in 2011. There are many things I need to improve, but I feel with the coaching I have at Notre Dame, I can become the best at my position in this game.”

The desire to graduate from Notre Dame can’t be understated. Both Floyd and his mother, Theresa Romero, put great value on getting a Notre Dame degree, and the Irish coaching staff put in detailed plan in place that would help Floyd earn the 40 credit hours needed. He’ll have the spring semester, a summer session, and next fall to meeting the university’s obligations before leaving school next December with a diploma to begin preparations for the 2012 NFL Draft.

But if Floyd’s decision came down to anything, it was the thawing of a relationship between the team’s star wide receiver and his head coach.

Barely a month after Kelly’s hiring at Notre Dame, his star wide receiver was caught up in an embarrassing underage drinking fiasco, after a fight on the University of Minnesota campus over Christmas break. From there, whether it was real or perceived, Floyd often felt he was the scapegoat for the previous regime’s inability to win games, a dangerous tactic to take with your offense’s most important player.

During Kelly’s first media day with the national press, he took a shot at a consensus preseason All-American.

“Michael Floyd… I thought Michael Floyd was over-hyped. I thought he was, at times, average,” Kelly said. “He ran down the field and they threw it up. He wasn’t a precision route runner. He wasn’t asked to be. He was a match-up guy. You never saw him in a position to run the dig or the drive or one-on-one where he had to beat press coverage on a slant on 4th and one. All those things that go to winning football games, I didn’t see that. Maybe it’s because they had Golden Tate and he did all that for them. So my evaluation of Mike was based upon the film I’ve had.”

(Looking back now, that statement reads almost like a tactical strike against Floyd. Preseason kudos? Undeserved. Physical abilities? So what. Anybody big and strong can go up and get the football. When the team needed to win last year, they didn’t call #3’s number, they looked to Golden Tate. Go ahead and look for yourself, the film doesn’t lie…)

If that statement was meant to be a message to his star wide receiver, Floyd apparently received it loud and clear, making it a personal mission to work harder than everyone throughout the spring and summer months. Even though Floyd was used to the special rules Charlie Weis had for him, Golden Tate, and Jimmy Clausen, and was confused why his head coach would take dead aim at a player that was responsible for carrying most of the offensive load, he grinded on, showing both his teammates and a new coaching staff what kind of player he truly is. In the days before the season started, it was clear that Kelly noticed.

“In my 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked,” Kelly said in August. “And I mean that. He has out-worked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has single-handedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play.”

From there, Kelly learned that while he might not have seen what made Floyd special on tape, his opponents did. Complacent to keep Floyd stationed in one place, he watched as Dayne Crist struggled to connect with his best receiver. Against Purdue, Floyd was only targeted seven times, with three completions going for less than 10 yards. Against Michigan, more than half the throws to Floyd went incomplete, and his five catches for 66 yards were inconceivable numbers against a ravaged secondary that Floyd lit up the year before in Ann Arbor. It took until Notre Dame’s decisive loss to Stanford for Floyd to break the 100-yard mark in a game, the longest stretch since his freshman year to reach that number.

But as the season evolved, both receiver and head coach understood what Floyd meant to the offense, and his 13 targets against USC were critical to the Irish beating the Trojans for the first time since Bob Davie coached Notre Dame. After his six catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns torched a talented secondary, it sounded as if Kelly knew keeping Floyd for another season would be difficult.

“We have a young man here at Notre Dame that has given everything to Notre Dame,” Kelly said of Floyd. “If he decides it’s in his best interests to come back next year, we’ll be very, very happy for him. But we want what’s best for Mike Floyd. Today he showed why he’s a championship football player.”

It turns out that both Floyd’s best and personal interests brought him back to Notre Dame. While reviews of his draft stock were mixed, the easy thing for Floyd to do would have been leaving for the NFL. Whether it was bottom of the first round money or third round money, it would’ve done enough to instantly change the life of both him and his mother.

“This was a tough decision because my dream has always been to play in the NFL, but I didn’t think that this was the best time to make that jump,” Floyd said. “Ultimately, I wanted to be at Notre Dame for my senior season because you never get college back.”

That senior season will likely see Floyd break just about every major receiving record in Notre Dame’s history books. He already sits atop the books in receiving touchdowns and yards per game, as well as holds a slew of freshman records from his 2008 season. With Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones, and Cierre Wood back, Floyd will also have diversified set of skill players that’ll help take the focus off the senior receiver as well as a quarterback (playing behind a veteran offensive line) that has likely played significant minutes.

What’s next for Floyd likely will be determined by the relationship that he and his head coach forge over the next nine months. Floyd returned to Notre Dame in many ways in spite of his relationship with his head coach, not because of it. Yesterday’s meeting, a candid session between Floyd and Kelly, could have been the breakthrough needed for both parties to leave the past behind and begin building a team that’s well positioned for a BCS run.

“We had a great meeting yesterday,” Floyd said in his statement explaining his return to school. “I felt (Kelly) was very truthful and candid in our conversation and I really appreciated that.”

Whatever was said behind those doors in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex resulted in Notre Dame’s most prolific wide receiver passing up the NFL for the chance to take a shot at some unfinished business.

If Notre Dame is going to take the leap from good to great next season (see Auburn’s jump from 8-5 to BCS Champions), they’ll need their head coach and star receiver to be on the same page. After a rocky start, Floyd’s unlikely return to Notre Dame is a sign that after wondering what might have been with stars like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph, the stars could finally be aligning above the Golden Dome.

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.