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State of the Irish program

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(Color me in a patriotic mood after watching last night’s State of the Union and Republican Response…)

Brian Kelly had about a week on Barack Obama, giving his “State of the Program” speech last Friday, officially putting the 2010 season in the books, while turning his gaze forward to finalizing recruiting as well as preparing for the 2011 season.

With next week surely to be focused on the finalization of a Top 10 recruiting class (not to mention the best defensive end haul since Rivals started keeping tabs), I thought it appropriate to piggy back on the President’s address to the nation last night, and take stock in where the Irish football program is 13 months after Brian Kelly took it over.

OFFENSE

Many assumed the Irish offense would be the strong suit of the 2010 squad, even with the loss of two All-American caliber players in Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, not to mention both starting tackles and center Eric Olsen. Whether or not it was blind faith in Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator, Dayne Crist waiting in the wings, or returning front-line players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen, the fact that the Irish took a step back offensively seemed to surprise more people than it should have.

From a trend perspective, the Irish offense regressed in several key categories, not surprising considering the Irish offense in 2009 was one of the top units in the country, with a third-year starter at quarterback at the trigger. That said, it’s interesting to note that Kelly’s squad had more success running the football, gave up less sacks, and scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Statistically, the improvement was moderate, but it’s amazing to think that an offensive line replacing three starters and subbing Braxston Cave in for Dan Wenger, while running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, could have a better season rushing the football than an offensive with the 4th best passing efficiency in the country. While you can say that the high-tempo spread offense is less conducive to sacks than Weis’ pro-style attack, it’s hard to understand why the Irish offensive line, behind one of college football’s most veteran units, gave up 25 sacks last season, six more than the Irish did in 2010, who finished a respectable 34th in the nation while starting three first-time starters.

More incomprehensible is the (albeit slight) improvement in the red zone. The fact that Kelly’s squad, quarterbacked by Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, and missing Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate, could do better in the red zone scoring touchdowns defies logic. Whether it be better play-calling or just better execution, there’s no reason for Jimmy Clausen’s 2009 offense to struggle in the red zone more than the 2010 edition.

Looking to 2011, there’s every reason to believe that Kelly’s offense will take fairly large steps improving in nearly every facet. Year To do that, they’ll need a better effort on the front line from Ed Warinner’s troops running the ball, who will only replace Chris Stewart from an offensive line that improved as the season went along. They’ll also need to do better on 3rd downs, improving their conversion rate from the 38-percent clip they hit on last year. Kelly’s teams have never been great third down teams (neither have the last three Oregon teams), but if they want to play at the frenetic pace that Kelly desires, they’ll need to be able to keep drives moving. Most importantly, regardless of who wins the quarterback job, there’s a huge leap in production for quarterbacks in Year Two of a Brian Kelly system. Expect that trend to continue.

DEFENSE

The improvements the Irish defense made in Kelly’s first season are hard to understate. The Irish improved in virtually every major defensive statistic, outside of opponent completion percentage and red zone defense (though in the latter’s case the Irish were far stouter limiting opponents to field goals, finishing 7th in the country in red zone touchdown defense). The Irish were a Top 30 defense in six major categories in 2010, they were a Top 30 defense in only one in 2009.

While the alignment changed, there weren’t many personnel changes to the defense Bob Diaco coordinated. If anything, the Irish lost their most consistent performer when Kyle McCarthy graduated. Yet playing with virtually the same players, the Irish defense transformed itself in Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system, playing its best football down the home stretch, when past Notre Dame defenses fell apart. Stepping back from statistical analysis and just relying on the eyeball test, it’s shocking to consider that Notre Dame played USC and Miami, two of college football’s most athletic programs, and dominated both teams with their defense at the end of the year.

As we look to 2011, the Irish will need to replace Ian Williams from the center of their defense, something they did successfully after Williams went down with a knee injury versus Navy. At linebacker, they’ll need to find a new starter at ‘Dog,’ where both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduate. Smith also doubled as a replacement in the middle, where he stepped into Carlo Calabrese spots after injuries hampered the sophomore’s ability to play. In the secondary, the Irish will lose Darrin Walls at cornerback, but have Robert Blanton ready to slide back outside after spending much of the year playing at nickel back. All three major safety contributors, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter return, with Smith leading the secondary after a breakthrough season.

The Irish played winning defense not by doing any one thing dominantly, but by having no weak link. In 2009, the Irish had the toxic combination of the 112th ranked yards-per-completion passing defense and the 101st rated run defense, basically historic ineptitude on one-side of the football for ND. (To put it in perspective, it’s nearly a mirror-image of the 2007 Irish offense.) With players like Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o poised for breakthrough seasons, there’s every reason to believe that the 2011 Irish defense has the chance to be something very special.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David Ruffer’s season kicking field goals was record-setting, but surprisingly it wasn’t that much better than the 19 for 22 that Ruffer and Nick Tausch combined for in 2009. But as expected, Mike Elston’s special teams statically improved in 2010, with a few major exceptions.

One of the things John Goodman isn’t is Golden Tate. That’s the best way to describe the drop in punt returns from 2009 to 2010, where the Irish went from 19th in the country to 101st, averaging an abysmal 4.9 yards per return in the punt game. The Irish also struggled in the kick return game, ranking 74th in the nation and a half-yard shorter per return than the 2009 edition, something that had to befuddle Brian Kelly, especially with some of the talented players he had on the roster. But in many cases, Kelly was limited in the return game by a rash of injuries to skill guys primed to thrive in the return game. Armando Allen battled through injuries until he was shutdown, limiting his impact on the return game. Ditto for Theo Riddick, who could’ve brought some excitement bringing back kicks and punts if not for an ankle injury. Whether it’s Bennett Jackson or not, the Irish can expect to improve in 2011, at the very least having more options to choose from.

Even though Kelly will have Ruffer and Tausch on the roster next season, Notre Dame accepted Kyle Brindza in early enrollment, bringing another powerful leg to campus. While he’s mostly thought of as a kicker, he’ll immediately challenge Ben Turk at punter, a place where the Irish know they need to do better. While Turk’s 36.3 yard net average is an improvement over last year, he struggled getting air under the ball and was the beneficiary of quite a few nice rolls, bumping that average up quite a bit.

COACHING STAFF

When Kelly assembled his first staff at Notre Dame, he did it with coaches he had relationships with, something that was helpful from a familiarity perspective, but didn’t move anybody’s star-meter when judging the coaches coming to Notre Dame. Keeping Tony Alford on the staff and bringing back Mike Denbrock, Kelly made two strategic moves. Alford brought great continuity, while Denbrock gave Kelly a long-time confidante who could show him the ropes around South Bend while also bringing his ties to the West Coast.

Kelly’s decision to bring Bob Diaco in as his defensive coordinator while Chuck Martin, his successful successor at Grand Valley State coached the secondary, had people questioning the move, but 13 games later it looks like a success. Diaco, preaching principles and discipline, improved the defense, while Martin transformed a secondary while leading the charge as recruiting coordinator.

While both Martin and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s names swirled around some head coaching vacancies, no coach left Kelly’s inaugural staff, keeping a unit that worked very well together intact. More importantly, both Kerry Cooks’ transition to outside linebackers coach (after spending most of his career as a secondary coach) and Alford’s transition to wide receivers seemed to take, as neither unit suffered from first time position coaches.

We’ll know for sure next Wednesday, but the major concern with this unit was their recruiting prowess, something that will officially be alleviated when Notre Dame inks the most impressive defensive recruiting class of the modern era. Many already knew that Alford was dynamic on the recruiting trail, but Mike Elston, Bob Diaco, and Chuck Martin pulled some major talent, with guys like Kerry Cooks getting players out of Texas, a major priority for Kelly.

As the staff transitions into Year Two, expect more of the same — coordinators preaching the same principles, a staff completely in sync with their head coach, and player development that’s been a hallmark of Brian Kelly football teams.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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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
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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.