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A to Z: Your comprehensive spring breakdown

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While the Irish were thrown a major curve ball with Michael Floyd’s arrest and indefinite suspension the weekend before spring practice was set to start, there’s plenty to be excited about as Brian Kelly kicked off the spring season for the Irish Tuesday with some opening comments.

For those of you that’ve been away from the computer since the Irish drubbed Miami in the Sun Bowl, here’s a quick A to Z breakdown of what to expect during these 15 practices that culminate with the Irish playing the 82nd Annual Blue-Gold Game live on Versus on April 16th.

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A is for Aaron Lynch. One of the crown jewels of the 2011 recruiting class has been on campus adding weight and muscle to his frame since January. We’ll finally see him in an Irish uniform on Wednesday, where we’ll find out how close he is to making an impact.

“Physically, he’s as developed as some of our juniors and seniors,” Kelly said.

B is for Bob Diaco. While some fans were wondering if he’d last his inaugural season in South Bend, Diaco put together one of the best defensive improvements in college football last season, thanks to a constant message and stressed fundamentals. He’ll have virtually all the same tools to play with this season, with a year of experience under their belts, only now he’ll coach both inside and outside linebackers.

C is for Crist, Dayne. This time last year, Irish fans (and coaches) held their breath as Crist returned to the field ahead of schedule after a major knee injury ended his season. Fast forward 12 months and the song sounds the same, with Kelly pointing to last year’s practice model as essentially the same thing going forward. One thing Irish fans have to feel good about is Crist’s development mentally, even if he’s struggled to stay healthy these last two years.

“I can sense that when I talk to him, it’s a lot more of a comfortable situation,” Kelly said. “He knows the offense, he knows what’s expected of him, he knows what to expect from me. There’s a very good communication base between him and I.”

D is for Dog linebacker. While Carlo Calabrese hasn’t solidified his job opposite Manti Te’o yet, the position opposite Darius Fleming is wide open, with Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduating. It’s the only spot on the defense where a player with starting experience doesn’t return, and four players seem like they’re in line to battle for the job: Danny Spond, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, and Steve Filer.

E is for Early Entries. With the rest of the 2011 recruiting class set to join their teammates this summer for informal workouts, five freshman will take the field for the first time. Joining Aaron Lynch will be kicker Kyle Brindza, defensive end turned offensive lineman Brad Carrico, Everett Golson (more on him in a second), and Ishaq Williams. Brindza will battle David Ruffer at placekicker, but probably holds the inside position for kickoffs, while he’ll also battle Ben Turk for the punting job.

F is for Filer, Steve. As we mentioned earlier in the week, the future is now for Filer. I expect the coaching staff to give him every chance to win the job at ‘Dog’ linebacker, and the Chicago native certainly has the athleticism needed to succeed. Whether Kelly meant to do it or not, Filer’s name wasn’t one of the first he mentioned for the open linebacking job, so consider the message sent.

G is for Golson, Everett. Enter Golson, the first true spread quarterback of the Brian Kelly era. The head coach has already hinted that Golson will likely see the field early, and during spring practice he and freshman Andrew Hendrix will wear both red jerseys and blue — live — jerseys.

H is for Hamstrings. Kelly also formally announced the move of former team trainer Jim Russ into a leadership role and Notre Dame’s hiring of Rob Hunt as head athletic trainer for Irish football. With that hiring, the Irish medical staff completely turned over, and used the offseason to take a comprehensive look at what seemed to cause all those balky hamstrings.

“We were able to evaluate everything,” Kelly said. “All of those areas have been addressed. It wasn’t one particular area and we feel pretty good that we’ve made very good strides in that area.”

I is for Ishaq Williams. While Darius Fleming might be entrenched at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, expect to see Ishaq Williams running around chasing quarterbacks a lot this spring.

“Physically, he’s a gifted young man and the transition is a whole lot easier for him,” Kelly said, before hinting at some evolutionary changes the Irish might make.

Last season the Irish lined up with a three-man front 53 percent of the time, a nearly 50-50 proposition, hinting that the influx of big-time edge players like Lynch and Williams, joining guys like Prince Shembo, might be enough to push the Irish into more multiple fronts.

J is for Jackson, Bennett. As Jackson announced earlier this offseason on his Twitter page (something the staff wasn’t exactly happy about), Jackson is switching to cornerback where he’ll take his special teams prowess and apply them to the defensive side of the ball.

“We like Bennett’s speed and playing with athleticism on the defensive side of the ball gives us an opportunity to have length and speed at cornerback,” Kelly said about the new No. 2, taking over Darrin Walls’ old number.

K is for Kerry Cooks. The news has been in the works for some time, but Kerry Cooks is shifting back to coaching cornerbacks after his one-season run at outside linebackers coach. Cooks came onto the staff having never coached linebackers, and was shifted likely because Chuck Martin was already in control of the secondary. Martin’s basically like having a second defensive coordinator, and keeping Cooks working hand-and-hand with a group of corners without much margin for error is a smart decision.

L is for Louis Nix. With Kelly announcing that Sean Cwynar is out for the spring as he recovers from multiple offseason surgeries, the focus shifts to one of ND’s most highly touted redshirts. It sounds like Kelly expects some big things from an equally large  Louis Nix.

“He’s going to be a guy that when you turn on the tape, you can recognize Louis Nix,” Kelly said. “Louis just needs to continue to work on his volume and what he can handle. He’s a big fella, he’s close to 345 pounds and to carry that weight, it’s a matter of how many quality reps can he give us. We know what we can get in very short spurts, but this spring is about what he can handle in volume.”

M is for Michael Floyd. This wouldn’t be a comprehensive breakdown without including the plight of the Irish’s returning MVP and co-captain, but after being prodded two or three times, Kelly finally gave a logical explanation of what he was going through when he heard the news of his star receiver’s arrest.

“There’s a range of emotions that you have,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a lot like a parent would have — from anger to disappointment to making sure that something like that in his life never happens again. I think you go through the gamut of all those things. We want to be able to support Mike, but also understand that this was a serious, serious offense, and so I think all of those emotions play in it when you first hear about something like that.”

Kelly wouldn’t put a timetable on the suspension, nor the university decision, but at the very least, the head coach both understands that Floyd did something incredibly serious and stupid, but he also needs support as he tries to get through this tough time.

N is for Nose Guard. Cwynar’s limitations this spring almost clarify an interesting situation on the interior of the defensive line as Cwynar is the only defensive tackle on the roster not listed as a nose guard.

With Cwynar out, the Irish will see what they have in a talented group of reserves, highly touted guys like Brandon Newman, Nix, Tyler Stockton, and Hafis Williams. That foursome had plenty of recruiting stars, but so far have done next to nothing on the football field.

O is for offensive evolution. If you’re looking for Brian Kelly’s offensive contemporaries, look no farther than his guests for his coaching clinic — Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Neither of those coaches inherited a personnel package as polar opposite as the grouping they needed to run their preferred offense. As players become comfortable with the system and Kelly begins to bring in players to fit his scheme, look for the offensive attack to evolve.

The installation of Ed Warinner to running game coordinator is a likely first step in that process, as it was far from coincidental that the Irish’s running game helped kickstart a team badly in need of some wins. The promotion might be the product of Warinner staying put and not chasing an open offensive coordinator position at Nebraska, but it’s well deserved for a coach that’s already been one of the best coordinators at the collegiate level.

P is for Prince Shembo. Watching Shembo develop this spring will be very interesting, as the freshman spent last season almost exclusively chasing the quarterback and not worrying about much else. If he’s going to be one of the top 11 guys on the field, he’ll need to do it with some semblance of a skill-set at drop linebacker. If Shembo can make strides covering the pass instead of chasing the passer, he might make his move to the top of the OLB depth chart.

Q is for QB competition. Who would’ve thought this time last year that Dayne Crist was more of a question mark at quarterback entering the spring of 2011 than he was replacing Jimmy Clausen?

“My expectations are it’s going to be a very competitive situation at quarterback,” Kelly said, “and Dayne can include his name in that competitive battle.”

Another knee injury certainly contributed to the competition, but the impressive play of freshman Tommy Rees and the development of Andrew Hendrix helped turn a position that was a huge question mark heading into last season into a spot where the Irish already know they can win with two different guys.

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Kelly said.

R is for Running Backs. Gone from the backfield are Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, leaving Cierre Wood as the No. 1 starter and Jonas Gray as the primary backup. While Cameron Roberson impressed last season on the scout team, it’s clear that Kelly believes it’s now or never for Gray.

“It’s pretty clear that Jonas Gray is a very integral part to our success,” Kelly said. “He is no longer that guy that tells jokes and goofs around, and you guys get the message there. But the fact of the matter is, football has got to be, outside of academics, a priority for him because he is in an absolute crucial position for us. We have to play with two tailbacks. You can’t get by with one guy. We all know that. So this is extremely important for him to show that we can count on him this spring.”

S is for Slaughter, Jamoris. This will be a huge spring for Slaughter to prove that he’s healthy after having a season essentially ruined by an ankle injury suffered in the season opening win against Purdue. When healthy, Slaughter’s a perfect defender for Bob Diaco’s defense, a strong tackling safety that has the coverage skills to play as a corner in the Cover 2.

T is for Tyler Eifert. If you’re looking for a guy that proved his worth last year, consider that heading into the season many weren’t sure if Tyler Eifert was even going to be playing on the football team, after a major back injury made it seem like his career was in doubt. But Eifert filled in for Kyle Rudolph more than valiantly, and his receiving ability brought a dimension that even Rudolph didn’t bring last season before he got hurt.

U is for Justin Utupo. While most Irish fans probably forgot about him, Utupo was listed in the conversation as a potential starter opposite Manti Te’o, who will spend the spring severely limited after having his knee cleaned up. Utupo enters the battle along side fellow redshirt Kendall Moore, who won rave reviews for his play at middle linebacker on the scout team.

Utupo’s move to the inside is a semi-surprise, as he was recruited by Charlie Weis to be a defensive end. The fact that this coaching staff thinks Utupo can play in both space and at middle linebacker means that the California native has the athleticism needed to be a run-stuffing playmaker.

V is for Victories. The only currency worth anything after an eight win season came when a four game winning streak helped people forget the frustration that came with starting 1-3. Injuries and the transition period are a long way from being understandable excuses to a fanbase not known for its patience.When asked what he wants to do differently this year, Kelly was clear:

“Win more games,” Kelly said. “I think definitely win more games.”

W is W Receiver. Gone indefinitely is one of the best W receivers in the country. Filling in for him? That’s what we’ll find out this spring, as Kelly broke down the indefinite Floyd-less plan.

“I think you’ll see Goody (John Goodman) playing a lot of the W-receiver position for us, and Danny Smith, both of those guys, will get a lot of work,” Kelly said. “Luke (Massa) will also get some work at the W position. I feel pretty good. Obviously from Goody’s standpoint, a guy that’s got a lot of football in him, can make plays and we know what he can do. Danny is kind of that unknown, big, physical, strong kid and he needs a lot of work this spring and Luke we are breaking in.”

X is for X receiver. Flipping over to the other side of the offense, the pressure ratchets up on TJ Jones as well, who got off to a blistering start before getting slowed down by some bumps and bruises. But one name Kelly put front and center was another promising recruit who has yet to made a different in his four seasons at Notre Dame: wideout Deion Walker.

“He’s had a great offseason,” Kelly said. “I’ve love the way he’s competed. He’s a changed young man in the way he goes to work every day. I questioned last year his love for the game and his commitment. He’s shown a totally different side of himself in our workouts up to this point. Quite frankly, Deion’s a guy I want to see and he’s going to get some reps and some work. We’re going to have a clear evaluation as to where he is in this program after the spring.”

That sounds an awful lot like a challenge.

Y is for Youth development. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last four or five seasons it’s that signing talented recruits is only step one of the process. Step two — and a step that’s far more important — is developing the youth your roster has.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the entire Floyd Fiasco, or injuries to Sean Cwynar and Manti Te’o, it’s the opportunity to give young players important reps throughout the spring and get the development process jump-started.

How Kelly decides to use players like Lynch and Williams, Utupo and Moore, even Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth — first time defenders looking to crack the two-deep, will determine whether or not Notre Dame can build a consistent winner under Kelly.

Z is for Zeke Motta. Thrown into the fire last year and playing much of the season without a safety net, Motta held up incredibly well, and might have played his way into a starting job. Nobody would’ve confused Motta for a pass-first center fielder, but his cover skills improved as his knowledge of the defense and scheme continued to grow. If the Irish can keep Motta on the field for all three downs, they’ll be able to use the trio of Motta, Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter to really tighten up the passing defense.

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.

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.