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Friday notes: QBs, Miffed recruits, and more

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For much of the offseason, recruiting stories have focused on two quarterbacks that have become the apple of the Irish coaching staff’s eye: Maty Mauk and Gunner Kiel. The two quarterbacks both have ties to the Irish program — Mauk’s brother Ben played under Kelly at Cincinnati and has gushed openly about BK’s offense. Kiel is from Indiana, has family lineage that includes former Irish quarterback Blair Kiel, and also happens to be one of the top-rated prospects in the country, an almost certain five-star recruit.

With the plethora of scholarships on the table right now in Irish recruiting, quarterback offers are few and far between with Mauk and Kiel joined by dual-threat quarterbacks Cyler Miles and Jameis Winston as the only four quarterbacks with offers on the table. But the Irish might be adding another name to the mix, with Buffalo’s Chad Kelly, nephew to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, recently getting a visit from none other than Bob Diaco.

IrishIllustrated.com has more on the details:

“Coach Diaco was in last week,” said Kelly, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound dual-threat quarterback. “I got a few e-mails from (Notre Dame) last season but this was the first time (they visited).”

Kelly didn’t have the chance to talk with Diaco, but St. Joseph’s head coach did and he relayed a message to his quarterback.

“Coach Diaco talked to my coach and said that I’m very worthy of a scholarship and what not,” Kelly said.

Kelly seems like another intriguing prospect, with a reported 4.5 forty time posted last year at the Ohio State camp. He’s obviously got impressive bloodlines as well. With Mauk and/or Kiel likely at the top of both the coaching staff’s board as well as the probability chart, the coaching staff is showing once again that under Kelly, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and in-house director Dave Peloquin, that they’re covering all their bases.

***

One recruit that’s no longer on Notre Dame’s radar is recent Michigan commit Joe Bolden. The outside linebacker, and former teammate of incoming Irish freshman Jarrett Grace, gave some eye-opening quotes to writer Kyle Warber, reported on MLive.com:

When you tell a 6-foot-3, 230 pound linebacker he is “too small,” especially a player with the pedigree of JoeBolden, don’t be surprised if he looks forward to “beating the tar out of you” every year.

“Being told I am too small,” Bolden admitted, “when I have never heard that before, it was an eye opener. Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am ‘not their guy.’ I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised it was about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dogs bite.”

Now Bolden is relishing the opportunity to take a big bite out of Notre Dame (Ohio State too), including getting the better of old teammate and great friend Jarrett Grace, who currently plays for the Irish.

“It will be good to walk over and shake the Notre Dame coaches’ hands and say thank you for giving me the drive to be even better,” Bolden said.

For Irish fans looking to gloat, it might feel nice to know that Michigan’s most coveted recruit is a guy that the coaching staff didn’t see as worthy of an offer. (Then again, that’s a risky proposition, especially considering guys like A.J. Edds, the former Iowa linebacker and 4th round pick, basically begged for an Irish offer.) But looking at this analytically, it’s just another example of Notre Dame knowing exactly what it’s looking for when it comes to position groupings and recruiting “fits,” and it seems like the coaching staff had the discipline to stick with their convictions and bring in the players they know will work within the confines of their defense.

Either way, remember the name Joe Bolden. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out…

***

ESPN and College Football Live took a look at Notre Dame, which they’ve got pegged at No. 17 in the way-too-early 2011 preseason polls. The panel was moderated by Kirk Herbstreit and included Craig James, Jesse Palmer and some guy named Urban Meyer.

Take seven-plus minutes to watch the video, and then I’ll come back with some commentary:

Okay, here goes:

It’s a little disappointing that of all people, Herbstreit’s little “nugget” is probably the most preposterous statement of anybody’s, including the notorious Brad James. Herbie’s note that the first round draft drought the Irish have suffered at running back and receiver since Jerome Bettis in 1993 helps explain why the Irish have had woes since Lou Holtz is beyond misleading.

Of course, on the surface this sounds like sound logic. But dig a little deeper (as our friends at the blog formerly known as BlueGraySky did) and this is one step short of Herbstreit’s “high school defense” theory that looked quite silly as last season wore on.

Until this year’s draft, Alabama has had only one running back or wide receiver (Shaun Alexander in 2000) taken in the first round since 1974, when Wilbur Jackson went to the 49ers. Even more incredible, only three tailbacks or wide receivers at Alabama have been taken in the first round in the entire history of the NFL Draft.

Sure, Herbstreit’s comments sound good in an eight-minute roundtable discussion, but when presented against a program as prestigious as Alabama, you realize that it’s a pretty worthless evidence.

One note probably more interesting than any other? It’s that Urban Meyer — the only guy on that panel that’s seen Notre Dame in person since last football season — was the most bullish on the Irish.

“I think they’ve got the right guy,” Meyer said of Brian Kelly taking the reins of the program. “I don’t think — I know they got the right coach.”

***

Finally…

As if his performance on the NFL Network’s draft coverage wasn’t enough, apparently Brian Kelly is working to get his SAG Card.

“Get that chocolate milk!”

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.