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Unstable Midwest should mean good things for the Irish

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Strange days lie ahead for the Big Ten, or whatever they’re officially calling the conference right now. (B1G?)

As news broke that North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson could be taking his talents to Madison, it solidified the fact that there’s near historic instability around the Midwest in college football, a recipe that should help Notre Dame and Brian Kelly thrive in the coming years.

(Last night, I walked my way into a Twitter beehive, when I was credited as breaking the story that Russell Wilson had chosen to transfer to Wisconsin. I didn’t mean to walk out on a ledge and be the news-breaker. More importantly to all those aspiring journalists out there, if what I wrote can be construed as your source material, you’re really not doing your job. Moving on…)

The point of looping Russell Wilson into this story isn’t to atone for my Twitter misstep, but to point out just how upside down the pecking order is for Midwestern football teams. Since when did Wisconsin pick up the No. 1 free agent in college football? More importantly, since Barry Alvarez had Ron Dayne trucking undersized defensive backs, when was the last time Wisconsin walked into the preseason as the resounding favorite to return to Pasadena?

With Ohio State likely facing a program-changing penalty from the NCAA, the perennial top of the mountain will likely be knocked down to lower altitudes for the next five years. (Sure, they might put together a good season next year with an “Us against Them” attitude, but scholarship reductions and coaching changes have a real way of messing things up…) Michigan, the winningest football program in all of college football, is starting over with a head coach with a sub-.500 record and a defense coming off back-to-back historically bad seasons. Welcome to a world where the college football team from East Lansing is co-champs of the Big Ten, and loses their bowl game to a fourth-place SEC team by six touchdowns.

But that’s the landscape Brian Kelly inherits, and it makes sense to look at the traditional power programs in the region that Kelly will battle both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

(With distance from Notre Dame in parenthesis)

Ohio State (250 miles): Where the Buckeyes go is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be with an interim head coach, an athletic director that isn’t likely to survive the rather large magnifying glass that peers over his department, and a flagship program that’s unraveling faster than twine down stairs.

A very realistic outcome is something along the lines of USC — and maybe worse — but drastic scholarship reductions are coming soon, which lessens the chance of a coach like Urban Meyer taking over the program, something that’d put a tourniquet on the blood that’s being shed.

Still, on field results still trump stability and until the Buckeyes prove they’ve lost it, it’s hard to catapult an Irish football program that’s just a year removed from its own coaching transition in front of one of college football’s perennial powers.
Verdict: Irish still in rearview mirror, but the passing lane is only a season or two ahead.

Michigan (160 miles): Remember when rival fan’s took to spelling Lloyd Carr’s name with three Ls, almost belittling the coach’s inability to win more than eight or nine games? That level of “mediocrity” wasn’t good enough for Michigan brass so they brought in West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez to kick-start a program that was still one of college football’s elite. Three loses became three wins and Rodriguez was never able to put together a defense that could withstand the Big Ten schedule, nor an offense that could make up for it.

After three turbulent seasons, Rodriguez is gone and Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Ann Arbor. In his place, Brady Hoke, who has successfully played the “wake up the echoes” card that tends to work well amongst proud football programs.

The Wolverines staff has taken dead aim at reclaiming Midwestern recruits and the message has been well received. Still, Hoke’s new offensive system could detract from the one strength Michigan had last year — a potent spread offense that ran Denard Robinson into the ground.
Verdict: For as bad as the Rich Rod era was, he still took 2 of 3 from ND. Dead heat, with this season’s match-up the likely tie-breaker.

Michigan State (150 miles): Mark Dantonio’s program is poised to assert itself after a breakout season. Will the Spartans do it? That’s been the question over the last few decades. Shy on Q rating, the Spartans still manage to own the Irish, winning six of the last nine meetings with Notre Dame, including three of the last four. Perception wise, this is a battle that Notre Dame could start winning soon. But perceptions end every September, when the Irish and Spartans usually play a close game.
Verdict: ND may win on the recruiting trail, but they need to do it on the field.

Northwestern (108 miles): The Fighting Fitzgeralds have become a legit program under their beloved coach, but they’ve used the cupcake formula to create winning seasons. Boston College has replaced Illinois State in non-conference games, meaning the Purple will have to earn their victories this season. In 2014, the Irish and Wildcats will finally have a chance to size each other up, settling a simmering debate amongst snooty alums everywhere.
Verdict: Push. ND should pull away soon, but right now it’s still neck and neck.

Purdue (Driving distance: 115 miles): Under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers haven’t had much success. Last year’s team finished with six straight losses after injuries and youth plagued the roster. There’s reason for optimism, but the Drew Brees era feels like a long time ago.
Verdict: Irish shouldn’t struggle with Purdue.

Illinois (200 miles): The Fighting Zooks have been a bigger player on the recruiting scene than on the field, with their nine-win 2007 run to Pasadena erased by a stretch of mediocre football. If Illinois is a rival of the Irish, it’s in the battle for Chicagoland recruits, and Ron Zook isn’t likely to survive another bad season in Champaign.
Verdict: Instability at Illinois means open season on Chicago recruits.

Wisconsin (250 miles): If you’re looking for an example of a coach-in-waiting working out well, look no further than Camp Randall, where Barry Alvarez handpicked his successor and Bret Bielema took off running out of the gates. The Badgers have won 12 games, 11 games, 10 games, and 9 games since he took the reins of the Badger program in 2006, doing it with a high-octane running game and a pro-style passing attack under Paul Chryst. If there’s any program poised to take hold of the Big Ten with Michigan and Ohio State rebuilding, it’s the Badgers.
Verdict: No Big Ten program does more with less than Wisconsin.

Iowa (300 miles): Kirk Ferentz has long been considered one of the best coaches in college football, but his team’s have hardly been the most consistent. The Hawkeyes put together an 11-win campaign and an Orange Bowl victory in 2009, but stumbled to five losses last season. Ferentz’s days as a legitimate NFL coaching candidate are likely gone, meaning he’ll keep the Hawkeyes near the top of the Big Ten.
Verdict: Expect the Irish and Iowa to compete for a few recruits every year.

Penn State (500 miles): The Nittany Lions might not be that close geographically, but with Penn State in the Big Ten, they’ll always be considered Irish contemporaries. Call it a rite of autumn, but one of these years is going to be Joe Paterno’s last in State College, and when that happens, the fertile recruiting grounds of Pennsylvania and the Northeast should open up.
Verdict: The program may not be what it used to, but JoePa still has his pick of the region.

 


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
Rivals via Twitter
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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.