Fleming

Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

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.