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Irish Blogger Gathering: Game week is finally here

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Buckle up, everybody. For those of you that have taken the last nine months off, welcome back. For those of you that have been here daily with me throughout our annual football drought, expect the pace of play to kick up considerably this week. (Refresh and reload the page a lot, we’re going to be pounding out quite a bit of content getting ready for game one as I head to South Bend late Thursday.)

Brian Kelly is set to speak with the media tomorrow at noon, so we’ll have some fresh quotes to parse through and some interesting details that will surely follow. We’ll kick off this Monday with our (hopefully) weekly participation in the Irish Blogger Gathering, captained by the esteemed Subway Domer, and this week the questions are supplied by Frank over at UHND.com.

I’ll do my best to answer some season preview questions that should get some of the seasonal fans up to speed as Notre Dame prepares to kickoff a season with very high expectations.

The big news of last week was Dayne Crist winning the starting QB spot.  Are you happy with the outcome and how comfortable are you with Crist as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season?

I’ve been saying for months that Dayne Crist will be the starting quarterback and I’m incredibly comfortable with the decision for a number of reasons. I’ll give you three.

1. Crist will be a lot better this season. Sure, his accuracy will give you a few head-scratching moments and he’s not a perfect fit for the quick trigger passing game, but I expect Crist’s production to take a huge step forward this year. Last year, to protect an offense that was very much learning the ropes, Kelly relied on a horizontal passing game. This year, expect the offense to move vertically a lot better. That plays well to Crist’s strengths, and this year the quarterback will actually know what he’s doing instead of learning on the fly.

2. Crist is a lot better fit for this offense than you might expect. Pay no attention to the two major knee surgeries, Dayne is actually a pretty mobile and athletic guy. It may feel like decades ago, but Crist was a pretty active runner in high school and last season the offense actually started to open up when Crist was able to keep the ball and run. With depth behind him no longer an issue, don’t expect Kelly or offensive coordinator Charley Molnar to avoid keeping the ball in Dayne’s hands, which will add another dimension to a running game expecting to take a leap forward.

3. Crist winning the job helps program stability. The last time the Irish had four scholarship quarterbacks battling for a starting job, Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer were both gone by week two of the 2007 season, the product of handing the job to freshman Jimmy Clausen and a head coach learning how to handle a depth chart filled with high-profile recruits for the first time.

Watching Kelly handle his four-headed quarterback competition was a perfect example of a seasoned coach understanding the college game. Everybody got a fair shot, everybody was complimented, and everybody stayed. Crist won the job in the end, and if it really was as close of a competition as BK and company made it out to be, then it was a no-brainer to choose the veteran, if only because it doesn’t tip the apple cart.

I still think it’s doubtful that we end up seeing Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees, Crist and Everett Golson all end their career playing for Notre Dame, but the fact that nobody transferred away yet is a victory for coaching diplomacy and important for building a strong program.

A lot of people say you see the biggest improvement between year 1 and 2 after a coaching change.  What area do you hope to see the biggest improvement in 2011?

Total offense. The Irish finished squarely in the middle of the pack last year at 61st, the worst year Kelly has had on that side of the ball since his early days at Central Michigan. I think the staff is quietly optimistic that this team is going to be able to play maybe not at Oregon’s pace, but at least at the speed of Kelly’s Cincinnati squad that ran the regular season table. With experience back, a good offensive line and solidified quarterback play, expect a big jump in year two.

I know you didn’t ask for two areas, but I also expect the Irish to do much better at getting after the quarterback. In Brian Kelly’s three seasons at Cincinnati, the Bearcats were in the top ten nationally in sacks each year, a pretty astounding stat considering the Irish came in at 55th last season. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stockpiled some dangerous weaponry on defense and having situational guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams, along with Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo coming off the edge means the Irish should take a giant leap forward in sacks.

I think we’ve all covered this year’s highly touted freshman class quite a bit this off-season already so instead, who do you see as this year’s Corey Mays?  Mays played primarly special teams for 3 seasons before a breakout season as a 5th year senior in 2005.  Who on the Irish roster can pull off a similar performance this season?

Is this the annual Steve Filer breakout watch question? Because if it is, Filer fits the profile down to the hometown. Last week, Bob Diaco had an interesting quote when discussing defensive starters. He was talking about 50/50 players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, but he also let it slip that he considers Steve Filer a defensive starter, too. At what position? I think we’ll get our first hint this week, as Kelly also made it clear that it was going to be the coaching staff’s job to find a way to get Filer and his athleticism onto the field for more than just special teams.

Looking at things realistically, where Filer plays will be the hardest thing to figure out. You’re not going to take Fleming off the field on passing downs. It doesn’t make sense to take out Shembo, either. If the Irish slide to a four man front, they’ll likely do it to get Aaron Lynch on the field with a hand in the dirt, and move Ethan Johnson inside to rush. Does that mean Filer lines up next to Manti Te’o on the inside, wreaking havoc on the interior of an offensive line? Who knows, but it’ll be interesting to see what Diaco cooks up, especially seeing that he works all practice with Filer and the linebackers and knows what he can do.

Theo Riddick is a player I’ve been touting all off-season and think the is ready to become a big name in college football.  What player on Notre Dame’s roster who hasn’t yet broken out are you expecting to put up big numbers in 2011?

Good call on Riddick. Just because I don’t want to say the same thing, I’ll flip to the defensive side of the ball and say Ethan Johnson. He’s done a lot at Notre Dame, but hasn’t truly broken out, and just listening to him this preseason you hear a different player and see a guy that’s physically ready to play the part of a 300-pound athletic college defensive end.

Notre Dame plays a legit opponent in South Florida unlike a lot of teams around the country.  How do you see this game playing out and does it help or hurt Notre Dame that they play a BCS conference opponent this weekend while Michigan plays Western Michigan?

I’ll get to this in way more detail this week, but South Florida is a good football team with a coach that’s very good at motivating his football team. If the Irish can keep B.J. Daniels under wraps and force him to turn the ball over a few times, Notre Dame should be able to win this football game easily. But the Bulls have some serious speed and athleticism on defense, and I expect to see Cierre Wood, Riddick and possibly George Atkinson touching the ball on the ground in some very interesting misdirection/counter elements, with the coaching staff hoping to use the Bulls speed against them.

As for starting with a non-cupcake? Don’t expect that to change, and Kelly has already talked about changing the way he prepares his team for a season that needs to be full go from day one. Would you rather open up with Western Michigan? Probably. But it’s not going to happen and there’s no reason to get worked up about it.

Stealing this one from my IBG pre-season questions from last year – who is the Notre Dame player the Irish can least afford to lose this season?  For the sake of getting some different response, you can’t use Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o here.

That’s got to be Harrison Smith. He’s the captain of both the team and the defense and with him, the Irish have an anchor in their secondary that’s among the best athletes in the country. Without him, the Irish will be playing Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, two guys that were learning on the fly and will force Chuck Martin and Diaco to play a far more conservative scheme.

Even if you included Floyd and Te’o, I’d argue Smith is just as important as those two.

Obligatory pre-season prediction question:

  • Notre Dame’s final record: If the Irish get through September, they’ll win 10 games… maybe more.
  • Notre Dame’s bowl game and opponent: I’ll repeat last year’s pipe dream: ND vs. Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl
  • Final ranking for Notre Dame: Top Ten would be a great success. (Yes, I’m avoiding this question, too.)
  • Best opposing offensive and defensive player ND will face in ’11: Andrew Luck and Jerel Worthy
  • Best opposing coach ND will face: Troy Calhoun.
  • Notre Dame game you won’t miss for anything: Tie — Michigan & USC.
  • Notre Dame game you could watch on DVR: That’d be tough for the live blog.
  • National Champion: No Clue.
  • Heisman Trophy Winner: Andrew Luck.

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.