usfbulls

And in that corner… The South Florida Bulls

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After eight long months, it’s finally time to talk about football again, as the season kicks off with Skip Holtz and his South Florida Bulls. While I’ve done my best to keep everybody up-to-speed on USF and the dangers they present, what better time to kick off this season’s “And in that corner,” than now.

Joining us is Ken DeCelles from the USF blog Voodoo Five. (Or as the guys there call it, one of the few college blogs on the internet not run by law students.) If you’ve got a few dozen spare hours on your hands, they’ve gone one-by-one through the Bulls roster, giving you the skinny on every player. (Here’s their entry on RB Darrell Scott. We had enough debate over ranking the top 20. I can’t imagine what the whole 85-man roster would’ve looked like.)

With that level of dedication in mind, Ken was nice enough to take some time and answer some questions I had about Skip Holtz’s squad.

Inside the Irish: It seems like the Bulls offense will go as B.J. Daniels goes. What kind of day do you think he’ll have on Saturday? What do the Irish need to do to make him struggle?
It just depends on how Daniels does on the ground. It took a while last year for Holtz and OC Todd Fitch to mold the offense around Daniels’ skill-set, but towards the end of the year we saw some pretty exotic option attacks that helped spring our passing game. If our running game forces a safety into the box, it could open up our passing game.

The Irish need to keep Daniels in the pocket if they want Daniels to struggle. Daniels has always been uncomfortable when he’s forced to stay in the pocket. If the Irish defensive line can keep contain on the edge or Diaco keeps an ILB in as a spy to keep Daniels from breaking a couple runs loose it could force B.J. into a bad decision or two.

ITI: Notre Dame is coming off an 8-5 season and people in the mainstream media seem to think the Irish have a chance at a BCS game. What’s the ceiling for USF? How good is this team now and how good will it be by the end of the season?

Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if the team goes 10-2 and runs away with the Big East. This is a pretty young team with only 14 scholarship seniors on the roster, and the two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores. Opening at a hostile environment like Notre Dame will prepare our underclassmen and will get them ready for the rest of the season. There’s only so much you can do during practice, and nothing can replicate actually playing in a game.

ITI: Name two offensive threats (not Daniels) that Irish fans might not know about, but will after Saturday’s game?

Most fans know about Colorado transfer Darrell Scott, so I’ll go with WRs A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin. Both players were primed to start for USF last season, but they missed all of last year due to a Torn ACL and a dislocated ankle. After getting their feet wet in the spring, both have done an excellent job this fall keeping their starting positions over younger players like Deonte Welch, Andre Davis, and Stephen Bravo-Brown.

A.J. is your classic possession receiver who isn’t afraid to go across the middle. By far the most experienced receiver, the 6th-Year Senior runs some really crisp routes and catches everything that comes his way. The staff has been so impressed with Love’s progress that they were able to move Evan Landi to H-Back, where he is more effective.

Griffin is the team’s deep threat, and he’s most known for his 73-yard touchdown against Florida State in 2009. Griffin and Daniels seemed to have a good rapport going with Daniels towards the end of 2009 and big things were expected from Sterling last year before his freak ankle injury.

ITI: The Bulls defense has a ton of speed and is building depth. How will they match-up with the Irish offense?

I think the defensive backs will hold their own against the wide receivers of Notre Dame. Quenton Washington, Kayvon Webster, Jerrell Young, and Jon LeJiste are probably the best DB group in the Big East and JaQuez Jenkins, Ernie Tabuteau, and Mark Joyce provide ample depth without much of a drop in production.

The linebackers might be the deepest group on the roster. MLB Sam Barrington and WLB DeDe Lattimore combined for over 150 tackles last season, and they’ll be joined by redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett at SLB, who will be making his first start Saturday. The backups are just as talented with Mike Lanaris, Curtis Weatherspoon, and Mike Jeune filling out the rotation.

We’ve been looking for a pass rushing DE ever since George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul left for the NFL two years ago, and we think Ryne Giddins has the tools to step in and make the leap. He was all-everything at nearby Armwood High School and spurned Florida to play for the hometown Bulls. Patrick Hampton and Julius Forte make a strong trio with Claude Davis coming in for pass-rushing scenarios.

DT is a big concern after you get past Keith McCaskill and Cory Grissom. Luke Sager and Elkino Watson are the clear backups, but neither have seen the field much and Watson is a true freshman. Behind them are Demi Thompson and Todd Chandler, who are good for a few plays at a time. If the backups can keep things together when rotated in, the Bulls should be able to stop Cierre Wood and the Irish rushing attack.

ITI: Finish this sentence: USF will upset Notre Dame if …

Daniels is able to run wild.

ITI: Look in your crystal ball. What do you see happening on Saturday?

I think this will be a defensive struggle. USF has made a living going into hostile territory and pulling off rather substantial upsets. Its probably the eternal optimist in me, but I think USF wins with a Maikon Bonani field goal as time expires. Bulls win 17-14.

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For more from Ken and all the guys at “the toughest blog in America,” check out VoodooFive.com. You can also follow Ken’s musings on Twitter. @SBNVoodooFive

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.