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Pregame Six Pack: Running with the Bulls

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Are you talked out yet? Between Charlie Brown, Eleven for ’11, USF previews, and a nice little sprinkling of recruiting news, it’s been a busy week. As we finally complete our crawl to Friday, the pregame heat has been turned up. Literally. It feels like someone left the oven open in the Midwest, and as thousands descend upon South Bend, they’ll be greeted by 97 degree heat and a humidity that begs you to buy a few extra dry t-shirts at the Bookstore.

With that in mind, we’ve trimmed our pregame sampling to a six pack, if only to keep everyone from getting dehydrated. As always, here are six fun facts, tidbit, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the No. 16 Fighting Irish prepare to play Skip Holtz’s South Florida Bulls.

1. Bring on the freshman.

Not that it wasn’t inevitable, but the game time forecast means the Irish will need to get more players involved from the get go, meaning everybody should keep their eyes on the roster and watch intently as their favorite freshman hit the field for the first time.

“We’ve got to be really good at substitution,” Brian Kelly said. “Some of these young guys have got to play early. When it’s a lot hotter the Tuitts and the Lynches and Troy Niklases and the Atkinsons and the McDaniels, all those kids, you’re probably going to start seeing them in the first dozen plays. Maybe sooner. When the weather’s like that, those young guys that have to gain experience, you’re not going to wait too long to see them in the game.”

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a short crib-sheet on the newcomers you’ll likely see.

No. 4 – George Atkinson, RB: Expect a package that’ll let Atkinson get the ball in space. He’s undersized, but can fly.
No. 27 – Kyle Brindza, K: Rocket-legged freshman will handle kickoffs.
No. 16 – Davaris Daniels, WR: Raw but athletic, Kelly might be underselling Daniels in hopes he’ll fly under the radar.
No. 5 – Everett Golson, QB: Wouldn’t surprise me if Golson has a series of his own on Saturday running spread option package.
No. 18 – Ben Koyack, TE: The fact that Koyack’s pushed his way into a deep TE rotation shows you how good he could be.
No. 19 – Aaron Lynch, DE: Expect to see No. 19 on the first third down of the year, pining his ears back an getting after B.J. Daniels.
No. 33 – Cam McDaniel, RB: He’ll likely surprise many with his versatile skillset and big play ability.
No. 58 – Troy Niklas, OLB: The prototype from Brian Kelly’s recruiting model. Big, versatile athlete is a freak of nature.
No. 7 – Stephon Tuitt, DE: If you’re wondering who Tuitt is, just look for the biggest guy on the football field.
No. 1 – Ishaq Williams, OLB: Might be the wildcard of the class. Immensely athletic player could be a specialty item.

2. The stars have aligned for Manti Te’o. That might not be a good thing for USF. 

I’ve been derelict in my duties this offseason, and I haven’t filed as many stories on Te’o as I probably should have. That’s not to say that I take the Irish’s preseason All-American for granted.

How long has it been since the Irish have had an All-American linebacker? Anthony Denman garnered second-team AP honors in 2000, Demetrius DuBose received mention in 1991, but not since Michael Stonebreaker in 1990 has a Notre Dame linebacker been a first-team All-American, with Stonebreaker, Chris Zorich and Raghib Ismail all being named consensus All-American’s in 1990. How long ago was that? Ottilia Te’o was pregnant at the time, months away from giving birth to Manti in January of 1991.

Eric Hansen has a long profile of Te’o in today’s South Bend Tribune, an article he wrote for the excellent Irish Sports Report preview magazine. In it, Te’o singles out the tide change in the Irish resurgence at the end of last season.

And that strength — from the church, from Toma, from family — that percolated most of Te’o’s first season and a half at ND became a constant toward the end of last season, when the Irish went on their season-ending 4-0 run.

“In the practices leading up to the Utah game, the players took over,” Te’o explained. “The coaches didn’t have to be the energy. The coaches didn’t have to be the guys getting the team going.

“I told (defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco. ‘Let me try and run this. Let me get us into the right defense. Let me try to motivate these guys.’ And quickly, the team periods become more physical.

“From there, guys were getting into each other. Guys were talking crap to each other. Guys were hitting each other. Then the offense starting getting into it, and it became this huge competition thing. When we walked into the Utah game, we had a whole new swagger. We knew nobody was going to beat us.”

If you’re looking for an interesting match-up, keep an eye on Te’o vs. USF running back Darrell Scott, a 243-pound bowling ball that’s got five-star pedigree. With B.J. Daniels‘ speed and athleticism putting pressure on the edges of the defense, Te’o will likely be tasked with stopping Scott. That’s roughly 500 pounds of force colliding.

3. Both South Florida and Brian Kelly understand what Michael Floyd is capable of doing.

If you’re wondering if South Florida knew about Michael Floyd, it’s pretty clear they’ve watched some tape.

“He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen since Braylon Edwards,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said earlier this week. “He may be better than Braylon.”

The assignment of covering Floyd will probably be given to Quenton Washington, a 5-10 redshirt senior cornerback that was just named one of the team’s captains. The Bulls also have some good size in their secondary with safety JaQuez Jenkins, who at 6-2 has the height to go up and get the ball as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Snyder bracket Floyd with over-the-top coverage from Jenkins, with hopes of taking the jump ball out of play.

That said, if you’re looking for a storyline that most won’t be following, keep an eye out for how Kelly decides to use his star wide receiver this year. In last year’s opening game, Dayne Crist only targeted Floyd seven times, with Floyd catching five passes for a rather pedestrian 82 yards. Against Michigan, a team he’s torched in the past, Floyd only caught five balls, with two coming in that fleeting final drive. Contrast that with the USC game, when Tommy Rees targeted Floyd 13 times, completing all but two throws. To Floyd, Rees was 11 for 13. When targeting the rest of the team, he was 9 for 19 for 60 yards and three interceptions.

With a big game, Floyd could pass Jeff Samardzija in receptions and Golden Tate in career yardage, putting his name atop two more Notre Dame receiving records. Now that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar know what Floyd is capable of, they’ll find more ways to get him the football.

4. Expect the first 100 yard game of the Brian Kelly era to happen on Saturday.

If Brian Kelly knew he’d fail to get a 100 yard rusher in his first season, he’d have likely sent Armando Allen through a hole one more time against Purdue or let Cierre Wood have a few carries in that final drive against Western Michigan. He didn’t, so Wood’s 94 yard day against the Broncos stands as a season high, a number that’ll likely be improved upon Saturday.

The Irish ran the ball for 4.0 yards a carry last season, their best rushing average since 2003. That said, it’s not a number they’re satisfied with. As I mentioned earlier, one big reason that’ll improve is Ed Warinner. The last time Warinner was a run game coordinator he led Illinois to the Big Ten rushing title, finishing 10th in the nation while averaging 188 yards per game.

It’s clear that Cierre Wood is the featured back in the Irish offense. But how carries get distributed between Wood, senior Jonas Gray, and freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson will be interesting. (I also expect to see Theo Riddick get a handoff or two.)

5. It’s finally time to see if the Irish defense is as good as we think it is.

While a late season renaissance has many thinking this Irish defense could be one of the better units in the country, we’ll likely get our first clue tomorrow afternoon. (That said, don’t get too excited with a one-game sample size. The Irish opened up 2009 with a shutout victory against Nevada.) If you’re looking for a reason the Irish should thrive, look no further than the defensive front seven.

After a starting trio of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, and Ethan Johnson, expect to see Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke and Hafis Williams rolling through.

At linebacker, Darius Fleming, Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo will start, but we already know we’ll see plenty of Carlo Calabrese, and it’ll be interesting to see how Bob Diaco works in Steve Filer, Danny Spond, and freshmen Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas. Expect quite a few exotic personnel packages, most designed to confuse and fluster B.J. Daniels.

On the back line, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray will start at field and boundary cornerbacks. Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter will start at safety, with Zeke Motta rolling in. Blanton’s playmaking ability behind the line of scrimmage necessitates a few different looks for the Irish defense after a season of playing mostly vanilla coverages. It’ll also be interest to see how much time Dan McCarthy and Bennett Jackson get, two talented athletes that haven’t seen much time on the field.

Last year, the Irish were focused on “mastering their musts.” After passing their prerequisites, it’s time to move up to honors level courses.

6. If the Irish can force turnovers from B.J. Daniels, the game should fall Notre Dame’s way.

It isn’t hard to pick out the trend in USF’s 2010 season. When the Bulls lost, it was because B.J. Daniels turned the ball over.

Florida 38, USF 14 — Daniels goes a woeful 5 for 20 with four interceptions
Syracuse 13, USF 9 — Daniels is 9 for 23 with two interceptions
West Virginia 20, USF 6 — Daniels completes 20 of 30, but throws three interceptions
Pitt 17, USF 10 — Daniels is 15 for 29 with no touchdowns and one interception.

In victory, here were Daniels’ stats:

USF 59, Stony Brook 14 — 15 for 22, 2 TDs
USF 24, Western Kentucky 12 — 7 for 11, 0 TDs 1 INT
USF 31, Florida Atlantic 3 — 14 for 19, 1 TD
USF 38, Cincinnati 30 — 13 for 16, 2 TD
USF 28, Rutgers 27 — 10 for 17, 2 TD 1 INT
USF 24, Louisville 21 — 11 for 19, 1 TD
USF 23, Miami 20 — 4 for 12, 0 TD, 0 INT

Only against Western Kentucky did the Bulls win when Daniels threw more interceptions than touchdowns. If the Irish can create pressure in the pocket and confuse Daniels, they should be in good shape to force some turnovers.

In case you’re wondering, Brian Kelly is 30-1 since 2006 when his team wins the turnover battle.

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.