South Florida v Notre Dame

Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down all of Dayne’s throws

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One week into the season, if you looked at the NCAA leaderboard, you’d say Brian Kelly‘s team is making the strides you’d expect from a program expecting big things this year.

— Fifth in passing offense  with 391 yards
— 15th in total offense, with 508 yards.
— 25th in total defense, allowing only 254 yards
— 21st in passing defense, allowing only 128 yards

But if you scroll way down to the bottom of the official NCAA stats for turnover margin, you’ll find Notre Dame occupying 116th place — dead last — all by itself. (Crazily enough, one spot ahead of Alabama, who was minus-four in its opening win over Kent State.)

Kelly gave senior quarterback Dayne Crist the quick hook Saturday afternoon, after a first half that saw Crist put up modest numbers: 7 of 15 for 95 yards, with a critical red zone interception. On paper, Crist’s performance didn’t look bad enough to blow up the depth chart after 30 minutes. But when Tommy Rees threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, it exposed Crist’s inability to make big plays in Kelly’s offense.

Kelly said he needed to go back to the tape to truly evaluate both quarterbacks. We’ll hear who Kelly picks during Tuesday’s noon press conference. But before we get there, here’s a look at each throw Crist made, with a breakdown of his thought process on every throw.

DAYNE CRIST’S PASSING PLAYS

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Throw 1: 1st and 10 at ND 20

Crist pass complete to Cierre Wood for a 31 yard gain. 

The opening play of the 2011 season looks like a designed dump off to Wood. Crist did a nice job buying time, then Cierre did the rest.

Throw 2: 2nd and 9 at USF 48

Crist pass complete to Michael Floyd for 26 yards. 

An interesting play. It looks like the USF corner actually jumped the slant, but Crist waited for Floyd to clear and then put a good throw on him anyway. A high percentage toss and a nice catch and run by Floyd.

Throw 3: 3rd and 9 at ND 46

Crist pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 4 yards. 

Bad decision number one. A third down with an empty set, five wide receivers. Jonas Gray and TJ Jones, both split left, clear half the field. Floyd drags low across the middle with his corner chasing him, letting Crist know early its man coverage. With no pass rush in sight, Crist simply needs to wait for Theo Riddickto flash open after Floyd clears the middle. But instead of showing patience and letting the play develop, Crist takes the early throw, even though the pass rush isn’t on him, as he dumps it off to Eifert, who is tackled well short of the first down.

Riddick’s reaction tells it all, as the play was set up perfectly for a big gainer. Riddick was isolated with a linebacker and was just clearing open, a perfectly designed play. Even though it goes down in the stat sheet for a completion, it’s a huge missed opportunity and it forced the Irish to punt.

Throw 4: 2nd and 1 at ND 42

Crist pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

From the angle we have, it doesn’t look like Crist had much to work with, though on the TV broadcast Mike Mayock seemed to think if Crist pulled the trigger sooner he’d have had someone on the intermediate crossing route, which looked to be Floyd. On 2nd and 1, I’ve got no problem taking a shot down the field, but it wasn’t a particularly accurate throw.

Third and short wouldn’t have been a terrible situation, but Crist then went on to take a delay of game call. Whether it was Crist’s fault for not keeping an eye on the clock, the Irish sideline for not getting the play in on time, or the Notre Dame PA team for the timing of the announcement, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Throw 5: 3rd and 6 at ND 37

Crist pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Just a really bad miss. Floyd was wide open on a slant route, the defensive back had all but conceded the first down, but Crist sailed a throw high. It happens sometimes, but it’s a crucial throw with the Irish already down ten points.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 32

Crist pass complete to TJ Jones for 13 yards. 

Both outside receivers, Jones and Floyd, were running hooks, while inside receivers, Eifert and Riddick, ran stutter moves. With the inside receivers covered pretty well, Crist checks down and hits a wide open Jones, who runs for the first down. A good read.

Throw 7: 1st and 10 at USF 37

Crist pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards. 

With the corner showing blitz too early, Crist switched plays, calling for a quick hitch to Floyd, which he completed on time. Floyd did the rest and put a nice move on the safety to get a first down to end the first quarter.

Throw 8: 1st and 10 at USF 26

Crist complete to Mike Ragone for 10 yards. 

A half field read for Crist, who had Tyler Eifert running to the flag before Crist dumped the pass off to Ragone. Riddick and Floyd were on the field side, but Crist never looked left. A productive play and a first down into the Bulls’ red zone.

Throw 9: 2nd and Goal at USF 7

Crist pass incomplete to TJ Jones. 

A ball that should’ve been a touchdown pass, but the USF defensive back hit Jones perfectly, and the ball fell out of his arms on the slant. You could argue that Crist should’ve thrown the ball down and in instead of a bit behind Jones, but it’s a ball that TJ needs to catch for the touchdown.

Throw 10: 3rd and Goal at USF 7

Crist pass intercepted by DeDe Lattimore in the end zone, returned for no gain and a touchback.

A real head-scratcher. It looks like the primary read on this play should be Michael Floyd, who was coming underneath a Tyler Eifert out route (also known as a pick). If Crist hits the throw immediately, Floyd would’ve had to slide around a linebacker and dive for the end zone, a match-up I’d call Floyd the winner of every time. But Crist was locked on Riddick from the start of the play. (If you watch the broadcast, they give you a reverse angle that tracks Crist’s eyes the entire time.) Riddick was ridden — you could argue held — by Lattimore, but either way it was a bad ball, on top of a bad read, in a really bad place on the field to make that decision.

As Mayock said at the time, “You can’t make a worse throw than that.” Agreed.

Throw 11: 2nd and 5 at ND 40

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert.

A designed roll to Crist’s left, he had Jones running a smash, Riddick running a flag, and Eifert running an out. Jones was wide open early, but Crist waited to throw, and was forced to go to Eifert, who had the ball broken up on a nice play by the linebacker. Riddick was well covered and not an option, but Jones was open early and throughout, and even Eifert would’ve been available had Crist pulled the trigger early enough. This is a play you need your starting quarterback to make.

Throw 12: 3rd and 5 at ND 40

Crist pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

The beginning of Theo Riddick’s very bad day. There’s nothing to blame on Crist here, who waited for Riddick to get open as he streaked across the middle and put a bullet on him over the middle. Theo dropped it, and proceeded to muff the next ball that came his way, misplaying a punt that gave USF the ball on the Irish twenty. Crist got on Riddick after the play with some tough love, a good display of leadership.

Throw 13: 3rd and 11 at ND 25

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert.

This ball should’ve been caught by Eifert too, but Crist’s throw was a little behind him. With Michael Floyd running the square in beneath him, Eifert was open for the first down but just didn’t make the catch. It’s an easy throw that Crist didn’t quite make, but his teammate needs to pick him up here, too.

Throw 14: 1st and 10 at ND 14

Crist pass complete to Theo Riddick. 

As the Irish begin the two-minute drill, Crist dumps the ball off to Riddick on a shallow crossing pattern for no gain. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but it looks as if Floyd was wide open on a hitch route on the outside, but Crist chose the safe underneath throw, not a particularly good decision when you need to keep the clock from running and move the ball down the field.

Throw 15: 2nd and 10 at ND 14

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

A designed roll left, Crist misses a short but throw to Eifert, putting the Irish in a 3rd and long from deep in their own territory. Instead of putting the ball in Crist’s hand in the rain after missing the throw to Eifert, Kelly opts for a draw play, forcing USF to use a timeout before Ben Turk’s punt.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s a receiver-by-receiver breakdown of Crist’s targets:

Passes to Cierre Wood: 1 of 1 for 31 yards
Passes to Michael Floyd: 2 of 3 for 37 yards
Passes to  Tyler Eifert: 1 of 4 for 4 yards
Passes to Theo Riddick: 1 of 4 for 0 yards, 1 interception
Passes to TJ Jones: 1 of 2 for 13 yards
Passes to Mike Ragone: 1 of 1 for 10 yards

If you want an easy way for Crist to be more productive, simply throw the ball to Floyd more. He’s by far the Irish’s best offensive player, yet in breaking down the tape, there were multiple times when Crist simply didn’t look to Floyd, a baffling thought process that I put more on Crist than the coaching staff, especially after watching the first half almost a dozen times. If you’re looking for a reason to give the starting job to Tommy Rees, look at this damning stat line:

Michael Floyd with Crist: 2 catches, 37 yards
Michael Floyd with Tommy Rees: 10 catches, 117 yards, 2 touchdowns

There isn’t much of a question that Rees outplayed Crist on Saturday. We can break down every one of Rees’ throws (and I will), but all it’ll tell you is that Rees did a much better job taking advantage of the opportunities the Irish offense offered. That’s what a starting quarterback should do.

But when Kelly pulled Crist in favor of Rees after seeing only one half of the quarterback he anointed his starter for the season, he kicked a beehive that won’t stop swarming unless the Irish defeat Michigan next Saturday night in Ann Arbor. If the season depends on it, Kelly might have to concede he made the wrong decision two weeks ago.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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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.