Denard Robinson Manti Te'o

IBG: Turning the page to Michigan

11 Comments

As an 18-year-old freshman, I had no idea just what my first big-time college football game would be like. Sure, I had sat in a half-empty Metrodome once or twice, watching the hometown Gophers take one on the chin to a team like Houston or Purdue, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolute pandemonium that took over that Saturday morning in early September, when the 4th floor of Stanford Hall erupted at 7 a.m. and the day ended celebrating in the Stonehenge fountain across from LaFortune.

That the Irish’s victory over the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines was my first game was almost unfair for a kid that’d never stepped foot in Notre Dame Stadium before. It would never get better than that first day.

There are things I’ve learned in the years since that first time. Most of it having to do with just how contentious the ND-UM rivalry is. Irish fans and Wolverines fans don’t seem to like each other much, and sure take delight in the other program’s misfortunes. As a kid that swapped freely between a Michigan hat and a Notre Dame lid, that kind of polygamy would be shocking to see now.

Neither program is where they want to be, but Saturday night’s game still takes center stage in the college football world. And after seeing the Irish lay an incredibly smelly egg last week, and the Wolverines look anything but dominant against cupcake Western Michigan, there’s a lot to be discovered in prime-time Saturday night. (Discover it together, with the return of an old-fashioned live-blog!)

As we’ll try to do every week, we’re joining the Irish Blogger Gathering and (almost) answering all the questions posed to us. This time, they come from the feisty fellows over at Her Loyal Sons, who do their best to not let their disdain for the Wolverines get too in the way of their questions.

HLS asked, I did my best to answer:

Well that really sucked. Please describe how you feel about the loss using lyrics from a pop diva’s song. Bonus points for video or pictures. (Something good has to come out of last week.)

There’s a lot of things I’m competent at, but quoting current pop diva lyrics isn’t one of them. That said, you’ve got to think that Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I did it again,” fits pretty perfectly for Irish fans.

Tough not to like Brit in that red spacesuit…

While we all want to move on, last week’s game can teach us many things about the ’11 Irish. After seeing what Week One brought us, do you find yourself more confident, less confident or still confused as hell about Notre Dame’s chances against Michigan?

I think you definitely have to feel less confident about what we thought the Irish would be, but I don’t think anybody should jump to conclusions until very late Saturday night, when we see how the Irish come out of Ann Arbor. If Notre Dame walks away with a win, then we can take a look at a two-game sample size and still hope to learn more against Michigan State.

As for this weekend, this match-up usually strikes fear into the heart of Irish fans, and for good reason. On paper, Notre Dame should’ve won the last two games, and still found themselves losing in absolutely painstaking ways both years. Having watched the mini-game the Wolverines played against Western Michigan, regardless of how vanilla they played, there wasn’t anything that impressive about the performance, and it’s clear the defense is still very much a work in progress.

Let’s say Notre Dame only turned the ball over three times last week, and won the football game by ten points. I’d expect the line to be about a touchdown. The fact that it’s 3.5 points, even though the Irish lost last week and Michigan is playing in front of the best homefield advantage they can historically create, that goes to tell you what wiseguys think about these teams.

That said, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen. Nothing would surprise me.

Other than quarterback, which position group pleasantly surprised you this past week? Which disappointed? What player absolutely must see more time in Week 2?

You’ve got to be happy with what you saw out of the nose tackle position, with Louis Nix being as good as advertised and Sean Cwynar chipping in four tackles. I’d also add the offensive line, which looked pretty impressive, save a few tough plays for Taylor Dever and Braxston Cave. Disappointing? I guess you’ve got to target the secondary. Both Gary Gray and Harrison Smith had multiple major penalties, and they weren’t able to get an interception from B.J. Daniels, a guy who gave turnovers away last year like lollipops. I want to add Special Teams into the big disappointment column as well. Ruffer misses a chip shot, Turk once again flubs punts after hitting beauties in warmups and some shoddy punt coverage… a really terrible day for Mike Elston’s troops.

As for someone that better see more playing time, I’d love to see what Cierre Wood can do when he’s not taken out of the gameplan after halftime.

Tommy Rees will lead the Irish offense this week. Do you agree with Brian Kelly’s call? Either way, what part of Crist’s game will the Irish O miss the most, if any?

After saying all offseason that Crist was going to win the starting job, it feels a little weird to go back and support Tommy Rees after one mediocre half by Dayne. That said, I’m 100 percent in favor of the switch, even if it’s giving Crist a pretty raw deal. Maybe we thought BK was paying Rees lip-service when he said that the QB race was as close as it was, but Dayne’s microprocessor just doesn’t move as quickly as Tommy’s — and in this offense, that’s what matters. If you weren’t sure of it before last Saturday, you should be now.

That Kelly was able to pull the plug on the Crist era quickly shouldn’t be that surprising. Whether it be injury or preference, Brian Kelly has used a lot of quarterbacks in his day. Will the Irish miss anything Dayne can do? Probably, as his physical skillset is pretty impressive. But Crist has always been a square peg from a round hole in this offense, and the senior leader’s development has been stunted by an unfavorable depth chart and some difficult injuries, all to go along with some accuracy issues, a fatal flaw in a Brian Kelly offense.

What’s the key to beating the Wolverines this week. Just one thing. Not two. One.

Easiest question I’ve heard all year: Containing Denard Robinson.

Make your over-under picks:

O/U on Michael Floyd’s receiving total for this coming weekend: 154 — Over. Rees is going to have the ball going to Floyd early and often.

O/U on Robinson’s rushing total: 100 — Over. But barely.

O/U on ND’s number of turnovers: 2 — Under. I see ball security being something far more important this week, and while Michigan did a nice job of getting a few turnovers last week, I think Rees is going to do a good job against Greg Mattison’s blitzing defense.

O/U on number of times Kelly is caught “purple monstering” (read: yelling) on camera: 2 — Believe it or not, I think BK knows he probably went a little overboard with his hysterics last weekend, and I think it was a confluence of events that led to the geyser he blew on Jones. If you’re looking for a reason for Kelly to remain cool, it’s that he’s on the road. He’ll need to keep everybody under control, and a calm demeanor might be what the doctor ordered. So under.

Michigan: Just another Opponent, Enemy, or Rival? Explain.

I think it’s more enemy than rival. Brady Hoke has two clocks ticking in his lockerroom. One for the big game against Ohio State, the other for the in-state battle against the Spartans. The Irish and the Wolverines are more Hatfields and McCoys than traditional rivals.

It’s one of those bizarre hatreds between two schools that are probably far more similar to each other than they’d like to acknowledge, but still have just enough apart that they’ll never come close to conceding anything.

In other words, just one more reason why college football is great.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
1 Comment

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)
Getty
12 Comments

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
Getty
6 Comments

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)
28 Comments

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.