Capital One Bowl - Alabama v Michigan State

Spartan notes: Diaco, Cousins, Narduzzi, and more

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Sometimes you just need to get a column out there, and purge some of the fun facts you’ve been storing up for the week. After spending a lot of time watching and re-watching last Saturday’s debacle, getting up to speed on the Spartans, and reassessing where this team is, you tend to forget that just because the Irish started 0-2 doesn’t mean they have the luxury of packing it in and not paying attention.

Here are a few assorted thoughts:

Last year, Bob Diaco took a ton of heat for the candidness he showed after the Irish’s loss to Navy. With a fourth quarter collapse that have a lot of people grumbling about the defensive coordinator, Diaco took his lumps appropriately, without giving the kind of insight that got him skewered last year after the Navy loss.

“If we talk specifics than we hinder ourselves going forward, but I will say that we’ve identified and addressed the fourth quarter as a team, from Coach Kelly right on down to the assistants and the players,” Diaco said. “Everyone in the organization takes accountability for that time frame and we’re going to move forward.”

The question was asked to Brian Kelly who essentially said the same thing, but Diaco was asked why the Irish didn’t roll to dime coverage in those last 30 seconds.

“At that particular point we’ve repped in practice that particular call and it was poorly executed,” Diaco said. “And at the end of the day, I’m responsible for execution so I take full accountability.”

Diaco has a slight pause after “poorly executed,” and a reporter used that as a window to get in another question. But Diaco was sure to finish his sentence making it clear that any breakdowns by players ultimately fall on him.

That includes senior cornerback Gary Gray. Diaco joined Kelly in defending Gray and picking him up from an obviously disappointing game.

“Gary is one of the best players we have on our defense. We love Gary. I’ve got a massive amount of respect for him,” Diaco said. “Like I said, I take responsibility for that play, I take responsibility for all those plays. No one in this organization is interested in placing blame on any of the players, that’s for sure.”

It’s up to Diaco, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks to get Gray ready to answer the bell. If you’re Michigan State, you’re clearly going to take aim at the senior. If Gray has his head in the right place and irons out some of the technical mistakes he’s making, he could have a big day.

***

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins likely knows how Gray feels. It was Cousins that had the Spartans deep in Irish territory back in 2009 when he threw an ill-advised interception to Kyle McCarthy that sealed a 33-30 victory for Notre Dame.

Cousins comes back to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since that game and he’s assuming the Irish defense that played well against USF and for three quarters against Michigan will be the one showing up, not the group from the final 15 minutes of last Saturday.

Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal has more:

“I view them as the first three quarters,” Kirk Cousins said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to the fourth quarter. I think a couple of those balls, if No. 4 turns his back around it’s an interception. So it’s great for Michigan to win the game but I don’t view it a whole lot as their defense is terrible and Michigan’s offense is amazing. I view it as, if that guy turns around, the game’s over long ago. So I expect them to be a very, very tough defense.”

No. 4, by the way, is senior cornerback Gary Gray. He’s getting the Jaren Hayes treatment, circa 2004, in South Bend. Reporters are coming up just short of asking Brian Kelly if he plans to sit Gray in the corner for a two-week timeout. Here’s what Kelly said Tuesday about Gray:

“It’s unfortunate that people look at that one position because it’s not just Gary Gray that we put this loss on,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of situations. If we don’t turn the ball over, Gary Gray’s name is not even brought up.
“Gary is going to be fine. He’s a senior. He’ll bounce back. He had a great game last year against Michigan State, and he’s been really solid for us. So we need Gary Gray to come up and play good football this weekend against Michigan State.”

Cousins obviously saw the Gray mistakes and is aware of the criticism, but he’s not looking at Gray like a weak link. Really, he isn’t.

“It’s unfortunate for him, I think he’s a very, very good corner,” Cousins said of Gray. “He’s played a lot of football for them. So when you’ve played that long, I feel like he’s gonna be ready. And obviously he had an off night last week, but he’s right in position. It’s not like he’s getting beat deep.

“I mean he’s right there to make the play, so that shows he’s in position and has the athleticism to cover people, and I think it’s probably a little undeserved criticism on his end. And I expect him to come back this week and play at a much higher level. So I don’t think it’s something where we’re saying, ‘Let’s pick on him, we think he’s weak.’ I think that across the board they’re a much better defense than maybe that last quarter showed against Michigan.”

Cousins is an impressive guy, a good quarterback and a much better leader, but you’d be foolish to think the Spartans won’t try and take their shots at Gray, either with B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans’ all-time leading receiver or with other guys that could be match-up problems for the Irish.

***

If you’re looking for a fun personality, check out defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who likened keeping an eye on Irish receiver Michael Floyd to finding Waldo.

“Obviously, you do something special against him but nothing extravagant,” Narduzzi said yesterday to the assembled Spartan media. “The big thing is to know where he is all the time.”

“You ever read the books, Where’s Waldo? He’s Waldo,” Narduzzi said. “We have to know where he, because he’s everywhere. You can’t find Waldo in the book sometimes, you look forever and the kids can find him but you can’t? Well we have to make sure our kids can find him when we can’t.”

It took a few weeks for the Irish to move Floyd around last year, keeping him mostly on the boundary side of the field opposite Kyle Rudolph. Kelly and Charley Molnar have moved No. 3 around more this year, and with 25 catches in the first two weeks, you can tell the results have been good.

Narduzzi also had a nice assessment of the difference between Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist.

“I think what you see on tape is Rees is a gamer. Maybe doesn’t get rattled,” Narduzzi said. “He just seems like a smooth guy out there, nothing gets him rattled. When he makes checks, he’s smooth. Crist the same but you see Crist get maybe a little more nervous when he’s making checks. Do I have enough time? But I think Crist has got a stronger arm, so he scares you, he’s got a stronger arm I think. And I walked off that field last year going, ‘That Crist will be an NFL quarterback,’ and I think he will be. I think that guy will be a first-round quarterback. So they’ve got two very good quarterbacks that are both dangerous.”

It’s always been clear that Crist has the tools. It’s just a matter of if he can get the toolbox up to speed.

***

Cleaning up some personnel matters:

Danny Spond is out with a hamstring injury. Freshman Troy Niklas now moves into the No. 2 slot at the dog linebacker position, playing behind sophomore Prince Shembo. That’s two freshman in the two-deep at outside linebacker, with Ishaq Williams backing up Darius Fleming.

With Mike Ragone out for the season with a torn ACL, freshman Ben Koyack moves to the No. 2 tight end. Sophomore Alex Welch is on his way back from a foot injury, but is questionable. Jake Golic is back and available.

It looks like John Goodman is back returning punts again this week.

 

 

 

 

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

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.