Robert Blanton

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williammade waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.

With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.

 

Dexter Williams
5’11”, 210 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 2, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown.  Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.

Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.

Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.

All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White

McGovern set to start at right guard

Colin McGovern 247
Irish247
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Lost amongst captains, suspensions and quarterbacks, Brian Kelly named senior Colin McGovern Notre Dame’s starting right guard. He won out over fellow senior Hunter Bivin and sophomore Tristen Hoge.

McGovern’s strong camp helped solidify the starting five two weeks before the team heads to Austin, where 100,000 fans will present the most hostile environment the Irish will see this season. His ascent also turned around a situation that had the Illinois native running third this spring after a concussion kept him out of multiple practices.

As camp continued, McGovern ended up winning Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s trust, a veteran who the staff believes is better equipped for the interior job than Bivin and has more strength at the point of attack than Hoge.

Kelly talked a bit about the positives McGovern brought to the job earlier in camp, while also explaining some of the evolutionary changes the offense has made in the past few seasons, a key to McGovern emerging as the starter.

This offense requires more of a puller, a guy that is more a guy that can get out in space and Tristen can do that, Colin can do that,” Kelly explained earlier in August. “You know even Hunter can do that, he’s pretty athletic. So we’ve changed the nature of the guard position if you will. He’s got to be a guy can get out and run.”

With McGovern winning the job, it appears that Hoge will now serve as the first man in at any of the three interior positions while Bivin will back up both tackle spots. Mark Harrell will also be a safety net, hopefully allowing the staff to redshirt Tommy Kraemer unless major attrition hits.

McGovern played in eight games last season, seeing the majority of his time on special teams while getting extended time in the home victory against UMass. He’ll be making the first start of his career against Texas.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

Ashton White247
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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A solid spring and a nice training camp were lost in the shuffle when Ashton White was pulled over in Fulton County, Indiana on Friday evening. Along with four teammates, White’s future with the Irish football team was thrown into question, charged on suspicion of marijuana in an incident that already cost Max Redfield his place on Notre Dame’s roster.

Even with his punishment to be handled internally by his head coach, legal charges and university discipline are still being decided. And until then, those questions will overwhelm any role White could’ve had in the Irish secondary, competing for a spot in the two-deep among a talented group of cornerbacks.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 195 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White didn’t necessarily have the highest recruiting ranking, but the three-star prospect was an early target of the Irish staff, flipping his commitment from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame over the summer.

White had offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, Iowa and many more.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hit this one on the head, though saving that year of eligibility seems fairly minor now.

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s every reason to believe that one mistake won’t doom White’s career—especially if Brian Kelly has anything to say about it. But any forward momentum he had during camp was thrown away when he found himself square in Kelly’s crosshairs after one of the more head-scratchingly stupid off-field messes we’ve seen.

Setting aside all of that, White’s got plenty of things to appreciate. He’s a solid cover man, a competitive player, and even if he wasn’t going to get a ton of playing time, he was expected to be a key component of Scott Booker’s special teams units.

As long as Notre Dame keeps recruiting talented cornerbacks, it’s going to be tough to get on the field. But White’s part of a reloaded position group that has already turned a depth chart deficiency into a strength—even with the understanding that his murky future eliminates some of that wiggle room.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect White and the other three guys in the car to serve a suspension that’s give or take two games. And from there, I expect him to fight his way back into the rotation—starting outside the two-deep at cornerback but immediately in the mix on special teams game.

White plays with a brashness and confidence that you have to appreciate. If he can survive the boneheaded decision he made, I think he’ll take advantage of the second chance and become a situational contributor. But it’s certainly a black mark on his record, and one that makes you wonder about his decision-making skills.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar

 

Kelly and Irish do their best to move forward

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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Available to the media for the first time since the Friday night that did its best to rock the foundation of his football program, Brian Kelly acknowledged what he was thinking and feeling as the news came in.

Kelly said the emotions came in three waves.

“My first one was disappointment. Then that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment—for the university,” Kelly said Wednesday evening. “And then I was mad as hell. I think those are the three stages that I went through.”

And so the Irish football program moves on, trying to get the egg out of its collective faces before they head to Austin to battle Texas in the season opener. They took their best step forward, naming four team captains yesterday—with hopes that Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter, James Onwualu, and Isaac Rochell could self-police a group of young players that clearly need more than what the coaches are already doing.

So while guns and drugs and bar brawls with cops feel like something out of an SEC program gone rogue, it’s a single night in August for a team that believes it’s competing for a national championship. Even with dueling quarterbacks, inexperience across the roster, and now a true freshman making his debut at free safety in front of 100,000 at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.

But Kelly has to move on. So a head coach seven years into his tenure in South Bend, having lived through more than a few rough moments already, has to find the silver lining in perhaps the most embarrassing incident of his career.

“They’re life lessons,” Kelly said, when asked how he addresses his young team. “It’s more than just you.

“So we talk about selfish decisions. We talk about representing more than just yourself. You represent the university, you represent a program, you represent an entire fanbase. Those are the things we talk about more than anything else. It’s just not about you.”