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: Daelin Hayes

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Irish 247
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Notre Dame’s best pass rusher may be true freshman Daelin Hayes. The early-entry freshman came to South Bend with a 5-star rating and an NFL physique, but there are more questions than answers about the Michigan native.

None of those queries are bigger than his actually on-field abilities. With shoulder injuries plaguing him for two high school seasons and off-field family issues putting him in eligibility purgatory, Hayes is an elite football prospect in spite of the fact that he hasn’t played a lot of football.

Capable of practicing this spring even if he arrived on campus just weeks removed from a shoulder surgery, Hayes took reps and stayed active this spring, mostly because he’s the perfect fit for a pass-rushing role this fall—assuming his body (and brain) allow it.

 

 

DAELIN HAYES
6’3.5″, 257 lbs.
Freshman, No. 9, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A U.S. Army All-American selection, Hayes earned a 5-star ranking from Rivals and was one of the best players in the Midwest, despite not being on the football field for much of his three seasons of high school football.

But that didn’t keep college football’s top programs from chasing him and Notre Dame won a hard-fought recruiting battle over programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and USC.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Hayes opened eyes immediately on campus, testing with a 4.8 40-yard dash at 257 pounds. That type of speed allows him to play linebacker as well as defensive end, though it’s obviously a big reason why everybody sees a potential edge rusher when they look at him. The Irish staff cross-trained him this spring, though it’s pretty clear the need at weakside defensive end begs for Hayes to find a home there.

If Hayes stays healthy, he’s every bit the NFL prospect you come to expect from a 5-star defensive end recruit. I’m not sure he’s an Aaron Lynch type recruit (he’s shorted and thicker than the current version of Lynch), but the Irish roster doesn’t have a lot of athletes like this capable of chasing the quarterback.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a designated pass rusher season coming on for Hayes, with the hopes that it’ll allow him to specialize at something, and potentially stay healthy in a restricted role. Some have mentioned Kolin Hill’s freshman campaign as a comp. I think that’s setting the bar too low.

Instead, look at Prince Shumbo’s rookie campaign. Even as a tweener, Shembo found the field in pass rush situations, putting together a nice stat line with five TFLs and 4.5 sacks as a freshman.

Again, the hope is Hayes is a quick learner, because he’s played less than a full season of football at the high school level. So while he may have been a workout warrior and dominated the camp circuit on his way to a 5-star grade, that’s just not a lot of experience.

The good news? Notre Dame’s not asking him to play quarterback or free safety. They need him to chase down quarterbacks—a skill Keith Gilmore should be able to unearth from Hayes rather quickly.

Hayes should play every week this season if he can stay on the field. If he does that, I’ll say he matches Shembo’s freshman season.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Mark Harrell

Mark Harrell
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As a fifth-year player, Mark Harrell is the elder statesman of the offensive line. He’s also still waiting for his opportunity to crack the starting lineup.

That chance won’t likely come unless something goes wrong. But Harrell is the closing thing to an insurance policy on the offensive line, a versatile reserve who has spent time playing virtually every position up front.

Likely a bridge at tackle between starters Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars and talented freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, Harrell’s a program player, with loyalty running two-ways as he plays out his eligibility in South Bend.

 

MARK HARRELL
6’4″, 306 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 75, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three or four-star prospect depending on the service, Harrell was a first-team All-State player in North Carolina with offers from Michigan, Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina, South Carolina, Stanford and Tennessee.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Did not see action, saving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2013): Did not see action.

Junior Season (2014): Played in two games, seeing action against Rice and Michigan. Served as a backup at center, with the ability to also play guard and tackle.

Senior Season (2015): Saw action in five games. Played 12 snaps at right tackle against UMass, earning a +1.2 grade from PFF-College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Feels like I could copy and paste after swapping out Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin’s names.

Harrell has the type of positional versatility you want in a backup. He served as a reserve center last year during the Blue-Gold game, and while he’s no longer on the depth chart behind Nick Martin, he’d likely be called upon in a pinch rather than burning Tristen Hoge’s redshirt. What happens if Ronnie Stanley or Mike McGlinchey go down at tackle is largely a mystery as well, so there’s likely playing opportunities, but again, only if things start to go awry.

Harrell will likely spend some time on special teams in 2015, capable of taking some snaps on field goal and punt teams. But the depth chart is packed and one of the toughest spots to get on the field, and Harrell’s lack of opportunity is largely because of the talent in front of him.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

A fifth-year backup, Harrell was tapped by Kelly this spring to move outside to tackle, hoping to solidify a depth chart that’s thinner than you’d expect, considering the impressive recruiting Harry Hiestand has done during his tenure in South Bend. But Harrell is likely on the outside because Jerry Tillery is playing defensive tackle and Ronnie Stanley was the first offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft.

It’s hard to know what Harrell can do if we haven’t seen him do it yet. But at this point, the fact that the coaching staff preferred keeping him on the roster and serving as a backup (likely at right tackle) is telling—because there’s a very high likelihood that Harrell could’ve used his graduate transfer to step onto a campus of a lower-tier program and start right away.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If all goes according to plan, we’ll only see Harrell in mop-up situations or on special teams. If it doesn’t? Expect to see how he does at right tackle, with a redshirt preferred for both talented freshmen tackles.

 

Regardless, peg Harrell for more appearances in 2016 than his career total of seven games, knowing that it’ll be important to gain some experience and keep McGlinchey and Bars fresh.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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When Tarean Folston limped off the field after his third carry of the season, few knew what would happen next. The junior running back’s season was finished. But it spawned giant years for C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, turning Prosise into a third-round draft pick and Adams into the most prolific freshman runner in school history.

That big year could’ve been Folston’s. Behind an elite offensive line, the Florida native was primed to be the leading man in the Irish backfield, with a breakout season all but guaranteed.

But injuries happen. And after working his way back into shape during spring practice and returning to a depth chart that all of a sudden has some young competition, 2016 is a chance to make up for lost time.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Senior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Auburn on Signing Day, waiting a few uncomfortable extra hours for a fax from Folston after he went on a late-January visit. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

The Under-Armour All-American had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

Junior Season (2015): His season was cut short after just three carries (for 19 yards) against Texas, lost for the year with a torn ACL. Earned a medical redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There’s no doubt in my mind that Folston wouldn’t put up monster numbers last year if he stayed healthy.

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

My biggest question for Folston has also been one of his biggest strengths—the space between his ears. For two seasons, Folston’s vision and Football IQ have been excellent. The natural ability he displayed—too often in flashes—made him the envy of a depth chart filled with talented runners.

But coming back from a knee injury is different. And Folston needs to be able to cut loose with absolute conviction and get up the field, because breakaway speed has never been the power of his game.

The depth chart Folston returns to is a different beast than the one he left. Adams has the heft to run between the tackles and the speed to hit a home run. Dexter Williams is greatly improved. Even Justin Brent is an envious No. 4 back.

But Folston is an NFL running back. His versatility, ability to catch the ball in space, and make defenders miss likely didn’t go anywhere.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is Notre Dame’s leading ball carrier in 2016. That may be a bold statement. Or it could turn out to be an obvious one after we see Folston ripping through Texas and Nevada.

Still, this is a leap of faith considering we only saw brief glimpses of Folston is spring football, donning a non-contact jersey in the Blue-Gold game. And because of the season Adams put together in 2015. But Brian Kelly believes too much in his veteran running back and knows his value to this offense. With a running game that’ll likely be the strength of the attack, putting the ball in Folston’s hands early and often can’t be a bad plan.

I’m still betting that Josh Adams ends up with a higher yard-per-carry average, but I think Folston’s senior season will be his best in South Bend.

 

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 Fertitta

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

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