Floyd Pitt

And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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For the first time in more than half a decade, the Irish will prepare to take on a Pittsburgh team that doesn’t feature Dave Wannstedt on the sidelines. Kicked to the curb after winning 27 games over the last three seasons, the Pitt brass finally tired of the Wannstedt era, known for it’s inability to get over the hump, even while the results were mostly pretty good.

After an offseason most Pitt fans would like to forget (not to mention Mike Haywood, who filed suit against the university this week over his firing), the university named Tulsa coach Todd Graham its new head coach. Graham has brought in a philosophy and style polar opposite of Wannstedt’s, but the stated mission is clear: Take the team past its current plateau.

With Pitt and Syracuse announcing their walking away from the Big East to join the ACC, the traditional rivalry between the Irish and the Panthers might soon be coming to an end. But until then, Graham has shown he understands the importance of Saturday’s game.

“I think there’s Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame, when you think of the three games that mean the most to our players and our programs,” Graham said.  “It’s a big deal. We’ve got a great tradition around this game.”

With all the news that’s swirling around the Pitt program, we thought we’d go inside the school’s walls to get our update on the Irish’s weekend opponent. Here to answer our questions is Lauren Kirschman, sports editor of The Pitt News, the university paper.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Notre Dame had their own fourth quarter implosion, but how disheartening was Pitt’s collapse against Iowa? Win and the Todd Graham era starts off at 3-0 with a huge victory against a Big Ten power in their house. Lose, and it makes you think about the uneven performances against Buffalo and Maine. Do we know who this team is yet?

Lauren Kirschman: The Panthers are exactly what they looks like: a team going through a complete and total transition in philosophy and style. Anyone who watched Dave Wannstedt’s Pitt teams and have seen Todd Graham’s squad this year should be able to tell that. Although the loss to Iowa was extremely disappointing, for the first three quarters of that game Pitt finally looked like it was executing Graham’s system as it should be executed. It seems that Pitt’s major problem right now is putting together a complete game. Still, it’s apparent that the players haven’t completely made an adjustment from Wannstedt’s methodical, pro-style system to Graham’s no-huddle, self-described “high-octane” style of play. Once that starts to click, I think we’ll really get an idea of the identity of this team.

ITI: Pitt has looked good running the ball with Ray Graham. But the offensive line has really struggled to hold up against a pass rush. The Irish front seven had its best game of the year against Michigan State, constantly knocking around Kirk Cousins. Can the Panthers offensive line hold up on Saturday?

LK: In the Iowa game, Tino Sunseri wasn’t hit all that much, at least not compared to the rest of the season. Iowa sacked Sunseri three times, while Maine sacked him seven times. Pitt had real problems picking up blitzes in the Maine game but against Iowa the protection was decent. The real problem against Iowa seemed to be that Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball faster. I think the offensive line will hold it’s own on Saturday, but you might see some more roll outs and Sunseri out of the pocket more. But if Sunseri doesn’t make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball against Notre Dame, I think it’s going to be a long day for Pitt.

ITI: How has the defensive transition gone with Keith Patterson and Tony Gibson. Statistically speaking, Pitt has been solid against the run but has put up some really ugly numbers in the passing game. What’s been the problem? It is talent or is the scheme been tough to pick up?

LK: It’s a little bit of both, but the best players that Pitt has seem to be on the field right now. The primary problem seems to be the linebackers, who, as you mentioned, are solid against the run but continue to struggle defending the passing game. Pitt gave up 399 passing yards against Iowa. Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in the third quarter against the Hawkeyes and a lot of the errors seem to be mental mistakes. Graham cited communication problems, saying that there were a few times when the players had the wrong call. He also said that he might have overestimated how much the defense can handle and he might have to be more patient in teaching the new system. What that says to me is that the scheme is difficult to pick up and many of the blown coverages come from the players not understanding where they are supposed to be. There have been a few plays this season where two players have gotten mixed up on coverages, leading to a big play for the opponent. Unfortunately for Pitt, Notre Dame has the best passing offense that it has seen this season and maybe the best the Panthers will see all year.

ITI: What have the early returns looked like on Todd Graham and his coaching staff? Anything that’s surprised you?

LK: I don’t think anything has really surprised me. A lot of Pitt fans expected Graham and his staff to come in, install this new system and then instantly start scoring 50 points a game. But that’s just not how it works. Installing a new system, especially one that is so different than the one that came before it, takes time. Even though Pitt lost against Iowa, for at least three quarters you could see definite improvement from the Panthers both offensively and defensively from that first game against Buffalo. What I like the most about Graham is his honestly–he knows there are problems with the team and he willingly admits that–and his determination to stick with his system. He admitted after the Maine game that if he would’ve run the ball the entire game, the margin of victory would have been greater, but he wants to install a well-rounded offensive system and that includes the passing attack. There will be positive pay off for that later. When the Panthers are playing well, you can see how Graham’s system is supposed to look. For periods of time against Iowa, the offense attacked and looked smooth and capable of scoring those 50 points a game.

ITI: As both a student and as someone that follows Pitt sports pretty closely, what are your feelings on the announced move to the ACC?

LK: I like the move. I think with the conference climate like it is now, it was important for Pitt to make a move and find a stable conference. If Pitt didn’t, another team would have, and Pitt would’ve been left behind. It is so difficult to strengthen a conference like the Big East because of the combination of football and non-football schools. The move to the ACC improves the football schedule and gives Pitt the chance to compete in a larger conference with a championship game. While I don’t like to see the dismantling of the Big East basketball conference, which I believe is the best conference in the country, I think it was going to end whether Pitt left or not. So overall, this was the best move for Pitt to make in order to ensure that it is in a good position when the conference realignment ends.

ITI: We know about Ray Graham and Brandon Lindsey. Name one player on both sides of the ball that’ll be a key to Pitt winning?

LK: Quarterback Tino Sunseri and outside linebacker EJuan Price.

When Sunseri is playing well, the offense looks like it’s supposed to look. For awhile against Iowa, Sunseri put on a solid performance, making several nice runs and getting rid of the ball quickly. But then, he also made some critical errors in a dropped snap and an interception after Iowa took the lead at the end of the fourth quarter. Pitt needs Sunseri to play well on Saturday and move the Panthers down the field without the turnovers. Sunseri also tends to hold the ball too long, which makes the offensive line’s job more difficult. As a quarterback adjusting to Graham’s system, Sunseri has the most difficult and important job in the offense. If he can improve this week, the offense as a whole will improve as well.

Price, a true freshman, is already a talented pass rusher. He is a player that could really cause Notre Dame problems if he plays well. He had two sacks against Iowa. But Price, like other members of the defense, is struggling a bit with coverages as well. A huge key to Pitt winning is Price, and the rest of the Pitt defense, eliminating errors that could open up big play opportunities for Notre Dame’s offense.

ITI: How do you see Saturday (early) afternoon playing out?

LK: As I mentioned before, Notre Dame is the most talented passing team the Panthers have faced so far. Unfortunately for Pitt, that spells trouble. I don’t see Pitt’s defense improving enough this week to shut down Notre Dame’s offensive attack enough to pull out the victory. On the positive side for Pitt, I see the Panthers improving this week and putting together a more complete game than they did against Iowa. One of the keys to Pitt potentially pulling out a victory is forcing turnovers as that seems to be one of Notre Dame’s weak spots this season. But the Panthers haven’t excelled in that department so far this year.

***

As we lead up to this Saturday’s game, check out more of Laura’s work at the Pitt News here.

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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.