Little Mac

IBG: Life at the quarter-turn

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Slow this season down, please!

After months of analyzing and dissecting all the things related to the 2011 football season, the first three weeks — in all their bizarre and agonizing glory — are already gone. Not a lot of people saw a 1-2 start for the Irish, and nobody saw the way the Irish would get there: statistically dominating in their two losses, then beating Michigan State by 18 points — the largest margin of victory for the Irish over the Spartans since 1993 — all while being out-gained and losing the turnover battle.

You literally can’t make this stuff up.

Hosting this week’s Irish Blogger Gathering are the fine gentlemen at One Foot Down, who have taken over the Notre Dame reins at SBNation. They asked the questions, I did my best to answer them. (And possibly lost my mind at the end.)

Here goes…

For the first time this season, Notre Dame was outgained in yardage by its opponent.  Some have expressed concern that Notre Dame maybe doesn’t beat State without a kick return for a touchdown and an 82-yard interception return.  Still, Notre Dame won for the first time this season.  What does this win say about this team?  Did we see progress on Saturday?

We definitely saw progress, in the one statistic that really matters: Wins. For those concerned about how the Irish won, I’ll take substance over style any day of the week, especially on Saturdays. Like I mentioned above, the Irish won even being outgained and losing the turnover battle.

Outside of a clutch drive, Brian Kelly went back to late 2010’s gameplan in the second half, holding on for the win with stingy defense and conservative offense. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Outside of John Goodman‘s inexplicable punt muff, the Irish did a better job closing out a football game, with the Irish defense making a big play when it mattered, something that should help Bob Diaco‘s troops come crunch time.

I’ll still tell you that Notre Dame is a good football team. They’ve just got to keep getting better and playing up to their abilities. Against a team that was the defending Big Ten champs and ranked No. 15 in the country, they won by high double-digits. If that’s not considered progress, people need to take up a new hobby.

What three facets of our game do you focus on in practice this week if you’re Brian Kelly? 

I don’t think I do anything different than I’ve done since I took the job in South Bend. Sure, I continue to stress making good decisions with the football and not making big mistakes, but a consistency in approach is the one thing that separates Brian Kelly from Irish coaches of recent past, and the big reason why Notre Dame didn’t collapse last season.

To play along with your question though, it’s pretty clear that the Irish will win this football game if they just don’t beat themselves. That means making sure you don’t give up huge plays on defense and don’t shoot yourself in the foot and turn the ball over on offense.

Grade the coaching staff and position groups through three games.

I’m only grading by what I see on the field. Any coaching grade would be a guess, especially not knowing what’s said behind closed doors.

Defensive line: A-

It’s hard not to be impressed with Mike Elston‘s work developing the defensive line. Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore look great. Stephon Tuitt is making good progress and Aaron Lynch had his breakout game. At nose tackle, Louis Nix and Sean Cwynar are the best duo they’ve had their in a long time.

Linebackers: B

I’ve been disappointed in Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo doesn’t seem like a good fit at the dog position, but it’s a matter of getting the best 11 on the field right now. Against spread QBs, I just don’t think Fleming keeps things inside of him well enough and missed some really big tackles against Michigan, giving me flashbacks to the last two seasons. Manti Te’o has been his usual awesome, and Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are continuing to improve.

I’d like the linebackers as a whole to get better not over-committing and playing better in play-action. I also expect a few more plays behind the line of scrimmage, something Fleming should get on this Saturday.

Secondary:B-

Take away the fourth quarter against Michigan and this is a different letter grade. Still, I expected Harrison Smith to have a pick or two by now and Gary Gray‘s regression in coverage is the disappointment of the first quarter of the season. That said, Robert Blanton has played great football and the secondary is building some much needed depth. Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta looked good last Saturday, and seeing Austin Collinsworth on the field was good as well.

Quarterbacks: B

For everyone that’s complained about Tommy Rees and his turnovers, take a look at what young quarterbacks do. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions his sophomore season, and that was after starting all of 2007. Brady Quinn‘s numbers weren’t much to look at either. Rees is still very early in his development and he’s only going to get better. When he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, the ball ends up with the wrong team. That’ll get fixed.

Runningbacks: B+

This would be in the A range if Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood didn’t both lose a fumble. The Irish are averaging better than 4.5 yards a carry this season, up considerably from the 3.98 they averaged last year. Wood has two 100-yard games. Jonas has only gotten better since his first drive. George Atkinson, while he hasn’t made a dent in the offense, made a huge one in special teams.

Tightends: B-

Tyler Eifert has had some big drops. Mike Ragone is lost for the year. Jake Golic broke his arm and Alex Welch was out last week with a foot injury. Still, there’s a lot of talent at this position as pass catchers, they’ll just need to make sure they’re as good in-line blocking as well. It’s impressive than Ben Koyack is playing well three games into his career. In a perfect situation he’d be redshirting.

Wide receivers: B+

Michael Floyd has been a monster, one of the best two or three wide receivers in the country. TJ Jones has been solid, Theo Riddick had one miserable game, then rallied nicely. Floyd is propping this group up right now, but there’s plenty of talent and the ball seems to be getting spread around better.

Offensive line: B+

The Irish have only given up three sacks this year, and the running game has gotten better, as mentioned above. Zack Martin is playing great football. Kelly has been happy with Trevor Robinson and Braxston Cave. I’d like to see more out of Taylor Dever, who has been on the ugly end of a few bad plays. Chris Watt has had his name mentioned a few too many times by referees, too.  More importantly, the Irish need to show they can move the ball in short yardage situations and run with the lead.

Special Teams: C-

This grade would be a lot lower if it weren’t for Atkinson’s touchdown return and the deep kickoffs of Kyle Brindza. I’ve hammered Ben Turk enough, he knows what he needs to do. Ditto for John Goodman and Theo Riddick. The problem for all three of them is in between the ears. David Ruffer wasn’t going to make every kick he attempted this year, but a 30-yard chip shot would’ve been a good one. Overall, Mike Elston’s troops have better football ahead of them and the touchdown return was a great play.

The season is 25% complete.  If you’re Brian Kelly, what is your mantra for the second quarter of the season?

Stay the course. More importantly, get to the bye week on a four-game winning streak. If the Irish are 4-2 when they face USC, this season officially gets interesting.

It sounds cliche, but you can’t beat Purdue until you beat Pitt. You can’t beat Air Force until you beat Purdue. This team has self-destructed twice. It shouldn’t be hard to just stay the course and go to work each day focused on the task at hand.

On Pittsburgh.  Did Iowa wrest control of the game from PItt, as was Iowa’s custom last season.  Or did Pitt just implode?

This isn’t the 2010 Hawkeyes. This was just as much about Pitt’s absolutely mediocre secondary play as the Hawkeyes doing good things. I don’t expect to hear much from either of these teams come November.

Do any of Pitt’s players of matchups concern you?

Pitt has Ray Graham, a very good, NFL caliber, running back. Tino Sunseri can move his feet enough to be scary and looked better last Saturday against the Hawkeyes. Brandon Lindsey could be one of the most explosive defenders the Irish face this season if he’s healthy.

How does ND vs. Pitt play out this weekend?

f the Irish get off to a quick start, I expect them to pull away in the second half, coasting to an easy victory. (Of course, the Irish haven’t mastered coasting yet. They prefer to get up to full speed, realize they’re moving pretty quickly and hammer on the breaks.)

Statistically, Pitt really isn’t a dangerous football team. That said, when you’re playing the Irish, you’ll never be the most dangerous team on the field — that right has already been reserved by ND. Unfortunately, they’re a threat to their opponent and themselves.

With a noon start, it should be a little less hostile. The weather report doesn’t look all that promising, which could make a team with ball security issues even more prone to mistakes. Still, the Irish shouldn’t have a hard time getting up for a Todd Graham football team, the same coach that pulled out a shocking victory over Notre Dame when he led Tulsa to ten-wins last year.

BONUS QUESTION: With three games in the books, this season is one-quarter done. It’s probably no stretch to assume that football writers also enjoy history, and specifically military history. Compare Notre Dame’s one-fourth of a season to a one-fourth complete war. It is World War I — i.e. are we stuck in a war of attrition with many, many losses still to come? Is it Grenadad — have we already seen the worst, with only relatively smooth sailing to come? Don’t feel limited to 20th century warfare. For that matter, no need to limit it to military history — political, legal and philosophical warfare is also acceptable.

Do these One Foot Down guys know how to party or what?

I’m sure my readers are excited for me to mangle a historical war metaphor and show my ignorance, but I’m going outside the box and using my escape clause to compare this to a different epic battle, one that defined my youth and helped turn me into the person that I am.

Consider this The Ode to Little Mac.

You may know Little Mac. Scrappy 17-year-old boxer from the Bronx. Five-foot nothing, 100-and-nothing pounds. Until he met a guy named Doc Lewis. Doc saw something in Mac that made him believe he could be heavyweight champion of the world. From there he took one of the biggest long shots in the world on a title run to end all title runs.

In case you’re not catching on, I’m comparing the Irish season to the epic videogame Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! Sure, the Irish have taken two lumps on the chin and are one loss away from retiring their BCS hopes, but there’s still plenty of fight left in the tank.

With a front-loaded schedule, the Irish didn’t have a chance to warm up against cupcakes like Glass Joe or Von Kaiser. There’s no shame in losing to Piston Honda (USF). The singular greatness of Don Flamenco‘s (Denard Robinson) upper-cut caught the Irish late in the game when it looked like they had the fight won. Beating down King Hippo (MSU) wasn’t surprising, especially once they diagnosed an offense that relied on a power game, but had some serious fatal flaws.

I’m stretching here when I compare Pitt to the Great Tiger, but as long as the Irish watch his jeweled turban and fancy teleport move they should be okay.

There’s no reason to worry about guys like Bald Bull, Soda Popinski, or Mr. Sandman yet. And we all know there’s that flashy team from Hollywood (Super Macho Man) and a title bout with Kid Dynamite himself, Mike Tyson  (Andrew Luck playing the role of Iron Mike) at the end of the road.

But looking that far ahead will do nothing but get you beat. So take a break between rounds, remember to hit the SELECT button, and take these fights one at a time.

Time for a jog…

 

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.