Michael Floyd Purdue

And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s that time of year. The Purdue game. An annual tradition that’s not entirely appreciated by one-side of the in-state “rivalry,” a term that alone makes some Notre Dame fans bristle. (Memo to those fans: Be careful about getting too uppity about rivalries. Just look at what’s happened with Navy lately.)

Anyway, if Michigan and USC constitute big calendar days like Memorial Day and Labor Day, slot Purdue in as a good solid floating holiday, ranking somewhere between Arbor Day or Columbus Day. Notre Dame fans may not get as excited about it, but it’s a annual rite nonetheless, and that in and of itself is pretty respectable. (Be wary, Irish fans. Should enough disrespect to a holiday like Columbus Day and pretty soon your bosses will stop giving you the day off. Then we all lose.)

Moving beyond mediocre analogies, there’s a football game this Saturday with Purdue. And while it hasn’t been exactly the glory days of this match-up like it was in the Joe Tiller/Drew Brees era, the Irish and Purdue have played some intriguing games lately, with the 2009 comeback victory by the Irish still eating at Purdue fans upset with head coach Danny Hope spotting Notre Dame a timeout before Jimmy Clausen hit Kyle Rudolph in the endzone for the game winning touchdown.

Purdue has been a tough team to track this season. A game with Middle Tennessee, a disheartening loss to Rice, and a cupcake against Southeast Missouri State haven’t given the Boilermakers much of a body of work. Thankfully, we’re joined by Travis Miller of the blog Hammer & Rails, who has been all over the Purdue scene for years.

I asked the questions and he answered them. Here goes:

Inside the Irish: This is our third time doing this. (2009. 2010.) Can you assess for me the direction this program is going under Danny Hope?

Hammer & Rails: A lot of people are not happy with the MTSU result and the Rice loss. Middle Tennessee State has not looked good sense the opener, but Logan Kilgore and the Blue Raiders really outplayed us in week one. Even after we took a late lead, the familiar prevent defense allowed them to get in field goal range very quickly before a block saved us. Most people are very upset about the way Hope handled the final minutes of the Rice game. He blew our last timeout (sound familiar?) then went away from what was working (three Bolden runs for 30+ yards to get us close) in order to settle for a field goal.

These are the types of decisions that have added up and have people going against Hope. The kids are playing hard, but there have been several decisions, like the infamous timeout against Notre Dame two years ago, that have left us questioning what the heck he is thinking at times. The loss at Rice was really a turning point. The offense generated little to nothing in the second half and the blocked field goal at the end was a special teams blocking breakdown. With normal blocking Wiggs makes the field goal and we’re 3-0.

ITI: Let’s talk about this team. Here’s what I’ve seen on paper. (Admittedly, I’ve seen little of the Boilers this year, thanks to sparse TV coverage.) A frantic comeback against Middle Tennessee that needed special teams heroics. An ugly loss to Rice, a team that was thought to be one of the worst in D-I. Then a curb-stomping against Southeast Missouri State, a sub-division team that lost 14 starters from last year’s squad. Give me a 1/4 of the way letter grade?

H&R: I would give it a C-, only because against SEMO we finally did what we were supposed to do. I have been very pleased with the play of Caleb TerBush in his first three starts. He hasn’t set the world on fire, but he has been consistent and has not turned the ball over. Mostly I have been concerned about playcalling and our defense on 3rd and long. If Notre Dame wants success they should get to 3rd and 15 or more, then throw to Tyler Eifert over the middle. This has been a gaping hole for at least six years, but we still refuse to fix it. Do not be surprised if Eifert has 15 catches for 122 yards and two scores because he will be open over the middle on every 34rd down. The sad thing is that everyone sees this except the coaching staff.

I have long said this team’s strength is running the ball on offense and it gives us the best chance of winning. We need to have success against Notre Dame in this area for two reasons. One, we have multiple backs who give different looks. Two, it keeps the ND offense off the field. We ran the ball extremely well against SEMO, but didn’t even try to exert our will with the ground game against Rice and MTSU. When we ran against them, we had success, so I don’t understand why we went away from it.

ITI: Robert Marve could be a character in a Greek tragedy he’s been through so much. As a guy that watched him at Miami, flipped his opinion on him a few times, and now sees him back and potentially healthy, is he the right guy to lead Purdue?

H&R: I think he is this year. He looked good against SEMO, and I think he gives us the best chance to win through the air. TerBush has been solid, but Marve is simply a better player. I think TerBush is a guy that can build on his experience this year to have a solid senior season next year. Marve doesn’t have the mobility he had at Miami, but he has a good arm and he reads the field better. He doesn’t overthrow guys like TerBush has at times either. If we’re going to win four more games and get to a bowl, I think Marve is the guy to do it.

ITI: This will be the toughest run defense Purdue has faced this year. You think highly of the Boilermakers talent at tailback. Can they run against an Irish team that hasn’t given up a 100 yard tailback in a full calendar year?

H&R: I think we can mostly because we saw some new options at tailback against SEMO. Akeem Shavers has been a big play guy this year, while Ralph Bolden is our steady ballcarrier that he was two years ago. Reggie Pegram has shown he can get some tough yards if needed. Two true freshmen, Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom, saw their first action against SEMO and combined for over 140 yards and two scores. Hunt is a small, shifty runner, while Cottom is a big, bruising back that could see some time at fullback. Cottom is 6’4” and 255 pounds of beef coming up the middle. He reminds me a little of Mike Alstott.

ITI: Give me one player on offense and one on defense that Irish fans don’t know now, but will after Saturday night?

H&R: Antavian Edison has been our best big-play receiver so far in the slot. He caught the winning TD pass against MTSU and is averaging almost 23 yards per catch. He also lines up in the backfield on occasion and had a rushing touchdown vs. SEMO.

On defense, meet Ricardo Allen. The true sophomore has four career interceptions in 15 games and has returned two for touchdowns. The few times we have stopped teams on third and long have seen him line up as a nickel back covering the slot receiver. He will likely draw the assignment on Floyd, and that will be fascinating. SEMO decided to challenge him deep on the game’s first play and he physically ripped the ball away from a much bigger receiver for an interception. Obviously Floyd is a much better player, but if there is one guy on our team that can single cover him, it is Allen.

ITI: The line is 14 points. It should be a pretty electric atmosphere (even if you guys can’t sell it out), and the Irish didn’t exactly set the world in their first two road games. How does Purdue pull the upset? What kind of odds would you need to put your money on it?

H&R: I think Purdue has a chance if Notre Dame continues to turn the ball over. We need the Irish to keep making the mistakes they have made in the first four games. We also need to keep taking care of the ball. Turnovers absolutely killed us in the 1-5 start two years ago, as they cost us at least three games (Oregon, Northwestern, and Northern Illinois) So far we have only turned it over three times this year. If we can run the ball with some success, keep the Notre Dame offense off the field, and take advantage of some Tommy Rees mistakes we have a chance. If Rees takes care of the ball the Irish should be fine.

Also, we had better not call timeout with the clock running on third down when the Irish are trying to score in the last 20 seconds again. It may cause me to have a stroke and I am way too young for that.

***

Special thanks to Travis for taking the time with my extensive questioning. Check out the Hammer & Rails blog later today for my mediocre answers to his much better questions. You can also follow him on Twitter @HammerAndRails.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.