George Atkinson MSU

IBG: Pushing towards Purdue

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In case people forgot, the Irish are playing a football game this Saturday night. Yep, they’ll be hopping on the bus and heading down to West Lafayette, enjoying that glorious drive down US 31 into Boilermaker country, where a hostile crowd will be looking to enact revenge from 2009, where Purdue nearly pulled the upset on Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish.

I’m a few hours late on the Irish Blogger Gathering, which I’ll blame on last night’s baseball and this afternoon’s schedule. (Neither are good excuses, I realize that.) Supplying the excellent fodder this week was the Irish Round Table, giving us quite a few interesting questions that I spent far too much time answering.

Enjoy.

1) Excluding Aaron Lynch, who is your top newcomer of the year thus far (freshman or player that hadn’t seen much playing time in prior seasons)?

There is no other answer that I can think of than Louis Nix, even if you include No. 19. But here’s a quick run through of the worthy candidates:

George Atkinson: Tough to not be impressed when the kid has already taken a kickoff to the house.
Kyle Brindza: Remember when Irish kickers never got touchbacks? Brindza certainly solved that problem.
Aaron Lynch: I’m only expecting more from him in the weeks to come. Think he’ll lead the Irish in sacks.
Stephon Tuitt: Could be athletic enough to help in a four-man front against Air Force or Navy.
Ishaq Williams: He’s getting playing time in the base defense behind Darius Fleming. That’s impressive.
Troy Niklas: My true freshman Newcomer of the Year (Non-Lynch division). This guy is a really impressive athlete. Watching him the next four years will be very fun.

2) We asked our Twitter followers for questions to use in this week’s IBG. Here’s a sampling of what we got. Choose ONE and answer:

Let’s get crazy and try to answer them all.

@TheSubwayDomer: If the #NDFB quarterbacks were female super models, who would they be? What would they endorse? #IBG —

Man, my knowledge of supermodels has slipped since college. Can I change this to actresses from our favorite TV shows? (Answer by me: Yes.)

Tommy Rees is Pam Beesly.

Now known as Pam Beesley Halpert. We all loved Tommy from the start, he was the quarterback next door: Decent arm, calm under pressure, great personality, and we all really wanted to see him succeed. Well, Pam got married to Jim. We all loved it. Then she got promoted from receptionist, tried getting into sales and kind of sucked at it. That’s not the Pam we like! Now she’s a little too snarky, not quite as good as we thought she’d be, and probably mistakenly gives Cece the wrong flavor of Gerber, or drops the baby bottle too much. Aren’t we better off liking Erin?

Dayne Crist is Christina Applegate.

It feels like we’ve known Christina forever. (At least I do. I practically grew up with her.) Ever since we’ve seen her, we knew she had star qualities. (Who could forget Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead!) But while she’s shown those flashes of brilliance, she’s never quite become the movie star she should have.To be fair, she’s also had to overcame huge personal setbacks. And it’s a credit to her that she did.

There are people that will go to the mattresses supporting Applegate — She was magic as Veronica Coringstone! But she’s also failed on TV, forcing America to watch Samantha Who? Now she’s back with Up All Night, a show almost reverse engineered to make us like it, teaming her with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph. A good cast doesn’t hide the show’s flaws, but it might be the perfect place for her to show what she can do… even if that isn’t under the Golden Dome.

Andrew Hendrix is Minka Kelly:

Okay, I’m rapidly running out of steam here, but follow. Everybody loves Minka Kelly. Looks like the complete package. Hell, she was the apple of Derek Jeter’s eye, and that guy has some pretty good taste. Yet we have absolutely no clue if she can get it done. Kelly wasn’t the reason Friday Night Lights was good, even if she was good to look at. Now she’s in charge of making Charlie’s Angels TV show watchable, no easy task for anybody.

Hendrix might very well still be the quarterback of the future for the Irish. Brian Kelly is on the record as saying he’s got as much talent as anybody. Everybody looks at the guy and just sees a starting quarterback. But he hasn’t done it yet, and he might not ever.

Everett Golson is Zoey Deschanel.

Everybody loves the New Girl! Zoey’s a perfect fit for TV. Movie star skills. Funny, talented, cool dresser, awesome glasses. World class musician. (Crazy that she likely came to TV because she was sick of seeing how much money her sister was making on Bones, while she got like $150k for 500 Days of Summer.)

Well, everybody loves Everett Golson. He’s a prototype for Brian Kelly’s offense. Point guard quickness. Rocket arm. World class musician. Not sure if he wears awesome glasses, but it’s a pretty good fit. And he’s the new guy. What’s not to like?

@PerrasW01: Why has the #NDFB program gone to hell since Holtz left?

Mostly, College football got a lot better. I’m not old enough to understand why Holtz truly left, so I’d only be spewing someone else’s rhetoric when I blame administrators, athletic directors, or board members for maybe or maybe not pushing Holtz out before he could pass Knute Rockne.

But the bottom line is college football got a lot better and Notre Dame was really slow to come around to the changing landscape in college football, and the game blew by the Irish. In retrospect, the decision to hire Bob Davie is just shocking. You’ve got a program still at or near the top of college football and Notre Dame decides to promote its defensive coordinator, a guy with no real ties to Notre Dame. No offense to the Eagles, but that’s a move Boston College makes, and only with a guy that’s been on staff for a decade. Notre Dame got caught at the absolute worst time: A brewing arms race in college football that Notre Dame thought it was better than, mixed with the hiring of a guy that was absolutely overmatched for the job. Institutional arrogance at its best, and just in time for this young schmuck to start paying tuition.

@rpleary: You know that sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today”? What does our offense have against the sign?

Not sure. I think they’re “Playing Like People With Champion-like Ability.” Obviously that doesn’t get it done, but I actually like the strides they’re taking, even if last week was a step back for Rees and the unit.

@chadros: Based on our offense’s performance to date, is the current play calling mix (run vs. pass) the right one? Should we be running the ball more?

I’ve got no problem with the run/pass mix. One thing the Irish need to do is run the ball more effectively in the fourth quarter. I’d also like to see some more creativity out of the running game, giving the ball to Theo Riddick on a jet sweet, getting Cierre Wood in space more, and just seeing how slow Tommy looks on a QB keeper.

Last week’s offense was ugly, but it was impressive to see the Irish get every 3rd or 4th and short that they needed. That’s running to win.

@yetiisready: Will this be the week we see the “change-up package” AKA “the Leprecat?”

I will never call it the Leprecat. Man, that’s horrible. I’m kind of hoping we don’t see Everett Golson this year, only because saving a year of eligibility would be great, and seeing what Andrew Hendrix can do this year would be interesting as well.

That said — I think we’ll see some kind of “change-up package,” I just don’t think there’s any reason to show it against Purdue or Air Force. After bye week, I’m expecting a few interesting wrinkles for the men of Troy when they come to chilly South Bend.

(Not to mention a wrinkle in uniforms…)

3) If you could have 1 play back this season, what play would you want a do-over? How would that have changed a game’s outcome? Are you sure your do-over would work in ND’s favor?

I’m hoping everybody says Jonas Gray‘s fumble. That was like getting floored by a big right uppercut in the first round of a twelve-rounder. Sure you get up, but you’re starting out in a 10-8 hole after the first round and still finding your legs. If the Irish get in the endzone that first drive, I’m pretty sure this entire season looks different. A lot different.

4) In 140 characters or less “tweet” a summary of the season so far. Bonus points for hashtags or mentions.

Everybody please calm down RT @AngryNDFans Don’t you understand the other QB is better! Stop turning the ball over! Man 2-2 is frustrating!

5) Lou Holtz asked 3 basic questions of every player and coach, “Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care about me?” In your opinion, which player would every other player give a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions and why?

On offense: Michael Floyd. Take away last spring’s off field incident, and Floyd is the perfect football player. He’s the Irish’s best player. He makes a difference even when the ball isn’t being thrown to him. And he’s the guy everybody on the other team is watching. It will be sad watching the Irish without him.

On defense: Manti Te’o. If it’s possible, people are under-appreciating Te’o. He’s an every down linebacker, he’s a force in the run and playing better in the pass game, and he’s brought a swagger to the Irish defense that hasn’t been seen since Shane Walton was terrorizing quarterbacks, only Te’o has a first round skillset to go along with first round confidence.

6) Jumbotron. Good idea or terrible idea. What would you do to make it a great idea?

It’s not a polarizing thing for me, but I think it’s coming sooner than later. If you went to the Yankee Stadium game, it was really cool seeing Notre Dame use the video board as an extension of the university brand and a great way to remind people of the traditions and history of Notre Dame. If it helps keep fans engaged, informed and loud, even better. Just don’t have it block Touchdown Jesus.

(That said, give me FieldTurf or a semi-artificial surface first.)

7) Every week we try to fire up the masses with a “Fire It Up” video. Sometimes these videos are inspirational ballads of kick-ass Notre Dame football. Sometimes they are of a Japanese game show with dudes getting hit in the junk. Submit a video to Fire Up the Irish faithful for the Purdue game.

With a game like Purdue, I’ll let coach Eric Taylor get the boys fired up:

 

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.