Michael Floyd 3

Pregame Six Pack: Air Force

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With the Irish in an early 0-2 hole this season, most Notre Dame fans assumed the Irish would right the ship. But history didn’t necessarily share that rosy outlook.  Seven Irish teams have stumbled out of the gates in their opening two games. Only two of the teams have come back to have winning seasons, with one coming in 1896 when the Irish rallied to a 4-3 record.

Yet Notre Dame’s Saturday date with 3-1 Air Force, set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, gives the Irish a chance to get back “on schedule” heading into the bye week. Sure, 4-2 wasn’t the start optimistic Irish fans were looking for in the six-game gauntlet the Irish had to face to open the season, but four-straight wins gives the Irish momentum heading into a much needed bye week before a certain team from Southern California comes to visit. But before any attention is turned to that October 22nd showdown, Brian Kelly‘s squad needs to take care of business for the fourth week in a row.

The match-ups looks ugly on paper. Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage, with its starting five of Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever out-weighing the Air Force defensive front by an average of sixty pounds a man. Almost just as incredibly, the Irish starting defensive line outweighs the Air Force offensive line by 35 pounds.

Of course, Air Force will never be a paper champion and the Irish have shown that being a prohibitive favorite doesn’t mean anything if you’re prone to making big mistakes. And the multiplicity of Air Force’s offense, a unit that stretches the Irish defense more than any other team on the schedule, makes Saturday afternoon’s game a riveting chess match.

But before we get to the game, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Air Force at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

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1. Air Force’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s rush defense: Something’s got to give.

Pop quiz: Of the top twenty defenses in the country against the run, there’s only one team that’s yet to play a Non-AQ or FCS opponent: Notre Dame.

That’s what makes the Irish rush defense all the more impressive. It’s also what makes the showdown between Air Force’s run game, putting up 364 yards a game and ranked 3rd in the country, so absolutely intriguing.

The catalyst for it all is senior running back Asher Clark. The All-Mountain West running back has averaged 5.7 yards a carry the last two seasons, but has taken his game to the next level this year, averaging 9.3 yards per carry this year on 41 carries.

We’ve already charted it out, but the guys at One Foot Down did some nice work off of my breakdown. Irish opponents are running for just 36.5% of their average rushing yards. If Air Force only runs for 132 yards on Saturday, expect the Irish to win pretty convincingly.

2. “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.”

Saturday afternoon will be a special one for Don and Kim Niklas. They’ll watch their son Austin, a junior linebacker for Air Force battle their son Troy, a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. With the brothers competing against each other for one of the first times in their lives, it’s not surprising that Austin is getting tactical.

“I’ve been trying to call him, but he hasn’t been calling me back,” Troy said.

The two brothers certainly are contrasts in styles. Lightly recruited out of Orange Country powerhouse Servite High, Austin took a late recruiting visit to Air Force and committed just before signing day. Troy was the Los Angeles Times’ defensive lineman of the year, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete had his choice of schools around the country before pulling the trigger for the Irish.

While Troy certainly traveled the more heralded path to college, it’s pretty clear that he’s continued to look up to his brother, even if that’s physically impossible for a guy now four inches taller.

“Every time I see him, I remember how proud I am to be his little brother,” Niklas said. “I know he busts his butt every day. I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force and for choosing to serve our country. Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day – it is the Air Force Academy and it’s not easy to play football and have a large course-load.”

(If you don’t know the quote, shame on you.)

3. Expect to see a change of pace quarterback get into the football game.

Brian Kelly gave a good scoop to his radio show listeners on Thursday night when answering a now weekly question about his still unused quarterbacks sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.

“We’re going to employ a special package with somebody, but I’m not going to tell you who,” Kelly said. “It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix. We’re going to let you come to the game Saturday and see for yourself.”

If the Irish do finally turn to one of their dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see a dose of running from either Hendrix or Golson. And after spending spring, summer and fall camp with the two quarterbacks, Kelly has tailored his game plan to finally allow one of them to see the field.

“They have some outstanding skill-sets but they don’t have the whole offense down,” Kelly said. “So what we’ve decided to do is not give them the whole thing. We’ve really tried to segment out some things that they can handle because when you put them in you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”

If you’re taking odds on who the quarterback’s going to be, Kelly may have already given that answer away.

At the radio show, Kelly declined to mention what quarterback was spending time playing Tim Jefferson this week, citing the fact that the quarterback who did that spent all his time with the scout team and didn’t work with the No. 1 offense, making him unlikely to see the field. But earlier in the week, Kelly mentioned that Everett Golson was turning heads playing Jefferson against the number one defense.

Unless Kelly’s really coy, expect to get your first dose of Andrew Hendrix on Saturday.

4. The special teams needle points strongly in Air Force’s direction.

If there’s a facet of the football game where the Irish are dangerously out-matched, it’s in special teams. The Falcons third-segment might be one of the strongest in the nation and should stretch the Irish in an area where they’ve struggled to do just about anything right.

Looking for reasons to worry? Notre Dame has struggled kicking field goals and Air Force has already blocked three kicks this year. Air Force is averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and the Irish are a woeful 117th defending them. Add to that wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka already has two 100-yard kickoff returns to his name, and Kelly needs his whole coaching staff to pick up the slack.

“I think we all know on the other end which players have to play better,” Kelly said. “But we have to coach better too. This is not just on Mike Elston. He can’t run that whole group by himself. He’s got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it and they have to coach better, and we have to get more out of our guys.”

From a personnel standpoint, both Elston and Kelly hinted that changes are coming. The Irish will be looking to add better speed and talent to help spring a punt return and also have been looking for alternatives in their anemic punt return game.

“We’ve got a couple other people lined up along with John Goodman,” Kelly said. “There’s a good chance you’ll see a couple of different guys out there for punt return.”

5. A week after Ricardo Allen took his shot, Anthony Wright is up to challenge Michael Floyd. 

Troy Calhoun’s too smart of a coach to announce it, but expect senior cornerback Anthony Wright to follow Michael Floyd around the field this Saturday. While it didn’t work for Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, Wright feels like he’s game.

“He’s a great player,” Wright told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “But I’m a great player, too.”

At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Wright doesn’t profile well in his quest to cover Floyd, who presents another match-up nightmare for Air Force. But it’s hard to find anybody that can physically match-up with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd, a guy that absolutely had his way in both the passing and running game last Saturday against one of Purdue’s most talented players.

“If I’m matched up against him, I’m going to try to be the best corner in the country on Saturday, against arguably the best receiver in the country,” Wright said.

How Air Force tries to take Floyd away could be the early story of the game. When tasked with getting Floyd involved in the game plan early, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees look early and often for Floyd, using the senior receiver in different ways and finding him on the second play of the game for a long touchdown reception.

Floyd’s not the only guy capable of catching passes for the Irish, who also have mismatches in guys like Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. It’s just up to them to keep pace with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver.

6. The Irish’s ability to play a two-gap defense is a thing of beauty.

With Louis Nix in the middle, and defensive ends like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson (who is a game-time decision on Saturday after taking off his walking boot), the Irish are capable of playing a true two-gap defense, something that Troy Calhoun really admired.

“What’s hard to find and see in college football in this day and age are bodies big enough against these offensive lines to stand up and play two-gap defensive football and yet they do it,” Calhoun said of the Irish defense. “I think by and large, when you look at the NFL and you look at college football, there are so few teams that truly try to play at least 30 snaps a game in two-gap defense. I think more people are inclined to line a guy up and say I have this gap, in between the guard and the tackle or the center and the guard,and I’m going to nest in there and I’m going to find a way to generate penetration, I’m not going to get cut off, I’m not going to get reach. It’s amazing what they do with the two gap scheme, not only with their defensive ends but their outside linebackers. It goes back to having talented players, and they’re briefed and they’re prepared.”

Of course, just because the Irish can play a two-gap front doesn’t mean they’ll do it against Air Force. The amount of responsibility that falls on young players like sophomores Nix and Prince Shembo and freshmen Troy Niklas, Ishaq WilliamsStephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch might make holding the point of attack while reading the offense difficult.

Kelly has already mentioned that Johnson is shifting inside on the defensive line, making you think a guy like Darius Fleming might line up opposite Lewis-Moore in a four man front. If the Irish do, they’ll need to make sure the Irish play sound option principles while keeping their defensive backs ready for the play-action passing game, something Jefferson has been incredibly efficient with.

Don’t think for one minute that the Air Force coaching staff hasn’t seen the tape of Gary Gray struggling to get his head around in single coverage. Expect a deep shot early on Gray, and it’ll be up to the senior corner who has been in good position throughout his struggles, to adapt his technique and look back for the football.

 

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.