Rocket Pep Rally

IBG: Burning the midnight oil

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Apologies for the late arrival of this week’s Irish Blogger Gathering. Boarding a United flight out of LAX to O’Hare, I was wondering if I was boarding an episode of Pan Am, as the plane they rolled out for us was from a long forgotten era, and of course… it didn’t have wifi.

So this week’s IBG — hosted by our barrister blogger Domer Law — was done with less than adequate online support. (That’s my disclaimer before you go judging my answers, too harshly.)

Beside: It’s USC week. Save your energy for Saturday night. Finally, just a day away.

Here. We. Go.

I’m taking an old friend of mine to the USC game.  They were born and raised in South Bend near Notre Dame, and developed a dislike for the University at a young age from dealing with the frustrations and messes that come from Notre Dame home football weekends.  She’s never been to a Notre Dame game before (she’s an Ohio State fan).  We’re going to go tailgate and do all the usual tailgating stuff.  Any suggestions on what I could do to help her let go of her animosity towards Notre Dame?

Don’t shove it down her throat. If she has a pulse and she enjoys college football, it won’t be hard to have a good time on Saturday. By and large, Notre Dame fans are a hospitable group, but it isn’t hard to have negative preconceived notions about the school and its alums, especially if you grew up in South Bend and struggled with the divide between the school and the city.

If your friend happens to be Catholic, check out the Grotto, the Basilica, and take a walk around God Quad. If your friend is a football fanatic, check out the changes they’ve made to the JACC, where the Heisman Trophies and past glories are now proudly on display. If they’re neither, make sure you have a good tailgate scene set up with good food and spirits and better company.

You’re not in the business of converting somebody. Leave that to Brian Kelly. Let the game and environment speak for itself. If she doesn’t like Notre Dame any better after Saturday, save your next USC ticket for someone else next time!

On a related note, do you have any suggestions for improving the Notre Dame game weekend experience generally?  Are there traditions lost that you’d like to see restored, or new ideas that you’d like to see implemented to improve the gameday experience?

Having been to about 20-25 different college football stadiums in my lifetime, I think Notre Dame does a pretty great job with Saturdays. After swinging the pendulum too far in response to tailgating behavior, I think the university has done a good job in making gameday whatever you want it to be: a history lesson, a day filled with pageantry, or a nice setting to enjoy a cold one and some Ralph’s Side Door Deli fried chicken.

A lot of people seem to be getting bent out of shape for the changing of the players walk, but if there’s one thing that I really miss, it’s the old pep rallies. Back in the Holtz era, they used to be more exciting than the games. Now they kind of just happen. Whether it’s staged in front of a dorm or outside in the new Irish Green, the closest it’s come to being even close to exciting was when Rocket Ismail was screaming about “Unbelief.”

Getting into the pep rally used to be tougher than getting into the football game. While excluding people that want to go doesn’t make that much sense, I’m all in favor of bringing the pep rally back inside, using that big new video board in the JACC  and some light tricks to get people fired up and add some electricity to an event that’s gotten pretty lame.

(You want proof? Here’s Rocket’s speech from 2009. Even the players didn’t know what to make of it, as they’d been used to mediocre gatherings where they wave to their moms and smile at girls from PW. But Rocket remembered what the pep rallies used to be like. If this were the old days, you’d have students running through walls. Charlie should’ve thrown a uniform on Rocket. It probably would’ve been the different.)

 

(a) USC is (and always will be) our biggest rival.  Do you agree or disagree with this statement?  And if you agree, why do you feel that this is such an important rivalry? (b) Rank your top 10 college football rivalries and provide justifications for each.

USC is Notre Dame’s biggest rival. No question. For all the reasons everybody else on the internet has talked about all week. Why is it important? Frankly, because it lets me use the word  “intersectional” in a sentence once a year. It also gives me the opportunity to talk Notre Dame football with all my neighbors in Manhattan Beach, where 90 percent of the population loves the Trojans.

I’m not great at coming up with lists without internet access, but off the top of my head, in no particular order here are my ten favorite college football rivalries:

Notre Dame vs. USC: Whether it’s in South Bend or South Central, it’s my favorite game to go to in the autumn.

Michigan vs. Michigan State: It feels really good not to have any allegiances in this one. Lately, it’s felt like watching The Great Outdoors, only this time Chet (John Candy) gets to sucker-punch Roman (Dan Aykroyd) in the face and laugh at him.

Oklahoma vs. Texas: The Red River Shootout is a true experience. The geographical excellence of the Cotton Bowl between Norman and Austin, plus seeing the stadium cut perfectly down the middle between burnt orange and sooner crimson is pretty awesome.

Georgia vs. Florida: Even if it isn’t called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party anymore, I can tell you from experience that it still is. The football is usually okay, too.

Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State: This one gets on my list for the tailgating scene and the co-eds alone.

Michigan vs. Ohio State: The best of Big Ten football. When both programs are good, this game is awesome.

Auburn vs. Alabama: The best of SEC football. When both programs are good, the teams might be over the NFL salary cap.

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: My hometown bias is certainly coming out, but these two teams play for the greatest rivalry trophy of all time. Celebrations like this vault it onto the list.

Harvard vs. Yale: If only because it lets me watch a brand of college football I was almost good enough to play. (Plus as a bonus, you can use the rosters to upgrade your LinkedIn profile.)

Oregon vs. Oregon State: Admittedly, I’m running out of steam here, but between the Civil War and the Apple Cup, the two Pacific Northwest rivalries deserve some credit.

Southern Cal is 5-1, with their only loss on the road at Arizona State.  They are unranked, sitting right behind us in the “also receiving votes” category.  How good is Southern Cal this year?  How do you see this game playing out?

We won’t know until after Saturday. For the first time in years, I’ve heard Notre Dame fans feeling outright brazen about this game, and possibly for good reason. USC is young and while they have some good talent on this roster, it’s a shell of what it was back in the Pete Carroll glory days.

That said, they probably have three first-rounders on their offense, and that’s as top heavy as any team Notre Dame will see this year. We’ve seen the Trojans give up a ton of points, look lost in pass coverage and really inconsistent on both sides of the ball.

That said, if you’re a Notre Dame fan and puffing your chest, Slow. Your. Roll. Like it or not, you’re one Ronald Johnson drop away from being in the midst of a really ugly losing streak.

If the Irish handle their business on Saturday, and I honestly think they should, there’ll be over a year to gloat to those Trojan fans you detest. But until then, keep quiet, save your vocal chords until Saturday night, and get ready to see what happens.

It appears that with a win over USC, we’ll re-enter the Top 25 rankings.  Now that we’re halfway through the season and have some actual evidence available to us from real games, how do you see the rest of the season playing out?  Predict:
For the record, I hate playing the predictions game. But since Domer Law is running this week’s IBG, I’m sure there’s some fine print at the bottom of his questions making me contractually obligated to participate. So here goes:
(a) Notre Dame’s final record: Let’s have fun. Run the table until Stanford. Then roll the dice and see what happens.
(b) Notre Dame’s bowl destination, opponent and outcome. Win out? BCS game. Lose one or two: Champ Sports Bowl.
(c) The BCS Championship game and result. Can they match two SEC teams up? I’m not buying Oklahoma yet.
(d) Notre Dame’s final AP ranking. If they win out? Top six. If not? Top 25.
(e) The winners of the major awards, including:
(i) Heisman Trophy Russell Wilson, just so some writer has to ask Tom O’Brien about the decision to let Wilson walk away from NC State for free.
(ii) Home Depot Coach of the Year Bret Bielema.
(iii) Davey O’Brien Award (best QB) Andrew Luck.
(iv) Doak Walker Award (best RB) LaMichael James.
(v) Fred Biletnikoff Award (best WR) Cretin-Derham Hall’s own Michael Floyd.
(vi) Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player) Whoever the SEC media decides.

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.