Michael Floyd 3

IBG: Anchors…Away!

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(Yes, I know the song is titled Anchors Aweigh.)

A four game winning streak had people feeling pretty good about the Irish. But a loss to now 6-1 USC has people ready to jump overboard, just as Navy and its dangerous triple-option attack come to town. While Irish fans might be walking around with an anvil tied to their leg, the guys on the field don’t have that option, with just five more opportunities to play football this regular season.

The gentlemen over at One Foot Down supplied this week’s questions. There’s plenty more to talk about today, so let’s get right after it:

Coach Kelly refused to fall on the proverbial sword after USC.  He felt that some of the players that needed to play with poise just didn’t.  Do you agree or disagree?  Did coaching play a role in our egg-laying against USC?

I completely, 100 percent agree. Football coaches coach. Football players play. Even if the coaching staff didn’t have its best day — and it certainly didn’t — the guys on the field are to blame for that one.

(Yes, I know this is when people comment, “It’s the coaches JOB to make sure that the players on the field are ready!” Only partially true. The coaching staff lays out the blueprint. The players still need to execute it.)

From play one of that game, the Irish didn’t meet expectations. On offense and on defense. That people are riled up that Kelly said he wouldn’t fall on his proverbial sword and change what he’s done for twenty years during bye week preparation, is pretty ridiculous. (Note: That’s what the question was.)

But even if Kelly did decide to call out his players, I’m absolutely fine with it. Coaches use the media to motivate players all the time. I’m 100 percent for it, and I’m 100 percent against coddling players on a football team that’s still trying to properly develop the right DNA. If that means mentioning that Cierre Wood didn’t play well or the defensive front seven played poorly (No. 5 included), so be it.

In their post-game interviews, Coach Kelly, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, and Tyler Eifert all called the atmosphere for USC “electric.”  Coincidence?

No. I called it that, too. It was absolutely electric in there, and on campus all weekend.

(I didn’t realize that people had started to think that there was some kind of PR campaign to use the same word or description. That’s ridiculous. It was really the only word you can use to describe that atmosphere, so if you’re wondering why everybody said the same thing, don’t over think it.)

A quick aside: About 90 minutes before the game, I went down to the first row by the tunnel and just watched the swarm of recruits and people on the sideline for about 20 minutes. To a guy, you could see the look in the eyes of the high school recruits visiting campus. Each and every one of them did their best to try and stay cool, but every once in a while they’d take a second to soak it all in, almost picture themselves out on that field getting ready to go to battle.

Sure, it’s special on campus before every big game. But there was something different about last Saturday night. Even if the Irish spit the bit the first time, I absolutely support an annual night game. (Tee up 2012 vs. Michigan right now.)

Is your faith in this coaching staff shaken after Saturday night’s debacle?

Absolutely not.

It’s as if people are forgetting that the Irish had worked their way all but out of a 17-0 hole and were set to tie the game as the fourth quarter was approaching when Dayne Crist forgot how to take a snap, forgot how to fall on a football, and took the Irish’s chances of winning the game from greater than 50% to about 10% in one catastrophic play.

On no planet is that play on the coaching staff.

Back in the olden days (like 1998), an Irish football coach got at least until the third season to have people start freaking out if they didn’t have a national championship run in them. While guys like Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Nick Saban, Les Miles and Urban Meyer had people thinking that year two was the season it’d happen, it was only the impressive work that Kelly did with the defense and in recruiting that had people even thinking that was possible this year.

Are these close losses absolutely frustrating? Yes. But I, for one, think the Irish losing because they made mistakes is far more encouraging that watching them get bludgeoned by USC or Michigan.

Should we be satisfied with a mere win over Navy, or does it have to be somewhat convincing?

Any win against Navy should be satisfying. Do people forget that the Midshipmen have won three of the last four against Notre Dame?

That said, as long as the offense rebounds and the Irish win, people should be satisfied. Navy does not have a good enough defense to stop the Irish offense. Notre Dame should be able to run the ball or throw the ball at will, and as long as they clean up their work in the red zone, they should put up all the points they need to.

If they can force a turnover or two with Navy playing a young quarterback, this game could get into Air Force territory, too. But expect to see Navy move the ball between the 20s.

Will the Irish shut down the vaunted Navy triple option, or are we in for a shootout?

I guess I jumped the gun a little bit on this one, but I don’t think ND will ever completely shut down the option. Yesterday, Bill Wagner talked about the subtle changes Navy will likely make with their offense, and the result might actually help the Irish against the option, though Trey Miller is a much better passing threat than Kris Proctor.

That said, the Irish defensive front is in for their biggest challenge of the year. Notre Dame will be starting three freshman (eligibility wise) across the front with Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Aaron Lynch all likely getting the call. Chase Hounshell will be next in line at defensive end. Navy has to be licking their chops at their good luck, with both seniors Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson either out (KLM) or severely limited (EJ’s high ankle sprain won’t go away.)

Take us out with a quotation, clip, or photo to summarize your post-USC/pre-Navy state of fandom.

Man, this is far tougher than I expected. Since I’m in this fight regardless of W or L, I’d just ask anybody that wants to keep commenting or reading to just remember that this is football. It’s a hard sport and Notre Dame doesn’t have the advantages they did 30 years ago. More importantly, this is supposed to be fun. We only get this for like 13 weeks a year and then it’s winter.

Then, I’d like to steer everybody to this video, which I can’t host here. The Irish are in definite need of a montage.

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.