Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

Pregame six pack: Navy edition

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Backed into a corner, Brian Kelly‘s first Irish football team overcame a ton of adversity before finishing last season in style. Facing Todd Graham’s Tulsa squad just days after the death of Declan Sullivan, the Irish lost their starting quarterback in the opening minutes of the game before losing in the final seconds. Given a bye week to gather itself, the 2010 edition of the Irish went on to win their final four games, finishing the season in style.

With the Irish sitting at 4-3, the 2011 Irish have a chance to avenge one of their worst defeats from last year. But don’t expect Kelly to find too many parallels between last year’s challenges and those that face this team.

“Last year’s team overcame adversity,” Kelly said. “This year’s team needs to overcome itself. They need to play better consistently. Adversity to me is a bigger picture. We had adversity last year. This year, our guys just need to play better football.”

It’s a simple solution to grasp. Achieving it has proven to be much tougher. Both Notre Dame and Navy come into this Saturday’s game with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve spent plenty of time talking about Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to USC. Navy has had its own string of disappointing defeats, the latest coming last Saturday against East Carolina.

As Notre Dame puts its finishing touches on prepping for the dreaded triple-option of the Midshipmen, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Navy at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

Don’t hold your breath on the Jumbotron. But a new playing surface might be right around the corner.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly got some Irish traditionalists up in arms with his open embrace of a Jumbotron in Notre Dame Stadium.

“Eventually, we want a big Jumbotron in there,” Kelly said. “We think that’s going to be something that adds to the atmosphere, too. It won’t be my decision to make. I can only give you my thoughts, and I think I have sprinkled that in the conversations. I don’t think it’s a mystery that we would like that, but it’s not going to be my call.”

Opponents of a video-board seem to think that it’ll turn the “stadium experience” into some kind of slimy commercialized product-placement fest. Proponents see it as an obvious way to keep the fans engaged, promote the unparalleled traditions and history Notre Dame has, while actually helping people see what happened on the field.

(If you were at Yankee Stadium last year, you’ll know how great it was. Come to think of it, if you were at the Compton Family Ice Arena last weekend, you’d have seen it first hand, too.)

Any number of the Irish’s main corporate partners would be happy to help offset the cost of the video board. That said, don’t look for a video-board anytime in the near future. But when it comes to a new field surface, that change might not be too far away.

One source close to the football program has told me that Notre Dame will begin serious research on replacing the stadium’s natural grass as soon as the season finishes. No option has been taken off the table yet — keeping the natural surface is certainly still in play. So is replacing the grass with field turf, the surface already on the LaBar practice fields.

An interesting option that might make everybody happy is a surface to what the Packers use in Green Bay. It’s a natural grass surface that’s also reinforced with man-made synthetic fibers, that’s set on a sand-based soil.

Beneath the field is a heating system, irrigation lines and drainage system that has turned the surface into some of the best and safest in the NFL. It’s also designed to keep the grass and ground at 55 degrees even on a day when the temperature is well below freezing.

After years of mediocre playing surfaces often times holding back the athleticism on Notre Dame’s sidelines, any change to the current grass would be a good one. And at a place like Lambeau Field, where tradition also has its own very important place, the Irish might have a perfect match.

***

Stop the fullback, win the game.

Two years ago, it was Vince Murray. Last year it was Alexander Teich. Whoever it is, the Irish need to tackle the fullback.

In Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta’s last game against the Midshipmen, Murray averaged 11.3 yards a carry — a career game for the Navy fullback. Last year, Teich went for a career high 210 yards on 26 carries.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco knows the pressure is on his unit, a year after allowing 367 yards on the ground, the most ever by Navy in the 85 year history of this rivalry.

“They’ve seen every single thing that can be done to defend the offense,” Diaco said of the challenges Navy presents. “There are only a few things that can be done, so effort and fundamentally sound football and a clear understanding of the plan, and it always helps to get the team off schedule.”

As we mentioned yesterday, Navy will be without Kris Proctor, the Midshipmen’s leading rusher with 591 yards and 8 touchdowns. And while Teich got off to a quick start before he was suspended for the Southern Miss game, he’s had a modest 30 carries for 110 yards in the two games since, numbers the Irish would certainly take on Saturday.

Still — The Midshipmen have had a fullback come out of the woodwork in each of the last two years to star. If they can stop that from happening, they’ll be in good shape.

***

Putting together winning streaks hasn’t been easy.

People hardly noticed, but the loss to Southern Cal broke just the second four-game winning streak that the Irish have had since back in 2006. Up until the closing four games of the season, this senior class just hasn’t been able to string together victories, something that’s frustrated Kelly and this coaching staff.

“They either can’t do it or won’t do it, and I’ve got to cure the can’ts and the won’ts, and that’s the process,” Kelly said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re working through it. We can win three or four in a row, but we can’t string together seven or eight or nine or 10 in a row. I want to string together 12 and 13 in a row. We can string together three or four and that’s not good enough.”

Kelly used the “can’t and won’t” parallel a few times on Thursday, making an interesting distinction on players that can be taught the right way to do things and players that simply won’t do things the right way. He said it’s his job to teach those that want to learn and leave behind those that won’t. It’ll be interesting to monitor if there are veterans that suddenly see the field less in the coming weeks.

“It’s not about being physical,” Kelly said about adjusting his practices in hopes of getting consistent play. “It’s about being accountable, it’s about doing it the right way all the time, and we’re in that conscious incompetent stage.”

***

Even in the midst of a ugly run, Navy’s got a chance to set a school record.

With a 2-5 record and victories against only Delaware and Western Kentucky, the Midshipmen look every bit the twenty-point underdog that Las Vegas considers them. But there’s every reason to believe that Navy will consider this the biggest game left on their schedule, even taking into consideration the Army game that always closes the season.

If Navy wins on Saturday, it’ll be the first time in school history that Navy would defeat the Irish in three consecutive games. It’d also mark the first time the Midshipmen have won three straight games in South Bend. A victory would give Navy four wins in five tries after losing an NCAA record 43 times in a row.

“We’re at the lowest of the lows,” Navy defensive captain Jabaree Tuani said after losing another heartbreaker to East Carolina. “I know this team has a great fighting spirit and will continue to work.”

With everybody in the stadium concentrating on the Navy triple-option, sophomore quarterback Trey Miller might give the Navy offense an added dimension.

“In every one of their games, they’ve hit the shot pass for a TD,” Kelly said. “They’re going to get matchups to throw the ball. The option game isn’t just the run game, you’ve gotta stop the pass game too.”

Irish fans still cringe thinking about one-on-one pass coverage, especially on underthrown routes. While Miller might give the Irish a break on their true option responsibilities, his ability to throw could add another wrinkle to the game plan.

***

The Navy defense is there for the taking.

If you’re looking for a reason that the Midshipmen have fallen back to earth after an astounding run, the defensive stats tell the story:

  • 103rd in rushing defense
  • 111th in passing efficiency defense
  • 95th in total defense
  • 83rd in scoring defense
  • 110th in sacks
  • 117th in TFLs.

The defensive ineptitude is even more incredible when you consider that Navy possesses the ball for over 31 minutes a game, only about 20 seconds less than they did last year. But Buddy Green‘s unit is injury ravaged, a horrible mix when you’re already dealing with subpar talent. Green has talked about changing things up as he prepares for a talented Irish offense.

“The changes we’re talking about are basically personnel. We’re out of linebackers. We’re running low on corners. We’ve got defensive linemen banged up,” Green told the Annapolis Capital Gazette. “We’re looking at getting personnel in different places because we’ve got so many people hurt. We’re trying to find the right places for everyone and pulling together a two-deep.”

The Irish don’t expect to completely shut down the Navy offense. But the Irish should be able to dominate both on the ground and in the air against Navy. It’ll just be up to them to convert their opportunities in the red zone.

***

The future is now for Tuitt, Lynch, and Hounshell.

Needless to say, the earliest anybody saw a starting trio of Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt was in 2012, not after seven games of their first season. But that’s the way 2011 has played out, with Sean Cwynar limited for much of the year with a broken hand, Ethan Johnson hobbled by a high ankle sprain, and now Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined with knee surgery.

“”It is what it is, I’m not making an excuse for it,” Diaco said this week. “The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn’t have to be playing right now. They’re really not ready to play the amount of reps they’re having to play each week.”

But that certainly won’t stop them. Expect a healthy dose of Lynch, Tuitt, Chase Hounshell and probably Troy Niklas as well on Saturday. That group will have to go up against the strength of Navy’s football team, an offensive line that propels one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.

“It’s an outstanding offensive line,” Kelly said. “It’s much better than Air Force’s offensive line. That’s the strength of this team, those returning starters. They can control the ball.”

For Tuitt, we’ve already seen that he can succeed playing against an option team, as he was active against Air Force. Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out that it was likely from Tuitt’s experience playing for a high school team that ran the trip option itself.

“Our own offense is triple-option, so in spring practice and for the first three weeks of fall camp, he saw it and played against it every day,” high school coach Matt Figg told Hansen. “He was so good at it in high school, he could take the dive and the pitch.”

Just as important as Tuitt, Lynch needs to rebound after doing more to hurt the Irish than help them last week. Lynch let his frustration get the best of him, committing his fourth personal foul of the season, a number that speaks to a freshman needed to gain some maturity.

With a front line on the field that’s a year or two from being ready, Kelly didn’t seem to worked up about his personnel choices.

“You’d rather have veterans in there, but those guys will be fine,” Kelly said.

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.