Wake Forest

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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The Irish now enter the ACC portion of their schedule, with a trio of Atlantic Coast opponents on the docket with Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College up next for the Irish. The first of that trio is Jim Grobe‘s Demon Deacons, who sit at a surprising 5-3, with four wins in conference play, including a upset victory over Florida State.

Here to give us more on the Deacs is the managing editor of Blogger So Dear Martin Rickman, who is in charge of a “Wake Forest Demon Deacon sports blog where Charlie Brown is still trying to kick that football.” Peanuts references aside, you’ve got to like the blog for the title alone, a play on the lyrics of the school’s alma mater:

Dear old Wake Forest, Thine is a noble name;
Thine is a glorious fame, Constant and true.
We give thee of our praise, Adore thine ancient days,
Sing thee our humble lays, Mother, so dear.

Mother so dear, blogger so dear — I feel a mean-spirited sportswriter joke right around the corner.

With Irish fans in severe need of some Demon Deacon knowledge, I asked Rickman some questions on his beloved Deacs, and he gave me some very good answers.

Enjoy.

What does this game mean to Wake Forest and their fans? This will be the first time the two programs have met and while it’s definitely second banana behind LSU-Alabama, the game will be on national TV. Is it a tough ticket? Does Notre Dame resonate in your corner of the country?

It’s a huge game for a number of reasons. Notre Dame doesn’t play true road games often. We’ve been working on this series for awhile, what with the number of connections between ND and Wake: Irish AD Jack Swarbrick’s son is a Demon Deacon and WFU President Nathan Hatch worked at Notre Dame for 30 years.

And even more importantly than the prestige of the Golden Dome is that this game would get Wake bowl eligible after a difficult loss to UNC. It’s definitely one of the biggest non-conference games the Deacs have ever played, and tickets are hard to come by (something that doesn’t happen often).

The Demon Deacons are coming off an ugly loss, but have put together a nice run so far, highlighted by a big upset over Florida State. Is a 5-3 record a surprise at this point, especially seeing how 2010 played out?

This season has been a big surprise. If you looked up and down the schedule at the beginning of the year, it would be hard to find five wins all season. Instead, Wake was a handful of plays away from a win at Syracuse to start the season, held a 10-0 lead early against a good VT team, and pulled out a big win over Florida State.

Obviously BC and State being down a bit has helped, but Tanner Price and the WRs, along with some better-than-expected play from the DL and CB Merrill Noel has fans excited, something that didn’t happen much a year ago.

Offensively, you’ve got to be enthusiastic about this team. How good are the Deacs offensive weapons? Tanner Price, Chris Givens, Josh Harris and Brandon Pendergrass seem to be a talented group.

This offense is one of the finest that Wake has ever had. Price is one of the three best QBs in the ACC. Givens is a Top 10 WR in the country. Harris, when healthy, has incredible playmaking ability. Pendergrass runs hard, picks up tough yards and is a veteran leader. The offensive line has made great strides from a year ago, especially in pass blocking. WRs Michael Campanaro, Terence Davis and Danny Dembry have all made some huge catches this year.

The offense has stalled at times, and a lot of that has had to do with an inconsistent running game, but they can definitely put up points.

Nikita Whitlock is putting up some really impressive numbers, wreaking havoc in opponents’ backfield. How good is he? Who else on this defense will make an impact on Saturday night?

Whitlock is one of the most underrated players in college football. He’s “undersized,” and you hear about it all the time, but he’s unstoppable. It always takes two guys to block him, and when he gets a blocker one-on-one, he gets in the backfield with regularity. He has terrific closing speed, and wraps up his tackles. He and Kyle Wilber have really helped the Deacs get more pressure defensively.

In the secondary, I already mentioned him, but Bud Noel (despite getting manhandled by Dwight Jones on Saturday) is having an unbelievable year for a RS-FR. The Pahokee grad, same school as Alphonso Smith, deflects a ton of passes and has shown good tackling ability, especially on the quick swing passes to WRs. He makes mistakes, but has grown a lot on the field, and potentially has an All-ACC future ahead of him.

Wake Forest has the 106th rated rushing attack in the country. Can the Demon Deacons be effective on Saturday night as a one-dimensional offense?

I’m really not sure. Josh Harris is still hurting, and Pendergrass desperately needs J-Roc in there as a change of pace. There’s a small chance the Deacs burn the redshirt on true freshman Orville Reynolds, and his speed would definitely help, but there’s no denying the fact that Wake is going to need a much better game from Price than they got against the Tar Heels.

Price was rushed into some throws and made some poor decisions, and he will need Givens early and often to take pressure off the running game up front. It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s defense against the run is the strength of that unit, and I expect the Irish to use blitz schemes and a little zone to try and speed up Tanner. The Deacs need to get something out of the running game though, and that’s going to be a big key to watch.

Wake Forest is a two-touchdown underdog. What’s the recipe for success this Saturday night for Jim Grobe’s squad?

Better play defensively, especially in one-on-one coverage. At least 100 yards on the ground from whichever combination of Harris, Pendergrass and others sees the field. Winning the turnover battle. And taking risks offensively. If Wake gets vanilla when they have the ball and are more worried about controlling the ball than going for the jugular, the Fighting Irish’s big plays can take Wake right out of the game.

On film, the Demon Deacons actually match up pretty well against Notre Dame, and I think the 14-point spread is a little much. I’m not convinced Wake will have enough to win it, but stranger things have happened, and the nature of the game—at home, on national TV, at night, against an opponent like this—should add to the Deacs’ focus.

***

Read more of Martin’s work at Blogger So Dear, or follow him on Twitter @MartinRickman.

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.