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IBG: Struggling to focus on football

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It’s been a weird week. Apologies for maybe coming up a little short on columns this week, but I’ve just been transfixed to the situation evolving in Happy Valley. What a sad state of affairs, and it makes it pretty difficult to get excited about a football game when you’re watching a horrific scandal that’s unfolding like this.

Luckily, we’ve got the Irish Blogger Gathering forcing my hand here, with our friends at We Never Graduate putting the questions out there. It’s a good mix of water cooler topics, hypotheticals, football talk and what’s going on in State College.

Here we go:

This year more than most, there seems to be an inordinate amount of attention spent on peripheral topics like the jumbotron, field turf, and apparel. Kelly is responsible in large part because he’s so candid about his take on them during his press conferences, making it perfectly clear his preferences that stoke the NDNation’s ever-burning fire. Do you think he’s going too far to push for these “enhancements” or do you think he’s doing what’s necessary to push Notre Dame’s program into the modern age?

I think a big reason these topics are holding such traction is because we all assumed we’d have a BCS run to talk about. Now, with three early losses, we’ve lost the number one conversation topic thanks to fluky self-inflicted wounds that have taken this season out of the enjoyable place it started.

That said, Brian Kelly certainly is a progressive, something people probably didn’t see coming when the early narrative on Kelly was being written. But if I’m a head coach at a major college program, I’m fighting for everything that’ll get me up to speed — a video board, a playing surface that doesn’t stink, and uniforms that appeal to players and recruits.

Do I think he enjoys tweaking the hard core traditionalists? Not really. I think he understands it doesn’t matter what he says as long as he wins. It’s like the old Crash Davis quote in Bull Durham.

“You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win twenty in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win twnety in the show however, it means you’re a slob.”

Coach Kelly made it clear today in his press conference that he couldn’t care less what you think about the helmets and uniforms…but I care what you think. Give the world your take on the helmets we’ll be wearing this weekend.

I’ve hit this topic pretty hard this week. I’m glad he said what he did, and while it might have come off as a little too definitive, he’s 100 percent right.

Do I like the helmet? Not especially, at least not when it’s by itself looking like a disco ball with a shamrock on it. But could it look cool under the lights with green jerseys? Probably.

That said, I think the process of hiring a world class helmet designer from a different sport makes this cool regardless, just because it shows that Notre Dame has made a decision using a forward-thinking perspective.

That will be all from me on helmets. I promise.

The Irish are starting to incur some injuries that are forcing new players to emerge and contribute. Identify one guy who hasn’t made a big contribution thus far that will show up big over the next three games.

I’m not quite sure what you call a big contribution so I’ll answer this question twice. First and foremost, I think the injuries along the defensive line, and his development over nine games, has freshman Stephon Tuitt primed for a monster home stretch. (I already consider his contribution sizable, but I’m not sure if he’s done enough to qualify for this question.)

While Aaron Lynch was the story of last year’s spring game, I sounded smarter than usual when I  mentioned Tuitt then as a guy that might have a bigger impact this year, and I think we’ll see that come to fruition as November rolls along. (I also pegged George Atkinson as the guy on the offensive side of the ball. So partial credit there, I guess. Just saying.)

Otherwise, I’m expecting Robby Toma to start making a push and getting involved. Toma is the kind of guy that just seems perfect for late season football. He may not have the skillset Theo Riddick does, but there’s just something about him that has me thinking he’ll put up some numbers in these final three regular season games.

There was a short time during the Notre Dame coaching search when it appeared current Maryland head coach Randy Edsall was the front runner. How different would things be for the Irish program right now if he was chosen in front of Kelly?

I think Randy Edsall’s agent would have you believe that there was a time when Randy Edsall was the frontrunner for the Notre Dame job. That said, I don’t think it was ever really that close, and if you stack Edsall’s resume up with Brian Kelly’s, it’s really no comparison.

That said, Edsall is a good football coach, but he’s also the type of hire that would’ve been absolutely crushed by the Notre Dame faithful as not being sexy enough. This is a group that was looking at Hall of Fame coaches as the bar. (A group that earlier today, had someone on a prominent board saying Tom Coughlin should leave the New York Giants and coach the Irish.)

As for trying to guess how things would be if it was Edsall and not Kelly taking the reins? That’s a tough game that I’m not all that comfortable playing, but you’ve got to think that Edsall’s struggles at Maryland after losing some good talent would’ve been a sign for how things would’ve gone with the Irish losing Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, etc.

Let’s briefly step away from South Bend and address the talk of college football right now: the mind-boggling Penn State scandal. What’s your take on the entire situation and what do you think needs to happen moving forward in Happy Valley?

This story haunts me. After reading the Grand Jury findings, I don’t think it can be covered enough. It’s one of the most reprehensible stories that I can think of and I know it’s going to get a whole lot worse, as reporters track this all the way back to 1999, when Jerry Sandusky, then a 54-year-old defensive coordinator coming off being named assistant coach of the year, slipped into “retirement.” That Sandusky decided to walk away during the prime of his coaching career is going to be cross-checked pretty seriously, and I fully expect documents to come out that all but point to the fact that Penn State and Paterno got rid of the coach because of questionable behavior surrounding the initial investigation into his wrongdoings with underage children all the way back then.

If that’s the case, well — this is bad. Really bad. Blow up the program bad. That the leadership of Penn State thought they did enough just to remove him as a coach is egregious. It’s akin to the Catholic Church pulling a child-molesting priest from a parish, slapping him on the wrist,  then reassigning him to somewhere else. That Sandusky brought kids around the program and had unfettered access to facilities and the ability to still run youth camps and profit off his past Penn State glory is just disgusting.

I’ve heard an Albert Einstein quote referenced that’s been pretty appropriate for this situation:

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Jerry Sandusky isn’t guilty of anything yet, but it’s very likely that he’s an evil monster. That said, he’s far from the only one that failed people here. It was the good people at Penn State — something we all thought Paterno was — that brushed this evil under the carpet, and for that, they deserve every bit of hell coming to them, and it won’t be close to enough to make up for the terrible things that happened to those defenseless children.

Lastly, the State College community reaction, at least the vocal portion that shouted questions during last night’s press conference,  the students that cheered in the Paterno’s yard and flipped a news van, was pathetic. It’ll be something that embarrasses that mob for years to come. I don’t think I could ever be so bold while doing it, but Craig Carton said what a lot of people wanted to when undressing a student-journalist from Penn State this morning.

I’ve spent a better part of the week digging into this story, and it’s taken me an hour just to put together 400 words on the subject. It’s just a horrific horrific mess and something that will forever plague Happy Valley.

 

 

 

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

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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.