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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21

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In case you didn’t know, Notre Dame’s trip to the nation’s capital had nothing to do about football. Just ask athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“In many ways the motivation for all this has virtually nothing to do with football,” Swarbrick said. “What we want to do is expose more people to Notre Dame. With two days worth of events here, this is about having a major Notre Dame presence here in the Washington, D.C., area – about serving the larger University mission.”

But for those of you who haven’t figured out this part yet either, here’s another newsflash: Brian Kelly and his football team don’t care about being brand ambassadors. They don’t care what you think about their disco-globe helmets, their green jerseys, or those gaudy leprechaun covered undershirts. They just want to play football. Play winning football.

The Irish accomplished their mission on Saturday night, absolutely dominating Maryland 45-21 in a game that the Terrapins were never really in. Mixing a smash-mouth running game by Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood and efficient passing from Tommy Rees, the Irish won their seventh game in their last eight attempts.

“We got off to a fast start,” Kelly said afterwards. “I thought it was important for us to come here and really make a statement early on and I thought we did that.”

Kelly’s team did more than that, piling up over 500 yards of offense in a game that was out of reach for most of the second half. The win pushed the Irish to 7-3 on the season, their seventh win in the last eight games.

Let’s find out what else we learned:

***

With a running game the best Notre Dame’s seen since Lou Holtz, the Irish dominated this game on the ground.

Everybody in the stadium probably knew Notre Dame was going to try and do it, but the Irish ran the ball straight through the Terrapins defense, with Gray leading the way. It took the senior back until the final three games of his senior season to do it, but Jonas finally had his first 100 yard day, running for 136 yards and two touchdowns — his seventh game in a row with a rushing score after entering the season without one.

True, the Terrapins have been terrible against the run, but the Irish helped them play up to their reputation, with Gray and Wood combining for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, a seven-yard clip that dictated the tone of the game.

“The guys in front did a great job. The receivers did a great job blocking up field,” Gray said. “We knew we would be able to run the ball. It was starting with a physical mentality and continuing that throughout the game.”

For the second Saturday in a row, it was Gray starting in the backfield after following Wood into the game for the season’s first eight games. But Gray’s physical presence has been too much to keep off the field, and the senior’s breakthrough season was something the coaching staff had always hoped to see.

“I thought he was capable of it,” Kelly said. “We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical and you could see he doesn’t want to get off the field.”

It didn’t seem likely, but Gray’s late career renaissance will likely keep him on the field on Sundays, too.

***

After a season marked by unevenness, the Irish played a complete game in all three phases tonight.

In a season that’ll likely be remembered by back-breaking mistakes and the team’s inability to play consistently, the Irish’s domination of Maryland was satisfying in that they finally got a complete performance by all three facets of the football team.

“It was a total team effort today,” Kelly said. “If you look at it, our special teams — David Ruffer had a 52-yard field goal, Ben Turk punted the ball very, very well. Defensively we scored. Offensively we were able to play fast at times, which is a sign of a growing offense. So when we look at it, a very good victory for our football team.”

It was a breakthrough performance for the Irish specialists, with Ruffer breaking out of a season-long funk with a career long 52-yard field goal, a beautiful draw that hooked perfectly between the uprights. Turk ripped his season long punt — a 58-yard moon ball — and pinned the Terrapins inside their ten yard line twice.

Kelly was happy with his team’s performance and very happy that a solid week of preparation resulted in a victory.

“Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “They know that they have to be able to bring all three phases. We look to repeat that next week, and that’s the challenge to our football team.”

***

Robby Toma is playing his way into the slot receiver role.

The Irish were without slot receiver Theo Riddick, who missed Saturday night’s game with a pulled hamstring. But with Riddick missing, the Irish might have found their starting slot receiver: A pineapple-sized Hawaiian named Robby Toma.

Starting in Riddick’s place, Toma had seven catches for 74 yards, making highlight reel catches and infusing a true third receiving weapon to team with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

“He really adds a dimension to our offense,” Kelly said of Toma. “You saw that tonight, especially in the quick game stuff. He’s very good with the ball in his hands, run after catch, just a smart receiver. He’s a really good football player.”

Not many people expected to get a really good football player when Toma received and accepted a scholarship offer as the high school best friend of all-world recruit Manti Te’o. But Toma brings a feel to the slot that Riddick — a converted running back — just doesn’t possess yet.

If there’s a controversy, Kelly certainly isn’t acknowledging it. It’s just another step towards building a championship-level team.

“He’s been waiting for his chance, his opportunity,” Kelly said of Toma. “He’s a classic case of our next man in.”

***

The evolution of Tommy Rees continues.

The Irish’s sophomore quarterback is seemingly the favorite topic of just about every Irish fan, and Tommy Rees‘ evening is a case study in just how polarizing a sophomore quarterback only 13 starts into a career can be. For the first time this season, Kelly and Rees pushed the tempo of the Irish offense, and with the sophomore at the helm, the offense moved efficiently while not turning the ball over.

“Any way that we could establish a quicker tempo, allows us an opportunity to either put the ball out on the perimeter to our skill guys or run the ball inside,” Kelly explained. “Tommy did a really nice job tonight of feel. We went fast and he had to have a feel, do I give the ball out or do I put it on the perimeter and throw it. He had a nice feel for it.”

Of course, just watching Rees it’s easy to focus on what the sophomore quarterback can’t do, rather than what he did do, and it’s become a passion for some Irish fans convinced that the team’s least talented quarterback is tasked with running the offense. On Saturday night, Rees was sacked three times, going down for the first time since the Pitt game in September. It could have been a product of a hurry-up system with Mike Golic in place for injured Braxston Cave at center, but Rees also held onto the ball too long on one or two of those.

Just as obvious are Tommy’s limitations outside the pocket. The sophomore looked like he was running in quicksand when trying to scramble for yardage, a reminder that Kelly and his spread offense don’t have a quarterback that can give the running game a true zone-read option. (Not that it mattered on Saturday.)

Just the same, people complaining about Rees’ day tend to skip where he does his best work: the stat sheet. Even though he missed a few open deep throws, Rees still piled up some impressive numbers, completing 30 of 37 throws for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Consider those numbers include two drops by Michael Floyd and another by TJ Jones and Rees put together a mighty fine evening.

Will it ever be enough to stop people from complaining about him? Doubtful, because the siren song of a talented but unused quarterback is something desperate Irish fans will never be able to turn down. But with 11 wins in 13 starts, Rees’ .846 winning percentage would slot him between Tom Clements and Joe Theismann amongst the winningest quarterbacks in school history.

***

With the defense swarming, the special teams solid and the offense efficient, for one Saturday, the Irish attained a complete victory.

Ss complimentary as Kelly was after Saturday night’s victory, any thought that this victory meant anything more than one good Saturday was quickly squashed by the head coach.

“It was just today,” Kelly said of his team’s win. “You know, it’s Saturday, November the 12th. We played the way we need to play in all three phases. We’ll see what happens on the 19th of November.”

And that, is the thing with the 2011 Fighting Irish. On any given Saturday, this football team can look like one of the country’s best, making it easy to wonder what might have been had the Irish not given the game away against USF or imploded defensively against Michigan. But that’s the exact reason why Kelly won’t let this team take a big picture view at this season, especially with crucial games against Boston College and Stanford left to be played.

“I think for us the process is what we do during the week because we’re not at that point where it’s habit, that we do it the right way all the time,” Kelly said. “We’re making good progress there. We really can’t fly at 35,000 feet, so to speak. We have to really focus on the day-to-day.”

Still, the Irish got plenty of what they wanted out of Saturday night’s victory. With Manti Te’o protecting a tender ankle, linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese got plenty of snaps, and Kendall Moore gave us a promising look at what life will look like after-Te’o. With the team comfortably ahead, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood got to take significant snaps, with Wood gifted a pick-six interception that’ll do nothing but build confidence.

More importantly, Kelly’s Irish have won five straight in November, almost entirely erasing the six-game skid that ended the Charlie Weis era. While this team might not yet be able to savor the experience, the win reminds me of something Bob Diaco said just as the team’s training camp was getting started.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India, where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said back in August. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort… There needs to be refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow.”

For just one night, the Irish won convincingly. The rest of it — extending the brand of Notre Dame, Inc. by playing neutral site home games, wondering about what might have been with this football team, looking ahead to the polls, bowl slotting and Stanford — that can all wait.

 

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.