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And in that corner… The Boston College Eagles

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Some rivalries mean a little bit more. When Notre Dame and Boston College take the field, the game isn’t likely to garner national headlines or bring ESPN to town. But the “Holy War” has been filled with memorable moments, with most of them featuring the Eagles tripping up an Irish squad — sometimes on the brink of something great.

The Irish’s first loss to Boston College — a 41-39 shocker in 1993 — put the rivalry on the map. But Lou Holtz wasn’t the only Irish coach to get tripped up by the Eagles. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis all lost to BC, with Willingham’s No. 4 rated Irish nearly doubling the Eagles in yardage but losing 14-7 thanks to five back-breaking turnovers (three fumbles and two Pat Dillingham interceptions in eight throws). Some Irish fans still struggle to acknowledge Boston College as a true rival, but the two-game win streak the Irish are on is their first since 1998, so any air of superiority should have been washed away throughout the Eagles six-game win streak.

This year’s Boston College team is in the midst of an incredibly disappointing season. Head coach Frank Spaziani finds himself squarely on the hot seat, as the third year head coach and long-time Eagles defensive coordinator is sitting at an ugly 3-7, with wins over UMass, Maryland and North Carolina State. His best offensive player, Montel Harris has struggled with injuries all season and his offense has been anemic, scoring more than 20 point only twice.

Through it all has been Bill Maloney, the proprietor of Eagle in Atlanta, one of the longest standing Boston College blogs on the internet. Bill was kind enough to get us up to speed on the Eagles, joining me for the second year in a row. I asked, he answered, you read.

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Most predicted the Eagles to take a step forward this season. That’s obviously not been the case. Can you put your finger on one thing that’s been the problem? Just how disastrous has this season been for Frank Spaziani and Boston College?

There isn’t one thing and that is the big problem. Injuries and inexperience are the excuses you hear from Spaz. And it makes sense that he points to those issues as it absolves him of blame. Both are legitimate issues but not the reason BC is only 3-7. Spaz is now on his third coordinator and the results still stink. BC has trouble executing basic plays and time and seems to have a grab bag of offensive philosophies.

Lack of development along the offensive line has been troubling.

The defense — which is Spaz’s baby — has also struggled. They have been blown out twice this season. Even in lean years BC could usually count on the D to keep games close. Not this season.

Plus there are dozens of in-game strategic mistakes that Spaz makes every week. Some of those cost us close games like Northwestern or Duke.

Just how hot is Frank Spaziani’s seat? Do you see him surviving into next year? What are the pros and cons to firing him?

If fans were voting Spaz would be gone already. I actually think he is fairly safe though. I think the University leadership will give him another year as they are blaming Jeff Jagodzinski for all of this season’s problems.

I am firmly in the “Fire Spaz” camp. The only pro I can see for keeping him is saving a few dollars on salary. There is no other reason to keep him around. Recruiting is mediocre even by the staunchest Spaz supporters. He’s not trending the right way in his wins — considering this is Year 3. His age limits the idea that he is building towards the future or that he is a long-term solution.

Injuries have ravaged the Eagles. What’s been the most crippling blow to the team?

Montel Harris was probably the most costly injury. Although the other RBs have had nice games, no one has Harris’s ability to make something from nothing. If he had been around the whole season, BC’s offense would have been a little more consistent.

The Irish have Manti Te’o, their own All-American candidate at linebacker. But for someone that watches Luke Kuechly every week, just how good is he? What do you think his NFL career will be like? Is there a player you can compare him to?

Kuechly is very good. I haven’t seen many players who can shed blockers like he can. He has a great feel for the game and where the action is going. Plus he’s got underrated closing speed, which helps him cover a lot of ground.

I think he can be very good in the NFL. He might not have ideal size, but his productivity should get him drafted in the first round. I don’t know if there is a great NFL comparison right now. Since he is an undersized MLB.

Irish fans have their own second-year quarterback to be critical of, but how would you describe Chase Rettig’s sophomore season? Could you call this year a step forward? Is he still the long-term answer at the position?

I actually remain a big supporter of Chase Rettig. While he is not perfect and hasn’t made a big leap this year, I don’t know if any QB could shine in this situation. He switched coordinators midseason. His Oline has him running for his life half the time. He doesn’t have great skill position guys and his coach refuses to ever open up the offense.

He’s not as accurate as he needs to be, but he’s still got a good arm. I think with time his accuracy will improve. As for his future, it really depends on what BC decides to do with the offense. If Dave Brock wants more running from his QB next year, that is probably not a great sign for Chase. If they will finally start to focus on the pass, he could be very good.

Regardless of their record, Boston College always seems up for a battle with Notre Dame. If you had to pick a way for the Eagles to spring an upset, give me the roadmap. Do you think it will happen?

I have real doubts about BC’s ability to upset the Irish. Even if they force a lot of turnonvers (step 1 for beating ND), I don’t see BC scoring enough to make a difference. I think BC would need to score at least 24 to even entertain an idea of an upset. Spaz has only scored more than 24 on the road once in three years.

Bonus question: How does it feel watching Tom O’Brien struggle at North Carolina State?

I make many jokes about O’Brien but at this point I really don’t care. If anything I am surprised. I didn’t think he would turn them into a power, but I thought he would have more success.

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Be sure to check out Bill’s site during the run-up to the game this weekend, and give him a follow on Twitter at @bcatleagle.

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.