Tommy Rees USF

IBG: Down the stretch we come

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If rivalries were measured by the excellence of snarky t-shirts generated by students and fans, the Notre Dame-Boston College match-up would be up there with the best rivalries in all of college football.

When the Eagles come to town, a fanbase with an awful lot of similarities joins them, and the result is the kind of spirited rivalry that adds quite a bit of flavor to a game that doesn’t look so good on paper.

But here to try to make something of this weekend’s game is the pint-sized provocateur of Her Loyal Sons, Steve Giordano, better known to the internet as Poot. While he’s starting a feud that I plan on winning (you’ll see in the cheap-shot bonus question), he’s also laid out some questions that deserve answering.

Here goes:

Having actually seen the uniforms in the wild on Saturday night, what are your final thoughts regarding them? Does Ronald Darby stating that he liked them change your views on trying out the different uniforms for the “Shamrock Series”?

Wait — are you telling me an 17 or 18-year-old kid actually liked the new uniforms? I’m shocked! Shocked! Between the cool story with the Adidas promotion and beating this story like a dead horse, I’m so over the uniforms right now it’s unbelievable. Do I think the Irish will wear helmets that ridiculous again? Probably not. Do I think it’s a big deal? Not at all.

I’m all for taking one game a year and trying something fresh. As I’ve said a couple times, the Irish didn’t exactly help themselves by essentially stretching out three different uniform changes throughout the season, but Michigan had their say in one of them, an inability to finish the new helmet color in time for the start of the season is another, and then gaudy taste for the Shamrock Series is a third.

If they rotate uniforms like this next year, then the grumbling can continue. Until then, everybody relax and just enjoy the last two regular season games of the year.

Manti is clearly hobbled right now. Re-watching the game on Sunday, I barely noticed him on the field and I rarely remember Mayock or Hammonds calling his name. I believe Kelly stated in his Sunday teleconference that Manti was did not play most of the 3rd or 4th quarters. If you are BK, do you sit Manti on Saturday?

With an ankle injury like this, it’s just the nature of the beast. If you get unlucky and tweak it, you’re going to hobble around for a few minutes. If you stay clean, it’ll continue to get better. Do I think the Irish need a Manti Te’o on the field to beat Boston College? No. But do I think they should keep him off the field in what could be his last game in Notre Dame Stadium? Much louder no.

If the Irish start fast like they did last week, you won’t see a ton of Te’o. But if he’s as healthy as the coaching staff and Te’o want you to believe, there’s no reason to baby him, and getting him in the flow of the game before going to Palo Alto is probably just as important as protecting him.

We’ve seen Tommy Rees play deep into blowouts against Navy, Air Force and Maryland with Hendrix only getting a significant number of snaps in the Air Force game. Rees is only a sophomore but it seems most Irish fans take it as a foregone conclusion that Golson or Hendrix will pass Tommy going into the 2012 season. So do you agree with the use, or lack thereof, of Hendrix so far this season? Do you accept the thought that this is Rees’ last year as starter?

I do not accept the idea that Rees won’t be the starter next season. I do not accept that at all. I’ve kicked enough hornet nests on here with my “support” of Tommy Rees, but I just don’t think people understand how difficult it is to play competent quarterback in college football. (Look at what’s going on down in Florida.)

Has Rees played deeper into those wins that I thought he should have? Yes. But I’d have put Dayne Crist on the field in relief before putting in Hendrix, as it’s going to be Crist that’ll help the Irish beat Stanford, not Hendrix, regardless of how talented people believe he is.

Like it or not, Tommy Rees is the starting quarterback going into the offseason. While it seems like a long shot that Crist will return, I think it’s equally unlikely that either Hendrix or Everett Golson will unseat Rees as the starting quarterback, especially with another full offseason in Kelly’s system. Would an extra series here or there help Hendrix? Sure, but it’s not going to be anything compared to the snaps he’ll get this spring and throughout the summer.

Is Tommy a perfect quarterback? No. Can we expect a third-year jump in production like other Irish quarterbacks that have significant starting experience? Honestly, I think so. I’d love to find a way for Rees, Golson and Hendrix to all find a way to help the Irish out next year, but more importantly — I think Rees can put up some really big numbers next year, especially if someone steps up and takes the spot of Michael Floyd. How that happens is up to Brian Kelly and Charley Molnar.

Tommy Rees needs 608 yards for 3000 passing yards on the season. Cierre Wood is 93 yards short while Jonas Gray is 270 yards short of 1000 rushing yards. Michael Floyd is 78 yards shy of 1000 receiving yards for the season. Despite SubwayDomer’s insistence that bowl stats count, predict final numbers for all 4 players before the bowl. Do they all hit the milestones?

I’m with Subway Domer — I don’t get how bowl game stats count now, but aren’t retroactively included for players before the rule was adopted. You realize how ridiculous that is? It’s not enough that they added another game on to the regular season. It’s not enough that they allow conference championship games now, too. We’ve got to count the seventy teams that get to play in the watered down bowl system too, potentially adding three games onto the end of a season compared to what people played 20 years ago?

(That’s like counting baseball’s entire postseason stats in the home run race. Colossally silly. )

But rant over, back to the predictions. Frankly, I think everything you’ve mentioned is going to happen. Rees will get to 608 yards, and if things go according to plan, it’ll happen in the second half in Palo Alto. Cierre will break 1,000 in the third quarter on Saturday, on his way to a bowl-aided 1,200 yard season. And Jonas Gray will get to the magic four-digit number, whether or not that’s in a bowl game or not I haven’t quite decided. One bonus that young Poot didn’t mention: Michael Floyd will end up breaking Golden Tate’s single-season record for catches as well.

Notre Dame opens up as a 24.5 favorite for Saturday’s game and this is clearly the worst Boston College team in recent memory. That said, BC absolutely loves to play spoiler when it comes to Notre Dame and this game will be the last chance for something good to happen this season. Given those two thoughts, does the margin of victory matter to you on Saturday?

I think the margin of victory absolutely matters, but not because it’s Boston College. The Irish need to keep back-dooring their way up the rankings, and they can do that with another impressive victory, and more teams getting exposed by back-loaded conference schedules.

Already tonight, Southern Miss (ranked 20th) just fell to a 2-8 UAB. Baylor is going to lose to Oklahoma. Florida State has to play Virginia. Michigan and Nebraska battle each other, and Kansas State and Texas match-up in an interesting, albeit fraudulent battle between overrated teams. That’s a handful of teams that’ll likely slide below the Irish, and then it’s up to ND to beat Stanford.

Margin of victory won’t matter if Notre Dame doesn’t beat Stanford. But a beatdown victory will feel good for those Irish fans that still are cleaning the grass-stains off their jeans that came along with the decade long victory drought against the Eagles.

Bonus Question:
On a scale of 1-10, how much does Keith Arnold look like Jay Cutler?

I’m not even going to dignify this with an answer. Do I look like this guy?

source:

No. No, I don’t.

While I’d enjoy the freedom of a five-year, $50 million dollar contract, I wouldn’t be caught dead dressing this. When he’s not moping on the football field or getting engaged, calling it off, then showing up on TV to support his reality-show girlfriend, Cutler plays for one of my least favorite football teams and is one of my least favorite quarterbacks of the last 10 years.

Thanks Poot. I look forward to the bonus question where I ask people if you look like this guy.

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.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal