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IBG: Thankful for another year of football

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What a bizarre year of football. After months of anticipation, the season got off to its worst possible start, as the Irish stumbled out of the gate so badly that most casual football fans never even got a chance to hop on the Notre Dame bandwagon.

But of course, this website isn’t for the casual fan. We’re here — 365, 24:7, whatever term you prefer that means you’ve got something to read daily — and while two gut-punching losses took some wind out of our sails, we made it through another season, and for that, I’m immensely thankful. (Even if some of you like to write stupid comments during the live blog just to mess with my blood pressure.)

After being a passive participant all season, it’s my week to host the Irish Blogger Gathering, so if you don’t like the questions… well, it’s my fault. After eleven games, we’re running out of debate topics, but I feel like I’ve put together enough to make things interesting. I’ll continue to update this post with responses from other writers as they roll in, so be sure to check in and read everything by kickoff Saturday, if only to make fun of the poor prognostication of this group.

So loosen your belt, enjoy a lovely day of carb-loading, turkey, football and all the wonderful things that make the fourth Thursday in November one of the greatest days of the year.

Obviously, Saturday night’s game is massive. Win, and the Irish get to nine wins after starting 0-2, and you can make a really persuasive argument that they’re deserving of a BCS berth. Lose, and ND only makes incremental progress over last year’s 8-5 record. Three potential outcomes: Win, close loss, ten-point loss. How does your takeaway for the season change?

Saturday night’s game is definitely a tipping point in the Brian Kelly era. I don’t think there’s a way to understate the importance of the game. Win — and you’ll hear me bang the drum for a BCS bid, regardless of the three losses. Lose and it’ll give Irish fans a month to debate what exactly is wrong with another Irish head coach. Get blown out? Well, that’s one of those topics I’m not going down unless I’m forced to do it Saturday night.

Brian Kelly has spent over two decades as a head football coach. But this season probably added a few hundred grey hairs to his scalp, and for understandable reasons. Whether it was replacing his starting quarterback thirty minutes into the season, losing games because of defensive implosions or self-induced mistakes, it’s safe to say that the first two weeks of this season spun the year into such a weird place to start that in his wildest dreams, Kelly never saw this coming.

Still, give the team — and their head coach — credit for not packing it in. While the loss to USC was really disappointing, the Irish did exactly what everybody asked for: win a bunch of games and make the last Saturday of the year a compelling football game.

Right now the Irish have 15 prospects committed to the 2012 recruiting class. Let’s assume every starter with a year left is coming back (Cave, KLM, Cwynar and Slaughter) and the Irish end up signing 20 recruits. That’ll make 93 players technically available for the 85-man roster (With Mike Ragone potentially being No. 94). Assuming Te’o and Eifert are back next season, what reserves do you invite back for a fifth year? Why?

I don’t know why I do this to myself, as these are the kind of questions that make life really difficult. Notre Dame’s policy on fifth-year players is incredibly admirable, but it must make life hard for a head football coach.

If you’re in the business of coaching student-athletes and objectively deciding their ability to help your team, picking who stays around for a fifth year must add a lot of stress to your life. A football coach’s job is to believe in the students he brings to Notre Dame. It’s easy to decide that a wet-behind-the-ears freshman isn’t ready to play. It’s got to be a whole lot tougher to decide a mature, 22-year-old student isn’t deserving of one more opportunity for the light bulb to go off. It’s practically antithetical to your mission statement as a coach.

With that in mind, let’s get cold-blooded about an Irish roster that’s finally — this is a good thing — bursting at the seams.

Fifth-year candidates:

Dayne Crist — One of my favorite players on the team. I wish him well as he transfers and plays a final season to rebuild his NFL Draft stock.
John Goodman — One of the more difficult decisions on the roster. I’d cut bait with him depending on the wide receivers that came in during recruiting. Even though he’s the quintesential example of a “waiting for the lightbulb to turn on” kind of player, he just hasn’t been the athlete many thought he could be.
Deion Walker — Even though Walker was one of the most highly touted recruits in his class, he just hasn’t been able to work his way into the two-deep. This year is it for the other No. 1.
Mike Golic — Probably the toughest call in the group. I’d actually let Golic walk, and then spend all spring turning Bruce Heggie into the super-sub type player that can play center and guard. (That said, if he comes back, I’d completely agree with the decision.)
Lane Clelland — Let him walk. Clelland is one of those guys that just as easily could’ve turned into a first round pick. His pedigree is perfect: high school wrestler, big-bodied athletic lineman. The coaching staff thought he had a chance to make a difference at defensive end, but the experiment ended after spring ball, and injuries robbed Clelland of a final chance to contribute.
Hafis Williams — There are just too many youngsters that have jumped ahead of him in the depth chart.
Brandon Newman — Ditto. Although I will really miss his thoughtful personality, which is always on display in UND.com’s videos and Trick Shot Monday episodes.
Anthony McDonald — Another tough, but logical decision. McDonald got passed up by Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, not to mention youngsters like Kendall Moore. And he’s struggled with injuries.
David Posluszny — He’s not much smaller than his brother, but Poz just couldn’t work his way onto the field. Another guy that struggled with injuries.
Dan McCarthy — One of my favorite recruits when he signed on to play for the Irish, McCarthy battled a serious injury coming into Notre Dame and just never seemed to work his way onto the field. Even though his brother was a late-bloomer, Dan is far down the depth chart after four years. It’s a tough decision, but I’d let him go.
Mike Ragone (Sixth Year) — One guy I’d fight to bring back. He’ll help the running game just as much as the passing game, and he’s a perfect compliment to the offensive line, and an off the field leader for a team that could be in need of one.

If you ran the website NDNation, what would you do with it? It’s the most prominent Notre Dame hub on all of the internet, but it’s got a very vocal faction of readers/fans that seem to control the agenda — most often with a significantly negative point-of-view. What would you do if that was your website?

This is one question I have no answer for. Unfortunately, there are certain vocal curmudgeons that make navigating their website a difficult task. For thousands of Irish fans, NDNation.com is a daily stop. Yet it’s probably been abandoned by just as many, with people simply growing disenfranchised after years of reading.

While it’s easy to say you’d nuke it and start over, it’s much harder to actually do it. I’d probably find myself deleting a few key posters, and then spend a few hours every day just challenging people to be rational, hoping that eventually people realize everybody wants the same thing: a winning football team.

You’re Brian Kelly. You spent last recruiting class successfully upgrading the front seven of the defense. Over the next two recruiting classes, what position groups do you absolutely need to upgrade to get the Irish over the BCS hump?

I take dead aim at the wide receiver position. My adoration for Michael Floyd is well known, but outside of him, I’m unimpressed with the athleticism of just about everybody playing the position. Kelly showed that he can find and bring in really impressive athletes at other positions — especially along the defensive line, one of the hardest places to bring in talent at Notre Dame. I’d focus my energy on bringing in a better breed of athletes at wideout, and watch how quickly the offense would take shape.

On the flip side of the ball, we’ll know if Brian Kelly is a success based on his evaluation of defensive backs. He’s basically been tasked with completely rebuilding the secondary for 2012, and we’ll know in about ten months whether he did a good job. Kelly has to replace a really veteran group, and if they can do it next yer, the team has a chance at being really, really good.

I’ve seen dozens of analogies used to describe the current state of the quarterbacking position at Notre Dame. What’s your favorite, or the one you think is the most appropriate?

I’m going to lean on the great Stephen Stills, who absolutely nailed how I feel about the current conundrum at quarterback:

“Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove.
And eagle files with the dove.
And if you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with.
Don’t be angry, don’t be sad.
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do.

So many people are focused on what Tommy Rees can’t do. I always find myself going the other way. Let’s just enjoy the things that he can do, even if some Saturdays that feels awfully limited. I’ve said it a million times so once more won’t hurt: If Brian Kelly thought he had someone else that’d help the Irish win every Saturday, he’d play him.

Get out the crystal ball. Even after an unimpressive weekend, the Irish are right around a seven-point underdog to Stanford. Do the Irish leave Palo Alto victorious?

If I got paid to pick Irish wins, I’d be broke and living on a street corner. That said, we’re still waiting for this Notre Dame team to play their best football. Even without some key contributors, I really do feel like this Saturday can be the day.

If Notre Dame wins, it’ll be because they played well, not because Stanford played poorly. It’ll also be because the Irish defense did a good job with Andrew Luck, the best quarterback Notre Dame will see in quite some time. Lost in the offensive implosion of last year’s 37-14 loss was Bob Diaco’s very good day against Luck. Statistically, it was one of the three worst games Luck ever played, and if the Irish can force a few mistakes out of him, they’ll have a chance to win.

Gut feeling or deep-seeded hope I can’t be sure, but I’ve got a feeling that Notre Dame beats Stanford, putting this season’s trajectory right back on track.

UPDATING: THOUGHTS FROM PEOPLE LIKELY SMARTER THAN ME:

* Our friends over at Her Loyal Sons had a really thoughtful response to the NDNation question. But he also quoted Beautiful Girls, one of my favorite movies. So there.

* I actually really like Shamrock Head’s take on fifth-year players. Whether it works is a different story.

* Our friends at the Irish Round Table make a really interest point: You can be anti-Brian Kelly or anti-Tommy Rees. You can’t be both.

* Here’s a Tommy Rees comparison that I really like from One Foot Down, comparing the quarterbacking situation to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Is Tommy Rees Kristen Wiig? To some, she’s a one-note comedian worth a couple laughs. Then again, she’s the brain/star behind Bridesmaids, the biggest comedy of the year.

* The Subway Domer gives us the three different places the Irish will be depending on what happens Saturday night.

* Blog Davie (now moving to New Mexico!) and the Gameday 40 crew still think the Irish should concentrate on recruiting quarterbacks, something Brian Kelly agrees with as he takes dead aim at Gunner Kiel.

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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

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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