Eifert

Pregame Six Pack: Stanford edition

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With turkey and leftovers stuffed into refrigerators everywhere, the rest of the weekend can be dedicated to what’s important (and no, it’s not Black Friday sales): Football. As the final regular season Saturday of the year approaches, Notre Dame has the chance to prove that they’re a different team than the one that opened the season stubbing their toe twice.

As the Irish journey to Palo Alto, Brian Kelly‘s squad will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team they’ve played in Kelly’s two years in South Bend. After getting beaten convincingly by the Cardinal last year, Kelly welcomes another chance at measuring his team against one of the nation’s best.

“They were a physical, good‑looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably,” Kelly said this week. “I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.”

We will see tomorrow night. With the regular season closing, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s prime-time affair with No. 4 Stanford.

***

1. Andrew Luck’s next touchdown pass will pull him equal with a legend.

It may already feel like it, but believe it or not, Andrew Luck doesn’t have a bust in Canton, Ohio yet. But the senior quarterback, all but certain to be playing his last game at Stanford Stadium, needs just one touchdown pass to pull even with the gold standard of Stanford football: John Elway.

Luck current has 76 touchdown passes, needing just one more to pull even with Elway at 77, and just one more on the season to pull even with his single-season record of 32, set last year. In the senior quarterback’s three years of starting he’s already put his stamp all over the Cardinal record books, trailing only Elway and school-leader Steve Stenstrom in career passing yards, while likely pulling ahead of Stenstrom as the school leader in total offense on Saturday as well. Luck also holds the school marks for completion percentage and passing efficiency.

More impressively, Stanford is 30-6 with Luck as its starting quarterback. That’s far and away the most wins by any quarterback in school history, well ahead of Stenstrom (24) and some guy named Jim Plunkett (22).

Even though all of America knows it now, the Irish have always realized how dangerous Stanford’s senior quarterback is.

“Before he was really a household name, we could all tell he was that good,” Harrison Smith said. “He’s gotten even better. He’s got it all. He can throw the ball like nobody we’ve seen.”

***

2. The spotlight is back on Cierre Wood… Right where he wants it.

After carrying the load from the backfield at the beginning of the year, Cierre Wood takes back the featured running back role after a knee injury to Jonas Gray cut short his senior season. And the junior from Oxnard, California is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Irish get a big win in Palo Alto.

“If they need me to carry the ball 50 times that’s what I’ll do,” Wood said. “If they need me to carry it 10 times that’s what I’ll do. As long as we get the W that’s what I’m more concerned about.”

The number of carries Wood gets will likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, as the Irish will lean heavily on the back that started the season as a clear-cut starter, but since ceded a little more than half of the carries to Gray.

Running backs coach Tim Hinton was impressed with the way Wood handled the situation and is confident he’ll be ready to pick up any slack now that he’s the lead back once again.

“You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce,” Hinton said.

With freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only depth behind him, Wood knows all eyes will be on him as the Irish prepare to battle the No. 6 rush defense in the country.

“Wherever my teammates need me, that’s where I’ll be.”

***

3. Irish eyes need to be in the right place against an explosive Stanford offense.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might be the only person to compare the offense Andrew Luck pilots to those run by service academies. But the Broyles Award nominated Diaco has a good point, and Stanford’s offense will challenge the discipline of Irish defenders more than any offense the Irish have faced this year.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a discipline challenge,” Diaco said. “It’s a different offense, but not that much different than Navy or Air Force, where they’re running it, running it, running it, but they’re really producing a bunch of chunk yardage plays with passes off their runs.”

The Irish linebackers will be tested more than any time they have been this year, forced to play downhill to help stop a Cardinal running attack that’s among the best in the country. That job is made much harder with Luck’s proficiency in the play-action passing game, one of the biggest challenges linebackers face.

“They are an explosive offense that has a tough, rugged, run-the-ball first mentality,” Diaco said. “Probably the best o-line we’ve faced, with for sure the best group of tight ends we’ve faced, and a pack of running backs that are as good as any group that we’ve had so far. So the proof is in the pudding as it relates to the whole team.”

***

4. George Atkinson has a chance to add to an already impressive freshman season.

George Atkinson has already had an impressive freshman season, making an immediate impact in special teams with two kickoff return touchdowns, tying the school record that’s shared by Irish legends like Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, and Allen Rossum. But on Saturday night, Atkinson will have a chance to make an impact just a few miles from his hometown, and potentially do so in the backfield as well, as he and fellow freshman Cam McDaniel will be forced into action at running back.

Tim Hinton knows it’s not ideal, but expects both Atkinson and McDaniel to be ready.

“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. They’re freshman. You look around the country and there are some freshman that are obviously playing.  The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps that some of those other freshman were getting because we were trying to get our two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.”

So far, neither Atkinson nor McDaniel has shown the ability help the run game, with the duo combining for just 12 carries and 36 yards, with Atkinson chipping in two short touchdowns. But Cierre Wood knows that it’ll be his job to pay it forward, helping the youngsters get up to speed for Saturday night.

“I’ll just do what the veterans when I was coming up did for me,” Wood said. “Help them learn the basics first, then everything else will take care of itself on the field.”

It’s apparent for anyone that’s watched Atkinson this year that the freshman has game-breaking speed and an explosiveness that would be great in the open field. But he’s raw at running back, a slight player that probably would’ve come into Notre Dame as a wide receiver if the depth chart wasn’t as thin as it is. Yet the Irish could help their cause if they find a way to get the ball to the talented freshman in space, giving him the opportunity to show off his speed and the athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field.

Playing in front of plenty of family and friends, not to mention a national television audience, Atkinson has the chance to put his career on a really impressive trajectory if he can come up big against Stanford.

***

5. It’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Stanford.

There’s no use holding onto all those wonderful tricks and gadgets the Irish have likely worked on all year. It’s time to use a few of them against Stanford, hopefully catching the Cardinal off guard with one or two unexpected wrinkles.

Consider this a quick wishlist of things Irish fans hope to see on Saturday night:

Special Teams:

It’s time to see what Kelly and Mike Elston have up their sleeves in terms of a fake punt. Last year the Irish were successful pulling it off, and it’d be great to see if the Irish can steal a possession away from the Cardinal if the timing is right. Even better, keep Michael Floyd back returning punts all evening, even if it’s in punt safe mode. Better yet, try setting up some blocking for him.

Defense:

Just because Brian Kelly doesn’t think he can trick Andrew Luck doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. After all, Luck has a limited group of receivers right now and injuries to wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo means he’ll be working well down the depth chart at some key positions. For as good as Luck is, he’s thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and threw two against the Irish last year.

It’ll be a blow to the Irish defense if Stephon Tuitt can’t play on Saturday, but it’d be surprising if the Irish get much out of the talented freshman that’s been severely ill with an undisclosed illness. Either way, Saturday night is a great opportunity for Aaron Lynch to make some noise, especially against an offensive line that’s one of the best in the nation. (At the very least, Lynch should try and draw some holding flags.)

Offense:

It’s time to bring back Andrew Hendrix in a package or two. When he was used, it was always in the middle of a series as a complement to Tommy Rees and the running game, and that’s the perfect way to use him Saturday night. If Theo Riddick is healthy, the Irish could get him on a jet sweep, or better yet — use that as a way to get Atkinson some carries in space. Even thought the hook-and-lateral didn’t work against Luke Kuchely, putting it on tape the week before Stanford was a purposeful move. If the Irish can get Cierre Wood around the edge, they’d be wise to try using that quick pitch / lateral that has been so successful over the past two years, but hasn’t been used in weeks.

Regardless of how highly ranked Stanford is, the Irish need to take their shots down field with Floyd. Feeding the ball to Floyd quickly in the possession receiving game is fine, but they need to run the top off the Stanford defense, and athletically, the Cardinal don’t have anyone Floyd’s equal, and the secondary is missing standout safety Delano Howell. Floyd is just seven catches away from Golden Tate’s single-season record of 93. Expect him to break that sometime in the third quarter. In one of the premiere games for tight ends in the country, it’d be good for Tyler Eifert to go cement his place as the Mackey Award winner on Saturday night.

***

6. Another game, another set of alternate uniforms. But don’t worry Irish fans, these ones are on Stanford.

In a trend that’s likely leading to an ulcer for some football traditionalists out there, when the Irish battle the Cardinal on Saturday, they won’t be facing a team wearing their traditional white pants, cardinal jerseys and white helmets, but a squad that looks like a group of red storm troopers, with black matte helmets punctuating an all-red look.

The Cardinal are joining the Nike Pro Combat revolution, wearing an alternate uniform that’s a whole lotta red, which according to Nike’s marketing machine is a “metaphor for the pulse of life and the heart that pumps the relentless engine that is Stanford Pride.”

Stanford joins Oregon, Georgia, Boise State, Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State as team’s that have gone with the “Pro Combat” look, and of course, Shaw has no problem embracing it.

“I think they’re great,” Shaw said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a recruiting world that we live in.”

For an early look at what the Cardinal will be wearing when Andrew Luck takes his Senior Day photos, you can see every detail — right down to the Nike gloves with an “S” on the palms — here.

 

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