Keith Marshall

Weekend six pack: plane tracker edition

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With a bowl game still to be determined, the Irish aren’t quite sure when their next game is. For players, that means a week where there isn’t a whole lot to do.

“I hate not knowing what to do with your free time,” linebacker Carlo Calabrese tweeted yesterday.

Well that makes a few thousand of us, Carlo. We’ve got a few hundred days to talk about what’s happened this season. But in a week where players twiddled their thumbs, Brian Kelly just earned enough miles to fly platinum all year.

After starting on the West Coast last weekend, Kelly criss-crossed the country, with the university’s Cessna Citation hitting nine airports before returning to South Bend around 7 p.m. Thursday night. Where did he go? Well — Let’s roll out a special weekend six pack and talk about it.

1. The battle with USC has just begun. 

The Trojans definitely got the better of the Irish on the field this year. But right now, Notre Dame is out to a lead, and trying to run out the clock with two of their most talented California recruits. Cousins Tee Shepard and Deontay Greenberry are two of the highest profile recruits that Notre Dame has currently committed. Shepard will walk onto campus with a good shot to win immediate playing time in the secondary. Greenberry is the closest thing the Irish have to Michael Floyd, and he’s not on the roster until June.

If it were up to Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff, neither will end up on the Irish roster. Within the last 48 hours, hard-core recruitniks were thrown for a tizzy when news broke that both Shepard and Greenberry planned on seeing USC this weekend. Brian Kelly reportedly took his in-home visit with Shepard earlier in the week while Mike Denbrock was welcomed into the Greenberry household. The cousins always said they’d take their official visits, but a spook job this late in the game by the Trojans — who have somehow proclaimed themselves champions of a division they weren’t technically allowed to compete for — have Irish fans worried.

According to this tweet, the worries on Shepard should be alleviated, as it appears Shepard is going nowhere except South Bend in January to enroll early. As for Greenberry, Brian Kelly has wisely saved his in-home visit, and while the Trojans may get their opportunity to entertain the 6-foot-3 wide receiver, just one look at the depth charts and his cousins decision to enroll at South Bend, and the Irish are still doing more than all right.

2. This coaching staff doesn’t take no for an answer. 

It’s amazing to think that Notre Dame is out to almost a dozen uncommitted recruits, has just a handful of spots left in the class, and is still working even harder on players that most don’t think they have a chance with. The best two examples are across the country from each other: Arizona offensive lineman Andrus Peat and South Florida cornerback Brian Poole.

Today, offensive line coach Ed Warinner put plenty to think about in Peat’s ear, and the super blue-chip prospect moved the Irish back into consideration after cooling on the team considerably. Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com has more:

“I’d say it helped,” he shared of Notre Dame’s chances of being in the group of schools he’s looking at for his other officials. “I’m considering taking a visit again now.

“I just got a better feel for Coach Warinner, who would be my position coach if I went there, and my parents and I got to ask any questions we had about the program. I’m not sure if I’m going to take an official there yet, but I’m going to call (Irish head coach Brian) Kelly tomorrow and possibly set one up.”

Adding another massive left tackle prospect would help stockpile talent on the offensive front. But adding a guy like Poole — who has long been committed to the Florida Gators — would satisfy a huge need for the Irish, and Tony Alford‘s on the case. According to multiple reports, the Poole family is high on a Notre Dame education and has taken a look at the depth chart in front of him, giving the Irish a legitimate chance to flip another Top 100 player in the country, who has offers from just about every power team in the Southeast.

3. Carolina on the mind. 

There’s a big fish still out there. It’s Keith Marshall, the talented running back from Raleigh, North Carolina, that has Mark Richt and Brian Kelly doing battle. Marshall was named Gatorade’s National Player of the Year yesterday, and has decided to announce his college choice on December 6th, with the intention of enrolling in school early.

Yet that’s far from the only open line the Irish have down in the Carolinas. The Irish are once again hitting the area hard, and Kelly has gone and visited a trio of Carolina commitments — Charlotte natives Mark Harrell and Romeo Okwara, and also South Carolina wide receiver Chris Brown, who reported to BlueandGold.com’s Jason Sapp that he was fully qualified for next year.

All three of those recruits are below-the-radar targets, and Okwara is particularly high on the Irish board, with Notre Dame unwilling to take blue-chip recruit Tommy Schutt‘s commitment with Okwara ready to pledge Irish. Okwara is incredibly young, making his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame something that’s easily projectable.

4. Irish fans are already getting ready to re-hate Urban Meyer.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when Kelly announced Urban Meyer would be talking at the staff’s annual coaching clinic last offseason. Didn’t this new staff know that Meyer, even if he was out of coaching, was the enemy?

Well — if Kelly wasn’t aware of it then, he’ll certainly be more mindful of it now that they’ll be running into each other on the recruiting trail. The first collision? None other than current Irish offensive line commitment Taylor Decker. But don’t worry Irish fans, Decker’s rock solid in his commitment.

“Urban Meyer called my high school coach but I didn’t talk to him directly and one of the coaches came to the school and talked to my coach,” Decker told Irish Illustrated. “My coach said it was very brief and that coach Meyer said they were interested in me. As far as I’m concerned I’m still committed to Notre Dame.”

Decker’s been committed to the Irish since March, making him one of those old reliable recruits you tend to undervalue. But the fact that in the first days of Meyer’s term in Columbus he’s talking to the Vandalia, Ohio native, well — the Irish’s prom date just got a lot more attractive.

5. It’s not 4 a.m. yet, but Bob Diaco’s back on the case.

One of the sneaky good recruiters on this coaching staff is defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who handles the Northeast for the Irish. Last year, that meant reeling in five-star recruit Ishaq Williams at 4 a.m.when he waited outside the family’s Brooklyn home. No word on when Diaco secured the visit, but he’s talked New Jersey safety Elijah Shumate — one of the best players in the region — into an official visit for later in December. If it’s up to Diaco, he’ll be joined by his teammate cornerback Yuri Wright, who is another cornerback that could likely walk onto campus and compete for a job.

The Irish aren’t recruiting the Northeast all that hard this year, but getting Shumate and Wright on campus will be a big benefit, and if that happens Diaco proved last year he’ll go the extra mile to land them.

6. Enjoy recruiting in moderation. 

Let’s dump the sixth one out and start drinking some water. It’s the beginning of December. If we get too hot into this, we’ll be one-eyed texting by the end of the month and rolled up in a corner and fast asleep with our shoes on before Signing Day rolls around a few months from now. That’s no way for us to be, and this will never be a hotbed for recruiting news, though I’ll certainly do my best to keep you up to speed.

Still — it deserves a mention: The internet is a very open playground, and there’s now really easy ways to follow your favorite athletes and recruits, be it on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever it is the kids are enjoying these days. But it deserves an even stronger mention — consider the recruiting world the zoo. Stare all you want at the lions and tigers, but please — don’t touch them. Nothing good can happen.

So cheer for your favorite team to sign that five-star running back or quarterback, but please use your head. Don’t send messages, emails, Twitter messages, or anything else to these kids pushing them to a school. If you donate money to your favorite college, you might be committing a recruiting violation. Even if you don’t, it’s just plain weird. Think back to those days when you were 17. Would you want to see the 2011 you poking around in your life as you try and pick a college? Me neither.

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.