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Holiday Weekend notes: Christmas edition

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With Irish players at home enjoying some family time before reporting to Orlando tomorrow to begin bowl preparations, let’s clean out the note pad before Christmas weekend, with a lot of recruiting news coming soon.

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It sounds like the race for five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel isn’t just between Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. Various reports have LSU pushing their way into the game, with Les Miles and the Tigers making a serious play for Kiel, who was just named Indiana Mr. Football this week.

Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.com has been as plugged in as anyone on Kiel’s recruitment and his latest report has Kiel legitimately torn between the three schools, with the timeline to early enroll coming very quickly.

Irish fan’s passion for Kiel — a player many regard as the No. 1 quarterback in the country — has been surprisingly level-headed. Maybe it’s the log jam that currently needs to play itself out with the current depth chart and the still-to-be-determined ability of guys like Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, but Kiel’s recruitment hasn’t turned into the message board soap opera other top prep quarterbacking targets have been in the past.

Still, with Dayne Crist gone and Luke Massa now working at wide receiver, there’s room on the depth chart for a quarterback, a position Kelly wants to add to every year in recruiting, and Kiel’s an awfully attractive option.

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Speaking of quarterbacking options, the Irish have already set a contingency plan if Kiel doesn’t commit to Notre Dame, and he’s a really intriguing option. New Jersey quarterback Devin Fuller has come out of nowhere to be an option for the Irish at quarterback, and he’s an electric dual-threat QB that shows the type of versatility Brian Kelly is willing to play with in his offense.

One look at his junior season highlight tape (with impressive production value I might add) let’s you understand the type of athlete Fuller is, and the Irish have pulled back into consideration for a guy a few recruiting services view as a five-star recruit as well.

“I grew up a fan of Notre Dame,” Fuller told Steve Wiltfong. “My coach grew up a fan. That’s our school colors. Everything fits. The school is unbelievable. The opportunities after college would be endless.”

Fuller is being recruited right now by Bob Diaco, and will likely set an official visit to Notre Dame if Kiel doesn’t commit to Notre Dame. He’s been told by the coaching staff that he’s a quarterback in their minds, but he has the type of athleticism that could get him onto the field on both sides of the ball and at a variety of positions.

Obviously, Kiel and Fuller aren’t the same kind of quarterback. But it’s refreshing to see this coaching staff be so aggressive this late in the game, and still find dynamic players that are interesting in Notre Dame. Fuller has taken official visits to TCU and Nebraska and will visit Rutgers as well. He’ll play in the Army All-American game as well.

***

It hasn’t been the kind of senior year Ethan Johnson envisioned having, with a high ankle sprain limiting the veteran defensive end for the bulk of the season after getting off to a good start. Finally healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how NFL teams view Johnson, a really athletic 300 pound lineman that’s shown great versatility.

But don’t expect that to cross Johnson’s radar right now. He’s focused on beating Florida State.

“It’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “It’s all we’re focused on right now. For this game we’ve had a long time to focus on it, and we’re going to continue to work and prepare and get ready to play our best football. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that, there’s no reason why we’re not going to do that… We’re going to do that.”

For Irish fans lukewarm on a late December bowl game after having hopes for the BCS, hearing Johnson talk so pointedly about the importance of this game has to make you feel good about the progress of this football team, even if the four regular season losses were a big let down. But it all goes to the process of building a program, something Johnson and the departing senior class feel is part of their job.

“I’m a guy who believes you leave something better than you found it,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to do that. I want to leave this place better than when I found it.”

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For those following the Irish’s quest to add another running back to their depleted depth chart, the Irish will find out if the recruiting class with add a complement to Will Mahone on December 29th, just a few hours before taking on the Seminoles.

That’s because Seattle running back KeiVarae Russell will be holding a press conference at his high school to announce his college choice, with the Irish and the hometown Washington Huskies finalists.

Russell spoke about the decision making process to the Seattle Times:

“It’s not tough at all,” said Russell, when asked where he’s at in the process. “I know exactly where I’m going. I’m just not going to tell anyone until next week.”

Right now, he’s not tipping his cap on whether it will be Washington or Notre Dame. He plans to make his decision public during a ceremony at Mariner at noon Dec. 29 — there is a chance it will happen on the 28th.

“I saw myself going to that school a few weeks ago, probably before my Cal visit,” he said. “I kind of knew where I was going to go but I wanted to make sure.”

Again, a quick look at his junior year highlights shows you a pretty dynamic athlete and a guy that looks to win the battle with speed and quickness as opposed to power. With Mahone looking like the kind of back that could take Jonas Gray’s place, adding Russell to the fold would help solidify the running back position, and add some certainty to a recruiting class that’s still actively pursuing a lot of big fish.

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Say what you want about Charlie Weis, but the man can recruit quarterbacks. Not only did Weis sign Dayne Crist to take over the starting job next season, he also took in former Irish target and one-time five-star recruit Jake Heaps, who’ll sit out next season after transferring from BYU and have two seasons to play for the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks only have eight verbal commitments, but Weis has already accepted the commitment of Tre Parmalee, son of his former Irish assistant Bernie Parmalee, and is likely to score the commitment of South Bend’s Gehrig Dieter, who has put up some incredibly prolific numbers this season.

Of course, Weis still needs to put together a defensive staff, something he struggled to do at Notre Dame, and that process is ongoing.

More from the Lawrence Journal World:

There has been grumbling about the slow pace with which Weis has gone about hiring a defensive coordinator and filling out the rest of his coaching staff. But according to KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, the delay has been by design. Monday night, during his time on “Hawk Talk with Bill Self,” Zenger talked about the ongoing quest for assistant coaches and shed light on Weis’ timetable.

“I’m watching him go through this process, and it’s really an old scientific term that we used to use in data collection of sifting and sorting through the folks and trying to get just the right combination,” Zenger said. “Sometimes I find myself shifting into fan mode when he shares names with me: I kind of go, ‘Well, hire him, hire him and hire him,’ but that’s not what he needs to do. He needs to make sure he gets the right puzzle pieces together to make this thing really work.”

Zenger, who has been a part of football coaching staffs at Kansas State, South Florida and Wyoming, says there is more that goes into putting together a coaching staff that many might think.

“That’s what he’s going through now,” Zenger said. “We’re going through background checks, and you gotta make sure the spouses would be happy in Lawrence. People don’t think about that, but when you bring together a staff of nine full-time assistants, you’re also bringing together nine families. And that’s critical to the chemistry of the staff.”

It’s good to see Charlie taking coaching chemistry to heart, but he’ll likely need to have his mind made up by January 3rd, when the recruiting dead period ends.

***

Just a quick note to say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Irish, but we had a great year on the blog, with so many new readers coming aboard and continuing to stop by. Thanks for making this a stop in your search for Irish news. I truly appreciate it.

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.