Michael Floyd 3

Pregame Six Pack: One last time for 2011

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You’ve got to love college football. It’s the only sport where you can logically explain taking a month-long break in your schedule before playing a bowl game, an essentially meaningless exhibition game when it comes to postseason implications.

But that’s our sport and we all love it. And for Notre Dame and Florida State, two teams that failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, tomorrow evening’s date in the Champs Sports Bowl gives two of college football’s most tradition-laden programs a chance to end this season on a high note. Is it the BCS game both fanbases hoped for before the season? No. But with five combined losses between the two programs before mid-October, the fact that the two teams are meeting in one of the most intriguing games of an otherwise mediocre slate of postseason games, it sure makes for some compelling football.

Before Brian Kelly‘s squad renews an old rivalry with the Seminoles on Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before we put a bow on an interesting 2011 season.

***

You can never avoid the winds of change in the college football world.

Rumors swirled the past few days of more big news coming in college football. Whether that was rumors that Michigan was going to drop Notre Dame in football or another team hightailing it from a conference in search of more money, you’ve got to give credit to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott for actually thinking outside the box to both help their respective conferences while also not dropping another bomb on an already unstable landscape.

Starting as soon as next year, the two conferences will start a “collaboration,” a newly founded alliance that’ll have a lot of the benefits sought during the rumored “seismic shifts” without the bloodshed seen in the Big 12 and the SEC.

“Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,” Delany said.

“It’s a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues,” Scott added.

Of course, the one school that was probably most effected out of the conference members was Notre Dame. And as Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick was all over this from day one.

Here’s more from Forde:

The Fighting Irish have a huge part of their schedule invested in those leagues. The fiercely independent Irish have five ongoing annual series with teams from those leagues: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten, and USC and Stanford of the Pac-12. If the leagues are going to add an annual game between members, would that potentially squeeze Notre Dame out of the mix?

Not likely, said Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who has a close relationship with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

“I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact,” Swarbrick told Yahoo! Sports. “I was aware it was coming; they sort of kept us informed. I think it’s a great thing for the two conferences.”

A more likely scenario than dropping Notre Dame is a reduction in conference games from nine to eight. Thus, the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 game would be a substitute for that league game on the schedule, which means Notre Dame’s spot would not have to be sacrificed in favor of a “guaranteed” home game against a lesser opponent.

Swarbrick has done a pretty impressive job maneuvering the Irish through some tricky times the past few years. It’s good to see Notre Dame will be able to hold onto these traditional opponents, and even better to see that the days of buying wins and scheduling cupcakes is possibly on its way out.

***

Expect special teams to play a big role in determining a winner.

It might be too late for the Irish to work their way out of the depths of mediocrity when it comes to their punt return game. But if there’s ever a game where the Irish need to show up in special teams, this is the one.

The Irish face the best set of specialists they’ll see all year, with punter Shawn Powell No. 1 in the country averaging 47-yards a kick and Dustin Hopkins an All-American place kicker. In a game where yardage will be at a premium, manufacturing field position and getting something — heck anything — out of the punt return game would be a huge help to an Irish offense that’ll be facing its stiffest task of the year. Just as important, it’ll be up to Mike Elston’s troops to slow down a dangerous set of Seminole return men, headlined by junior Gred Reid, who has averaged 11.4 yards a return.

“Florida State can put points on the board in the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think they’re the first team we will play this year that have that kind of dynamic ability in their special teams. It’s been a constant point of emphasis for us relative to how we have prepared in our bowl season, but clearly if you have two fairly even-matched teams sometimes special teams makes a big difference. We knew that going in and we are going to have to play well in that area.”

Adding another interesting twist to the special teams battle, the Seminoles All-American kicker was almost Irish, as Hopkins nearly selected the Irish before deciding to head to Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as Lorenzo Booker’s last second defection to the Seminoles, but a mysterious string of events pushed him to Florida Stat.

The junior All-American, who was a finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award, admits now that a series of chance occurrences during his recruiting visits played at least some role in shaping his decision.

First, he and his family were walking in a Houston airport when they found an old Buffalo nickel, which featured the face of an American Indian on one side. Hopkins’ mother immediately joked that it might be a sign for the Seminoles, but the family just laughed it off.

Then during a recruiting trip to Northwestern’s football offices, the Hopkins clan spotted a trophy named for then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

“My sister saw it and said, ‘Dustin, look … another sign,'” he recalled. “We laughed that one off, too.”

Then during his recruiting visit to South Bend, Ind., Hopkins went to eat with Notre Dame’s coaches at a Chili’s restaurant. And there on a wall was a mural featuring an American Indian riding a horse — an image not unlike Florida State’s own Osceola and Renegade.”It was just really ironic,” Hopkins said.

The message, of course: Don’t take a recruit to Chili’s on his official visit.

***

After losing his captaincy before the season, Michael Floyd finally gets to lead his team.

Among the permanent repercussions that came from Michael Floyd‘s DUI arrest last spring was getting stripped of his captaincy before the season started. The honor bestowed on the rising senior wide receiver at the award’s ceremony last winter was taken away as Floyd was put on probation by the school, and Harrison Smith was the sole captain of the Irish this season, with a game day captain named each week to join him.

But Floyd took his final classes as a student earlier in December, graduating at the semester break from Notre Dame. Scoring four As (and a C-) in his final semester, Floyd did all that was asked of him in the classroom, not to mention countless hours of community service and other off-the-field work. He also helped prove that the faith the university administration placed in him, not to mention Kelly staking his reputation on his star player, was deserved.

“He’s exhibited all the things necessary that we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly at a press conference Wednesday. “He’s gotten his degree from Notre Dame, he’s lived his life the right way, he’s been extraordinary in his preparation in practice. He exhibits all of those traits that we feel are important to be a game-day captain.”

Last year, Michael took the bowl game to torch a talented Miami secondary for a big game. This year, he’ll have a national spotlight on him against a talented Seminoles secondary, but one that presents some physical mismatches for the top Irish receiver in school history.

Regardless of who’s throwing to him, look for the Irish to take some shots down the field throwing to No. 3 — the last time we’ll be able to watch Mr. Michael Floyd don the Irish uniform.

***

Kelly hints that a staff promotion is coming from within.

The smoke that’s surrounded running backs coach Tim Hinton has struggled to clear, especially with Urban Meyer still looking to round out his offensive coaching staff in Columbus, and Hinton having such deep roots in the state of Ohio.

That said, both Hinton and Kelly have proclaimed Hinton is staying put, and Kelly once again made it seem that there won’t be any more defections, and it’s possible that any addition will come from coaches that already work for the Irish.

“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”

Whether that means Ed Warinner will climb the ladder to offensive coordinator or secondary coach Chuck Martin will switch sides of the ball remains to be seen. We also don’t know just how coy Kelly was being — does “already been on Notre Dame’s campus” mean this year? If it does — the Irish have four solid candidates among their GA troops:

Scott Booker, Offensive Intern. Booker was a four-year starter at defensive back for Kent State, and coached the secondary for his alma mater from 2005-08 and at Western Kentucky in 2009. Booker took a step back, dropping down to the intern rank to come to Notre Dame, but could slide into the defensive staff if Martin moves to OC.

Bill Brechin, Offensive Intern. Brechin came to South Bend with Martin, playing for the former Grand Valley State coach as an All-Conference DB before working as a graduate assistant for the Lakers before switching sides of the ball in South Bend.

Jon Carpenter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Carpenter played under Kelly at Cincinnati as a linebacker and is the younger brother of former Buckeye All-American and current NFL player Bobby Carpenter. He’d likely only fill a void on the defensive side of the ball.

Michael Painter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Painter has worked with Kelly all the way back to Central Michigan, working his way from there to Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a staff associate. Painter spent some time working special teams for the Chippewas, an area he could chip in for the Irish.

***

How good is the Irish running game? We’ll find out against the Seminoles.

The numbers don’t look good for the Irish. After losing senior Jonas Gray with a knee injury against Boston College, the Irish will take on the nation’s toughest run defense in the country, with the Seminoles giving up only 2.32 yards per carry.

This is hardly the Irish’s first dance with a dominant running defense. Florida State will be the sixth team the Irish have faced in the Top 35 in the country in yards-per-carry, with the Irish putting up mixed results:

No. 1 — Florida State:
No. 7 — Michigan State: 32 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs
No. 8 — South Florida: 29 carries, 117 yards, 1 TD
No. 11 — Stanford: 31 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
No. 20 — Pittsburgh: 32 carries, 182 yards 1 TD
No. 35 — USC: 14 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD

That’s a modest average of 3.7 yards a carry against those five defenses, with sack yardage not taken into account. The Irish had their biggest ground games against Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, one mediocre (Purdue) and two statistically horrible teams against the run.

With Theo Riddick in the backfield and Andrew Hendrix adding to the rush attack, the Irish will need to squeeze every bit of efficiency they can on the ground, even if the going is tough.

***

It’s a fond farewell to a senior class that left Notre Dame in a better place than they found it.

It’s a bittersweet time of year. Notre Dame will say good bye to another class of seniors, with Thursday’s bowl the last time we’ll see this group take the field. Here’s a quick run down of the class likely taking the field for the last time:

Harrison Smith — Senior leader grew more in five years than anyone.
David Ruffer — An often told story that’d make even Rudy blush.
Mike Ragone — Star-crossed tight end matured into a model citizen.
Andrew Nuss — Fifth year player supplied critical depth on the offensive line.
Nick Lezynski — Walk-on hopes to continue football career as a coach.
Gary Gray — Bounced back from early adversity. Potential to play on Sundays.
Taylor Dever — Never sniffed the field until Kelly arrived, then became two-year starter.
Patrick Coughlin — Former Irish track member followed his dream to football.
Hafis Williams — Reserve nose guard might spend fifth-year playing elsewhere.
Deion Walker — While he never lived up to the hype, he’s always been a team guy.
Jamoris Slaughter — Free of injury, Slaughter will be back for a fifth-year.
Ryan Sheehan — Walk-on walked away from track scholarship to join football team.
Ryan Sharpley — Former baseball player (and brother of Evan) joined team as WR.
Chris Salvi — Special teams dynamo honored as game captain.
Trevor Robinson — One of Irish’s quirkiest personalities, should find way to NFL.
David Posluszny — Played large on special teams, even if he struggled in brother’s shadow.
Andrew Plaska — Walk-on who’ll end up in medical school next year.
Sean Oxley — Turned down Ivy Leagues to walk-on at Notre Dame.
Brandon Newman — Senior DT will be remembered for personality… and Trick Shot Monday.
Matthew Mulvey — Walk-on QB and leader of Red Army.
Anthony McDonald — Linebacker battled health issues for most of career.
Dan McCarthy — Safety struggled to stay healthy after coming to ND with neck injury.
Dennis Mahoney — Law school likely for walk-on, who saw the field against Air Force.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Knee injury ended season, but career will continue in 2012.
Ryan Kavanagh — Walk-on snapper added holder to his repertoire.
Ethan Johnson — Heart of defensive line battled injuries during final season.
Mike Grieco — Walk-on and Holy Cross transfer kicked extra point against Air Force.
Jonas Gray — Story of the season only sidetracked with ACL tear.
John Goodman — With one year of eligibility left, Goodman could stay or play elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Golic Jr. — Came up big after spending career as back-up. Might return in 2012.
Jonathan Frantz — After two years as a student, Frantz walked-on to the football team.
Michael Floyd — The greatest pure WR in Notre Dame history.
Darius Fleming — Chicago product battled through coaching changes to be best pass rusher.
Steve Filer — Knee injury ended a career that never found its mark.
Dayne Crist — A model student-athlete for Notre Dame. Has Kansas detour to get career on track.
Lane Clelland — After an attempted position switch, Injuries hurt Clelland’s career.
Braxston Cave — Foot surgery ended 2011 season, will be back in 2012.
Robert Blanton — A four year contributor, Blanton is athletic enough for an NFL shot.

One last chance to wear the blue and gold should be enough motivation for this group to leave Notre Dame victorious. Congratulations to each and every one of this group for a great accomplishment.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

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.