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Faced with adversity, Kelly turns offense over to Martin

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For the first two years of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, Charley Molnar was the offensive coordinator. That much, just about everybody knows. What we don’t know, is what kind of say Molnar had in actually, well — coordinating the offense.

As it tends to happen, many are speculating about Molnar’s departure from Notre Dame for the head coaching position at UMass. Logic dictates that just about any lifetime assistant coach would jump for the opportunity to run his own program, and after a career traversing the college football world, Molnar certainly fits the mold of a guy ready for his shot. Of course, rumblings coming from around the dome also could have you believe that Molnar was out of South Bend whether it was with a new job or not, something Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com wrote earlier this week.

As Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated notes, second year shake-ups are nothing new for Irish coaching staffs. Charlie Weis dropped Rick Minter for Corwin Brown. Bob Davie dropped Jim Colletto for Kevin Rogers. And Lou Holtz had the biggest turnover of any recent Irish coach, with outside linebackers coach Barry Alvarez taking over coordinator duties for Foge Fazio, Chuck Heater brought in to run the secondary, and Joe Yonto moved out at offensive line to bring in Joe Moore. So before Irish fans believe that the sky is falling, consider that Kelly knows what he has on his staff better than anyone, and promoting from within is one of the reasons there’s a statue of Barry Alvarez in Madison, and the path to the Rose Bowl know goes through Camp Randall.

That’s not to assume that Chuck Martin is the second coming of Alvarez, but the fact that Kelly turned to Martin after pledging to fix the offense after a disheartening loss to Florida State carries some weight. If you spend any time around the coaching staff, it won’t take you long to notice Martin, who carries himself like a second head coach and has the chops to prove it. When Martin joined the staff after leaving Grand Valley, those who knew him were surprised that he came without being tagged a coordinator, instead coaching the secondary and coordinating the team’s recruiting efforts. Two seasons later, Martin is getting that chance, moving to the offensive side of the ball and advancing his coaching resume at the same time.

Of course, what Martin’s tenure as offensive coordinator means still remains to be seen. As Molnar also did, Martin will coach quarterbacks, working day to day with a new position group after working with the secondary for his first two seasons. Almost immediately, we’ve seen Martin’s fingerprints on recruiting, with the Irish chasing quarterback Devin Fuller, an elite five-star athlete that’s been promised a chance to work at quarterback after previously being offered as a defensive back. (How good of an athlete is Fuller? Consider this Irish Sports Daily report that has him already working with the first unit wide receivers at the Army All-American bowl, after playing wideout for the first time in his life upon arriving in San Antonio.) Martin has also been instrumental in reaffirming the commitments of recruits Will Mahone and Taylor Decker, after both Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner, two coaches instrumental in their respective recruitment, joined Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff.

Looking back at Martin’s recent Grand Valley team’s, you get an idea of how he likes to power an offense. Continuing with the system Kelly put in place, Martin evolved his spread attack into one that moved mostly by ground, with his last four teams running the ball at least sixty percent of the time.

2006: 538 runs, 355 passes (60.2%/39.8%)
2007: 541 runs, 329 passes (62.2%/37.8%)
2008: 464 runs, 280 passes (62.4%/37.6%)
2009: 599 runs, 397 passes (60%/40%)

To put that into context, here’s the run/pass splits for the Irish over the past two seasons.

2010: 414 runs, 481 passes (46.3%/53.7%)
2011: 433 runs, 473 passes (47.8%/52.2%)

Of course, the first question every Irish fan should be asking is what quarterback will be taking snaps next year, and what role  the quarterback will play in the running game. Recruiting a guy like Fuller gives you an idea that Martin likes to run the quarterback as well, and a deeper look at the numbers confirms that. Here’s a breakdown of quarterback carries from the four-year span at Grand Valley we just looked at.

2006: 538 carries: 139 from QBs (25.8%)
2007: 541 carries: 117 from QBs (21.6%)
2008: 464 carries: 50 from QBs (10.7%)
2009: 599 carries: 66 from QBs (11.0%)

Adding more context to those numbers, Martin’s offense evolved as his quarterback changed. In 2006, Cullen Finnerty was the starter, throwing for 41 touchdown passes while also running 132 times for 8 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards a carry as the team’s second leading ball carrier for a team that averaged 35.5 points a game. In 2007, Brad Iciek took over the quarterbacking position, and while he did run the ball, he was spelled by Central Florida transfer Marquel Neasman, who worked in primarily as a running quarterback. The quarterbacks still ran the ball over 20 percent of the time for an offense that averaged 7.1 yards a play and put up 38.2 points a game.

Digging deeper, a quick look at Brian Kelly’s last two teams at Cincinnati shows similarities to Martin when he’s playing a mobile quarterback. Obviously, Kelly wasn’t responsible for the depth chart he inherited, and didn’t have a running quarterback until Andrew Hendrix emerged late this season. Here’s a look at the percentage of quarterback rushes as a percentage of overall carries, including the leading QB ball carrier (minimum 10 carries).

2008: 347 rushing, 100 from QBs (28.8%) – Collaros 6.0 ypc
2009: 444 rushing, 111 from QBs (25.0%) – Collaros 4.8 ypc
2010: 414 rushes, 73 rushes (17.6%) – Crist 1.4 ypc
2011: 433 rushes, 61 rushes (14.1%) – Hendrix 6.5 ypc

Kelly and Martin have two quarterbacks on campus, Hendrix and rising sophomore Everett Golson, that’ll immediately solve the quarterback running game problem. Of course, one of those two will need to win the starting job before we can see if the Irish will break out a rushing attack, though you’d have to expect it with no clear No. 1 wide receiver behind tight end Tyler Eifert, and Tommy Rees seeming to stagnate down the stretch.

Maybe more important than just about any schematic change to the offense is having Martin’s confidence and moxie on the offensive side of the ball. Martin’s edge, quick humor, and style are polar opposites of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. With both coaches on the defensive side of the ball, you had two very different styles of teaching the same thing, while Diaco’s heightened intensity and earnestness the opposite side of the dial from where Martin lives. Perhaps Martin’s fearlessness, his ability to motivate and coach hard (without turning purple and upping the decibels) will be good for an offense that needs a little swagger after getting mighty vanilla as the season played out. Martin’s confidence — both in his abilities and his players — will be a godsend for a unit that didn’t hold up its end of the bargain down the stretch.

Two summers ago, I spent time with Kelly’s coaching staff, and got an up-close look at how the staff interacted. Still in the infancy of their time together, it was clear there was a corp group of guys that formed a quick bond. It’s amazing that the three coaches that seemed the most detached, are the first three coaches out the door. Charley Molnar had worked for Kelly since 2006, but you got the feeling he didn’t fit completely with the rest of the group. The same can be said for Tim Hinton, who Kelly inherited from Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, and Ed Warinner, who was a stranger to everyone, coming over from Kansas after pursuing a job on Kelly’s staff. It didn’t take long to identify Martin as a leader among the assistant coaches, even if his title didn’t say it after ascending to the D-I level.

Of course, none of that matters until we see what the offense looks like this coming spring, and learn more about how much input Martin will have in a system where the head coach will likely continue to call the plays. But facing his first bit of macro-level adversity, Kelly turned to Martin to help right the ship. How it works out, only time will tell. But the decision means quite a bit.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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.

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.