Nelson Agholor

Irish head down recruiting home stretch

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Next Wednesday, thousands of college football fans around the country will wake up with it feeling like Christmas morning. That’s because after over a year of building relationships with high school prospects, fax machines across the country will get their annual workout as Letters-of-Intent roll into football offices, with Notre Dame expecting to receive fourteen letters (Sheldon Day, Gunner Kiel and Tee Shepard are already enrolled), with the potential to add another handful of elite players that could turn this class into one of the best in the country.

Next Wednesday, we’ll have a chance to roll out the players who have inked with the Irish. Until then, let’s take a look at the players still up for grabs.

With Gunner Kiel leaving LSU at the altar, the Irish managed to pull arguably the nation’s best quarterback into the fold at the eleventh hour, another amazing recruiting victory by Brian Kelly, who personally recruited Kiel for much of the process.

That said, if the Irish are going to move the needle at Signing Day, it’ll be because they added to their recruiting class with a last minute commitment from some of the most highly touted targets left on their board:

Nelson Agholor, WR: If there’s a big fish left on the offensive board, it’s Agholor. Unfortunately for the Irish, if they don’t end up reeling him in, they’ll likely still see him every season, as it’s looking more and more like Agholor could be heading to Southern California to play for the Trojans.

Agholor reminds me a bit of George Farmer, another all-everything recruit that ended up at USC, and bounced between running back and wide receiver this past season. Rivals.com has him in the top three at his position, among the top 20 players in the country, and he fits the academic profile of a Notre Dame student perfectly.

What he’d bring to ND: Teamed with Greenberry, Agholor would give the Irish the most celebrated recruiting class at the position in the country. (It can’t hurt that the Irish have been the landing spot for high profile transfers from both USC and Florida State, two finalists for Agholor’s services.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Notre Dame was able to get the first official visit for Neal, one of the Southwest’s premiere playmakers, who waited until after winning the Arizona state championship to take any official visits. The Irish are in good shape, but will likely battle through Signing Day for Neal, who plans on taking his time making a decision.

Expect Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes to be the team to beat, with Neal having family in Ohio and getting the Meyer sales pitch that he’ll play the role of Percy Harvin. (That said, don’t count out Rich Rodriguez, now for the hometown Arizona Wildcats.)

What he’d bring to ND: It’s almost ridiculous to imagine the Irish landing both Neal and Agholor, giving the Irish three of the top players in the country at their position. Neal would immediately be the Irish’s most dangerous athlete in the slot, and his recruiting tape is about as impressive as it gets.

Arik Armstead, DL: What happens with Armstead (not to mention his brother Armond) is anyone’s guess. The mammoth prospect did the smart thing and passed up early enrollment, with just too many variables still in play. Already graduated, but not set to attend any school until summer, Armstead will likely attract visitors from every corner of the country, but Notre Dame will be there until the very end. As a two-sport athlete, Armstead will play basketball and football in college, and while talent evaluators can’t decide whether he’d be better on the offensive or defensive line, he’s the kind of prospect the Irish would just welcome in the door and figure out where to put later.

What he’d bring to ND: If Armstead ends up in South Bend, that’s another recruiting class where Notre Dame cherry-picks one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, after struggling to get anyone since what feels like the Holtz era. Armstead likely brings his brother Armond, who needs medical clearance for an undisclosed ailment, but is an NFL caliber defensive end with one year of eligibility remaining.

Ken Ekanem, LB: After loading up at the linebacker position, the Irish only have Romeo Okwara committed at the outside linebacker spot in the 2012 recruiting class. One name that might still jump on board is Virginia’s Ken Ekanem, a middle linebacker that tore his ACL during the state playoffs. The injury forced Ekanem to delay his official visit, finally set for this weekend. The Irish will likely battle Virginia Tech for Ekanem’s signature, and it still remains to be seen if they’re at a place where they’ll accept his commitment.

What he’d bring to ND: With Manti Te’o returning for his senior season, Ekanem would be a luxury item, and likely one that’d come to ND if the Irish miss on other targets that fill greater needs. Either way, Ekanem will likely spend 2012 getting healthy, especially with depth in the middle plentiful.

Ronald Darby, CB: Notre Dame long counted Darby among its most high profile commitments. But after staying true to his commitment for much of the process, Darby opened things up after the Under Armor All-American game, while still keeping the Irish in play along with Clemson, Florida State, and Auburn. Darby is among the fastest players in the country and Brian Kelly will be in his household to try and get Darby back in the fold.

What he’d bring to ND: If Darby ends up at Notre Dame, he’ll team with Tee Shepard to be the most impressive cornerbacking duo in the country (in terms of recruiting rankings). With both Gary Gray and Robert Blanton gone, Darby would step onto campus an immediate candidate for playing time and could make an instant impact on special teams as well.

Brian Poole, CB: The Irish haven’t given up on Poole, a commit to the Florida Gators who has built a strong relationship with Tony Alford. Poole is in that same stratosphere with Darby and Shepard, one of the best players in Florida and a guy that could also immediately challenge for playing time in South Bend. He’s reaffirmed his commitment to the Gators every time he’s been asked about it the media, but don’t expect the Irish to go down without a fight.

What he’d bring to ND: Another elite cornerback that’d immediately make a mark in the depth chart. If the Irish were somehow able to sign Darby, Shepard, and Poole, Irish fans should be dancing in the street.

Anthony Standifer, CB: Far from a backup plan, Standifer was long committed to Michigan before mutually parting ways with the Wolverines and opening back up his recruitment. The Illinois native was on campus last weekend, and it sounds like only a foreign language requirement (something he could pick up this spring) is in between the Irish and this 6-foot-1 cover cornerback.

What he’d bring to ND: Standifer might not come with the prestige of the guys we just listed, but he’s far from a program body and has offers from Pitt, Iowa, and Wisconsin — nothing to sneeze at. Standifer would give the Irish another versatile athlete at cornerback, helping solidify a spot with a lot of balls in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.