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The Commits: Secondary

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Part six of our series recapping the recruits ready to sign letters-of-intent with Notre Dame next Wednesday. (Or already on campus.) Previous installments include the running backsoffensive linewide receiversquarterbacks, and the front seven.

Taking a look at Notre Dame’s 2011 depth chart, it’s pretty clear that the Irish secondary needs reinforcements. Gone are Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton, three long time contributors that felt like they had been in Notre Dame uniforms forever.

In Brian Kelly‘s first season, it was the defensive staff’s job to get production out of a talented Irish secondary that wasn’t playing near its potential. A unit that was giving up an abysmal 8.0 yards a passing attempt was playing far beneath their potential. From a strictly star-rating perspective, the recent secondary Kelly inherited was plenty talented, yet had struggled to get much from the rankings bestowed on them coming out of high school:

Darrin Walls — No. 3 CB in country, No. 51 overall (Four-star ranking)
Gary Gray — No. 9 CB in country, No. 78 overall (Four-star ranking)
Robert Blanton – No. 22 safety in the country (Four-star ranking)
Harriston Smith — No. 25 all-purpose athlete in the country. (Four-star ranking)

More to the problem, Kelly needed to solve a bigger issue: A shocking lack of depth. While it wasn’t discussed much then, Notre Dame just didn’t recruit enough defensive backs in the last three seasons of Charlie Weis‘ regime. In 2007, the Irish landed Smith and Gray. In 2008, they landed Blanton, McCarthy, and Jamoris Slaughter. In 2009, they only signed E.J. Banks, who would become an academic casualty before the 2010 season and enroll at Pitt after first semester.

In the 2010 class that Kelly inherited, the Irish already had commitments from Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood at cornerback and Chris Badger at safety. Boyd would enroll early, but head back home to Florida before ever playing a game. (He’s now at USF.) Kelly quickly added Austin Collinsworth as his first commitment. He flipped wide receiver and special teams dynamo Bennett Jackson to cornerback after he freshman season, joined by Collinsworth in the secondary after the two were special teams stalwarts their freshmen season.

Even adding Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Eilar Hardy to the depth chart, Notre Dame knew it needed to make the secondary a priority after what looked like years of neglecting to understand the sheer volume needed at the position grouping. With a few wildcard possibilities still out there, let’s take a look at the five players (including one already on campus) that plan on signing with the Irish tomorrow.

NICKY BARATTI
High School: Klein Oak — Spring, Texas
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 215-pounds
Other major offers: Arizona State, Kansas State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Texas Tech
Fun Fact: Went from quarterback to wide receiver for his Klein Oak team, but will play safety at Notre Dame.
On choosing Notre Dame: “Notre Dame is an amazing place,” Baratti told Irish Illustrated. “It’s just Notre Dame. What I’ve found out is no other school compares to Notre Dame, facility-wise and even coaching-wise.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: In many ways, Baratti is a perfect developmental recruit. After a senior season derailed from a concussion in the season’s opening game, Baratti switched from quarterback to wide receiver for his Klein Oak team, while also playing safety on defensive. That versatility brings a diverse pallet to South Bend, where he’ll be developed by new safeties coach Bobby Elliott and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks. Perhaps the one thing most intriguing about Baratti is his combination of size and speed. Already a prototype safety, Baratti will benefit from a collegiate strength and conditioning program, and will also bring top-flight speed to South Bend. In an era of fake 40 times, Baratti’s speed seems legit, but more impressively, his quickness is off the charts. Bryan Driskell of IrishSportsDaily.com points out that while Baratti’s 4.52 40 time was impressive, Baratti ran lightning quick 10-yard and 20-yard dashes, faster than elite burners like Brian Kimbrow, Marvin Bracy, and even Ronald Darby (1.36, 2.42 vs. 1.52, 2.57 head-to-head with Darby). His offers aren’t the flashiest, but Baratti will be a fun one to watch develop.

CJ PROSISE
High School: Woodberry Forest School — Woodberry Forest, Virginia
Measureables: Six-foot-three, 195-pounds
Other major offers: Boston College, Maryland, North Carolina, Penn State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin
Fun Fact: Finished second in the state of Virginia with a 100m dash of 10.9 seconds.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I can’t wait to be around the great tradition and being part of a winning program,” Prosise told BlueandGold.com. “I’m ready to help bring the National Championship back to South Bend.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Prosise is another under-the-radar recruit, but the more you dig in the more you like what you see. Looking for speed? He finished second in the state in the 100m dash. Looking for special teams ability? Prosise had five return touchdowns this season alone. Prosise had six interceptions during his senior season, where he was named Central Virginia’s defensive player of the year. He’s a tall and rangy athlete that at the very least could come in immediately and help in special teams. It’ll be interesting to see if Prosise is a good enough athlete to excel in coverage, which would make an athlete of his size even more valuable.

TEE SHEPARD
High School: Washington Union — Fresno, California
Measureables: Six-foot-one, 186-pounds
Other major offers: Alabama, Auburn, Cal, Oregon, Miami, UCLA, USC, Washington
Fun Fact: Forced to sit out senior season of high school football because of CIF transfer rules.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I’m really happy to part of the Notre Dame football family. This is a special place and I’m excited to finally be here. Getting a jump start on my training and in my classes can only help me for the future.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: A cornerback that should walk in and compete immediately for playing time. Has perfect size and athleticism for cornerback. After sitting out the entire season, Shepard had impressive showings on the All-Star circuit during the postseason. With the likely loss of Ronald Darby, Shepard became one of the most important recruits on the Irish board, as he’ll be looked upon to fill the vacancy at cornerback that’s now on the roster. Shepard might not have elite speed, but he’s shown excellence coverage skills at The Opening, the preseason Nike combine as well as during the Cal-State All-Star game, where he returned an interception for a touchdown.

ELIJAH SHUMATE
High School: Don Bosco Prep — West Orange, New Jersey
Measureables: Six-foot-one, 205-pounds
Other major offers: Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State, Rutgers, South Carolina
Fun Fact: Played at Don Bosco for coach Greg Toal, whose son Brian spurned an offer from Ty Willingham to play for the Irish and instead starred at Boston College.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I used to be a Michigan and Ohio State man,” Shumate told the Bergen Record. “My Dad always told me if I had a chance to go to college, Notre Dame would be my favorite school.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Shumate looks like a wrecking ball out there, and he’ll immediately join Jamoris Slaughter as one of the most physical players in the secondary. From one look at his offer list, you can see that Shumate’s an elite player and the type of recruit that usually gets Irish fans excited, though his commitment came when people seemed more worried about who was leaving than who was coming on board. Long expected to end up elsewhere, Shumate’s recruiting turned on a dime when he visited Notre Dame, immediately turning his focus to the Irish. He’s also an impressive running back, where the Irish coaching staff has discussed giving him a look as well.

JOHN TURNER
High School: Cathedral — Indianapolis, Indiana
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 205-pounds
Other major offers: Minnesota, Indiana, Temple, Miami (OH)
Fun Fact: Turner’s Cathedral team drubbed Gunner Kiel’s Columbus East team 62-7 on the way to back-to-back state championships.
On choosing Notre Dame: “It just feels great that I worked for my offer,” Turner told Irish Illustrated. “Hard work pays off. I don’t think enough people realize how far you can get with just hard work and determination.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Turner proved plenty of skeptics wrong when he received an offer from the Irish coaching staff after going to their football camp over the summer. Likely, some of those skeptics were on the Irish staff, unsure of whether or not the jumbo-sized defensive back had enough speed to compete in the secondary. Turner ran a 4.5 forty for the coaches, and likely answered enough questions for them with that performance, earning him a scholarship offer. Turner plays cornerback for Cathedral, was named first-team All-State, and offers elite size for a guy that’s currently playing cornerback. Every article we’ve read so far points to Turner being a safety, but don’t be surprised if the coaching staff gives him every opportunity to play on the outside of the defense.

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.