Ty Isaac

Junior Day focuses on four top prospects

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The Irish recruiting class of 2013 hasn’t exactly jumped out of the gates. With blue-chip offensive tackle Steve Elmer committed since September, the Irish haven’t added anybody yet to a recruiting class that’ll likely build to around 20 recruits when it’s all said and done. While the early success Michigan and Ohio State have had hasn’t likely been lost on Brian Kelly and his coaching staff, there’s a slightly different approach being taken this year by the Irish, who hosted their first junior day this weekend.

Instead of bringing in large group of prospects, the Irish staff focused their attention on four recruits near the top of their board. That list included running back Ty Isaac, the Midwest’s top running back and linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the best players in the country and another talented player from Fort Wayne. Also joining were defensive end / tight end Jacob Matuska from Columbus, Ohio and North Carolina wide receiver Keeon Johnson, a big-bodied outside receiver from a state the Irish have had a lot of success in.

With reports rolling in after the weekend, the Irish made positive strides with all four players, although none pulled the trigger on a commitment (something nobody truly expected anyway). Here’s some reaction from the players pulled from around the interwebs:

TY ISAAC – Running Back

There might not be a more important offensive recruit than Isaac, who is being recruited by Chuck Martin and has just began building a relationship with new running backs coach Tony Alford. It’s hard to match Isaac’s offer sheet, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ player of the year spent the weekend getting some questions answered on his role in an evolving Irish offense. Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com got some interesting insights from Isaac after his trip to South Bend.

“They said they’re only taking one running back in my class,” Isaac told Sapp. “I don’t feel any pressure about the situation, though. I want to get out and see all the schools I’m interested in. Notre Dame is a good place, but I’m not going to put the pressure on myself to worry about if the one spot is taken.”

One of the biggest things the Irish needed to do this weekend was let Isaac know his role in the offense, with the spread not necessarily the top choice for an I-back that’s put up record-setting numbers after carrying for 2,600 yards and scoring 51 touchdowns while leading his high school to a state championship. It seems like that was accomplished with Martin, Alford and Kelly spending significant time breaking down film and continuing to build their relationship.

“Coach Martin has told me about some of the things he wants to do. He showed me how they would use me,” Isaac told Sapp. “Coach Alford talked about what he’ll be doing as a position coach and the relationship he has with the players. A way I can look at the situation with Coach Alford having both running backs and slot receivers is a way to get some extra touches working both positions, and that’s a plus for Notre Dame.”

The battle for Isaac will likely continue until Signing Day, with coaches like Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke, and Lane Kiffin also taking dead aim at the talented Joliet product. But from the sounds of it, the Irish will be in this race until the end.

JAYLON SMITH – Linebacker

The recruiting weekend got off to an inauspicious start when All-American tight end Tyler Eifert publicly tweeted that he was looking forward to hanging with fellow Fort Wayne native Smith this weekend. As noted by the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton, the public mention might have run afoul with NCAA rules, though it’s far from a major issue and Eifert’s tweet was deleted, ending any issue and pulling him within 2,348 secondary recruiting violations of many college head coaches.

While the Twitter update won’t be coming anytime soon, Smith did have a chance to spend time with Eifert and also was partnered with another one of the Irish’s big fish, All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Like Te’o was four years ago, Smith is likely the top target for the Irish at linebacker, where Smith could fit in at multiple positions, with his size and athleticism and pass rush skills.

You’d almost expect Smith to be ready to commit to Ohio State with his brother already playing for Urban Meyer, but from the sound of it, Smith is legitimately looking to spread his wings and make his own mark. That might be very good news for the Irish, who have done quite well in their early pursuit of the explosive athlete.

“The thing with Notre Dame is that all the people there are really genuine, and you can tell it’s a special place,” Smith told IrishSportsDaily.com. “The players have a special bond with each other and I thought that was really cool. I got to hang out with Manti and Tyler Eifert. Both of them are great guys, Manti and I connected. I could see myself playing next to him. He’s a very humble person and we definitely formed a bond.”

If you’re looking for good news, it’s that Smith is looking to make it back to South Bend for the Blue-Gold game, set for April 21.

KEEON JOHNSON – Wide receiver

Johnson is an interesting target and another product of the Irish’s excellent network in the Carolinas. At six-foot-three, 200-pounds, Johnson is the type of big-bodied wide receiver that the Irish are looking to add to their depth chart, and Notre Dame is one of the first non-regional offers Johnson has gathered.

The offer must have held some weight because the Johnson family took an 11-hour drive to South Bend to hear what the Irish coaching staff had to say and came away mighty impressed. Along with the usual niceties that come along with seeing the Notre Dame campus for the first time, Johnson talked about where he’d fit into the Irish scheme.

“We talked about the scheme and I would be the X or the W, but the outside receiver basically playing the backside of the offense in one-on-one situations,” Johnson told Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com. “The position is for a long, tall receiver, and they said I’d be perfect at that spot for them. I’ve played that position most of my high school career anyway, so it would be a good fit.”

While Johnson doesn’t grade out yet on many national recruiting websites, it’s hard not to compare him to the under-the-radar Chris Brown when thinking of Johnson. As a recruit that’s planning to enroll early, it was a really important step for the Irish to get Johnson on campus early, and potentially get a return trip before an official visit that’ll happen during the football season.

JACOB MATUSKA – Defensive End

If you’re looking for the prototype “big skill” player that Kelly mentioned targeting in this recruiting class, Matuska represents one of the early targets. At six-foot-five, and 250 pounds, Matuska is another big body that’s been looked at as both a tight end and defensive end, with the Irish slotting him to work with Mike Elston on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish offered Matuska a scholarship a few weeks ago and they’ve hardly been the only big-name program chasing after the Columbus native. While the hometown Buckeyes have yet to offer, Matuska has picked up offers from Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma recently. After his weekend visit to South Bend, it’s clear that the Irish staff know where they see him fitting into the defensive system.

Christian McCollum of Irish Sports Daily caught up with Matuska’s father, who spoke candidly about his son’s two-way options.

“Coach talked about, ‘Could he play tight end? Yes,’ but they see his best position for Notre Dame at defensive end,” the elder Matuska told IrishSportsDaily.com. “Notre Dame has a need and they’re looking for a position. That’s where they see him. We appreciate that, we respect that and we’re honored and happy that they would think about him and consider him for that position.”

It appears that the Irish coaching staff is already preparing for the eventuality of losing both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. If both talented rising sophomores take the leaps in their game the coaching staff hopes, that could be sooner than later, which explains the focus on players of Matuska’s profile. From various reports, it seems like Matuska could be one of the first to make their decision.

“We’ll get a chance to talk about it and put it all in perspective. It is a very big decision, obviously that’s an understatement,” Jim Matuska told ISD. “We don’t have a timetable, but I think we have what we need at this point. I would think it would be sooner than later if he can be confident of his decision. That could come very soon.”

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.