Bennett Jackson 2

Spring Practice: Day Three report

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Saturday’s practice was already a victory with the Irish getting two big recruiting commitments along the offensive line. But with the team in full pads for the first time this spring, it also gave us a chance to take a look at the physicality of the team, with the UND.com practice video giving us a whole lot of action between the linemen.

This is about as in-depth of a breakdown as you can possibly get from seven-plus minutes of footage, but it should give you a crib sheet of what’s happening, almost down to the collision. There’s plenty to like, especially watching the young depth along the offensive line come together, and players like Jarrett Grace and Ishaq Williams come along.

  • 0:30 — Meteorologist Jack Nolan gives us the state of South Bend weather. If this is global warming, sign me up.
  • 0:39 — Mike Golic vs. Kona Schwenke. Golic wins early, Kona eventually overpowers him.
  • 0:44 — Tate Nichols vs. Aaron Lynch. Very impressive work by Nichols.
  • 1:07 — Prince Shembo breaks the team down to get practice started. Take a quick look on the right and you’ll see Tony Springmann in shorts and a hat. He’s a big dude, and that red hair is mighty impressive.
  • 1:20 — Matthias Farley vs. Chris Salvi. Impressive work by the converted safety. Looks very physical.
  • 1:26 — Cam McDaniel vs. Josh Atkinson. Wasn’t a pillow fight, but tough to give Atkinson the victory when he engaged low.
  • 1:33 — Robby Toma vs. Austin Collinsworth. You didn’t expect Toma to win, but nice work by Collinsworth.
  • 1:38 — Daniel Smith vs. Jamoris Slaughter. Nice work by Smith, who drove Slaughter backwards.
  • 1:43 — Luke Massa vs. Zeke Motta. Nicely done by Massa. I’m starting to like that kid.
  • 1:49 — Jalen Brown vs. Bennett Jackson. Slight edge to Brown, who looks impressive size wise and a legit six-foot-one, 200-pounds, something I wasn’t sure of before this.
  • 1:58 — John Goodman vs. Danny McCarthy. Even draw between the two fifth-year seniors. And apparently a mediocre one, because Kelly made them go twice.
  • 2:13 — TJ Jones vs. Lo Wood. Nice pop.
  • 2:20 — Toma vs. Collinsworth — Round two goes to Austin.
  • 2:28 — McDaniel vs. J. Atkinson. Give this one to Cam.
  • 2:30 — Farley vs. Salvi. Another W for Farley.
  • 2:35 — Nichols vs. Lynch. Big collision, but still leans Nichols way.
  • 2:43 — Golic vs. Schwenke. Another W for Kona.
  • 2:50 — Now we move onto the “rodeo” drill portion, which is basically one-on-one OL vs. Defender, with a running back having to go through the hole.
  • 2:51 — Louis Nix, mans game. Stands Golic up in the hole and makes a nice play on Cierre Wood
  •  2:55 — Chris Watt and Manti Te’o have a monster collision, with Te’o shaking off the block and making the play on George Atkinson. Not sure it was a victory by Te’o, but everybody was hopping around celebrating, so let’s go with it.
  • 3:04 — Tyler Eifert vs. Prince Shembo, and Shembo won the battle at the line of scrimmage, standing Eifert up in the hole and making the play on the back. Nicely done.
  • 3:12 — Our first Harry Hiestand appearance, who is very vocal about Matt Hegarty‘s performance against Kona. Not a great collision, as Schwenke tried to knife through the line.
  • 3:16 — Carlo Calabrese vs. Christian Lombard. Nice work by Lombard, who swallowed up the linebacker one on one.
  • 3:20 — After losing head up, Lynch got the better of Nichols in this drill, working off the block and swallowing up the running back.
  • 3:27 — Ben Koyack vs. Danny Spond. Nicely done by the junior outside linebacker, who looked physical while overpowering Koyack.
  • 3:33 — Conor Hanratty getting into the mix, doing a nice job on Tyler Stockton as Cierre Wood scoots through the hole.
  • 3:40 — Bruce Heggie does a good job powering into linebacker Dan Fox, but Fox makes a great play on Atkinson, and tackles the running back nicely, to the approval of Te’o and Bob Diaco.
  • 3:46 — Nick Martin does a nice job on newcomer Sheldon Day, who looks an awful lot like Emeka Nwankwo with the dreads out the back of his helmet. Robby Toma will some nice scoot through the hole at running back, showing the versatility of the hybrid position.
  • 3:52 — Tight end Alex Welch takes on linebacker Ishaq Williams, who makes a pretty impressive play on the ball carrier, who goes flying. Nicely done by the new No. 11.
  • 4:02 — Freshman linebacker Jarrett Grace does a great job taking on walk-on lineman Matt Tansey and then makes an impressive play on the running back. Nicely done. Very nicely done.
  • 4:12 — That’s Jordan Prestwood doing a nice job on Stephon Tuitt one-on-one, before Tuitt makes the tackle.
  • 4:15 — Jake Golic does a nice job on linebacker Anthony Rabasa, driving him out of the play.
  • 4:22 — Louis Nix does a great job standing Mike Golic up in the hole, but Everett Golson manages to tip-toe his way around him.
  • 4:31 — Nicely done, Carlo Calabrese. He stands up guard Chris Watt and makes a nice tackle on the ball carrier.
  • 4:37 — Want proof that Zack Martin is the real deal? Here you go. He handles Aaron Lynch easily. (Is there a third Martin brother? If so, I hope Notre Dame has already offered him.)
  • 4:44 — Baptism by fire for Troy Niklas, who stands up Prince Shembo in the hole, with Shembo winning the battle at the point of attack. Shembo did the same thing to Tyler Eifert to put things in perspective. Scott Booker is there to immediately coach Niklas up.
  • 4:52 — Another nice snap by Christian Lombard, who takes on Kendall Moore and puts him on rollerskates.
  • 5:02 — Kapron Lewis-Moore looks fully healthy, shaking off Tate Nichols and making the tackle.
  • 5:07 — Another impressive rep by Ishaq Williams, who drives a tight end back and makes an impressive tackle. Perhaps the lightswitch has gone on for the youngster?
  • 5:17 — The video breaks into coverage routes now, with one-on-one routes being run and thrown. Robby Toma makes a nice adjustment to Gunner Kiel‘s throw and makes the catch on Jamoris Slaughter.
  • 5:25 — You see why the coaching staff is so excited about Bennett Jackson. Early in his backpedal, Jackson stumbles, which allows John Goodman to get a step on him, but Jackson recovers, looks to actually locate the ball, and makes a play on a poorly thrown football. He’s certainly raw, but that’s a tough play athletically and he looked good recovering.
  • 5:37 — Ben Koyack just outsizes safety Chris Salvi, who can’t defend six-foot-five very well.
  • 5:48 — It’s Jackson vs. Goodman again for two snaps. Jackson is all over him on an out cut, but lets Goodman beat him long on a nicely thrown ball. Savvy veteran move by Goodman on the push off, but the ref in attendance didn’t call it. (No word on what conference affiliation this ref has.)
  • 5:55 — Good deep ball by Golson, who just misses a streaking wide out long, with nice coverage by Jackson.
  • 6:02 — More Jackson. This time defending Eifert on the go route with Rees throwing it a little inside and long. Credit Bennett for boxing Eifert out and keeping leverage. Tommy also needs to throw that ball outside and high.
  • 6:10 — TJ Jones beats Lo Wood for a big play down the field. Nicely thrown by Rees. Is it just me or is this more deep throws in a two-minute highlight clip than we saw all last season? (Bravo if that’s on you, Chuck Martin…)
  • 6:16 — Prince Shembo breaks on a pass to Troy Niklas. Nice play by Prince, but TEs need to make that catch.
  • 6:23 — Andrew Hendrix delivering a strike on a dig route to Eifert between Josh Atkinson and Zeke Motta. Nice throw and catch.
  • 6:38 — One missed deep ball and one connection by Rees, both to TJ Jones. Wood was in nice position and so was Jackson, but TJ went over the top of Bennett for the play.
  • 6:50 — Nice throw by Everett Golson, putting the ball up for John Goodman to make a play. For those of you wondering, Goodman has always been a really impressive practice player. Will be interesting to see that happens on Saturdays this coming season.
  • 7:04 — That’s Chuck Martin giving a loud, “That’s it, Gunner!” to his rookie quarterback, who throws a nice out to a TE Alex Welch.
  • 7:15 — Another practice video, another long run for Theo Riddick, who bounces outside for a big gainer against the reserve defense, using his stiffarm to run away from Josh Atkinson.
  • 7:25 — Boot pass from Golson to Niklas, with Troy doing a nice job in the open field avoiding tacklers. (Sign me up for about two dozen of these next year…)
  • 7:35 — Thankfully practice video ends, as my eyeballs were about to bleed.

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It’s interesting that we saw mostly deep throws from Tommy Rees. While most people are down on the rising junior, if he can throw a more accurate deep ball, this offense would be just fine. Last year, defenses knew the Irish weren’t a risk to go over the top, and as the year went on, more teams dropped seven and eight guys into coverage, making it awfully hard to find space in the defense without going over the top.

It would’ve been nice to see Davaris Daniels get some work in the video, but Kelly said after practice that Daniels suffered a minor leg injury and should be back at work Wednesday.

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.