aaron lynch Sack

Lynch returns to campus, other notes

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It appears the drama surrounding Aaron Lynch‘s absence from practice before Easter Break has come to an end. Both Irish Illustrated and IrishSportsDaily.com are reporting that Lynch is back on campus. One source has confirmed the same for me as well. As noted by Brian Kelly when he spoke with the media last week, this has always been the plan.

That said, with a long holiday weekend and not much football to discuss, rumors and speculation were rampant, and Lynch’s return to the field Wednesday will likely be the only thing to end a mysterious absence that was simply explained as “personal reasons.” Whatever the reason for heading to his mother’s home in Ohio, the Irish defense is certainly fortified with Lynch in the lineup, and he’s expected to build off a freshman season that saw him lead the Irish in sacks.

We’ll hear more from head coach Brian Kelly on Wednesday, but for now any national crisis seems to be over.

***

While 2013 recruiting commitment James Onwualu isn’t the most decorated prospect on the Irish board, he has done more than his fair share to help build recruiting momentum for Notre Dame, working with quarterback Malik Zaire and offensive lineman Steve Elmer to help bring the once slow-blooming recruiting class into double digit commitments.

ESPN RecruitingNation’s Jared Shanker wrote an interesting article about the Cretin-Derham Hall running back/wide receiver, and the training regimen that’s helped turn him into one of the Midwest’s better prospects. Under the tutelage of Ted Johnson, another former Cretin running back and now a trainer in the Twin Cities that counts Michael Floyd among his clients, Onwualu has built power in a very untraditional way.

Johnson’s program is all movement and technique based. Instead a stack of 45-pound plates, the only weight working against Onwualu is his own frame. The emphasis is improving Onwualu’s posterior chain, an area Johnson said is where most athletes suffer injuries at in the collision sports.

At the Under Armour junior combine, Onwualu was one of the worst testers at the bench press, but he ran circles around his competition at the remaining drills.

Surprisingly still, strength is what separates Onwualu from his peers, his quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall says.

“His strength allows him to break tackles anywhere on the field,” quarterback Conor Rhoda said. “He can turn a 10-yard hook into a 60-yard touchdown.”

The gripe with normal weight lifting programs, Johnson said, is they are set up to accommodate the lowest common denominator and not the elite athletes. A close friend of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, Johnson said that was the case with the strength and conditioning program there, and it is the same issue with the programs throughout the country.

“You walk into a facility and see what the philosophy is: They got five million pounds of weights and that’s all they do,” Johnson said, “and it doesn’t necessarily translate into performance. All we need is space.”

The strength and conditioning program during the Weis era has already been beaten and buried, so there’s no use rehashing that now. But it’s interesting that Johnson has stayed in touch with Weis, and it’s clearly a different training perspective that Johnson adhere’s to, and one that’ll likely be healthier for maturing athletes still in high school.

Onwualu will be an interesting prospect to watch develop. He’s a unique athlete — as this article attests to — and his testing results at various combines show some of the skills that he’s developed. While his forty time isn’t at an elite level yet, he’s shown explosiveness in shuttle and short burst exercises, which help explain why he’s impressed so many schools. Combine that with the off-the-field intangibles and leadership that he’ll be bringing to Notre Dame, which are on display just about daily with his work on other Irish recruits, and its easy to see why Onwualu has been one of the Irish’s most valuable recruits.

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Over the weekend, veteran scribe Lou Somogyi had a great answer when asked if he could remember a more maligned returning QB than rising junior Tommy Rees. His response was one that should raise more than an eyebrow or two of Irish fans, and serves as a wonderful reminder that college careers aren’t defined after two seasons. If they were, most people would have long forgotten about national champion Tony Rice.

Rice was one of the most maligned, doubted QBs I ever saw after that first varsity season of his. Tons of people saw him strictly as a one-dimensional athlete who was “not the answer” to take Notre Dame to the Promised Land as a quarterback.

Put him at running back, move him to receiver, have him return punts or kickoffs … but please, do not use him at QB. You can absolutely not beat great teams, like Miami or Michigan or USC, with an option QB. Miami especially proved that by the way it would stop Oklahoma option QBs such as Jamelle Holieway or Charles Thompson. (Of course, these same people didn’t note how Miami crushed drop-back passers even more.)

Somogyi went on to talk about the perfect prototype for the 1988 Irish offense: six-foot-five quarterback Kent Graham, who wowed Irish fans and reporters with his prodigious arm and high school reputation. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was — as Somogyi put it — “YOU CANNOT WIN AGAINST TOP TEAMS LIKE MIAMI WITH A #%^&*$ OPTION QUARTERBACK! WHEN IS THAT IDIOT HOLTZ GOING TO RECOGNIZE RICE CAN’T GET IT DONE!!!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by readers or Irish fans that Notre Dame will never be able to win — especially against top competition — with a one-dimensional quarterback like Tommy Rees. Thanks to Lou for pointing out the wonderful parallels between that offseason and this one.

Now if only the similarities continue between the ensuing seasons…

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.