KLM hit

Practice Report: Day Twelve update

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The departure of defensive end Aaron Lynch cast a fairly large shadow over the Irish football program, just as the Notre Dame coaching staff was opening its doors to over 600 high school coaches. Saturday’s practice was an open look for observers (media included) to see first hand the state of the Irish football team.

With the spring game set for Saturday, and more social-media melodrama happening this morning, it’s been an eventful few months for the Irish, and a full-contact scrimmage was likely just what the doctor ordered.

As they have been all spring, UND.com had the only video footage of the action. Here are some thoughts and observations.

  • 0:10 — That’s one understated truck.
  • 0:20 — We’ve got some serious hitting coming up, so I’ll do my best to give you guys the breakdown of who is running into who (or is it whom).
  • 0:28 — Mike Golic (#57) vs. Kona Schwenke (#96) with Everett Golson dropping the snap before handing the ball off to Theo Riddick. Let’s look past the nightmare of Golson’s dropped snap. That’s impressive work by Schwenke, standing up a fifth-year senior offensive guard.
  • 0:32 — Manti Te’o and Chris Watt (#66) have a mighty big collision before George Atkinson (#4) runs through the hole. The defensive staff were very fired up after Te’o’s play, but it sure looked like Watt did everything you’d ask of a lineman.
  • 0:40 — That’s Zack Martin (#70) getting the best of Kapron Lewis-Moore (#89). It might be too soon to get really optimistic about Martin, but he’s got the chance to be a big-time, awards-level offensive lineman.
  • 0:46 — Ishaq Williams (#11) stood up All-American tight end Tyler Eifert (#80). Running back Tyler Plantz got through the right side of the line, but Ishaq held up well at the point of attack.
  • 0:54 — Louis Nix (#9) stood up Matt Hegarty (#77) then slid off the block and made the tackle on Cierre Wood. Nix had members of the Irish fanbase sweating bullets after some late-night tweeting, but all seems to be fine.
  • 0:58 — Christian Lombard (#74) against Carlo Calabrese (#44). Well done by Lombard, who is having a really good spring.
  • 1:05 — That’s Sheldon Day (#91) against Tate Nichols (#64). Heckuva job by the early-enrolled freshman holding up against a really big right tackle.
  • 1:07 — Alex Welch (#82) against Ben Councell (#30). Welch did a nice job driving blocking, but Councell eventually shakes it and shows a nice bit of nastiness by finishing the play.
  • 1:16 — Conor Hanratty (#65) handles somebody nicely, as Theo Riddick makes his way through untouched.
  • 1:22 — Top collision so far. Justin Utupo (#53) absolutely stands up Bruce Heggie (#51) in the whole and makes a great play on the ball carrier. Don’t sleep on Utupo.
  • 1:29 — Stephon Tuitt (#7) reminds Irish fans that things will still be okay at defensive end by dominating the point of attack against Nick Martin (#72).
  • 1:35 — Nice job by Ben Koyack (#18) against Danny Spond (#13).
  • 1:39 — Walk-on Dennis Mahoney (#71) takes it to sophomore walk-on Kevin Carr (#67) one-on-one.
  • 1:44 — Jarrett Grace (#59) does his best to stand up to Chris Watt (#66). Watt did just about the same thing to Te’o, so this isn’t a knock on Grace.
  • 1:49 —  Good collision between Jordan Prestwood (#79) and Tyler Stockton (#92). Stockton has become a bit of a forgotten man, so hopefully he’s ready when his number is called.
  • 1:54 — Jake Golic (#88) against Kendall Moore (#8). Nice play by Moore.
  • 2:01 — Nix stands up Golic Jr. in the hole, but Wood still squirts out of trouble.
  • 2:07 — Lombard is just too big for Joe Schmidt (#38) who does his best to stand-up in the hole.
  • 2:12 — Nice job by KLM standing strong in the hole against Zack Martin.
  • 2:15 — Koyack and Anthony Rabasa (#56) meet in the hole, as Koyack drives Rabasa away from the runner.
  • 2:44 — This looks just plain crazy. Kickoff gunner work and a massive collision on the first rep. Another gigantic hit by Utupo. (This drill is giving my flashbacks to my days as a gunner in high school football.)
  • 3:15 — Good example of why we’ll see Ben Councell on kickoff coverage.
  • 3:25 — That Jarrett Grace has himself quite a disposition.
  • 3:34 — After nearly getting his clock cleaned by Utupo, cornerback Joe Romano gets his revenge on cornerback Josh Atkinson, who tries to take Romano on high and loses a big collision. Hearty celebration follows. Nobody wants to see guys get cleaned out, but I think it says a ton that Cierre Wood, Manti Te’o, and other starters are just as quick to celebrate the big play of a walk-on, as they are of a scholarship player. Good team atmosphere on display there.
  • 3:58 — I’m on the Cam McDaniel bandwagon. I think he’s going to make a difference next year, even if it is in the secondary. He’s just a good football player.
  • 4:04 — Looking for offensive evolution? How about that playcall/design by Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly, lifting a play from West Virginia’s playbook, on a quick lateral sweep that absolutely shredded Clemson last season. Fun design, and a lot less dangerous than it looks.
  • 4:20 — Cierre Wood looking very decisive as her runs through what looks like the first team defense. Lot of real estate created by Harry Hiestand‘s guys.
  • 4:25 — I’ll choose to call this good coverage by McDaniel, but it looked like Riddick had a step on him and Tommy Rees just overthrew it. (Look forward to being shredded for this defense of Rees, too.)
  • 4:38 — Live bullets out there, as Anthony Rabasa cleans up Andrew Hendrix in the backfield for a big loss on the keeper.
  • 4:47 — The benefit of running backs making plays out of the backfield? That’s Cierre Wood on Kendall Moore in coverage. Good throw by Hendrix and a nice gain on the mismatch.
  • 4:55 — Catch by Robby Toma, strip by Cam McDaniel. I’m going to have him fighting Lo Wood for his job by the end of this video.
  • 5:02 — Nice stick, Jarrett Grace.
  • 5:15 — Shake and bake, Robby Toma, carrying the ball on a nice little end-around. Don’t think we saw that even once last year.
  • 5:20 — Keep running Everett. We all want to see that come fall, too.
  • 5:37 — Think we heard a (presumably) red-faced Brian Kelly scream “Two Hands!” during that scramble.
  • 5:48 — Hi there, Davaris Daniels. I’m guessing we’d all be happy to see more of you in these videos.
  • 5:53 — Tommy Rees: Speed Merchant.
  • 6:05 — Kona Schwenke making plays in the backfield.
  • 6:18 — Gunner Kiel steps up in the pocket and throws a dart into a tight window, with Alex Welch feeling the impact after the catch. Tough to see from this angle, but I’m guessing Gunner held onto it a second too long.
  • 6:24 — Daniel Smith making an appearance, too. Slant from Golson goes for nice yardage.
  • 6:34 — Theo Riddick definitely has the juke stick working pretty well. Haven’t seen those moves since last season’s EA Sports NCAA football videogame.
  • 6:38 — Everett Golson connects with Robby Toma in the corner of the endzone on a beautifully thrown ball. Thumbs up.

***

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.