Manti Te'o junior

The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Defense

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Two guys expected to push their way into the starting defensive lineup instead pushed their way out of town. With Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard both leaving the Irish football team before spring practice concluded, Notre Dame will have to win with the players they have on the roster, and see if any incoming freshmen have the ability to come in this June and fight their way onto the field.

After watching the positional battles play out during 15 spring practices, here’s the way too early defensive depth chart, heading into unofficial workouts.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The loss of Lynch will certainly sting, but there’s plenty of depth here and it’s not like the Irish will be piecing things together. Rarely does a four-year starter get overlooked, but expect Kapron Lewis-Moore to step his game up during his final season in South Bend, and hold down one defensive end spot. Stephon Tuitt, who had a promising freshman season held back by some early immaturity and then a bout with mono, looks like a future star across from him.

The talk of spring practice was Kona Schwenke. Named the most improved defensive player of the spring, Schwenke pushed Louis Nix at nose guard, running with the first team while Nix battled his fitness and the coaching staff motivated him.

With Chase Hounshell limited and Tony Springmann out for the spring, early-enrollee Sheldon Day impressed during his first work with the team. If the season started tomorrow, Day would likely be in the rotation, though that might not be the case next fall. Tyler Stockton, undersized for the Irish system, but an effort player during spring drills, will also try to work his way into the rotation.

Early projections for opening day:

Kapron Lewis-Moore
Louis Nix
Stephon Tuitt

Chase Hounshell
Kona Schwenke
Tony Springmann
Sheldon Day
Tyler Stockton
Jarron Jones

Thoughts: Dropping Nix back to the second-team was motivation 101 for a defensive tackle that looked to add a few unwanted pounds in the months between the season and spring ball. While the pass rush undoubtedly is hurt with the loss of Lynch, the Irish still feel like the front seven of this team is its strength, and it’ll be interesting to see the step forward made by guys like Hounshell, who played last year, and Springmann, who didn’t, but has a ton of promise.

LINEBACKERS

This group is the strength of the defense. Headlined by All-American candidate Manti Te’o, who took off 10 pounds in the offseason and looks better than ever, there’s a ton of versatile talent across the line. While Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese split time next to Te’o last season, expect to hear from guys like Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore. Both Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo impressed during spring drills, and walk-on Joe Schmidt is a guy that’s going to help the team win as well.

On the outside, Prince Shembo suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. The injury pushed Ishaq Williams to the forefront, and the rising sophomore took command of the position. Danny Spond and Ben Councell will battle for the dog linebacker job, with Councell looking to gain the edge by the end of spring practice. There’s not a ton of depth here, especially with Troy Niklas switching to tight end, though Romeo Okwara will enter the outside linebacking group come summer.

Early projections for opening day:

Prince Shembo, OLB
Manti Te’o, ILB
Dan Fox, ILB
Ben Councell, OLB

Ishaq Williams
Carlo Calabrese
Danny Spond
Kendall Moore
Jarrett Grace
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Romeo Okwara

Thoughts: I think Williams and Shembo will be on the field together plenty, so saying Prince beats out Ishaq for the job isn’t truly reality. Last season, we saw Fox and Calabrese split time and they’ll likely do the same again this year, with Jarrett Grace fighting to get in the mix as well. You can’t call the season Manti Te’o put together last year disappointing, but I expect to see a man on fire next season. Visibly lighter and moving quicker, he’ll be among the best defenders in college football. I also think the future behind him is bright with Kendall Moore. All he seems to do is make plays when given the chance. The dog linebacker position is one to watch. Ben Councell’s physicality was impressive, but he’ll be taking his first real snaps next season. The strengths of this defense could put the unit in more three-linebacker sets, with Shembo putting a hand on the ground in pass rushing situations.

SECONDARY

This might as well be an open casting call, after regulars Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray depart after holding down jobs for multiple seasons. There’s no question that cornerback is a question mark on this roster. But don’t think Bennett Jackson is part of that conversation. Privately, the coaching staff thinks they might have a first round talent playing the boundary corner, where Jackson’s size, physicality and speed make an intriguing player.

Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will likely battle for the field corner job. The winner will be the guy who can do the least wrong, as nobody wants to field a defense that gives up the play over the top. Wood doesn’t have the upside of Atkinson, but he’s put in workmanlike hours, and if he keeps things in front of him, he’ll be okay. Jalen Brown looks the part of a starting cornerback, but he’s got to do a better job covering receivers if the staff is going to feel like they can count on him. (When the UND.com videos even show you getting beat, that’s not good…) New addition to the mix Cam McDaniel proved to the staff that he’s a good football player, moving to corner after Tee Shepard left South Bend, and impressing with his ability to get up to speed.

At safety, the staff feels good about Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth. Slaughter has the ability to make “the leap” this year, building on a season that saw him turn into one of the Irish’s true impact defenders. It’s also the end of the road for Motta, who certainly passes the eyeball test as an athlete and safety. Former walk-on Chris Salvi was brought back on scholarship and will headline the special teams, and Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy found their footing this spring. The Irish will also welcome reinforcements this summer with Nick Baratti, CJ Prosise, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner. (Thanks to the readers that reminded me that Chris Badger will return to the Irish after missing two years after his Mormon Mission. Depth chart adjusted)

Early projections for opening day:

Bennett Jackson
Zeke Motta
Jamoris Slaughter
Josh Atkinson

Austin Collinsworth
Lo Wood
Cam McDaniel
Eilar Hardy
Jalen Brown
Matthias Farley
Chris Badger
CJ Prosise
Elijah Shumate
Nick Baratti
John Turner

Thoughts: We’ll likely see a lot of the top six guys in the secondary, and it’ll be up to Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott to get the guys up to speed. This defense will be as good as the secondary lets them be, and Elliott has made a great impact wherever he’s been. You’ve got to wonder if any of the safeties recruited can slide into the cornerback mix. My guess? CJ Prosise will get a chance, which helps explain why we’ve heard some rumblings about Prosise trying to cut weight.

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.