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Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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We’re heading down the stretch in our annual countdown of the Irish roster. If numbers 15 to 11 were all about bottled promise, 10-6 has a tried and true feel to it. After a youth movement was largely responsible for the upper echelon of this list, this group has a veteran feel to it. How veteran? Consider: Not one of these players was truly a Brian Kelly recruit. (Lewis-Moore, Riddick, Slaughter and Cave were all Weis recruits. Nix committed to Notre Dame when it didn’t have a head coach, a nice piece of recruiting by Tony Alford.)

If the Irish are going to put together a big season, they’ll need to get production out of this group. For guys like Lewis-Moore and Cave, it’ll mean rebounding from seasons decimated by injury. For Riddick, it’ll mean exorcising special teams demons and nicks and dings that kept him from being the electric football player Brian Kelly thought he had. There’s no member of the secondary with more on his shoulders than Slaughter, who will likely be a do-everything type of player in a secondary in desperate need. And Louis Nix will have to prove he’s the player some members of this panel think he is — His No. 3 ranking is the highest of any player we’ve seen so far, but his No. 18 grade shows his inconsistency.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)
20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.)
19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.)
18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.)
17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.)
16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.)
15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.)
14. Everett Golson (QB, So.)
13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.)
12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.)
11. George Atkinson (RB, So.)

RANKINGS

10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, 5th year) A knee injury ended Lewis-Moore’s season in late October, forcing the Irish to play without both starting defensive ends, crippling losses a year after Ethan Johnson and KLM anchored a position grouping short on depth. After rehabbing the injury, Lewis-Moore found himself in an unfamiliar spot this spring: A three-year returning starter who no longer had a starting job. That dilemma was solved when Aaron Lynch departed for South Florida, but Lewis-Moore had almost gotten lost in the shuffle, no easy task for a 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive end. At his best, KLM can be a run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end that has plenty of athleticism. While the sack numbers have yet to come, Lewis-Moore will be counted on to anchor a position group looking to rebound after injuries decimated the group.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 19th)

9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.) Riddick enters his final season in South Bend at the position he started, joining Cierre Wood, George Atkinson (and Amir Carlisle) at running back, one of the deepest spots on the roster. After two uneven seasons at slot receiver, it’s hard to tell whether the move was a product of Riddick disappointing as a wideout, or his running skills too good to ignore. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and with Tony Alford taking over coaching running backs and slot receivers, Riddick finds himself in the rare position of being a perfect fit regardless of where he lines up.

Nobody in the panel was tougher on Riddick than I was, ranking him 13th and the third best running back on the roster. (I still haven’t forgotten the muffed punts and getting caught by a Navy DB.) Yet all reports coming out of South Bend have Riddick looking at home and solid in the backfield, pushing Cierre Wood for carries and being every bit the dynamic presence “Good Theo” can be when he’s playing with confidence. With the Irish in dire need of a dynamic returner in the punt game and an offensive threat capable of making big chunk plays, Riddick putting together a senior season to remember would be perfect timing for the Irish.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 13th)

8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, 5th year) With the graduation of Harrison Smith, fifth-year senior Slaughter will likely take over the reins of the secondary. After struggling to stay healthy in 2010, Slaughter took over a key role in the Irish defense, giving coordinator Bob Diaco the flexibility to slide Slaughter down into the box, where the safety started replacing Prince Shembo in certain defensive sets. At 6-foot, 200-pounds, Slaughter lacks the ideal size for a safety, but his ability to play a multitude of positions, and his penchant to make big hits, has Slaughter looking comfortable down in the box. Early in spring, Slaughter displayed his versatility by taking some snaps at cornerback, a position thin on numbers after Robert Blanton and Gary Gray graduated. Yet Austin Collinsworth’s torn labrum likely ends that experiment, though the Irish have a half-dozen new safeties on the roster, and new coach Bob Elliott’s ability to get a youngster ready to play with help keep Slaughter versatile, part of what makes him so valuable to the defense.

(Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

7. Braxston Cave (C, 5th year) Cave was another key veteran that suffered a season ending injury, when the senior center tore ligaments in his foot early in the Wake Forest game. While Mike Golic filled in admirably, there was a noticeable difference along the offensive line without Cave in the lineup and an offense that looked so promising throughout the early parts of the season sputtered to a disappointing close of the season. At 6-foot-3, 303-pounds, Cave is one of the strongest players on the Irish roster. He started 22 straight games before the injury and after taking precautions during spring football, Cave is completely healthy as the Irish prepare to enter fall camp. At his best, Cave is a powerful run blocker that’s deserving of the preseason watch list kudos being bestowed on him. With new head coach Harry Hiestand bringing in former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz to work with the interior of the line, expect a nice uptick along the offensive front.

(Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.) Nix is one of the most colorful personalities on the Irish roster, but the stout run-stuffing defensive tackle is also one of the team’s most enigmatic.  In his first season on the field after a redshirt year was needed to get Nix into shape, production wasn’t a problem — Nix was the most active defensive lineman on the team, making tackles on almost 11-percent of his snaps. Yet Nix’s ability to be consistent in both games and practices has worried the coaching staff, and Nix split reps with Kona Schwenke this spring at tackle, a product of a fitness regime that seemed to take its own offseason. If he’s in shape and on the field, Nix has all the talented needed to be the Irish’s best defensive tackle in recent memory. Yet Nix needs to put in the work to make himself that player. Entering his third season in the program, now is the time.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 18th)

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.