Gunner Kiel

Projecting the freshmen

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A funny thing happens each winter. As the focus of hard core fans turns from football to recruiting, the attention of that group tends to shift from the players already on board to the inevitable recruits that tend to get away.

Rare is the recruiting class that doesn’t suffer defections. And after a disappointing 8-5 season, Brian Kelly’s recruiting class certainly suffered its share of disappointments. But as the 2012 season approaches, that sting is replaced by the realization that Notre Dame added some really intriguing football players.

Here’s a quick look at the freshman class along with a glance into my crystal ball as we project how this group will contribute this season.

Chris Badger, S: Badger has finally returned to Notre Dame after spending spring practice with the Irish two years ago. Retaining his rookie eligibility after his Mormon mission took him away from football, Badger’s added maturity, not to mention 15 practices with the defensive staff in 2010, should give him a bit of a leg up.
Projection: He may not work his way into the two-deep, but expect Badger, a physical player with a good feel for the game, to be everywhere on special teams.

Nicky Baratti, S: The former Texas all-purpose weapon is making the transition to playing defense after spending his high school days as an offensive star. But early returns on Baratti have been positive, and the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder has good size and looks the part. Whether he plays will likely depend on how quickly Baratti grasps the defense.
Projection: The freshman safety depth chart has thinned itself with CJ Prosise and Elijah Shumate switching positions. But in an ideal world, Baratti spends the season learning, saving a year of eligibility, a la Harrison Smith.

Chris Brown, WR: Most people assumed Brian Kelly’s gushing review of Brown on Signing Day was a way to help Irish fans cope with the loss of Deontay Greenberry. But after a week of practice, it’s clear that Brown is living up to the hype. At 6-foot-2, 172-pounds, he’s not fully developed, but Brown has the ability to blow the top off a defense and looks surprisingly smooth running intermediate routes as well.
Projection: It’s tough to judge Brown’s ability on his glowing UND.com practice report videos, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the freshman will lead the Irish in yards-per-catch.

Scott Daly, LS: It’s clear that the Irish coaching staff haven’t been all that satisfied with their long snapping game since they came to South Bend. After almost signing competition for Jordan Cowart two years ago, the Irish offered Daly and accepted his commitment. He’s not 6-foot-4 as advertised during recruiting (he’s 6-2), but at 245-pounds he’s big enough to hold up and handle both short and long snaps.
Projection: It wouldn’t surprise me to see Daly start to take snaps away from Cowart by season’s end. At the very least in the place-kicking game.

Sheldon Day, DE: Getting Day on campus during the spring was a huge help, letting the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Indianapolis native learn the ropes of college while also accelerating his timeline, now a necessity without Aaron Lynch. Day might not have the height you’d associate with a Brian Kelly 3-4 defensive end, but he’s a physical presence that should contribute.
Projection: Expect to see plenty of Day from the outset. He’ll team with Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann, and Justin Utupo as guys that’ll fill in behind Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Justin Ferguson, WR: Rarely does a recruit actually gain an inch in height when he gets to campus. But Ferguson surprised many when he measured in at 6-foot-2 and a well-put-together 196 pounds. The Florida native is a tricky prospect. Not quite a burner, not quite a size mismatch. That said, he had some elite offers that give you a sense that he might just be an impact player.
Projection: Probably the third-most ready to go freshman wideout, there’s some logic behind giving him the Davaris Daniels treatment. Then again, Ferguson might be too good to keep off the field.

Mark Harrell, OL: At this stage in Notre Dame’s program development, you don’t expect to see a freshman offensive lineman on the field. While early returns on Harrell have been promising, with the depth the Irish have on the interior of their line, a lot would have to go wrong to see the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder on the field. With veterans Chris Watt and Jake Golic likely manning the guard positions and Nick Martin and Connor Hanratty likely the next men in, Harrell will spend a lot of time with strength coach Paul Longo this season.
Projection: A season on the scout team and a saved year of eligibility for the promising newcomer.

Jarron Jones, DE: He may not be the Tuitt-sized monster his recruiting profile purported, but Jones has opened some eyes during fall training camp, and at 6-foot-5, 299-pounds, he’s bigger than just about any pre-Kelly era defensive recruit in recent memory. Jones’ profile roller-coastered a bit during the postseason All-Star game circuit, but he’s looking every bit the part of a key defensive cog in the years to come.
Projection: With depth at end not exactly flush, Jones could work his way into the rotation by midseason. But saving a year of eligibility would give the Irish some flexibility in case Stephon Tuitt finds himself playing on Sundays sooner than expected.

Gunner Kiel, QB: When the Irish flipped Kiel in dramatic fashion, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin pulled a five-star rabbit out of its hat. (A rabbit that might have been LSU’s starting quarterback come September.) Kiel is everything you’d want in an elite prospect: Big, strong, and capable of running Kelly’s spread attack. While things might have been moving quickly this spring, early word is that Kiel is impressing the staff with his ability to grasp the offense, making Kelly’s comments about feeling comfortable with Kiel running the offense this year if needed less than lip service.
Projection: In a perfect world, Kiel makes his impact this season in the classroom. It’ll save a year of eligibility, and preserve another four years of interesting quarterbacking debates.

Will Mahone, RB: Mahone was billed as more thunder to KeiVarae Russell’s lighning at tailback, filling a big need on the roster after last season’s depth was shattered after Jonas Gray went down with a season-ending knee injury. Yet Mahone has looked quick in our brief glimpses during practice reports, with the 211-pound runner far from the bulldozer many thought the Irish were getting. With a crowded depth chart in front of him, Mahone’s first chance of showing fans his running style will likely wait until 2013.
Projection: Another redshirt year of eligibility preserved for the freshman class. (Don’t get down, Will. It worked out okay for Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Maybe it’s better that Neal isn’t wearing No. 3. At 5-foot-9, 171-pounds, the comparisons to Michael Floyd just aren’t there, with Neal giving up half a foot and over 50 pounds to the former Irish great. But while their methodology might be different, there’s reason to believe that the Irish have another game-breaking wide receiver in the diminutive freshman, with blazing speed and a great feel for the game likely putting Neal on the fast track.
Projection: Neal makes an immediate impact on the Irish offense, leading the wide receivers in catches during his rookie season. He also ends up the Irish punt returner.

Romeo Okwara, OLB: Just about everyone expected Okwara to walk onto campus as a typical work-in-progress. Given the “raw athlete” tag, the marvel of the 17-yr-old outside linebacker was that he was just growing into the player he’d become. Fast-forward to the first days in camp, and it’s clear that Okwara is much more than a diamond in the rough. At 6-foot-4, 239-pounds, the youngster just might be too good to stay off the field.
Projection: It all depends on Danny Spond’s health. If the junior linebacker is healthy, Okwara can spend this season growing bigger and stronger. If not, expect to see him getting reps at the Dog linebacker position.

CJ Prosise, OLB/S: Not too often does one of your starting kick returners also moonlight as an outside linebacker. But that’s where the Irish find themselves with Prosise, who has slid down into the box after Spond’s injury. At 6-foot-2, 208-pounds, Prosise is well-developed for a freshman, and while he doesn’t profile as a Dog linebacker, he could easily fill the role of the ‘Star,’ a position Jamoris Slaughter frequented last year.
Projection: More than a few things would have to go wrong to see Prosise taking snaps with the defense this early in his career. Still, expect the freshman to make a splash on special teams, possibly even in the return game next to George Atkinson.

KeiVarae Russell, CB: With depth at cornerback not ideal, Brian Kelly moved Russell to cornerback for his first season in South Bend. While the Seattle talent was known mostly for his smooth dual-threat abilities out of the offensive backfield, Russell has been a quick study on the edges of Bob Diaco’s defense, working with Kerry Cooks to shore up any deficiencies in the secondary. Again, it’s hard to take clips from UND.com videos too seriously, but it’s clear that Russell is a great athlete with good football instincts.
Projection: It’d be great to save a year of eligibility for Russell this season, giving him a chance to stick at corner or shift back to offense when the numbers even out. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound athlete might force his way onto the field.

Elijah Shumate: CB/S: With Danny McCarthy buckling up the third safety job, the move of Shumate to cornerback might have been to help get the talented freshman onto the field. As physically impressive as any freshman, putting Shumate at corner might simplify things enough for him to understand the mental game while putting his impressive skillset to work.
Projection: Might be the sleeper of this defensive class. I could see Shumate finding his way into some defensive packages, working close to the line of scrimmage or in the slot.

Ronnie Stanley, OT: The timeline on Stanley’s development moved up considerably with the departure of Jordan Prestwood. Now running as the second-string left tackle, the 6-foot-6, 304-pound freshman could move even closer to live action if rumors about an injury to Tate Nichols prove true. While the staff is high on Stanley’s future, it’s too much to ask any freshman to step in and protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Projection: A lot of travel squad appearances, but none on the field this season for Stanley.

John Turner, S: We haven’t heard much from Turner this fall, with the Indianapolis native working at a crowded position group as he transitions to college football. At 6-foot-2, 207-pounds, Turner certainly looks the part of an intimidating safety, but we’ll have to see how quickly he develops before making any judgments.
Projection: Lacking the elite offers of many of his classmates, Turner earned his scholarship offer after running a 4.5 forty at camp. Kelly has uncovered plenty of overlooked gems, and Turner might be another. At his size, Turner has the potential to be another great special teams contributor.

***

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

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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.