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Pregame Six Pack: Irish invade Dublin

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Football is finally here. And while I wasn’t able to watch South Carolina and Vanderbilt play one of their patented SEC slugfests, it’s good to know that it’s finally time to start talking about the games, instead of all the other rubbish that happens this time of year.

With thousands of fans from Navy and Notre Dame descending on the Emerald Isle, it’s time to finally kickoff the 2012 football season.

As usual here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers of miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to play the Midshipmen.

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1. While the first month of the season has been tough on Notre Dame, the Irish have usually fared well in the season opener.

Nobody is likely to forget last season’s opening game debacle against USF, but overall the season opener hasn’t usually been the problem for the Irish. While most bemoan the front-loaded nature of recent Irish schedules, it’s actually been a good run for opening days in recent years.

Lou Holtz: 9-2
Bob Davie: 4-1
Ty Willingham: 2-1
Charlie Weis: 4-1
Brian Kelly: 1-1

The Irish have won 20 of their last 25 openers, logging a collective 102-16-5 record overall. But it’s been a decade since they’ve gotten out of September unscathed, dating back to that magical start to the Ty Willingham era.

Beating Navy this weekend is the first step. But getting on a roll and getting past Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State will have the Irish right back on the map and in the hunt for a BCS bid.

(Sounds easy, right?)

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2. Starting away from home might not be a bad thing for rookie quarterback Everett Golson.

Ideally, you’d like your first-time starting quarterback to have the benefit of a home crowd and familiar surroundings. But the last time the Irish went on the road with a first-time starting quarterback things worked out just fine.

In 1994, the Irish started the much ballyhooed Ron Powlus era in Evanston, Illinois and the young quarterback certainly didn’t disappoint. Powlus threw for 291 yards and four touchdowns as the Irish routed Northwestern.

Since 1985, the Irish have debuted 20 quarterbacks. Sophomore Everett Golson will be the 21st. Fourteen of them won their openers, including a string of nine straight from 85-98. Let’s take a quick hop down memory lane…

1985 — Terry Andrysiak, Soph. 37-14 victory over Ol’ Miss.
1987 — Tony Rice, Soph. 35-14 victory over Air Force.
1987 — Kent Graham, Fr. 32-25 win over Boston College.
1990 — Rick Mirer, Soph. 28-24 win over No. 4 Michigan.
1991 — Paul Faila, Fr. 45-20 win over Purdue. (Played only first series.)
1993 — Kevin McDougal, Sr. 27-12 win over Northwestern.
1994 — Ron Powlus, Soph. 42-15 win over Northwestern.
1995 — Tom Krug, Jr. 44-14 win over Air Force.
1998 — Jarious Jackson, Sr. 36-20 win over No. 5 Michigan.
1998 — Eric Chappell, Jr. 10-0 loss to USC.
2000 — Arnaz Battle, Jr. 24-10 win over Texas A&M.
2000 — Gary Godsey, Soph. 23-21 win over Purdue.
2000 — Matt LoVecchio, Fr. 20-14 win over Stanford.
2001 — Carlyle Holiday, Soph. 24-3 loss to Texas A&M.
2003 — Brady Quinn, Fr. 23-10 loss to Purdue.
2007 — Jimmy Clausen, Fr. 31-10 loss to Penn State.
2007 — Evan Sharpley, Soph. 38-0 loss to USC.
2010 — Dayne Crist, Jr. 23-12 win over Purdue.
2010 — Tommy Rees, Fr. 28-3 win over No. 15 Utah.

We’ll find out if Golson’s debut is a footnote in Irish history or the beginning of a new era in Notre Dame quarterbacking.

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3. If Navy’s passing game is going to give the Irish fits, it’ll have to do it without its two starting wide receivers.

It isn’t just Brian Kelly sitting key starters out for the season opener. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has left starting wide receiver Brandon Turner home for a violation of team rules. Turner, at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, was a red zone threat, solid blocker, and also  led the Midshipmen in receiving last season.

It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Turner, who failed his physical readiness test and missed a chunk of training camp. Quarterback Trey Miller will also be missing starter Matt Aiken with a knee injury that he suffered during fall camp. Still learning the intricacies of the triple option attack, Miller will be breaking in two new wide receivers, not exactly the plan heading into the season.

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4. Even after an embarrassing loss last season, memories of a Navy victory are still fresh in the heads of the Midshipmen.

Last season’s 42-point domination by the Irish didn’t erase the positive memories Navy players had from their shocking 35-17 victory over the Irish in 2010. With Ricky Dobbs running the offense and Alexander Teich bulldozing his way through the middle of the Irish defense, Navy forced Dayne Crist into some bad decisions and the Midshipmen coasted to a 35-17 win.

It’s a victory many players from the team are going to draw on this Saturday.

“It was an awesome game. Offensively, everything was clicking. It just seemed like every play was working and everyone executed,” Howell told the Capital Gazette. “You put that many points and yards up on a high-caliber team and it’s a lot of fun.”

A win by Navy would give the Midshipmen seniors a stunning three victories in four years over the Irish, an accomplishment only done twice in school history (1937 and 1964).

“Beating them one year doesn’t necessarily make it easier to beat them next year. Notre Dame always has an entire roster of big-time players and we need to remember that,” lineman Josh Cabral said. “At the same time, I think we’ve developed a sense that if we go in there and play as hard as we can and execute at a high level we have a chance. Obviously, we have to play perfect football in a lot of areas in order to beat them.”

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5. It takes quite a bit of work to turn the pitch into the gridiron.

There might not be a more unique stadium than the one the Irish and Midshipmen will battle in this weekend. Dublin’s Aviva Stadium hosts soccer and rugby matches, and will welcome Lady Gaga in a few weeks. But they had to do a little work to transform the stadium into a football field.

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6. It may not be the easiest place to play a football game, but all the Irish players and coaches are thankful to be playing in Dublin.

Brian Kelly might have caught a little flack for saying he preferred playing his football games in South Bend than Dublin, but it’s clear that this is a great life experience for both players and coaches.

While the logistics and challenges of uprooting a football program and putting them in a foreign country add some complexities to an already difficult upcoming season, team captain Manti Te’o said it best.

“It’s my first time outside the United States,” Te’o told UND.com. “I don’t think you could do this anywhere else but here at Notre Dame. It’s a special place and they give us opportunities to explore not only the states but the world and I’m really humbled to be here and really grateful to be here.”

He’s certainly not the only one that feels that way.

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.