Akeem Hunt

Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Purdue

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No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

With a stout defensive line and strength in the secondary, quarterback Everett Golson will be challenged. After executing a mostly simple game plan against the Midshipmen, Golson’s learning curve with rise as Notre Dame welcomes in-state rival Purdue, a dark horse candidate to win its division in the big Ten.

As the Irish prepare to open their home schedule on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as No. 22 Notre Dame prepares to take on Purdue.

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1. After a mostly anonymous freshman season, sophomore Stephon Tuitt is already making his presence felt on a national level.

It seemed like most Irish fans were ready to call the defensive line a wash when Aaron Lynch departed during spring practice. But after a relatively quiet freshman season where his fellow classmate stole most of the media attention, Stephon Tuitt sprinted his way into the national headlines with his impressive opening performance.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman is a dominant force along the front line, already showing his athleticism with his 77-yard fumble return. Mix that in with his physical tools and you’ve got draft gurus like Mel Kiper already singing Tuitt’s praises calling him, “Arguably the best defensive lineman virtually in college football, let alone the sophomore class.”

When asked what helped flip the switch, Brian Kelly pointed to an offseason where Tuitt transformed himself thanks to a tireless work ethic both on and off the field.

“The only word I remember him using was dominate,” Kelly said. “Dominate in the classroom — which he did this summer, over a 3.5 (g.p.a). Everything he did, he wanted to be the very definition. He’s been on this mission of, whatever it is, and it’s not just football, it’s everything in life. He’s a very, very driven young man right now.”

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2. Brian Kelly wouldn’t name a backup quarterback, but expect Tommy Rees to slide into the backup quarterback role.

After not taking a single team rep during fall camp, Tommy Rees very quickly got reintroduced to the Irish offense, taking virtually all the No. 2 reps in practice this week, making up for lost time in Chuck Martin‘s tweaked offensive system.

Kelly talked about the junior quarterback’s return to the depth chart and how he looked.

“I just think he continues to get better in ball position and ball placement and putting it away from the defender. Obviously we had too many turnovers last year,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s still got room to work on things mechanically. He’s got a low arm slot. Sometimes the ball comes out in an area where I don’t want it. We’re working mechanics because he’s got the mental end of it down. But some of the mechanics we’re still trying to clean up.”

While there weren’t any media viewing windows of practice, word from inside the Gug had Rees incredibly sharp in his first team reps, moving the team efficiently in his first significant practice snaps of the season.

With three quarterbacks essentially in the rotation for playing time, you can expect freshman Gunner Kiel to hold onto a year of eligibility this season.

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3. After a sloppy week one, both teams need to do a better job on special teams or it might cost them the game.

You think Notre Dame had a bad week on special teams? Wait until you get a load out of Purdue’s week one performance. The Boilermakers fumbled a punt, and had both an extra point and a punt blocked. To make things worse, they also had two kickoffs go out of bounds, giving away free field position to an undermanned Eastern Kentucky team.

Still head coach Danny Hope isn’t making wholesale changes.

“The changes we’re going to make are from an execution standpoint,” Hope said.

Hope’s comments are in line with what Kelly said Thursday afternoon when asked about the Irish’s special teams flubs, most notably difficulties in the kicking game.

“There’s always concerns when you start like that,” Kelly said of the kicking units. “But I think they were more about nerves than they were about anything else. I think they settled in after we had a PAT and a poor kickoff and not a great punt. I think it was settling in first time and they had a good week.”

***

4. In addition to making Notre Dame Stadium a louder place, the Irish are working on making it a more familiar home.

The hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium might be too hallowed. After a season of mixed results on their home turf, Kelly decided to spend Thursday’s practice inside the stadium Rockne built to help the players build familiarity and comfort inside.

After stepping foot in the stadium only six or seven times last year, Kelly plans on spending every Thursday in the stadium.

“It’s important that our guys feel comfortable in there. I felt our guys at times, we ran in the stadium like we were running into the Basilica or we were running into the grotto,” Kelly said. “It almost seems there’s too much of a reverence there. It’s Notre Dame Stadium, it’s a football game. Let’s have some energy. We talked about that today. We’ll continue to beat that drum.”

Obviously, the Irish laid a few big eggs at home last season, which could have been the product of Notre Dame not being comfortable at home. With a different locker room, tighter quarters, and a ton of history, it’s conceivable that a stadium filled with a century of history had the Irish too on edge to play to their potential.

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5. While Amir Carlisle has been cleared to practice, it still hasn’t been decided when — or if — he’ll play this year.

Notre Dame caught a break when the NCAA granted Amir Carlisle‘s waiver which earned him immediate eligibility. Now it’s unclear whether he’ll ever use it this season. The talented former Southern Cal running back was expected to add another gamebreaker at the hybrid running back receiver position, but a broken ankle suffered before spring camp has kept Carlisle away from taking significant reps.

“He’s not ready to play in the system of offense. He’s ready to play where physically we feel he’s going to get some reps,” Kelly explained. “But it’s going to take him a little bit more time. This was really his first week of true practice. We tried to make it akin to the first week of really preseason camp for him. That’s kind of where he’s at.”

With the Irish deeper than they ever expected in the backfield and in the slot, the idea of saving a year of eligibility hasn’t been lost on the Irish offensive staff.

“The rules are you’ve got to do it within the first six games,” Kelly said about a potential redshirt. “We’ll see where we are. We’re counting on playing him, but we leave all those options open for a number of guys.”

Carlisle is probably itching to see the field, especially considering it’ll be in front of his family and father, who’ll be working with the Boilermakers as the head of the team’s strength and conditioning program.

***

6. It may be cliche, but expect turnovers to tell the story of the game on Saturday.

Danny Hope chose quarterback Caleb TerBush to start the game on Saturday mostly because of what he doesn’t do: Turn the ball over. TerBush might lack the flair of sixth-year quarterback Robert Marve, and the legs of quarterback Rob Henry, but Hope believes he gives the team their best chance to hang in this football game.

“He did a great job in camp and won the job hands down,” Hope said of TerBush. “He separated himself from the others. It would be to our best advantage, I believe, to start Caleb this weekend because I feel like a smooth start in the beginning of the game at South Bend could be very important to our team.”

After turnovers ruined the Irish’s 2011 season, putting together a +3 box score at turnover margin was a pleasant surprise. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers turned the ball over five times, winning against a mediocre Eastern Kentucky team in spite of its difficulties playing clean.

Of course, TerBush didn’t get the Boilermakers off to the best start last season against ND. His first play from scrimmage TerBush was picked off by Gary Gray, and two players later Tommy Rees hit Michael Floyd for a 35-yard touchdown. The Irish sprinted out to a 21-0 lead before Purdue could even manage a field goal and running back Cierre Wood’s 191 yards on the ground helped the Irish coast to a 28-point win.

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.