Spartans

Pregame six pack: Identity check for the Irish

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After holding serve with victories over Navy and Purdue, we’ll finally get an identity check on No. 20 Notre Dame, as they head to East Lansing for a battle with No. 10 Michigan State.

The Irish are healthy after losing seven players during their hard-fought 20-17 victory. They’ll have their top two receiving threats back with Davaris Daniels rebounding nicely after an ankle tweak and All-American tight end Tyler Eifert cleared from a mild concussion. Starting running back Cierre Wood is back from suspension, and he’ll work into the rotation with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson. Quarterback Everett Golson, a week after sitting out the game’s winning drive in favor of veteran Tommy Rees, is ready for his first true road test.

Along the defensive line Kapron Lewis-Moore is back anchoring his defensive end position and junior linebacker Danny Spond returns to outside linebacker after a scary preseason injury. Jamoris Slaughter is fine after a big collision kept him from returning to a young secondary that improved from week one to two.

With its biggest test of the season ahead of it, it appears all hands are on deck for head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame. Let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as No. 20 Notre Dame prepares to take on the Big Ten’s best in No. 10 Michigan State.

***

For the Irish to win, they’ll need to hang onto the football and control the line of scrimmage.

At this time last year, Notre Dame was winless and at the bottom of the NCAA rankings in turnover margin. After outgaining and outplaying both USF and Michigan, the Irish figured out how to lose two excruciatingly tough football games because they couldn’t hold onto the football.

Fast-forward one year and it’s a different story. Breaking in new quarterback Everett Golson, the Irish have won their first two battles, and have completely flipped the switch in the turnover category.

On paper, it’s a shocking contrast:

2011
Turnovers: 10
Differential: -7

2012
Turnovers: 2
Differential +4

Part two of the upset equation is controlling the line of scrimmage. A week after a disappointing performance along the offensive line, Kelly laid it out fairly simply.

“If Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts the offensive line and defensive line I think we probably know how that game’s gonna go,” Kelly said. “We feel like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball.”

After reviewing the game film and turning the page, center Braxston Cave was candid about the offensive line’s play.

“We didn’t play up to our standard that we’ve set for ourselves and it showed,” Cave said. “When our team struggles we’re gonna put that on the offensive line.”

The Irish have already won the turnover battle twice this season after winning it only three times all of last year. If they can manage to do that and win the line of scrimmage, there’s a great chance they’ll walk out of East Lansing 3-0.

***

If recent history has told us anything, expect a close one Saturday night.

You can throw out the Irish’s rather easy 31-13 victory over the Spartans last year. In recent years, most times Notre Dame and Michigan State meet, it’s a game that will go down to the wire. For every Little Giants, there’s been the Irish’s epic 2006 comeback in the rain. The Spartans have won 10 of the last 15 games in this series, but nine of the last 12 have been decided by seven points or less.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane:

2011 — ND wins 31-13
2010 — MSU wins 34-31 (Little Giants)
2009 — ND wins 33-30 (Kyle McCarthy with the pick!)
2008 — MSU wins 23-7
2007 — MSU wins 31-10
2006 — ND wins 40-37 (Comeback in the rain)
2005 — MSU wins 44-41 (Flag plant.)
2004 — ND wins 31-24 (The Tommy Zbikowski show)
2003 — MSU wins 22-16
2002 — ND wins 21-17 (Dillingham to Battle for the win!)

The betting line for Saturday night’s game opened up at 4.5 points, but has surged to Michigan State being a six-point favorite. Interestingly, 87% of money is betting on the Spartans right now, potentially pushing this point spread even further in Sparty’s direction. With the Spartan’s looking impressive last weekend after following up a big win against Boise State, it’s not surprising that they’ve got Las Vegas’ attention.

***

Manti Te’o will be playing Saturday with a heavy heart.

You can’t blame linebacker Manti Te’o if his mind is on something other than football right now. The heart of the Irish defense has suffered his share of heartbreak this week, losing two people incredibly close to the senior from Hawaii. Te’o’s girlfriend Lennay Kekua lost a battle with leukemia this week. He also lost his grandmother within 24 hours.

“We lost some people very close to him, and it’s obviously taken a toll on him,” Kelly said. “Our players have been there for him and have been a great support. We’ll support him. He’ll be with us. He practiced. He’ll be playing Saturday against Michigan State. Unfortunately, he’s gone through a very rough 24, 48 hours. But his support and his family at home have been great, and all of the coaches and players have been there for him.

Te’o has not spoken publicly about the losses, and that’s an awful lot to deal with for anybody, let alone a senior in college. As always, the stoic leader of the Irish football team has said and done the right things, writing of Kekua on Twitter, “I may not hear your voice anymore but I do feel your presence.”

There are obviously logistical challenges that go into getting Te’o back to Hawaii for memorial services or funerals and Kelly mentioned the bye week as a potential opportunity for Te’o to return home. But for now the linebacker stays with his support system in South Bend.

“He wants to be with his teammates, he wants to be with the people that care about him,” Kelly said. “He’s a strong man and he’s going through a tough time, but he’ll rise to the occasion.”

***

Brian Kelly is on the “coolest seat in America.”

Jack Swarbrick made more headlines this week with the Irish move to the ACC, a transition that’s energized just about every athletics program on campus. He also made headlines last night talking with Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports when discussing the status of Brian Kelly the head coach and the state of the Irish football program.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. I like to say that my coach is on the coolest seat in America, as opposed to a hot seat. What we had to do was build a program. It’s not about changing whether you run the spread offense or something else, or if you run a 3-4 or 4-3. It was really for us, we had lost the elements of a really elite program over a course of time. Many years, not just a few. And that’s what we had to address.

“We had to focus on approach to strength and conditioning, and nutrition, and scheduling our athlete’s day, our approach to competitive scheduling, our facilities. We just had to take this thing down to ground zero and build all the elements back up so we had a foundation for success. And that’s what I see now.

“Now the AD built a crazy schedule this year, and we ought to fire him, but the foundation for success is there. I love the athleticism of this team and the quality of the student athletes. And I love what I think is coming in the next few years, so I couldn’t feel better about the program.”

The next two weeks will likely help define the 2012 season, but that should put an end to any discussions on minimum win total and other messageboard debates. Whether some fans like it or not, Swarbrick has decided to take the long view on the Notre Dame football program, and he’s setting the program up for success by realizing stability and a structured process are a good thing.

***

The focus might be on the Michigan State front seven, but the cornerbacks will challenge the Irish passing attack.

You might know the names Will Gholston and Max Bullough, but the back end of the Spartan defense will be a key to Saturday night. With Golson proving his can throw the football effectively last week, the Spartans might not want to load the box to take away the Irish running game and challenge Notre Dame to beat them through the air. But if they do, it’ll be because Mark Dantonio trusts his cornerbacks, the strength of his underrated secondary.

With Johnny Adams returning for a fifth season, he and Darqueze Dennard will be called upon to play big in the back end of the defense, often challenged with one-on-one match-ups in defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi‘s aggressive scheme.

“You just don’t have to worry about them, about things going wrong,” Bullough told the Detroit Free Press about his cornerbacking duo. “Sure, someone’s gonna make a play on them at times, that’s how football is. But for the most part we feel like we have better corners than a lot of the receivers we go against.”

With Tyler Eifert split wide to help create those match-ups, Bullough will get a chance to see if his theory is correct.

***

The time is right for the Irish to finally spring an upset at night.

It’s been quite some time since the Irish went out and made a primetime statement against a top ten opponent. As Tim Prister writes at Irish Illustrated, maybe it’s been way too long.

The Irish — 20-17 all-time against ranked opponents at night and 63-35-2 overall – have lost 10 straight night games against teams ranked in the top 10 with USC the most frequent perpetrator (three).

Notre Dame hasn’t won a road night game against a top 10 opponent since the Jan. 1, 1992 Sugar Bowl when Lou Holtz’s squad knocked off Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, 39-28, in the Superdome. Since then, the Irish have lost to:

  • No. 8 Florida State, 31-26, in the Jan. 1, 1996 Orange Bowl
  • No. 4 Tennessee, 38-14, on Nov. 6, 1999 in Knoxville
  • No. 5 Oregon State, 41-9, in the Jan. 1, 2001 Fiesta Bowl
  • No. 5 Nebraska, 27-10, on Sept. 8, 2001 in Lincoln
  • No. 6 USC, 44-13, on Nov. 30, 2002 in Los Angeles
  • No. 3 USC, 44-24, on Nov. 25, 2006 in Los Angeles
  • No. 4 LSU, 41-14, in the Jan. 3, 2007 Sugar Bowl
  • No. 5 USC, 38-3, on Nov. 29, 2008 in Los Angeles
  • No. 8 Pittsburgh, 27-22, on Nov. 14, 2009 in Pittsburgh
  • No. 4 Stanford, 28-14, on Nov. 26, 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Irish have been building to this moment ever since they laid an egg last year at home against USC. And while we’ve mentioned they aren’t the betting favorite and they’ll be playing in front of one of the more hostile environments that they’ll see all year, there’s reason to believe this could be the end of a long string of bad football.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be (confident),” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.