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Tuesdays with BK: Wolverines!

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Brian Kelly met with the media this afternoon to discuss the Irish’s preparation for Michigan, a game that’s likely been circled on the calendar for every member of ND Nation since last year’s late-game implosion.

With a primetime start and two nationally ranked teams, there’s a lot at stake. Yet don’t tell  Kelly that there’s reason to change the team’s focus. He’s been working on keeping this team in check since the offseason.

“We have a sign that is pretty visible for our guys to see when they walk in and walk out of the building,” Kelly said.  “It starts with, ‘Don’t Believe or Fuel the Hype.’  That’s No.1.  No. 2, ‘Manage Expectations.’  No. 3, ‘Avoid the Noise.’  And 4, ‘Speak for Yourself.’  They see that every single day. I put that up last year; expecting that that was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with.  And we’re dealing with it right now, and they have seen that now for over a year and a half.  They know what that sign means.  And they know if they want to continue to be successful, they need to continue to do the things they are doing.”

We’re still waiting for the video of the presser to be made available. But in the meantime Feel free to watch the near 40 minutes of press conference.  Or I’ll pick and choose some of the parts I found interesting.

***

He’s always been one of the players Brian Kelly spoke highly of, but for the first time we actually got to see what a Notre Dame defense would look like with Danny Spond heavily featured.

After missing the season’s first two games after a scary issue with migraines, Spond got the first start of his career at the ‘Dog’ linebacker, contributing four tackles and looking good at home in coverage.

Here’s how Kelly evaluated Spond’s play, and what he thought of his ability to rally from a pretty significant medical issue.

“He’s a big, physical kid, almost 250 pounds,” Kelly said. “I think once you make that decision to put the gear on and go back out to practice, you’ve handled it, you know, and he pushed the envelope, he was the one who wanted to get out there. And so I think we had no hesitation of practicing him and playing him, because of the way he handled it leading up.  He wasn’t, oh, I don’t know if I should play; it’s always been, once I’m cleared, I’m going to play. So I think he handled that before he even got into game week.”

As an edge player with good athleticism, Spond will likely have a big responsibility this weekend as well, needing to give chase to Denard Robinson, a guy that’s gotten loose against the Irish defense before.

***

Speaking of Michigan’s quarterback, Kelly told us with a straight face that 2011 hasn’t come up when discussing the Wolverines and what Robinson did last year. (If you believe that, well — I’ve got some beachfront South Bend real estate for you.)

What he did candidly speak about was the type of player Robinson is, what type of challenge he represents, and how the Irish did against him last season.

“Well, I thought we did a pretty good job, really, for three quarters,” Kelly said.  “I think if there’s a couple plays we’d like to have back in the passing game maybe; but we liked our plan.  We think that we are physically a better football team than we were the previous couple years.

“He’s a superior football player. He’s a difference‑maker.  So we have to find a way to limit big‑chunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks.  It’s about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays.  We gave them up in the running game in year one and we gave them up in the passing game in year two. We have to eliminate and control those big plays that are out there.  If we do that, we feel pretty good.”

When asked the best way to stop him — whether it was shutting down the run game first or the pass game — was there a secret, Kelly got in a good little quip.

“If there was a secret out there, you know, we would have probably gotten it way before everybody else. We’ve got great alumni out there.”

It’s a difficult proposition, because you can’t sellout on either one of those.  You have to be balanced.  You have to be able to manage it and you’ve got to keep him from making big plays. So there isn’t an easy answer to that.  He’s a superior football player.  He’s not a great player; he’s the best player on the field.”

Irish faithful hope Manti Te’o takes exception to that statement.

***

He may catch some grief because he tend to notice a few of his missed tackles, but Kelly was incredibly complimentary about safety Zeke Motta, whose role in the Irish defense is even more important now with the loss of Jamoris Slaughter for the season.

Kelly spoke with pride about the work Motta has done to make himself a better football player and person on and off the field.

“I wanted to push him out front because I saw a young man that the way he practiced, the dedication he has to the game, the kind of young man he is, you want him representing your program,” Kelly said of Motta.

“He gets more than Elijah (Shumate) lined up.  It’s probably one of the most remarkable developments of a player from year one or year two to year three in that sense.  He had a hard time getting himself lined up last year.  He has been terrific back there.  He’s been physical.  He’s played the ball well.  And his leadership skills have continued to grow.

“He was a young man that at times had a hard time speaking in front of a group.  This spring, I had him speak at our spring banquet, along with Justin Tuck; handled himself well there, and it’s just been a great evolutionary process to see him continue to grow as a person and as a player.  He deserves all the credit for that.”

I’ve said it before, but Motta is one physically impressive looking football player. While Harrison Smith had the opportunity to spend a year redshirting before seeing the field, it’s too bad Motta wasn’t afforded the same opportunity, and he still may show himself to be the type of player that gets a chance to play on Sundays.

***

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
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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.