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Pregame six pack: War with the Wolverines

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There’s no doubt about it. This is a defining Saturday for Notre Dame football. A victory over No. 18 Michigan should propel the No. 11 Fighting Irish into the top 10, thrust right into the middle of BCS bedlam as they enjoy a bye week and take a deep breath before starting another harrowing portion of the schedule.

But more importantly, it’ll be another significant data point that Brian Kelly‘s restoration plan is working. Following a process he and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laid out, Kelly has the chance to run the Irish record to 4-0 for the first time in a decade, propelled by a dominant defensive front, a physical football team, and a young offense built around a group of young skill players.

But to do that, they need to beat Michigan. A school that’s taken wonderful pleasure in gutting the Irish even when things were hardly going the Wolverines’ way. Under Rich Rodriguez, Michigan sunk the Irish twice. Add in the dagger Denard Robinson put in Irish fans’ hearts during the improbable 2011 comeback, and even if the Irish aren’t saying it, vengeance is on the mind.

With a primetime audience on NBC and the hype meter already spiked after dominating Michigan State last Saturday night, this is the game that either propels the Irish onward or pokes a pin into one of the more exciting Septembers in recent memory.

As No. 11 Notre Dame prepares to battle No. 18 Michigan on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. ET here on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you prepped.

***

The tale of the tape might end up telling the story.

On paper, you can almost get a feel for how this game could turn out. Of course, when these two teams play it’s hardly worth the exercise, but we’ll go through it anyway. Offense vs. Offense, the Wolverines match-up favorably with the Irish under Everett Golson‘s direction. A quick glance at a few major offensive categories shows a slight edge going to Michigan.

OFFENSIVE STATS

Scoring Average:
U-M: 36
ND: 30

Total Yards:
U-M: 425.3
ND: 388.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 192.3
ND: 155.7

Passing Offense:
U-M: 233
ND: 233

Red Zone TD Efficiency:
U-M: 89%
ND: 80%

Turnover Margin
U-M: -3
ND: +5

Where the story really starts to be told is with the defensive stats. Put quite simply, Michigan’s numbers are pretty ugly.

Scoring Average:
U-M: 26
ND: 10

Total Yards:
U-M: 369
ND: 288.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 211.3
ND: 96.3

Passing Offense:
U-M: 157.7
ND: 192.3

First Downs Allowed:
U-M: 61
ND: 49

Sacks
U-M: 3
ND: 11

That the Wolverines are giving up 211 yards a game on the ground is a fairly staggering number, and one that makes you believe Cierre Wood (we’ll get to him later), Theo Riddick and George Atkinson will make quite a difference on Saturday. You also need to wonder how Greg Mattison will dial up pressure on Golson, with Michigan only getting three sacks so far this season.

***

He played well last year, but expect Cierre Wood to make his presence felt against the Wolverines on Saturday.

It was an afterthought, but Cierre Wood put together a strong game against Michigan, running for 134 yards and a touchdown last year in the loss. But after missing the season’s opening two games after being suspended for violating team rules, expect the senior running back to try and make up for lost time.

Made available for the first time this season to the media, Wood talked about how tough it was to sit at home and watch his teammates play in Dublin.

“It was terrible,” Wood told CSNChicago.com. “I was cheering on my teammates, being a great team player, and stuff like that. But just not playing was terrible. You practice all summer, put in so much work and so much time, and to not play those first two games was heartbreaking, especially for me. But I remain positive, my teammates kept me up and I just cheered them on from afar.”

Worked slowly back into the rotation, it was Wood who carried the ball for the Irish down the stretch, icing the victory against Michigan State with some clutch carries. Wood talked about the benefits of having three top-shelf runners after forming a pretty dynamic duo with senior Jonas Gray last season.

“The way we come in and come out, it’s basically fresh legs on the field at all times, so it’s like nobody never really came out as far as the running backs go,” Wood said. “All three of us have a great amount of talent, so them putting us around different positions on the field is going to make our team that much better.”

It should be a bigger Saturday for the Irish running game, who can do damage by making plays, and keeping Denard Robinson off the field.

***

It may not be the bonanza last year’s night game was, but this weekend will be a recruiting showcase.

It’s not the all-in affair that last season’s USC contest was, but this weekend is shaping up to be a big recruiting weekend for the Fighting Irish. In addition to trying to beat Michigan, the Irish will try to impress a large contingent of 2013 and 2014 recruits that’ll be in town for the game this weekend.

In total, ten recruits will be taking an official visit this weekend:

Michael Deeb, LB — Committed
Mike Heuerman, TE — Committed
Jamel James, RB — Committed
Corey Robinson, WR — Committed
Corey Clement, RB — Offered (Committed to Pitt)
Torii Hunter Jr., WR — Offered
Cole Luke, CB — Offered
L.J. Moore, CB — Offered
Khalfani Muhammad, RB — Offered
Juwaan Williams, WR — Offered

In addition, the following Irish commits will also be in town for an unofficial visit:

Hunter Bivin, OL — Committed
Steve Elmer, OL — Committed
Jacob Matuska, DE — Committed
Colin McGovern, OL — Committed
James Onwualu, WR — Committed
Doug Randolph, LB — Committed
Isaac Rochell, DE — Committed
Jaylon Smith, OLB — Committed
Justin Brent, WR — Committed (2014)

Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune has a nice update on several more potential prospects in town, so if that sort of thing interests you, definitely give it a look.

The Irish will have to impress on the field this weekend, because it doesn’t look like the weather will be all that enjoyable. With cool weather heading through South Bend and intermittent rain in the forecast for Saturday afternoon, the product on the field will have to do the talking.

***

With their most daunting task to date, the focus will be on the young Irish secondary.

If there’s been a pleasant surprise this year, it’s been the solid play of the Irish secondary. Gutted by injury, Bob Diaco, Kerry Cooks, and Bob Elliott haven’t had the chance to go with Plan A, and now are on to Plan C or D after just three games. With starting jobs handed to Jamoris Slaughter and Lo Wood, and a significant role waiting for Austin Collinsworth, Notre Dame will now trot out three freshmen (eligibility wise, of course) to take their place.

No bigger spotlight will be on a defender than Matthias Farley. The soccer player-turned wide receiver-turned safety leapfrogged Danny McCarthy in the safety rotation before the season opener and has been a valuable contributor down in the box against Navy, Purdue and Michigan State, chipping in six tackles. Now he’ll be asked to fill Slaughter’s shoes against one of college football’s most electric ball carriers. Kelly thinks Farley’s up for the task.

“You know, he’s got 140-some snaps,” Kelly said of Farley’s contributions thus far. “That’s a lot of football. It’s not a guy that’s getting the first time out there on the field. He responded really well in practice this week. Now, he wasn’t put in the same position that he’s going to be put in this week. So he’s going to be asked to do a lot more. But he’s s smart kid, he’s athletic, he’s sneaky fast. He can run well. I think the most important thing is he’s played 140 snaps and he’s starting to feel more comfortable in the position.”

Also pushed into action at the nickel back is Elijah Shumate, who is already tied for the team lead with three pass break-ups. While he tried to contain his enthusiasm, Shumate’s potential has Kelly really excited, and the freshman is primed to take on a more prominent role in the Irish defense.

“We think he’s a very special player,” Kelly said of Shumate. “We’re going to continue to work with him. We’ll have more time over the bye week to spend some more time with him and continue to work with him both at that nickel and corner positions and allow us even more flexibility in the secondary.”

If you’re expecting Farley and the other youngsters to feel overwhelmed, don’t.

“Everybody has settled into the roles they have,” Farley said this week. “Maybe they didn’t start, they didn’t come in doing the roles they’re doing, but everyone’s been working real hard, and I feel like the fruit of everyone’s labor is being seen as far as the play goes.”

We’ll get a true status report tomorrow night.

***

If the Irish want to neutralize Denard Robinson, they’ll need to keep bringing the heat up front.

Worried that Denard Robinson is going to beat you with the deep downfield throws? Don’t give him enough time to make them. That recipe worked just fine against Michigan State, when the Irish pass rush bombarded the Spartans’ offensive line and quarterback Andrew Maxwell, making it near impossible to get the downfield passing game on track.

When the Irish lost Aaron Lynch in the middle of spring drills, many thought Kelly was paying lip service to the defensive line when he openly said he expected the front four to be the strength of this football team. Through three games, that strength is apparent. Notre Dame’s defense is getting to the quarterback better than it has in recent memory, finally adding a pass rush component to the Irish defense thanks to Stephon Tuitt and company.

Tuitt leads all underclassmen in the country in sacks and is third in the FBS with five. Even more impressive, the defensive line has nine of the team’s 11 sacks (T-8 in the country), with Louis Nix tallying 1.5 and freshmen Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann notching one each, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kona Schwenke each chipping in a half-sack. With Prince Shembo playing his best game in an Irish uniform last week, the Irish should take dead aim at Robinson in the pocket and overpower the Michigan offensive line.

Interestingly, that wasn’t the strategy Kelly and Diaco employed last season, keeping Lynch and Tuitt on the sideline in favor of Ethan Johnson and Lewis-Moore. With Sean Cwynar missing the game last season with a hand injury, the Irish played solid defense at the point of attack with a limited cast of characters.

With a full allotment of weapons, except to see the Irish getting a great surge at the line of scrimmage.

***

Hold onto the football, win the football game.

To call the Irish victimized by turnovers last season would be doing disservice to victims everywhere. Notre Dame imploded their own season last year by self-inflicted errors, turning the ball over more times in the first three games — 13 times — than any Notre Dame team since 1977.

But through three games this year, the Irish have turned things around. Notre Dame hasn’t had fewer turnovers through three Saturdays since 1993. Tied for 11th in the country in turnover margin, the stats seem to favor Brian Kelly’s team when they manage to simply hold onto the football.

Last year, the Irish were 3-0 when they didn’t turn the ball over. Kelly’s Irish squads are 7-0 when they’re unblemished with the football. Against a Michigan team that has plenty of problems at the line of scrimmage, the Irish don’t have to have a perfect performance. But they just can’t give the ball away. Thanks to a stingy defense and some offensive firepower, the Irish can beat another talented team from the state of Michigan by following the blueprint it used last week.

“Third down conversions are great.  You want third down conversions,” Kelly said, recapping the keys to last week’s victory. “But we were managing the game. We had a great kicking performance.  If we can kick that way, third down conversions are not going to impact the football game.  The turnovers.  It’s short fields.  And it’s the big chunk plays. I know you’ve heard this ad nauseam, but the fact of the matter is, the completion percentage will continue to get better.  The third downs will continue to get better.  We just need to take care of the football and keep our defense on the long field.”

It’ll be harder to do that against one of college football’s most explosive weapons. But if the Irish are going to make it to 4-0 for the first time since 2002, they’ll need Everett Golson to continue playing football wiser than his years.

 

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.