Catholics vs. Convicts

Pregame six pack: Hurricanes roll into Chicago

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Notre Dame – Miami. It may not be the blood feud it was 20 years ago, but the match-up certainly lights up the marquee. And with a stage as unique as Soldier Field and in a city like Chicago, there’s plenty of luster left in a game that might not mean what it once did, but still is a headline grabber.

“We understand the history of this ball game,” Manti Te’o said this week. “But we also understand the importance of being ourselves and not buying in to the whole hype of a rivalry game.”

As we prepare for No. 9 Notre Dame to take on a young and feisty Miami team that’s 4-1, let’s run through six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Shamrock Series kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. Despite the whispers, the quarterback job is still Everett Golson’s.

Rumors spread like wildfire across the internet that Brian Kelly, already known for his hair trigger at the quarterback position, was ready to make another big change. Yet when Kelly addressed the media this afternoon, he reaffirmed the news that Everett Golson was still his starting quarterback.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said with a smile. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

And with that, another (ND) national crisis was averted. The news that Kelly is sticking with Golson is far from shocking, and is a consistent tune for a head coach willing to roll with the punches as he develops his young quarterback.

“He is getting better. There is so much development that’s taking place that’s not on Saturdays,” Kelly said. “It’s coming. We’re not a finished product yet, and I’ve got a guy in Tommy Rees who can come in and help us while we go through this process of learning. I’m comfortable with it. I guess that’s all I can really say, but yes, Everett will start.”

A few evenings after watching two politicians carefully craft statements, Kelly’s comments on Golson come off as more declarative than the two men fighting to be the free world’s leader, but there’s still a sprinkle of ex-politico in Kelly’s statements.

Over the bye week, junior Tommy Rees took a large portion of first team reps at practice. And when asked about the state of the locker room in regards to who the team’s quarterback should be, Kelly carefully picked his words.

“I’m aware of our team and I have the pulse of our football team as it relates to who would be the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I’d feel very comfortable saying that our football team will respond to whatever decision I make. I think I’ve got the trust of our football team that they know that I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team, to win right now.”

For now, that means Golson will get the chance to go against Miami’s mediocre defense.

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2. It’s time for Notre Dame’s running game to kick into gear.

The Irish offense hasn’t moved the ball as well on the ground as many expected. Slogging their way to just 3.8 yards per carry and a meager 140 yards a game, Kelly discussed the challenges that have come around with changing up schemes.

“It hasn’t been talked a lot about, but we were a heavy gap-pull team last year, and we are much more of an inside-outside zone team this year,” Kelly said. “The reads are very much different for the running back… The idiosyncrasies of it all are really big. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it takes more patience and we really focused on that more this week.”

Running back Theo Riddick embodies the run game struggles, leading the team in carries with 63, but averaging only 3.8 yards a tote. While the offensive line certainly hasn’t played up to the level it expects, Riddick has left plenty of yardage on the field with his propensity to cut back against the grain too quickly, unwilling to wait for the outside run to develop.

But after a week off, the Irish might encounter the best slump-buster Chicago has to offer: The Hurricanes defense. Entering Saturday night with the nation’s 115th ranked run defense, Miami will be without starting defensive tackle Olsen Pierre.

And after missing the season’s first two games due to suspension and struggling to find a rhythm against Michigan, expect Cierre Wood to get every chance to seize the starting job on Saturday night. Even struggling, the Irish senior has gone for 5.6 yards a touch, a number that should go up on Saturday.

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3. Even if he wasn’t a wrecking ball on the defensive line, Louis Nix is a guy you want in the middle of anything.

Let’s not let Louis Nix‘s tremendous personality get in the way of the work he does on the field. The junior defensive tackle, at 6-foot-3 and far-more-than-his-listed-326-pounds, is a tremendous key to the Irish’s pass rush against prolific thrower and dangerous runner Stephen Morris. He’s played active, relentless football this season, and his three tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks give the Irish a legitimate disruptor at the line of scrimmage that also has the ability to chase down the quarterback.

But leave all that behind, and Nix is still a guy you want to build your team around. If only because you get to listen to wonderful nuggets like these. JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com has plenty more.

As Notre Dame’s defense has spurred its 4-0 start, Louis Nix has begun to earn national praise for his work on the interior of the Irish defensive line.

But not everyone is praising his work as a defensive tackle, although that’s because Nix’s little brother, Kenneth, has his older brother’s position mixed up.

“I don’t know where they got quarterback from,” Nix laughed. “My little brother had a presentation for class and he told them I was the quarterback.”

But Nix wasn’t going to leave it at that.

“You know, right about now, I would love to play quarterback,” he continued, in complete deadpan mode. “I think I’d be real good at it, you know, put me in the wildcat. I don’t even want to play running back, though, I want to be a wildcat QB.

“I look like one, huh?” the 326-pound Nix added between bites of a Hershey’s bar.

Nix said all the right things about his evolution as a player, crediting added maturity for his success in South Bend, a place not many in Florida thought made sense for one of Jacksonville’s elite football talents. But he also let his personality shine through, raising more than a few reporters’ eyebrows when addressing his biggest weakness: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

“If they don’t have it, I get cranky. I don’t want to eat Honey Bunches of Oats. Really? I need something sweet.”

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4. Brian Kelly isn’t shying away from the idea that Manti Te’o is a Heisman candidate. But for as good as he’s been between the lines, he’s been even more impressive off the field.

Linebacker Manti Te’o has already found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And as he continues to fill up the stat sheet as a sideline to sideline tackler and a turnover forcing machine, Brian Kelly has no problem pushing Te’o’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.

“I’ve said this from day one,” Kelly said. “What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate? If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don’t think he plays on offense. But if you’re looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program‑‑ look, if you said it was the MVP, does it have to be an offensive player MVP?  Sure.  He’s got to have some offensive numbers or statistics. But you’re also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball.”

But more importantly, Te’o’s ability to play excellent football at a time of severe duress is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed from a student athlete. More important, he’s shown his teammates — college kids that play a rough and tumble game — that it’s okay to show vulnerability during a time of need, as he’s opened himself up to his teammates and community during this difficult time.

Te’o spent over 40 minutes with the assembled media this week, an unprecedented amount of time for a single player, let alone the Irish head coach. He was emotional, honest, humble, candid, and strong. He was the perfect example of what any athlete should strive to be.

If you’ve got the time, it’s the best performance Te’o has ever had representing Notre Dame, on or off the field.

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5. Notre Dame’s roster management is beginning to take shape.

The biggest personnel news to come out of South Bend was the decision to redshirt running back Amir Carlisle for the season. The sophomore running back, who transferred from USC to Notre Dame during the offseason, had received an NCAA waiver exemption to play this season. But after breaking his ankle in the days leading to spring practice, Carlisle was slow to return to health, and he’ll sit out the year, with three full seasons of eligibility remaining.

“We’re going to redshirt Amir. He will not play this year,” Kelly said. “He’s made close to the kind of recovery that we were hoping when we saw some really good things from him. We don’t want to waste him now.”

The news comes the same week as the Irish announced sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell will also sit out the rest of the season, with season-ending shoulder surgery allowing Hounshell to save a year of eligibility and still have three seasons left. That extra year of eligibility will come in handy with a guy like Stephon Tuitt looking like he might not need four years of college football.

Just like in Hounshell’s case, the decision to hold Carlisle out, a dynamic player that I expected to fight his way into the two-deep at running back, helps for the long term growth of this football team.

“He’s really close and to try to fit him in in week five or six and use up another year for a half season wasn’t prudent in my mind,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to shut him down, put him on scout team, let him be a great guy over there and let our defense prepare, and then have him back for three seasons of competition.”

After watching Charlie Weis butcher the use of redshirts, Kelly’s understanding of the strategic elements should be a welcome sight for Notre Dame fans. Keeping Carlisle protects Notre Dame in case Cierre Wood wants to test the NFL waters. Keeping an extra year of Hounshell gives the Irish some protection on the front line in life after Tuitt.

As we head to the middle of the season, Kelly’s also looking at other young players that might also be able to save a highly valued year of eligibility.

“We’re getting close to that. We’re not there yet,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a make a decision up to game six and you can’t play in more than three games. So we’ve got a couple of guys on the bubble for the next couple of weeks where we’ll have to make some decisions.”

It might have been painful, but injuries to guys like Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth help slow down the eligibility clock of guys that are racing through their collegiate career. And while we’ve seen youngsters like Romeo Okwara and Ronnie Stanley, perhaps there’s a method to Kelly’s madness and a plan to extend the careers of some young Irish players, while also getting them valuable on-the-field experience.

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6. It might not be Catholics vs. Convicts, but Notre Dame vs. Miami still means an awful lot.

There isn’t a player on the Irish roster that’s old enough to remember the bitter rivalry between Notre Dame and Miami. After Jimmy Johnson‘s 58-7 beating of Notre Dame all but ended the Gerry Faust era, the rivalry turned into the Hatfields and McCoys in 1987, with the Irish splitting the series 2-2 over the next four years, including one of the greatest victories Notre Dame has ever had in its 31-30 win over the ‘Canes in 1988.

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While it took 20 years to renew the rivalry, it still matters, as director Billy Corben, filmmaker behind the terrific ESPN documentary “The U” notes.

“Literally, national championships were on the line,” Corben reminisced with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Every call mattered. Every play mattered. In 1988 in particular. Of course you had the tunnel fight that year as well. Similar things started to happen with a lot of teams from that era like the University of Florida wanted to stop playing Miami.

“I liked that there was a genuine lack of respect for each other. I appreciated that because in those days it was the WWF, the fake wrestling. So this was real. These were real kids and they really wanted to literally take each other’s heads off.

“It was just a real visceral and profound quality to the rivalry that got you really, really pumped. You’d feel your pulse and your pulse would go up. You were genuinely excited about the whole thing. Who was going to win? How were we going to get robbed?  And we’re going to kick their a** before, after and during the game.”

Those sentiments are certainly echoed by many Irish fans that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to this week. And after the Irish embarrassed Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl — a game that saw Hurricanes players take refuge next to heaters are hide behind face warmers in the brisk El Paso weather — the team’s might not be the national contenders they once were, but there’s still an edge to this game.

“The teams aren’t quite at that level, so the excitement isn’t quite at that level anymore,” Corben said. “That being said, I hope we destroy them.”

Spoken like a true Miami fan.

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.