Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Miami

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It’s a good day to be Irish. With Notre Dame creeping its way up the national polls and the defense among the best units in the country, there’s reason to believe in South Bend. With Stanford’s defense looking a little bit less dominant after giving up 617 yards and 48 points to Arizona, the Irish open as seven point favorites against the Cardinal.

Let’s close the book on Notre Dame’s impressive 41-3 victory over Miami, and run through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THE GOOD

The offensive line play. It was a coming out party for Harry Hiestand’s guys. Against a defense that has struggled to stop anybody on the ground, Notre Dame absolutely broke the Hurricanes backs by running the ball at will in the second half.

Critics of Brian Kelly had to be smiling ear to ear when they saw the Irish game plan in the second half. After throwing the ball twice on Notre Dame’s six play, 81-yard scoring drive to open the half, the Irish didn’t attempt a forward pass for the rest of the game. (A quick pitch from Tommy Rees to George Atkinson counted as a pass that went for 21 yards.)

Notre Dame ran 19 times for 197 yards in the third quarter. They ran it 12 times for 73 more yards in the fourth and final quarter. With an extra week to prepare, the offensive line came to play and dominated the line of scrimmage as most fans hoped.

Cierre Wood. I’ve been wondering when Wood would take control of the running game and it looks like Saturday night might have been the start. The senior runner started the season off on the wrong foot, suspended two games for a violation of team rules, then struggled to get into a rhythm as he fought for reps with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson.

Wood seized control of the ground game on Saturday night, running 18 times of 118 yards and two touchdowns. With Theo Riddick held relatively in check and sitting out after a minor elbow injury, the ground game excelled with the team’s leading returning rusher.

George Atkinson. There’s nothing you can really say about Atkinson’s 55-yard touchdown burst other than WOW. That’s elite speed burning past a Miami secondary that you’d expect to have pretty good speed themselves.

It’s taken some time to figure out how to use Atkinson properly, but getting him to the edge of the defense is a good start. As Everett Golson gets more comfortable running the football and keeping the backside of opposing defenses honest, it can only help the Irish speedster as the season progresses. Next evolutionary step? Get him the ball on some wheel routes against a linebacker in coverage.

Cam McDaniel. I’m all for finding a way to get this kid more touches. Running behind the reserve offensive line, McDaniel looked smooth, explosive, and had great natural instincts. He’s Notre Dame’s version of Danny Woodhead.

Everett Golson. After watching the first three plays of the game after being late for a meeting, Golson steeped on the field and took charge of the Irish offense. He put up nice numbers passing and added an element to the offense when he kept the ball on the zone read. Golson’s 55 yards rushing helped open up the offense and will help against Stanford.

Kelly praised the work Golson did against the Hurricanes, particularly his ability to see pressure coming.

“He did some things in the second half that he had not done all year,” Kelly said. “He recognized pressure, did not run out of the pocket, stayed in there, delivered some balls on time.  If that continues to show itself, he’s going to be very, very difficult to defend because he’s got that confidence level and a strong arm that he can deliver the ball.”

Golson only threw two balls in the second half, dropping one off to Cierre Wood and then making a great read on a vertical throw to Davaris Daniels. But he also finally found and targeted Tyler Eifert in one-on-one coverage and made good decisions with the football, mandatory job requirements for a quarterback that’s playing with the Irish defense.

The Irish defense. There were no particularly dominating performances by Bob Diaco’s unit. But as we’re beginning to realize, this defense is greater than the sum of its parts. Even with Stephon Tuitt kept in check and Prince Shembo kept away from Stephen Morris, led by Manti Te’o’s ten tackles, the defense played wonderfully.

The 7.8 points a game they are giving up is now second only to Alabama. In five games, Notre Dame has only allowed three touchdowns, a remarkable number, especially considering the youth in the secondary.

Brian Kelly. It’s time to give the head coach his due. He’s created a football team that’s playing precisely how he wants it to play. The defense is remarkably stingy. The offense is playing to win the football game, doing it by ground or air. After turning the ball over far too much in 2011, Kelly has refocused his offense on doing the little things right and the result is a 5-0 start, doing so against one of the toughest schedules in the country.

THE BAD

Early deep ball struggles. If you’re looking for the formula against Notre Dame’s defense, Miami supplied it. Moving at a quick pace, Miami nearly caught the Irish flat-footed from the start, challenging the Irish vertically and nearly succeeding if Phillip Dorsett held onto the football. 

A week after Josh Nunes threw for 360 yards against Arizona, expect Stanford to challenge Notre Dame down the football field. You’ll likely see the same thing done at Oklahoma and especially with USC, who finally threw the ball down field against Utah, after working mostly horizontal for some befuddling reason to start the season.

THE UGLY

Other than the helmets? Not much to complain about. The Irish put a once-in-a-generation beating on Miami. They did their best to quiet any controversy at quarterback. They held an explosive offense to no touchdowns. And they’re the No. 7 team in the country.

Not too shabby.

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.