Paul Chryst

And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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Expect things to be testy in Bristol this weekend, as Mark May and Lou Holtz actually have something to bicker about. After a massive win in Norman, the Irish return home to South Bend, a place that’s been much tougher on Notre Dame than any opponent’s stadium.

They’ll face a familiar opponent in the Pitt Panthers. Yet there isn’t much too familiar with Pitt. Another season, another head coaching change. After Todd Graham headed to Arizona State after just one season in the Steel City, Paul Chryst has taken over the program, bringing with him a strong offensive reputation after putting together some high-powered seasons in Wisconsin.

It was far from a smooth start for Chryst and company, who lost their debut against Youngstown State and started 0-2 before rallying to get to 4-4 on the season. Getting us up to speed on the state of the Pitt program is the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. Sam is in his first year covering the Panthers’ beat and is no stranger to the Notre Dame program, having covered the Irish for the student-run Observer not too long ago, working the Irish beat in ’09 and serving as managing editor in ’10.

I asked, Sam answered. Let’s all enjoy.

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It seems that Paul Chryst has stabilized the Panthers’ program after a few rocky years. One of the elite offensive coordinators in the game at Wisconsin, he’s brought back to Pittsburgh an offensive philosophy probably more befitting the program’s identity. How do you assess the job Chryst and his coaching staff have done in their first season?

It’s certainly been a little up and down, results-wise. The loss to Youngstown State was pretty much the worst way a coach could imagine starting his first head job, but Pitt has bounced back nicely to win some big games, notably over future ACC rival Virginia Tech. More than just the on the field results, though, Chryst’s job is about providing some program stability. That part of the job won’t happen for a few years, after he has sort of established himself as the head coach and the whirlwind of coaches that came in here is no longer an issue.

I do think Chryst has a bright future at Pitt for a couple of reasons. First, like you mentioned, the style of his offense fits in much better with the identity of the program and city. Todd Graham’s now-infamous “high-octane offense” just never really seemed to mesh. Two, while the program-wide stability may take a couple of years, Chryst is the perfect guy to do it. I’ve never been around a coach who is as consistent day-in, day-out with his approach to things. He’s the same guy after a win or after a loss, and he prepares the same way each week whether they’re playing Notre Dame or Gardner-Webb. That has to rub off and have a positive effect on his team.

In Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers have two really talented runners. It looks like Graham is rounding back into form after a knee injury slowed down one of college football’s most under-the-radar players. And Shell was a prep phenom and looks impressive physically for a young guy. Running against the Irish has been no easy task. Can Pitt do it, especially with an offensive line that’s been up and down?

This is the matchup I keep coming back to when I’m looking at ways Pitt could win this game. I think the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to keep drives going and keep the game close, but I’m not so sure if that’s going to happen. Graham and Shell are very talented (and Shell especially is going to be a monster as his career progresses), but the running game has had some fits and starts over the last few weeks. They couldn’t really get it going against Buffalo two weeks ago, which doesn’t bode well for them this weekend. Having a first-time starter at right guard after losing Ryan Schlieper for the season last week won’t help either. So, in short, Pitt definitely does have a formidable rushing attack, but they haven’t shown me enough consistency this season to have me convinced that they’re going to be able to establish the run against Notre Dame’s defense.

One person really benefiting from the coaching change is quarterback Tino Sunseri. He’s playing the best football of his career in his final season at Pitt. With two really big and physical targets, the Panthers passing attack looks sneaky good. Assess for me what’s been the difference for Sunseri, who Notre Dame fans have seen quite a bit these past few years. And are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best receiving duo Notre Dame will see this season, outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?

I think the biggest difference for Sunseri this season has just been his comfort level in the offense that Chryst runs. He’s being asked to much make fewer on-the-fly reads and decisions than he was last year, and get just get into a rhythm and make his throws. This has directly led to a drastic reduction in turnovers (he hasn’t thrown a pick in five weeks). I think there’s also something to be said for a fifth-year senior just sort of putting everything together in his final year. Bill Stull did it for Pitt in 2009, and Tino’s doing it this year. I said coming into the year that, in Chryst’s offense, Sunseri didn’t need to be a game-breaker quarterback, he just needed to be the equivalent of Scott Tolzien from the 2010 Badgers. So far, he has even exceeded that.

The receivers, too, have played a significant part in Sunseri’s development. Street is enjoying a breakout year as the passing game’s top target. Looking at him, he has always had the physical skills to be an elite receiver and the mental side of the game just seems to have started clicking this year. He also has talked about how he and Tino are on the same page in terms of breaking down coverages on the sideline this season. Shanahan is also important for the passing game, mostly because of his versatility. He mostly plays split wide but, especially with Pitt limited at tight end over the past few weeks, he has also worked inside on some blocking. I don’t know if these are the “best” receivers Notre Dame will face this side of USC, but they’re probably the most physically imposing.

Statistically, the Panthers defense looks decent, holding points down, rushing attacks to just 141 yards a game, and passing offenses to less than 200 yards a game. But they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they lack size at linebacker. Jarred Holley is a playmaker and the team looks strong up the middle. Can Pitt make things hard for Everett Golson and slow down an Irish running game that’s really hitting its stride?

The defense was dealt a huge blow this week with the news that two linebackers — MLB Dan Mason and WLB Manny Williams — will be out for the season. Regulars starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, so he’s questionable as well. If he can’t go, Pitt will likely only have five linebackers to dress for Saturday’s game. I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime coverages Saturday. This will help them match up against Notre Dame’s spread, but also gets their best players on the field. Holley and Jason Hendricks have started at safety, but backups Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal are outstanding players, as well. Pitt will work to get those guys on the field.

This is also one of the areas that will be key for Pitt keeping it close. The run defense has been almost astonishingly inconsistent this season, shutting down Virginia Tech and Temple’s running games, but allowing Cincinnati, Youngstown State and Buffalo to get over 150 yards on the ground. If the good run defense shows up, this one will be close. If the bad run defense does (and those linebacker injuries really concern me), this has a chance to get out of hand like Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Miami.

The Panthers are pretty heavy underdogs heading into Notre Dame Stadium. Who are two people that are going to have to play really big for Pitt if they’re going to pull off the upset? What’s the blueprint for success for Paul Chyst’s squad?

I’m going all-uglies on this one and pointing to two linemen. On offense, center Ryan Turnley is going to have his hands full going up against Louis Nix. He’ll have to at least slow down Nix from getting into the backfield immediately after the snap. On top of that, he’ll be tasked with organizing the offensive line as a whole facing the best defense they’ll play all season, with a first-time starter at right guard. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Pitt’s offensive line to totally contain Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and company, since no one has done that this season. But if they can keep Sunseri relatively clean and generate enough push to get consistent positive yardage on the ground, Pitt has a chance. On defense, I think Aaron Donald really needs to have a game on the line. He’s probably Pitt’s best player, regardless of position, and can be a force. If he can get pressure on Golson and make him scramble around, Golson has shown that he’s still sort of working out the kinks of finding guys on the run. In the Oklahoma game, a lot of times he was just content to throw it away. That said, the rest of the defensive line has to do a good job setting contain on the edge so Golson doesn’t pick up big chunks with his feet.

I think the blueprint overall for a Pitt victory is to run the ball at least reasonably effectively, and hit one or two big plays through the air. They’re going to need to control time of possession and an early score wouldn’t hurt to get the crowd out of the game. On defense, I don’t think they’re quite ready to just shut down Notre Dame’s offense, so the Panthers are going to need a turnover or two, ideally in Notre Dame’s territory to set up some scores. Pitt isn’t going to win this game 38-35 or even 28-25. But if they play their best and Notre Dame’s focus is still in Norman, Pitt could win this game something like 13-9 (the same score they beat then-No. 2 West Virginia by in 2007).

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A special thanks to Sam for taking the time to make us smarter. For more Pitt coverage heading into the big game, check out Sam’s stuff at the Post-Gazette and follow him on Twitter @SWernerPG

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.