Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin

Pregame Six Pack: There’s no place like home

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Saturday ends another autumn of football at Notre Dame. When the No. 3 Fighting Irish run out of the tunnel against 5-5 Wake Forest, a contingent of 29 seniors will be honored for their commitment to their university. Some, like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, have carried the flag for the program as they ascended back into the national championship conversation. Others, like walk-ons Blake Brelua and Grant Patton, will be honored for contributions never seen by 80,000 fans.

Every member of this senior class contributed something to the success of the Irish, already 10-0 and heading deeper into uncharted territory. And with a home crowd down to its final opportunity to cheer on this unlikely title contender, Saturday’s game — even if it looks lopsided on paper — is must-see television.

With the Fighting Irish and Demon Deacons set to do battle Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers, and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.

***

For Notre Dame, it’s time to protect their house.

An Under Armor slogan hardly belongs in a stadium adorned by adidas, but it’s been a long time since the Irish have projected their own house. If the Irish handle their business Saturday afternoon, the Irish will complete an undefeated home schedule for the first time since 1998.

“One of our goals, a tangible goal for us, was to protect our home field,” said Kelly earlier this week. “We felt, I think everybody in the program felt, that if you want to take that next step in terms of success, you’ve got to win at home.”

It’s been a downright mediocre stretch of football in South Bend for the Irish. As Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated points out, in the post-Davie era (to his credit, Davie sported a .774 winning percentage at home, only a tick worse than Lou Holtz’s .792 clip), Notre Dame Stadium turned into a neutral site, with both Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis struggling to play much better than .500 football at home.

Outside of Willingham’s first season at Notre Dame and Weis’ second year, the Irish have lost multiple games at home in every season since 2000. The ugly days started to become the norm at home, with blowout losses all but ruining the tenures of Kelly’s two predecessors. Willingham couldn’t survive drubbings like the 37-0 to Florida State in 2003 or the 41-16 loss to Purdue in 2004. Disappointing games like Michigan’s shocking upset of the Irish 47-21 in 2006 gave way to embarrassing home train wrecks in 2008 and 2009, when the Irish lost on Senior Day to an abysmal Syracuse team and had a November collapse that included losses to Navy and UConn.

After five home losses in his first two seasons in South Bend, Kelly seems to have righted the ship in the W-L column, even if he’s still tinkering with the formula that’ll help his team play better at home. When asked if he thought it possible to replicate the type of success Bob Stoops has had playing at home in Oklahoma, Kelly was unequivocal.

“Yeah, if I stayed employed here long enough,” Kelly said with a laugh. “That’s the toughest part. If you can stay one place long enough, you’ve got a chance to do that.”

***

Just because Bob Diaco is on the head coaching radar doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere.

As you’d expect from the coordinator of the country’s No. 1 scoring defense, Bob Diaco is getting a lot of mention as the head coaching carousel heats up. With rumored openings soon to turn to vacancies, expect the Irish defensive coordinator to get his tires kicked more than a few times. To his credit, Brian Kelly knows that.

“I want to provide all my coaches an opportunity.  If it advances their career to a leadership position, we want to be able to give them that opportunity,” Kelly said.

It’s been quite some time since an Irish assistant had the opportunity to take a high-profile head coaching job. (I’m excluding Charley Molnar’s UMass hire from this discussion.) Most focus on Barry Alvarez’s departure from Lou Holtz’s Irish staff to take over the Wisconsin program as the perfect succession plan. While that scenario looks to be playing out with Diaco taking on more leadership responsibility with his promotion to assistant head coach, the youthful Diaco still has some learning to do. Not to mention some unfinished business.

“Quite frankly, we don’t spend much time talking about it,” Kelly said. “You know Bob. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t come to Notre Dame to be the head coach somewhere else.  He came to Notre Dame to help win a national championship. We got a lot of the work left.  But if the right situation comes for Bob and he comes to me and asks me to give him advice on it, I certainly will.”

There is a ton to like about Bob Diaco the head coaching candidate. His passion, his energy, and his ability to connect with young people as a coach and a recruiter. That said, he’s far from a finished product, and he still displays some of his struggles with the media, as first shown in his debut season in South Bend, when his post-Navy interview went viral.

Diaco is loyal to Kelly and his family loves life in South Bend. But if a major BCS program comes knocking at the door, that offer might be a tough one to turn down. But with the Irish defense still pointed upwards, there’s no hurry for Diaco to leap at an opportunity. And that’s one of the big reasons I see him staying at Notre Dame for another year.

***

On the subject of staying in South Bend, expect Zack Martin to anchor an elite class of fifth-year players.

Brian Kelly has signed a few coveted six-star recruits in wide receiver Michael Floyd and linebacker Manti Te’o. Both turned down big NFL contracts to return for their final season at Notre Dame. Expect left tackle Zack Martin to add his name to that list, giving Kelly three straight years of keeping an elite player with NFL aspirations on campus.

Martin doesn’t have the upside of a Floyd or Te’o, mostly because he lacks the elite size needed at left tackle to be among the draft’s top picks. But the 6-foot-4, 304-pound senior captain is an integral part of the Irish offense and will win his third-straight Guardian of the Year award along the Irish front. Martin hasn’t allowed a sack since the second possession of the season opener. And he’ll add some much-needed continuity on an offensive line that’ll need to replace Braxston Cave and Mike Golic.

A three-year starter at left tackle already, Martin will have the chance to do some special things for the Irish and continue to carry the leadership torch for the team as they say goodbye to the emotional heart of the Irish.

***

A lot of time will be spent saying goodbye to Manti Te’o. But the Irish did themselves well by recruiting another terrific Hawaiian in Robby Toma.

For a guy who was considered part of the cost of recruiting Manti Te’o, Robby Toma has emerged as a legitimate threat at receiver for the Irish. The diminutive best friend of the Irish’s star linebacker, the 5-foot-9 Toma has been more than just a tag-along, racking up a respectable career line of 56 catches and 596 yards heading into Saturday’s game.

Just as important, he’s stabilized the slot receiver position after Theo Riddick moved back to running back, giving Kelly a player cut from the perfect mold of a teammate.

“It’s enjoyable to go out to practice because he’s always got a smile on his face and he’s always competing. He’s a competitive kid,” Kelly said this week. “Doesn’t matter what it is, he wants to win in it. He has always got something funny to say, a bit of a wise cracker.  I kind of like that about him.

“And he’s a really good football player and helped our football team this year. Great personality. We’re lucky that we were able to get him in our program as well.”

While the highly touted Shaq Evans couldn’t handle the coaching transition that brought Kelly and the spread offense to South Bend, the system, and fresh start, helped Toma thrive.

Not bad for a kid who’s best recruiting attribute was thought to be the fact that he was Manti Te’o’s best friend.

***

Bowl options are beginning to emerge in life after the BCS.

While the Irish are finding out first hand the complications that come along with an undefeated late-season run, the early dominoes are starting to fall in the quest to understand what life will look like in college football after the BCS is disbanded. With Jack Swarbrick signing a scheduling-agreement with the ACC for football and Notre Dame tying into the conference’s allotment for bowls, the Orange Bowl announced a lucrative pact with ESPN that’ll pay out $55 million annually to the participants of the game, pitting the ACC champion against either an SEC or Big Ten opponent, with the Irish also getting the opportunity to play twice in the next 12 years.

“The Orange Bowl qualifies as one of the most prestigious events in college football’s postseason and Notre Dame has played a part in that history, three times playing number-one ranked teams in our five previous appearances,” Swarbrick said. “We are honored to partner with two of the premier conferences, the SEC and the Big Ten, to make certain the ACC will have a top-flight opponent on a regular basis.”

The appearance of being limited to only two games in twelve year has some Irish fans scratching their heads, but the complete bowl picture hasn’t fully emerged. With the four-team playoff likely including the Orange Bowl as one of six bowls in the rotation for the semifinals, just how restrictive this collaboration will be is still being figured out. The Irish have only played in five Orange Bowls in their history with the last time coming 17 years ago, so any inclusion in the game might be victory enough.

***

Seniors staying, seniors going. A quick look as we try and forecast 2013.

We’ve already stated that Zack Martin is set to come back for his final year of eligibility. But after years of running short on numbers across the board, the Irish will need to make some difficult decisions on who will be welcome back for a fifth year of eligibility, with nine scholarship players eligible to apply for a fifth season.

Here’s our snap take on how this will all play out.

Carlo Calabrese — Returning
Tyler Eifert — Heading to the NFL
Dan Fox — Returning
Jake Golic — Graduating
Zack Martin — Returning
Tyler Stockton — Graduating
Nick Tausch — Graduating
Chris Watt — Returning
Cierre Wood — 50/50

I’ve heard conflicting reports on Cierre Wood’s final year of eligibility, but the senior did note on his Facebook page that he was preparing for his final game at Notre Dame. Wood, who despite missing the season’s first two games to suspension and conceding his starting job to Theo Riddick is averaging 6.3 yards a carry, has put plenty on film to show him worthy of an NFL draft pick. That said, he could elevate that spot with a final season that’d have him getting the bulk of carries for an Irish offense that should be vastly improved next season.

With an 85 man limit on scholarships, who stays will also likely be determined by how the Irish finish their recruiting class. The Irish would take the commitment of up to four more players, with that number flexing depending on attrition and medical hardships for Cam Roberson and Brad Carrico. (Tate Nichols’ health is also a true question mark.) It’s also worth adding to the wildcard list Jamoris Slaughter, who is applying for a sixth-year of eligibility after battling injuries for large portions of multiple seasons.

 

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.