Irish running back Wood runs for a 68 yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of their NCAA college football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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At this point, it’s probably best to give up looking for a bad and an ugly from the weekend that was. Between the Irish’s demolition of Wake Forest, senior day festivities, and losses by both Kansas State and Oregon, there hasn’t been a better autumn Saturday in South Bend in quite some time.

With the #1 shining above Grace Hall for the first time in a long time, let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory.

THE GOOD

Fast Starts. The Irish couldn’t have asked for a better start, with Cierre Wood exploding for 68 yards around the right side on an option pitch from Everett Golson. Watching Wood burst through the Demon Deacons secondary was a thing of beauty, with the season’s longest run of the year jump-starting the Irish.

That run wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for Golson’s terrific throw on third down, where the young quarterback picked up a low snap and fired a strike to Theo Riddick in drop-eight coverage.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was Carlo Calabrese that got the defense off on the right foot. Calabrese absolutely crushed running back Josh Harris, jarring the football loose and forcing a turnover on Wake’s third offensive play. That was enough to flip the football field, put the Irish in good position on offense, and make the game a quick 14-0.

Everett Golson. Every Saturday Everett Golson is getting better. And against a mediocre Wake Forest defense, Golson looked terrific. Staying strong in the pocket, Golson played his best football of the season, attacking the Deacs vertically while buying time and playing mostly as a pocket passing game.

With his confidence overflowing, Golson made one bad decision, floating a ball into the end zone for Robby Toma. But he focused, came back down to earth, and finished the strongest game of his career. Golson put up a personal best for passing yardage and nearly set a school record with his 317 passing yards in the first half.

He’ll face the biggest test of his career this Saturday, but he’ll be entering the weekend playing the best football of his career.

Louis Nix. The junior defensive tackle was everywhere on Saturday, notching seven tackles from his nose guard position and being all but immovable as the rock in the middle of the defense. You don’t often see a nose guard leading a team in tackles, but that goes to show you the improvement Nix has made this season.

“His work volume has increased dramatically through his commitment and hard work in the weight room and in conditioning. And he plays so hard.  You know, he’s a guy that is all over the field,” Brian Kelly said of Nix after the game. He’s a guy that is playing the game at the highest level, and he did it through the off‑season conditioning and the commitment he made to it.”

Saying goodbye to Kapron Lewis-Moore will be tough, but a front three locked down by Stephon Tuitt, Nix, and Sheldon Day won’t miss a beat.

Cierre Wood. It’s fun to watch a running back wreak havoc at the second level of a defense. That was Wood’s day to a tee. Amazingly enough, Wood was caught in the backfield multiple times, forced for a loss on his first carry and falling victim to Wake’s attacking defense multiple times washing away any chance at positive gains. But he broke multiple big runs, with a 20-yard, 16-yard, and 43-yard dash ripping through the Demon Deacon’s defense after his opening 68 yard scamper. That’s the type of feast or famine running that happens against USC, with the Wood heading to the Coliseum to play at home in front of family and friends.

Team Defense. The shutout of Wake Forest was the first blanking of an opponent since the Irish stopped Nevada 35-0, with future star Colin Kaepernick getting shutdown by Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta. Tanner Price and company only gained 209 yards on the day, averaging just 3.5 yards per play.  Even with back-ups playing for much of the fourth quarter, the Irish defense was relentless, delivering a shutout at home to cap off a terrific Senior Day.

Explosive Plays. So much for that methodical Irish offense that depended on a grind-it-out running game. Saturday’s offensive explosive featured multiple “big chunk” running plays (see Cierre Wood) and an aerial attack downfield by Golson. John Goodman continued his big play season, notching another long touchdown catch. TJ Jones caught a deep touchdown as well. If it weren’t for a nice play by a defensive back, Chris Brown would’ve had another long reception as well.

After struggling to stretch the field vertically, the Irish exploded with down field receptions, as Jones, Goodman, Theo Riddick, Robby Toma, and Tyler Eifert all had receptions of 24 yards or more. That’s an easy way to rack of passing yardage, and score a lot of points.

Clearing out the bench. Want to see a thing of beauty? How about the participation report from Saturday. Check out some of the names on there, including:

Charlie Fiessinger
Joe Romano
Nick Fitzpatrick
Jake Golic
Blake Breslau
Andrew Hendrix
Ben Councell
Eric Lee
Connor Calavaris
Conor Hanratty
Bruce Heggie
Dennis Mahoney
Nick Martin

At one point, two sets of brothers were on the field at the same time, with Jake and Mike Golic and Nick and Zack Martin all in the offensive huddle. A nice moment for two families that won’t easily be forgotten.

THE BAD

It’s hard to complain about a missed field goal by Kyle Brindza, but the sophomore is struggling from the right hash. While his kick percentage slides closer to 70 than you’d like, he’s still made just about every clutch kick he’s been asked to make.

Both Chris Brown and George Atkinson struggled to make some routine catches, answering questions from fans wondering why they weren’t getting the ball via air more often.

THE UGLY

This stays empty. Nothing ugly for an Irish program with the top graduation rate in the country to match their No. 1 ranking on the field.

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.