Brian Kelly

Tuesdays with BK: One more time

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As Brian Kelly, the head coach of the No. 1 ranked team in the country, stood at the podium for his final game week press conference of the season, he was candid when he spoke of Notre Dame’s rivalry with Southern Cal. Frankly, it hasn’t been much of one.

“Well, it’s not a great rivalry right now. We haven’t won enough games. They’ve had the upper hand on this.  We need to make this a rivalry,” Kelly said. “To me, a rivalry has to go both ways. We’ve got one win out of ten.  That, to me, is getting our butt kicked here.  We need to win some games.”

As if you expected Kelly to talk about the good fortune of having Matt Barkley sidelined with a shoulder injury and the Trojans losing three of their last four games. With Notre Dame just one game away from punching their ticket to the national title game, let’s run through Kelly’s Tuesday comments.

As usual, you can watch 30 minutes worth below. I’ll clip some interesting tidbits.

***

On Sunday, Brian Kelly talked about the importance of tackling this Saturday. It wasn’t hard to figure out one of those key targets is wide receiver Marqise Lee, who has just had a phenomenal sophomore season. Kelly talked about what made Lee so dangerous.

“Oh, boy. Incredible just acceleration after the catch. You know, if you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary,” Kelly said of Lee. “Secondly, they do a great job and their offensive staff does a great job of setting up formations to get him one‑on‑one matchups. They’re always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one‑on‑one looks.”

Last year, USC found a way to get their other star receiver, Robert Woods, in a key one-on-one match-up in the red zone against Lo Wood. That play resulted in a touchdown pass. With freshman KeiVarae Russell on the wide side of the field and Bennett Jackson sometimes flipping to help out, expect the Irish to do their best to protect their cornerbacks against tough one-on-one match-ups.

When asked what contributed to Lee surpassing Woods, another player that had Heisman aspirations early in his career and may have his ticket already punched for the NFL Draft, Kelly explained the problem with scarcity.

“We thought he was a terrific player, no question about it,” Kelly said. “But there is only one football, so it just seems like he’s gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not.  Either one those guys can beat you by themselves.  The numbers just have gone his way this year. But, you know, you’re talking about two of the best in the country.  I don’t know that you can really choose.  They’re both terrific players.”

***

In a really nice moment, Kelly talked about his interactions with past Notre Dame coaches as the season continues to head down a historical path. For Kelly, that means a weekly card from Ara Parseghian, multiple conversations with Lou Holtz, and a nice note from… Charlie Weis.

“I get my weekly card from Ara.  Each week he hand writes a note to me. The great thing is he’s so unassuming.  He’s done this and been there, but he’ll write a note like he doesn’t want to assume anything, you know what I mean?  Like he’s never given any advice, just talking as a Notre Dame fan and alum.  Great to just get that communication with him.

“As it relates to Lou, I talk to him about some specific things that I would like his opinion on.  Ara is much more of a fan, supportive.  I invite him up every home game to my box, and he politely declines because he thinks he’s got the best seat in front of his television. That’s our conversation.  With Lou, it’s more about some specific things.

“[Lou] knows Notre Dame, and Ara does as well.  Those are great assets. But a number of coaches, Charlie Weis knows Notre Dame.  I got a wonderful note from Charlie last week.  It was heartfelt and talked about the seniors, wishing them the best.  It was really a terrific note from Charlie.  Very classy. So we get a lot of that communication with the former Notre Dame coaches, and it’s really nice.”

It’s nice to know that there isn’t any scorched earth between Weis and Notre Dame, and just as important, that Kelly recognizes the contributions Weis made to this program, especially with the senior class. While Kelly built this program into a consistent winner, he certainly wasn’t left an empty cupboard.

***

If you’re tracking the Cierre Wood will he / won’t he return story, Kelly was incredibly complimentary about Wood, while continuing to talk about running north and south, a pretty consistent criticism by the Irish head coach.

But almost more interesting was Kelly’s evaluation of where Wood has evolved the most this season.

“Route running. Ball catching. Those are two huge areas where he has elevated his game,” Kelly said. “Practice, he practices with a purpose every day now.  He is locked in.  He’s getting more north and south in his running.  The inside‑outside zone scheme is set to run north and south. We don’t want a lot of cutting.
We ran the option play on Saturday, and he was looking to cut off of somebody. You know, he was resisting the temptation.  When he runs north and south, we all know what he’s capable of. So those three areas he’s really made great improvement.”

It’s interesting that Kelly cites Wood’s improvement in the passing game because the veteran running back has hardly gotten a chance to contribute in the pass game, with Theo Riddick acting almost exclusively in that role. A year after catching 27 balls, Wood has only two catches, both coming against Miami.

***

Lastly, Kelly was asked to consider Manti Te’o wearing the garnett and gold of USC, where he almost ended up playing his college football. It was the first time he’d ever thought of game-planning against his star linebacker.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever changed my brain over to think about it in those terms,” Kelly said. “Not very comforting. I know he’s a pain in the butt when we go against him in the spring. You know you can’t do certain things with him. He’s kind of eliminating certain plays already just because of his instincts.  You’re going against a great competitor, you know. That would be difficult plan against, yeah.”

***

 

 

 

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
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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.