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PTI Timeline: Notre Dame — History not kind to Wilbon

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There are numerous reasons I find HBO’s The Newsroom grating. Skipping past the one-dimensional female characters, melodramatic plot cheats, and overly political agenda, the biggest issue I have with Aaron Sorkin‘s one-hour drama is the omnipotence of Will McAvoy and his news team. The ACN News Night team never gets a story wrong, a product of Sorkin and a writing staff building a show set in the very recent past, and equipping their altruistic journalism staff with a time machine that feels like it’s at their disposal.

If you were to believe Sorkin, Jeff Daniels’ McAvoy — the savvy, battle-tested evening anchor that’s ready to cut through the B.S. and give America the straight story — is the only reporter willing to cut out bias and tell you the truth. But that truth is mighty easy to find when you’ve got the benefit of time and history.

I suppose that’s a very long introduction for something that only tangentially applies to the point of this post. But after being asked a few dozen times what I thought about the PTI Timeline on Notre Dame, I wanted to make sure that any reaction wasn’t simply the product of being able to look back at history and use that as a determining factor of right and wrong.

Of the past decade, Pardon the Interruption — PTI as it’s more commonly known — made household names out of sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. The debate show between two friends and Washington Post colleagues was a game-changer for sports television programming, an instant hit that spawned dozens of imitators.

The crew at PTI put together a very interesting look at Notre Dame football over the past eleven years, starting with 2001, when PTI went on the air. Of course, anyone that followed the Irish over that time period knows there was plenty to talk about, and most of it pretty bad.

Here’s a look at Part One, a segment that looks at the firing of Bob Davie, the hiring and resignation of George O’Leary, and the selection of Ty Willingham as head coach, who was fired after three seasons:

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It’s not hard to watch this segment and think that Mike Wilbon didn’t have many nice things to say about Notre Dame. Whether it was his Chicago upbringing, his Northwestern degree, or anything else, from the very first frame of this video, you get the feeling that Wilbon dislikes Notre Dame and doesn’t have a problem saying it.

Another thing that’s quite interesting to follow is the PTI crew’s building of a narrative that lasted the better part of a decade. First, it’s the firing of Bob Davie.

In retrospect, the decision to fire Davie — even after a mind-boggling five-year extension — seems like an easy one. Yet instead of looking at the regression in the program over Davie’s tenure, Kornheiser, who presented himself as a Notre Dame fan, positioned the move as one that was hypocritical.

“He has a 100 percent graduation rate, which is something that every school would strive for,” Kornheiser said. “But they didn’t reward him for that. They fired him, because he doesn’t have a 100 percent win rate.”

One of the brilliant parts of PTI is the use of a running clock to push the pace of the show. Yet that seems to be to the detriment of this discussion because in the 90 seconds the two hosts had to discuss the firing, Kornheiser selects Davie’s inability to win 100 percent of his games as the reason he’s fired.

From there, Notre Dame’s most high profile coaching search dominates the discussion. Most pointedly, will Notre Dame hire Stanford’s Tyrone Willingham? Wilbon, who advocated Notre Dame tabbing Willingham as their coach, had this to say at the time.

“I don’t think Notre Dame is going to give serious consideration to Ty Willingham,” Wilbon. “They’re scared of hiring a black candidate. That’s why… Is his resume not impeccable? Give me another reason.”

Again, looking back there were plenty of reasons why Willingham might not have been the ideal candidate. While he did have the experience of coaching at an academically elite university, his on-field results were far from a slam dunk. In Palo Alto, Willingham had only one more winning season than he did losing. He won eight games or more only twice. Yet Wilbon, with perhaps one of the loudest microphones in the media at the time as a part of a sky-rocketing TV show, tabbed this decision as one that was largely based on race, leading him to crow after George O’Leary, whose Georgia Tech team beat Willingham’s in the Seattle Bowl that year, was hired.

“They seriously considered him?” Wilbon crowed at the time. “I told you Notre Dame wouldn’t seriously consider a black coach. This time around, even in 2001. And I told you they wouldn’t seriously consider Ty Willingham. Did I stammer? Did I stutter? No.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t hire George O’Leary. I don’t believe they seriously considered Tyrone Willingham. And I don’t believe they were going to seriously consider him. And I’ve got a lot of history on my side.”

“History on his side,” hangs there, with what Wilbon isn’t saying feeling far more incriminating than anything he is. And with just a few seconds remaining in the segment, that’s how the PTI crew is willing to leave it that afternoon, though Jason Whitlock, who guest hosted for Kornheiser later that December, crystallizes Wilbon’s stance on Willingham’s chances of getting the job in South Bend.

“Before there’s a Tyrone as the head coach at Notre Dame there’ll be a Shaniqua as the first lady in the White House,” Whitlock cracked, getting a laugh out of Wilbon.

Of course, after a second search, athletic director Kevin White tabbed Willingham as the head coach of the Irish. But that didn’t satisfy Wilbon.

“I’m not going to admit I was wrong. You can make Notre Dame into Branch Rickey now if you want, but the fact is they didn’t consider Ty Willingham the first time, they didn’t even interview him,” Wilbon said. “They called, they got permission. They didn’t interview him. They wanted Tom Coughlin. They wanted Mariucci, they wanted Shanahan, they wanted and didn’t get six different coaches before finally they got desperate and turned to Ty Willingham.”

Let’s take a look at the candidates that Notre Dame had in front of Willingham, according to Wilbon:

Tom Coughlin – NFL head coach (with Jacksonville at the time)
Steve Mariucci – NFL head coach (with the San Francisco 49ers at the time)
Mike Shanahan – NFL head coach (with the Denver Broncos at the time)
Jon Gruden – NFL head coach (with the Oakland Radiers at the time)
George O’Leary – Georgia Tech head coach

It’s hard to know who Wilbon thought the sixth coach was, but if that’s the list in front of Willingham, who could have a problem with that? While it may have been unrealistic at the time and was the basis for two more very unhappy coaching searches, Wilbon wasn’t satisfied, though he was willing to give Notre Dame a bit of credit.

“Here’s the credit I’ll give to Notre Dame: They got it right,” Wilbon said. “But don’t expect me to sit here and tell you that this is some great movement in progress for the hiring of black coaches. You know you aren’t going to get me to go in that direction.

Of course, after three seasons, Willingham was on rocky ground, bringing back to a boil the emotion Wilbon had for the hire and Willingham’s chances for survivial at Notre Dame.

“I think they are quick on the trigger with Ty Willingham,” Wilbon shouted. “What’s my position on Notre Dame and Ty Willingham?”

“They never fired somebody before the end of their first contract,” Kornheiser responded.

“How many of those people that they didn’t fire were people of color?” Wilbon asked.

“Let me think,” Kornheiser said, knowing the answer, and knowing that the segment was already over.

And with that the bell rung, signaling a chance of topics, and the audience likely frothing for more. Yet as we look back on Willingham’s era, and his subsequent years in Washington, it paints a more complete picture of Willingham’s inability to survive as a head coach in the modern era. His four seasons in Washington had the Huskies at rock bottom, opening with a two-win season and ending with an 0-12 thud.

Of course, that’s what we know now. And while it’s too easy to shout that from the rooftops, Wilbon even acknowledging how the story ends shouldn’t be too much to ask.

But then again — that doesn’t make good TV.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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

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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.