Jarious Jackson

Christmas links: Crist, Jackson, and Elliott

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First and foremost, a very Merry Christmas to everyone. Thanks for being a part of a wonderful year, both on and off the field. It’s terrific to see how many readers we keep bringing to the Inside the Irish blog, and I appreciate all the new friends.

Hope you enjoy some time with family, a dash of holiday cheer, and a few links to get you through the day.

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Friend of the program Bruce Feldman has a great column on Dayne Crist, and how the former Irish quarterback is doing as he watches his former teammates prepare for battle with Alabama in the BCS National Championship.

As you’d expect, Crist was all class during his sit down with Feldman in Southern California. And while this final season of eligibility at Kansas didn’t turn out the way Crist, Kansas head coach Charlie Weis, or just about anybody that’s had a chance to get to know Crist hoped, as usual Dayne kept a positive attitude as he continues to plow forward.

Right now, that means prepping for a senior showcase All-Star game, where he’s hoping to wow an NFL scout or two and get a chance to head to an NFL training camp.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire story, but here’s a snippet from Feldman:

Dayne Crist spent four years in South Bend and in that time he . . .

  • Met his long-time girlfriend.
  • Began two seasons as the starting quarterback for the Fighting Irish.
  • Made many of his best friends.
  • Suffered two season-ending knee injuries.
  • Received more online death threats than he cares to count up.
  • Graduated with a 3.2 GPA and a Business degree.

Crist could’ve been in South Florida wearing the famed Notre Dame Golden helmet playing for the BCS title with so many of his closest friends — guys he lived with for four years, guys he calls his brothers. Actually, if the story played out the way many would’ve thought, Crist — the strapping 6-4, 235-pound former five-star California-bred quarterback — would’ve already sparked the Irish back to being a national powerhouse and be an NFL rookie right now. Instead, Crist transferred out of Notre Dame after getting his Business degree and ended up following former ND coach Charlie Weis to Kansas, where the Jayhawks went 1-11 while the 12-0 Fighting Irish are hoping to knock off mighty Alabama and win their first national title in almost 25 years.

Crist, though, is not second-guessing his decision to have transferred out as a grad student for the 2012 season. “I live my life with no regrets,” Crist said over lunch last week at a Southern California restaurant. “I really have had so many blessings in my life.”

Crist’s on-field plight has been covered quite a bit on these pages, and while many thought the five-star quarterback got a raw deal last season, ultimately it looks like Brian Kelly probably got things right.

That said, it’s never quite as simple as that. And after four years of watching a tremendous leader with all the physical attributes needed to be an NFL player never quite get things to click, it’s just a reminder of two things: 1) Quarterback is a really tough job. 2) Getting your degree is mighty important.

Whether it was the two major knee injuries or something else, Crist seems to lack the confidence that it takes to be a highly successful quarterback. But I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody took a shot on him, and at least gave him a chance to come to NFL training camp and fight his way onto a practice squad.

But if this is it for football, don’t worry about Crist. He’ll be successful in life after football and always continue to love Notre Dame.

“I love seeing those guys succeeding, and Notre Dame will always hold a special place in my heart,” Crist told Feldman. “I’ve gotten so many positives from going there.”

***

From one former Irish quarterback to another, Wes Morgan of BlueandGold.com caught up with Jarious Jackson, and it’s great to see that the former Notre Dame record-setting quarterback is still playing the game that he loves.

At 35 years old, Jackson has spent the better part of the last dozen years in professional football. He spent four years with the Denver Broncos before starting a global odyssey that took him to the NFL Europe’s Barcelona Dragons, before finding a home in the CFL, winning two Grey Cups with the British Columbia Lions.

Now backing up Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray, playing in the CFL hasn’t stopped Jackson from following the Irish, and the 12-0 season has been great fun for one of my favorite Irish players ever.

Here’s more from Morgan’s conversation with Jackson, and his assessment of the work Brian Kelly has done transforming the Irish.

Where the No. 1 Irish are today, just a couple weeks from taking on No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship in Miami, doesn’t surprise Jackson, who learned a lot about head coach Brian Kelly from Toronto teammate Zach Collaros. The former Cincinnati quarterback played under Kelly and helped lead the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season in 2009.

A combination of Kelly’s winning skillset and Notre Dame’s stubbornness, Jackson said, made a perfect marriage.

“I hate to use the old cliché, but it’s just haters,” Jackson said of critics’ claims that the Irish would never be back on top. … “Notre Dame has been hated on for years and years. Even back when I was being recruited to go there Notre Dame was being hated on. The fact that they’re back at the top of the mountain and doing so well, I think it’s a tribute to the kind of guys they constantly bring in and the type of attitude the guys have. Coach Kelly has done an outstanding job.”

His records have been surpassed by guys like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, but people often forget that Jackson left Notre Dame after setting the school’s single-season records for passing yards and completions in 1999, all while throwing 17 touchdown passing and finishing second on the team in rushing.

Jackson was a better passer than he got credit for, and did a nice job running the football, similarities he shares with Everett Golson. Jackson talked about what he sees in Golson.

“I’m beyond impressed,” Jackson told Morgan. “I’m looking at him as almost a RGIII or Andrew Luck in their first year in the NFL with the type of year he’s having. He’s just going out and trying to win games any way he can. As long as he can keep that mentality, he’s going to grow and keep getting better and better.”

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In a story that can’t help but bring out the Christmas spirit, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune caught up with former Michigan head coach and Iowa athletics director Bump Elliott. The 87-year-old legend has watched the Irish closely this season, often beaming with pride as his son, Notre Dame safeties coach Bob Elliott, has resurrected a coaching career that was derailed by cancer.

“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” the elder Elliott told Hansen. “I’m really proud of my son, with the way he’s handled things. He’s faced a lot of adversity and has not shied away from it. He’s been strong and tough, and I really respect him for that. I’m so proud to be his father.”

The younger Elliott’s story is one we’ve told before but worth repeating. Elliott was the bright and energetic defensive coordinator for legendary Iowa coach Hayden Fry. But when Fry retired after the 1988 season, Elliott was in the throws of battling the blood cancer polycynthemia vera, and in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.

Instead of replacing Fry, Elliott walked away from coaching to recapture his health, something he’s done successfully, now 14 years removed from his dangerous bout.

It’s amazing to see the immediate chemistry Elliott has had with the defense, working under two former players in Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks. Elliott has been a calming influence for a position that lost Chuck Martin to the offense, lost lynchpin Harrison Smith to graduation, and Austin Collinsworth and Jamoris Slaughter to injuries.

With Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, the group hasn’t missed a beat. That’s thanks to the great work of Elliott.

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.