Carlo Calabrese

Kelly sheds light on key personnel decisions

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Brian Kelly held an impromptu conference call with reporters this morning, likely hoping to clear his docket before Signing Day next week. While we’ll get into some of his explanation about his flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and his thoughts on the Manti Te’o hoax, he reveal a few interesting thoughts on some personnel decisions.

For those wondering what the future of the linebacker position looks like, Kelly strongly hinted that the plans for the spring and beyond include both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. That’s pretty interesting news with scholarship numbers tight as the Irish head down the home stretch solidifying a recruiting class that could swell to 25 (or more).

Kelly announced that Fox and fellow defensive starter Bennett Jackson would be out for the spring with shoulder surgeries, each performed in the days following the BCS Championship game.

“We feel all of these guys that had the shoulder surgeries are going to be back for us,” Kelly said, when mentioning Fox, Jackson, and potentially some other undisclosed players. “They probably won’t participate for us in the spring, they’ll be in a non-contact situation, but we feel really good about the things we had to cleanup. We don’t see any long-term issues with any of our returning players.”

While Kelly wouldn’t commit to any returning fifth year players until the dust settles on Signing Day, he did talk about the battle to replace Manti Te’o at the ‘Mike’ linebacker position, singling out both fifth-year candidates and youngster Jarrett Grace.

“I think we’ve got three guys that are capable of playing inside that have a lot of experience,” Kelly said. I think you’ve got to throw Calabrese and Fox and Grace in as the front-runners to be involved in that inside linebacker position.

“As you know Kendall Moore has got some experience as well and we’ve got a host of young players that want to be included. That will be the fun part. Those three guys I would say lead right now.”

It’s hard to imagine Kelly not welcoming back two of the three players he’s considering frontrunners for two starting job, especially with both Calabrese and Fox working out with the team and prepping for next season.

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Also spending time with the team is Jamoris Slaughter, whose future with the team is still up in the air, as the university is appealing for a sixth-season of competition. Notre Dame’s compliance officer Jen Vining-Smith is on the case, though when Notre Dame hears is still unclear.

“We’re still in the process with the NCAA relative to his appeal for an additional season of competition. We’re hopeful that we’ll hear something before the conclusion of recruiting,” Kelly said. “Obviously it’s one of those things that everyone wants to know. I know I want to know, the media wants to know, certainly Jamoris wants to know. We just don’t have an answer at this point.”

With his teammates taking to Twitter to try and start #FreeSlaughter trending, one safety the Irish will certainly welcome back from a season-ending injury is Austin Collinsworth. After shoulder and back surgeries sidelined Collinsworth last season, expect to see Collinsworth make an appearance sometime this spring, though Kelly isn’t exactly sure of what the timeline will be just yet.

With Collinsworth back in the mix, you’ve got a guy that will potentially take Zeke Motta’s place as the quarterback of the secondary. While Matthias Farley certainly learned a ton this season as he was thrown into the fire, the staff is extremely high on Collinsworth’s ability, and the number of talented safeties on the roster will give the defense a lot of versatility.

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Lastly, it was some good news / bad news along the offensive line. Kelly feels optimistic about the future of Matt Hegarty, who suffered a mysterious ailment that was revealed to be a stroke over the media session down in Miami.

“We think we’re going to get clearance on him pretty soon,” Kelly said of Hegarty. “The procedure went extremely well. He’s adapting to the medication. We feel really confident there.”

On the flip-side of that coin is Tate Nichols, who has struggled with injuries since arriving on campus. The bruising 6-foot-8, 320-pound tackle might not be physically able to compete for the Irish, after a difficult knee injury took him off the field this season.

“Tate Nichols on the other hand is not as confident that he’ll be able to return to action,” Kelly said. “We’re in conversation about that being a medical situation with Tate.”

The loss of Nichols is a tough one, especially with his size and athleticism looking so promising for the Irish as they hoped to have a right tackle road-grader type. His absence will also make numbers awfully tight this spring, with the Irish down to possibly eight scholarship linemen until reinforcements come this summer.

If you’re looking for a hint on what the future holds for Nichols, check back after Signing Day. With so many top prospects still interested in the Irish, expect Notre Dame to accept a commitment now to replace Nichols scholarship next fall.

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One last battle to watch? Who replaces Braxston Cave at center. It appears that Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand are down to three candidates this spring, Hegarty, Nick Martin and redshirt freshman Mark Harrell.

“I think at the center position we’ve got to look at a couple of different options,” Kelly said. “Certainly Hegarty has had some experience there. We’re going to look at Martin. And I think Mark Harrell did a very nice job for us in the championship game preparation.

“Those three guys I think will get the first look at it in terms of the center position.”

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.