2008 Army All Americans

Recruiting rankings only part of the puzzle

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It’s been five years since Notre Dame had a recruiting class that was in the running for the top group in the country. That year, beyond any expectation considering the Irish’s horrific 3-9 season, Charlie Weis and company reeled in a class headlined by five-star recruits Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

Like the Irish’s current class, Notre Dame signed 23 players, with all but four garnering four star ratings or higher. It was a class that was hailed as one of the best recruiting classes ever landed at Notre Dame. Yet for all the accolades the group received, some core inefficiencies ended up sinking Charlie Weis, and making Brian Kelly’s job a whole lot tougher.

As we begin to analyze the final group Notre Dame signs next Wednesday, it’s important to look back at the 2008 class to see if we can learn any lessons, especially when it comes to roster management.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where Charlie Weis failed. While he brought record production to the Irish offense as a recruiter and almost cherry-picked statistically dominant wide receivers, Weis struggled to find players along the defensive front, failing to fill some massive holes along the offensive line (which he inherited from Ty Willingham), and struggling to find enough pieces in the secondary, a situation Kelly and his staff had to rectify by recruiting an astounding amount of safeties over the past two seasons.

For the sake of the exercise, let’s take a closer look at the 2008 recruiting class, breaking it down into a few key groupings:

STAR PLAYERS

Michael Floyd, WR: Floyd walked onto campus as a productive player and left with the school’s record book. A first round wide receiver taken 13th overall.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Robert Blanton, DB: Blanton was a productive contributor, seeing the field early and starting at field corner before being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.

Braxston Cave, C: Cave played out his eligibility this season, being selected for the Senior Bowl. He was a three-year starter at center.

Darius Fleming, LB: Never as productive as initially hoped, Fleming was a tweener position wise, and his development wasn’t helped by flip-flopping schemes. Still drafted by 49ers.

Ethan Johnson, DE: After spending his senior year of high school rehabbing an injury, a redshirt season would have done Johnson well. But he played early and often, one of the few 3-4 ends the Irish had.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE: After growing into his body, KLM became a rock solid defensive end, starting four seasons and finishing his career as a captain of a 12-1 team.

Trevor Robinson, OG: He never turned into the elite tackle prospect many thought the Irish signed, but Robinson played a lot of football for the Irish.

Kyle Rudolph, TE: He may have been the first tight end off the NFL Draft board, but Rudolph never played to his recruiting stature at Notre Dame, leaving after three seasons.

Jamoris Slaughter, DB: Injuries kept him from being even more productive. If Slaughter isn’t granted a sixth season, he’ll still have exceeding expectations, garnering only three-stars as a recruit.

Sean Cwynar, DT: Undersized for a two-gap player, Cwynar still had a productive career, splitting time during his junior and senior season before passing on a fifth-year to pursue a career in business.

UPS AND DOWNS

Dayne Crist, QB: Crist never played up to the lofty expectations people had for him. But two major knee injuries probably had a lot to do with that.

Steve Filer, LB: Another touted Chicago linebacker that could never quite breakthrough. Four-star elite prospects should be more than special teams demons.

Mike Golic, Jr., OL: If you had told a ND fan in October 2012 that Golic would spend 15 games in the starting lineup he’d have called you nuts. A productive career for the lowest rated recruit of the class.

John Goodman, WR: He never became the down field, vertical threat many expected, following in the footsteps of Jeff Samardzija. But Goodman had a nice fifth year, making some big plays.

Jonas Gray, RB: An incredible senior season turned a disappointing career into a final season of triumph. Gray’s knee injury kept him on the Miami Dolphin’s shelf this season.

NON-FACTORS AND WASHOUTS

Lane Clelland, OL: Clelland looked the part of an elite recruit, yet he couldn’t dent the two-deep. A spring practice experiment to try DE short circuited quickly as well.

Joseph Fauria, TE: Ah, what might have been. Fauria, who transferred to UCLA after a disciplinary issue at Notre Dame, had 12 touchdown catches this season. Imagine the TE depth chart with him in the mix.

Dan McCarthy, DB: A neck injury during his senior season might have delayed McCarthy’s development. But he never turned into the late-bloomer his brother did. Looked the part of an elite safety.

Anthony McDonald, LB: Injuries and Manti Te’o kept McDonald off the field. Reunited with Charlie Weis this season at Kansas, McDonald played in eight games this season.

Brandon Newman, DT: Struggled to crack the two-deep at nose tackle for the Irish, Newman played his fifth year at Ball State, collecting 30 tackles with five TFLs. Did give us Trick Shot Monday.

David Posluszny, LB: The younger brother of former Penn State All-American Paul, Poz didn’t have the size to make it as an inside linebacker. Never collected five tackles in a season.

Deion Walker, WR: An elite wide receiver recruit that never made it onto the field, Walker’s physical skills never matched his own assessment of them. Caught 59 passes for UMass this season.

Hafis Williams, DT: Not big enough to play nose guard, nor fast enough to play end, Williams was surpassed by the youth recruited by Brian Kelly and played only a bit role for the Irish.

***

A swing and miss rate of eight players out of 23 isn’t great, especially considering injuries weren’t really the problem for the bottom section of this grouping. Add to that the underachieving performances from elite guys. Take a look at the staggering amount of Top 100 guys the Irish had on the roster from that class:

RIVALS TOP 100 PLAYERS

No. 20 — Kyle Rudolph
No. 25 — Dayne Crist
No. 27 — Michael Floyd
No. 32 — Ethan Johnson
No. 37 — Trevor Robinson
No. 72 — Jonas Gray
No. 89 — Darius Fleming

Of that group, only Floyd played to his ranking, with Fleming probably coming closest after that. As I mentioned earlier this week, Rudolph certainly had the talent, but he never played up to that level in his three seasons in South Bend.

***

We will find out soon enough if this 2013 recruiting class is the premiere group of talent that many think it is or an underachieving group of prospects. Playing to its favor are the roster holes it fills. Signing a large group of offensive line prospects helps replenish a position grouping that’s dangerously thin. Bringing in two tight ends will help ease the talent loss of Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Doing the same thing at running back will add high-end talent to an open positional race.

That the Irish are still chasing guys like Eddie Vanderdoes and Kylie Fitts lets you know that Kelly and company understand the need to restock power players up front, even with depth at an all-time high. Conversely, keeping an eye on the inside linebacker position now that Manti Te’o is gone is important, as the loss of an elite player like Alex Anzalone is tough, especially because he was filling a big position of need.

For six more days, recruits will be sized up by rankings and stars. Classes will be assessed by quantity and quality, as determined by analysts who largely have never coached a game or truly scouted the sport. So while we all (understandably) get wrapped up in the Signing Day sweepstakes that has become a February college football holiday, it’s worth a reminder that finding five-star prospects is just part of the equation.

 

 

 

 

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. 

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.