AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am - Round One

Weekend notes: Belichick, schedule, rankings and more

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The Notre Dame coaches clinic is underway, with hundreds of high school coaches from around the country descending on South Bend to hear Brian Kelly and his staff speak. In addition to the Irish coaches, a star-studded list will also be joining the festivities, with current NFL head coaches Marc Trestman, Marvin Lewis and Bill Belichick all taking the time to share some tips as well. They’re joined by former Bengals coach Sam Wyche and former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who is widely credited for the Pistol offense that’s the rage of pro and college football.

The assembly of coaching talent says a lot about the relationships Brian Kelly has developed over his years as a head coach. It’s funny to think back to the hiring of Kelly, when many wondered if he was too “small-time” with his roots being at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

With a cast of coaches befitting an Ocean’s Eleven movie, I think we can put that notion to rest for the thousandth time.

Speaking of Belichick, the notoriously tight-lipped coach actually spent a little more than ten minutes with the local press, doing his best to show his admiration for Kelly and the program he’s built, but also Notre Dame and the players it develops.

Here’s Kelly on his experience with former Notre Dame players.

“They’re all smart, they’re tough, and they’re disciplined,” Belichick said. “To get through four years here with the program that Notre Dame has academically, socially and from a football standpoint takes a lot from a kid. That’s the kind of player you see come out of here. Kids that are smart, well-versed and have more than football in their lives.”

While Belichick had good things to say about former Irish wide receiver David Givens and former cornerback Mike Richardson, he saved his most glowing praise for former Giants great Mark Bavaro.

“Mark Bavaro is right at the top. He’s about as Notre Dame as they come.”

***

In what’s only news because it’s the middle of April, Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson created a couple ripples when he took to the airwaves of a local Phoenix radio station to complain about Notre Dame considering whether or not they’ll play in Tempe in late October, 2014.

The Irish have themselves in a bit of a scheduling pickle in 2014, the first season they’ve agreed to play five games against ACC teams.

FoxSports Arizona has more on Patterson’s remarkably candid comments:

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

–snip–

“Our position is ‘Hey, we’ve got a contract,’ and we expect Notre Dame to live up to it,” Patterson said.

ASU and Notre Dame are set to play this season at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5 as part of Notre Dame’s “Shamrock Series.” That game is not in question, but the possibility of losing the 2014 game could put ASU in a tough spot with its schedule for next year, which also includes nonconference games with Weber State (home) and New Mexico (road).

“What people don’t understand is you do this 18 months before a game,” Patterson said. “Virtually every other university in the country’s got their teams scheduled until 2014. So who do you get as a replacement even if you wanted to do it?

“If you act in a professional way and you want to talk about three years down the line or four years down the line where somebody’s got a chance to make an adjustment in their schedule, that’s a different thing, but when it’s 18 months out, everybody’s got their season booked.”

While Swarbrick hasn’t made any comment publicly, senior associate athletic director John Heisler told the South Bend Tribune that the schedule for 2014 is still in flux.

“It looks like we’re kind of in the home stretch here,” Heisler said Wednesday, “but the reality is we have more games than we could play.”

We talked about the overloaded schedule earlier in the week, but there’s little doubt that Swarbrick and company won’t fully weigh their options before making a decision. Still, it’s a little crazy to see normally behind-the-scenes discussions like this get blown out in public.

No word if the nuns in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin have a problem with airing dirty laundry in public.

***

Don’t look know, but Athlon released their annual coaching rankings, and Brian Kelly came in at No. 4 in college football. Here’s the top ten:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
3. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
4. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
6. Chris Petersen, Boise State
7. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
8. Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky
9. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
10. Gary Patterson, TCU

Here’s what Athlon had to say about Kelly:

Not many coaches in college football can rival Kelly’s resume in four stops as a head coach. Kelly’s first head coaching gig came in 1991 at Grand Valley State, and he stayed in that capacity until 2003. During 13 years with Grand Valley State, Kelly went 118-35-2 and won two Division II titles. After his success with the Lakers, Kelly went 19-16 with Central Michigan, which included a MAC Championship in 2006. Kelly moved on to Cincinnati at the end of the 2006 season and guided the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009. After back to-back 8-5 seasons with Notre Dame, Kelly led the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the BCS National Championship game at the end of the 2012 season. Despite the blowout loss to Alabama in the title game, Kelly clearly has the program back on track to be an annual top 10-15 team.

Other than Stoops, coaches on the Irish’s upcoming 2013 schedule include Brady Hoke (14), David Shaw (20), Mark Dantonio (26), Todd Graham (29), Bronco Mendenhall (46), Paul Chryst (52), Lane Kiffin (57), Troy Calhoun (58), Darrell Hazell (67), Ken Numatalolo (76), Matt Rhule (109).

***

When reading Stewart Mandel‘s recent profile on Lane Kiffin and USC at SI.com, I couldn’t help but think back to the days when Charlie Weis was at Notre Dame. Fair or not, it seemed like things that happened early in Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame lingered over Weis’ head long after his introductory press conference.

In Weis’s case, he could never dig out from underneath comments like “decided schematic advantage,” or the brash persona he openly embraced for a profile on 60 Minutes. Kiffin deals with similar pain, unable to shake the portrait he helped paint of himself, after horrible runs with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Vols, yet continually failing up, something skeptics credit to a family name built by his father.

That’s what makes the thought process behind Kiffin’s below comments so difficult to understand. He’s certainly not going to live down any criticism any time soon. So why keep talking about it?

Kiffin told a story recently about the perils of fashion choices. When the Trojans played at Oregon in November 2011, Kiffin, who openly detests cold weather, wore a white beanie to stay warm. After USC pulled off the upset, there was a run on beanies at the school bookstore. The Dan Patrick Show requested the original.

Now fast forward 13 months to last season’s Sun Bowl. As USC was getting embarrased by 6-7 Georgia Tech, Kiffin was getting blasted on Twitter for donning a hood and dark sunglasses. “He wasn’t focused, he didn’t care, he checked out, because we lost the game” said Kiffin of his perception. “If we won the game, no one would have noticed.

“And if we lose the game at Oregon, [the perception] would be, ‘What kind of head coach wears a beanie?'”

Kiffin even addressing this topic shows a hopeless lack of media savvy. So does the revisionist history the head coach and athletic director Pat Haden exercise by acknowledging last year’s team was overrated.

Here’s Kiffin and Haden on the lofty preseason expectations, something he didn’t shy away from at the time.

“I felt if I was to talk that way to [the media] … I would be giving our players an excuse to lose,” Kiffin said to SI. “That’s why I didn’t temper expectations outside even though I knew where we had some issues and weren’t as good as people thought we were.”

“I had us pegged for two losses myself,” AD Pat Haden told Mandel. “You don’t want to discourage your kids by saying you’re not that good, but we knew.”

It’s interesting comparing these comments to the ones coming from Notre Dame after their embarrassing defeat to Alabama. Certainly, Kelly talked about a lack of depth along the offensive line, but he — and his players — have taken the loss as an objective measure of what they still need to work on.

***

Lastly, here are a few high school coaches that’ll be speaking at the clinic this weekend.

Michael Johnson, Head Coach
Bishop Dunne H.S. — Dallas, TX

Tony Perry, Defensive Backs Coach
Fresno Central H.S. — Fresno, CA

Tony Sanchez, Head Coach
Bishop Gorman H.S. — Las Vegas, NV

Mike Rumph, Head Coach
American Heritage H.S. — Plantation, FL

Don Fellows, Head Coach
Grand Rapids Christian — Grand Rapids, MI

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.