Michigan v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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If the first five members of this list represented talented newcomers and untapped potential, the next five members of this group is filled with veterans ready to step into the spotlight.

To take a snapshot of the first ten names on our Top 25 list gives you a nice look at how this team’s roster is being built. A mix of talented recruits and newcomers will push to be included in the team’s top 22 (the starters), though every freshman ranks behind a veteran at their position. That’s healthy competition — the life blood of an elite program — something the Irish hope to cement themselves as this season after a surprising twelve-win campaign in 2012.

The next five members of this list all are expected to end up in the starting lineup. They’ve each taken a different route to get there, and all played important roles in last season’s success. They are equal parts highly touted recruits and developmental successes, but all have expectations to be heavy contributors if the Irish hope to make a BCS appearance.

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)
20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.)
19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.)
18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.)
17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.)
16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.)

RANKINGS

15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.) If there was a guy on this list that didn’t improve last season, it was Atkinson. Stuck in a battle for carries with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Atkinson struggled to find his stride, even taking a step back as a kick returner after returning two for touchdowns as a freshman.

Of course, calling Atkinson’s sophomore season a slump doesn’t really take into consideration the fact that he still managed to average 7.1 yards per carry. That gives you an idea of the big play potential he has every time he touches the football, with big runs against Navy, Michigan State and Miami among the most explosive plays of the season.

At a shade over 6-foot-1 and almost 220 pounds, Atkinson has a power physique and world class sprinter speed. He was listed among the top “freaks” in college football, by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. But to be the running back this team needs, he’ll have to continue to get better at the basics. Making the right read, getting his pad level down, salvaging something out of nothing. That’s what Brian Kelly and his staff value and that’s why Atkinson is still battling Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel for the starting job.

A strong spring practice has many inside the program believing that any immature streak in Atkinson’s past is gone and he’s ready to become the alpha dog. If he can continue to develop as a back, he’s got the upside to be absolutely frightening to opposing defenses.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 21st.

14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.) Nobody got the fresh start they needed when Brian Kelly and his staff took over more than Fox. Stuck as a bit of a tweener, many raised an eyebrow when Kelly and Bob Diaco shifted Fox to the inside of the 3-4 defense, asking a guy many thought could’ve been a safety to play in the trenches for this defense.

Fox latched onto Diaco’s tutelage and stepped into the starting lineup in 2011, sharing time with Carlo Calabrese but immediately helping to upgrade the athleticism in the front seven. Last year was his best season for the Irish, still ceding time to Calabrese in goal line situations, but playing more than just a complimentary role to Manti Te’o.

Entering his final year of college football, Fox is the type of guy that has become a very productive BCS player. Built from the ground up after being a hurdler and safety in high school, the 240-plus pound linebacker has infused athleticism into a position that for far too long was one of the detriments of the Irish defense.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.) Day makes an impressive leap onto this list after a promising freshman season spent backing up Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. That Day’s ascent into the starting lineup and impact on the defense is all but assumed gives you an idea that the Indianapolis native is set for big things.

It’s hard to read too much into a debut season that featured only included two sacks and less than two dozen tackles, but Brian Kelly has raved about Day’s abilities. While he’s undersized for a defensive end in this system, he’s already being called one of the team’s best block destructors and is expected to be a disruptive force up front, especially when Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt demand the attention of opposing offenses.

If there’s a flier on this list, it might be Day. But there’s every reason to believe the hunch this group takes on him is well worth it. Stepping into one of the best front sevens in the country as a true freshman and making a significant contribution shows you how talented Day is. There’s every reason to believe that another year in the weight room and another season developing will lead to big things for the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: 19th.

12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.) After hearing from Brian Kelly since day one how talented Danny Spond was, last season finally proved the Irish head coach right. Spond, one of Kelly’s first targets after taking the head job late in the recruiting cycle, became one of the key members of the Irish defense, sliding into the ‘Dog’ outside linebacker job, and allowing Prince Shembo to shift to the boundary side of the field, where he thrived.

Spond started eleven games for the Irish, playing a critical role not just against the run, but as an excellent drop and cover linebacker that was so talented he ended up playing cornerback in some nickel situations. Making that all the more impressive was the fact that many worried Spond would never play football again after a horrifying injury during training camp had many worried that his career was over. But after weeks of exploration by doctors, Spond’s severe migraine headaches cleared up and he became one of the glue guys in the Irish defense.

With the back-end of the Irish defense in much better shape than it was last season, Spond won’t likely be asked to do everything like he did at times in the coverage scheme. And after a successful first season in the starting lineup, Spond’s already cerebral nature will help take his experience playing and apply it quickly. Making things interesting for the Irish defensive staff is how to use all the talented outside linebackers on this roster. Ishaq Williams, Jaylon Smith, Spond and returning starter Prince Shembo all need to see the field, and keeping Spond on the field to help against the pass while the other three are among the team’s best edge rushers gives the Irish a true champagne problem heading into 2013.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.

11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.) For all the vitriol that Rees tends to feel from some Irish fans still angry about 2011’s turnover problems, the voting panel was just as divided about the senior quarterback. The school’s most accurate passer entering his final season in South Bend, Rees has gone from unheralded, surprise freshman starter to one of the team’s veteran leaders, called upon in a pinch to rescue a team with high hopes even with Everett Golson gone for the year.

For as much as people focus on what Rees can’t do, there’s plenty that make him one of the most valued members of this roster. The school’s most accurate passer in the program’s history, Rees knows the offense inside and out, completes the throws that need to be made, and has had success moving the offense, primarily in 2011.

Of course, no dissection of Rees can come without mentioning the turnover problems that plagued him during his sophomore season. When the Irish cleaned them up in 2012, they went from an eight-win team to the BCS National Championship game.

It won’t be hard for the Irish offense to take a step forward this season, especially when you look back at the growing pains the team went through as it developed Golson. In Rees’ final season, he’ll need to improve on the accuracy of his deep throws as well as his decision making. He’ll never be the running threat the Irish had with Golson, but there’s every reason to believe he can improve on the turnovers, with four years in the offense and continuity with Chuck Martin.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

***

Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

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

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.