tj-jones

Weekend notes: Assistants, Sharks, Rees talk (and more!)

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With breaking news and information at a minimum with the Irish a little more than a week out before training camp, it’s been a while since we took a stroll through the links and kept you guys updated on things I found interesting. (Take that for what it’s worth…)

One great thing about the past week has been the slew of media days for college football and the opening of NFL training camps. Turning on your favorite sports channel has never been better with football taking center stage and the dog days of baseball season getting temporarily put on the back burner.

Taking a quick run through the NFL, let’s check in on a few former Irish players now playing on Sundays.

* Manti Te’o now has the most popular rookie jersey in the NFL, seemingly a good sign that Chargers fans are more interested in putting Catfishing behind them and the team’s linebacking crew in front of them.

In Te’o’s case, he’s been a model rookie teammate, as just about everyone that followed Te’o for the past four years would expect. He’s taken to teammate and fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler, a former Washington Husky, and the duo could form one of the best, young combos in the NFL.

All-pro teammate Eric Weddle had this to say about Te’o’s early days with the Chargers.

“He’s eager to learn, extremely talented, instincts are off the charts, obviously, that’s why we brought him in,” Weddle told the AP. “Reminds me of myself in a lot of ways, in the way he recognizes plays and is in the right spot. Biggest thing for him is just consistency, continuing to learn, take what the coaches tell him, along with us as players, give him little tidbits as we see, and just take it, embrace it, have fun with it.”

* Meanwhile, Te’o’s best buddy Robby Toma signed a free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals and will fight for a roster spot as a slot receiver in a depth chart that includes former Irish star Michael Floyd.

After a quiet rookie season, Floyd looks like a candidate to breakout in his second season in the NFL. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com points to Floyd as one of the most improved players for 2013 in Bruce Arians’ new offensive system.

For Floyd, the shift to a vertical passing game will accentuate his strengths as a big-bodied receiver with strong hands. He excels at shielding defenders away from the ball and high-pointing passes in traffic. Given those traits, Palmer should throw plenty of passes in Floyd’s direction to take advantage of his huge catch radius. The video clip to your right, from Floyd’s brilliant Week 17 outing against the San Francisco 49ers (eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown), illustrates how the receiver uses his size and strength to come down with 50-50 balls.

* Last update is on former Irish center John Sullivan, who has quietly become one of the top centers in the NFL. After a harrowing senior season in South Bend saw Sullivan struggle with shotgun snaps as he teamed with one of the least experienced offensive lines in recent memory, Sullivan took over for Matt Birk as the Vikings center and is now viewed by many as the top center in the game.

Grantland’s Robert Mays did a nice job writing up Sullivan for Grantland’s All-22 All-Star team and got this quote from Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, echoing the sentiments of the staff that had Sullivan during his Notre Dame days.

“He’s really smart, I’m talking exceptionally smart,” Davidson told Grantland. “By the time we get to Sundays, he knows what all 11 guys are doing on every play. I don’t think there are many guys you can say that about, except the quarterback. I think that’s what truly sets him apart.”

Now, on to some stories about the current Irish roster:

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While Irish fans still wait for an official announcement of a contract extension for head coach Brian Kelly, Blue & Gold Illustrated continues to release tidbits from a sit down with athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

And while Swarbrick continues to stress that a Kelly contract will get done sooner than later, it does appear that the Irish assistant coaches got a much deserved bump in their contracts as well as some other perks that kept the coaching staff in tact.

This from BGI’s conversation with Swarbrick:

One common complaint among former head coaches at Notre Dame is that they didn’t have the money to hang on to high quality assistants. Despite interest from several other teams, the Irish were able to keep its full 10-man staff intact this offseason. Swarbrick said that was an important focus for him and Kelly.

To get there Swarbrick said he loosened the purse strings to stay competitive with other top tier programs. He also said the assistants have more opportunities to add responsibilities and prepare for a future head coaching career than they have in the past.

“Certainly you have to respond to the market, and that’s an element of it, but it’s broader than that,” he said. “It’s about the level of engagement and responsibility you give them. Reinforcing the message that you are prepared to do whatever you can to help them achieve career objectives. Those are all pieces of it.”

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With the Irish football team in South Bend for much of the summer attending summer school, senior TJ Jones managed to sneak out for a few days and prepare for life after football. For Jones, that meant swimming with sharks. Literally.

While some have talked about Jones and a future in TV, film or radio (another form of swimming with sharks), Jones took a trip to Tampa and the Florida Aquarium for a chance to shadow a group of marine biologists and get a closer look at what a career like that would be like.

FIDM had video on their Watch ND channel:

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Lastly, our friend the Subway Domer has a few good interview transcripts up on his website from Steve Herring and his TNNDN podcast. Herring caught up with former Irish quarterbacks Evan Sharpley and Matt Mulvey about what to expect from Tommy Rees‘ senior season.

You can hear the interviews or read them here (Mulvey) and here (Sharpley), but I’ve clipped two excerpts that I found interesting.

First from Mulvey, who spent time as Everett Golson’s road roommate during his final season on the roster, and had this to say about Golson’s future with the Irish:

“He’s a warrior, he’s gonna battle and do whatever it takes to come back,” Mulvey told Herring. “I do believe he’s going to come back and finish his eligibility at Notre Dame. They’re not gonna hand him the starting role … he’s going to pick up where he was advancing from this spring, retake over this offense and make great strides.”

And this on the offensive game plan with Rees at the helm.

“Chuck Martin will have to show his versatility. With Tommy (before) we saw a lot of formations, motions, and actions in the backfield that gives 1-on-1 advantages that Tommy is so good at reading … I think they’ll be more precise plays and clear guys we want to go to with a favorable matchup … I think Chuck’s mind and creativity with formations will be key in where we put guys like George Atkinson and other skill positions on the field.”

Now, from Sharpley’s comments:

“You’ve seen him come in last year in key situations – and being a former quarterback I know when he’s changing a play based on the look he’s getting – that he helps the receivers and backs … you need to trust a guy like Tommy is gonna put you in the best situation.

“I really feel that with a guy like Tommy at the helm he’s gonna put you in the best play possible to have a winning opportunity.”

 

 

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.