Notre Dame team

Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

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Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.

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1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”

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2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.

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3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”

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4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.

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5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.