Rees Kelly

Mailbag: Season kickoff edition

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Welcome to the Mailbag.

Consider this a new weekly forum where I try to get to the questions you all inevitably ask me (or each other) in the comments or on Twitter, but have a hard time getting to in the weekly flow of things.

With the season set to kickoff, you could also consider this a column to hold over my head in the future, as I’ll inevitably show how very terrible I am at making predictions, guessing breakout stars, etc.

All caveats aside, I think this will end up being a place where we can have some good interaction and maybe (hopefully?) clean up the comments a bit and turn it into a community resource.

Ready, set go!

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@JMset3: Why am I getting up at 3 am worried about Temple, but totally relaxed that my wife is a very 9 months pregnant?

It just means you’re a Notre Dame fan. Two nights ago I woke up from a dream that had TJ Jones fumbling the very first punt return of the season, a mirror image of the USF game from ’11 that set back Notre Dame special teams for two seasons.

So you’re definitely not alone.

@IrishPhog: Will Rees’ arm be able to take advantage of Brown’s speed

That’s definitely a good question. Listening to Chuck Martin talk about Rees, he was really candid about opposing defenses challenging Rees to beat them over the top, which is either Chuck telling the truth or being very smart about daring team’s to put eight in the box.

What’s different with this team than the ’11 team that Rees piloted is the personnel at wide receiver is a lot better. Sure, there isn’t a Michael Floyd, but the entire two-deep at wide receiver is probably better than anything Notre Dame was running out there minus Mr. Floyd.

Being a good downfield thrower and having a rocket arm aren’t the same thing. Rees definitely needs to improve his downfield accuracy, but getting one-on-one matchups with talented speedsters like Chris Brown or human mismatches like Corey Robinson will make the QB look a lot better.

Old Miami QB Ken Dorsey had a noodle arm and it didn’t stop him from throwing down the field.

@ndfanwabashman: At what point does Hendrix see the field this season? How short is the Rees leash?

This is Tommy’s job. I think the leash is fairly long, though he’s not going to be able to have those ugly three interception games that would turn the stomachs of ND Nation. That said, what leads Irish fans to believe that Hendrix will be any safer with the football?

For better or worse, this offense goes the way Rees goes, when it comes to turnovers. The only difference is that there’s a talented group of runners and receivers there to support him that have big play potential.

@irishfanjames: Which FR has bigger impact this year Robinson or Bryant? Which has better overall career?

I think we’re probably over-valuing Corey Robinson at this point of his career, or at least the hardcore ND fans are. Sure, he could become a true weapon at wide receiver, but to think he’s going to be better than Greg Bryant — a five-star running back that could start making an impact from day one — is a little bit of a reach.

I’ve written about it a few times, but Bryant’s recruiting cohorts are scary. Guys like him come in and make an early impact. Even elite WRs, take Dorial Green-Beckham, take a while to get started. Irish fans have every right to be excited about Robinson. But let’s not put too much on his back so early. It’s unhealthy.

@jpeter14nd: Will tarean folston redshirt? You talked earlier about using him on special teams, but will they use a year for that?

My Magic Eight-Ball seems to be cloudy right now. Kelly said all five running backs are going to contribute, but it’s hard to tell if he was talking about Will Mahone, who is out with a high ankle sprain, or Folston.

Saving a year of eligibility wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but if Folston is able to contribute on kick or punt returns (he isn’t listed in the two deep at either spot as of now), then he’s worth using this season.

@kevroe67: Which underclassman will step up this year to be a big contributor going forward unexpectedly?

Good question. Can I tell you in week six? The obvious suspects are Bryant and Jaylon Smith, with Smith being my pick. Though that’s hardly unexpected. Perhaps the biggest surprise could be Steve Elmer already taking rotational reps at right tackle.

@cboudin: How on Earth was Tommy Rees not named a captain? Senior QB with multiple years of starting experience… what gives?

Sometimes a C isn’t needed to be a team leader, but I get where you’re coming from. Let’s just say that Zack Martin was a given at captain. Then TJ Jones makes a ton of sense, especially with the adversity he’s overcome. Do you name three offensive players captains to one defender? Why not Louis Nix then?

Having great leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you need every guy to have a title. Rees is the leader of the offense almost by default. It’s his group and the team and staff know that.

Justin Farrell asks: As an ND grad student, and committed irish believer, I want to ask you if you’ve placed your trust in Reesus as the savior to lead us into eternal BCS championship life?

I’m paid to be a little bit more objective than that. But I’m all for people making funny Reesus logos and t-shirts, and as a guy that’s been a long time Rees supporter (while being picked on here), I’d love to look right and have him put together a really impressive senior campaign.

baldyscotsman: Are you buying the Devin Gardner Hype? 

If you’re looking for an X factor on the Irish schedule, Devin Gardner is it. Part of his skillset should scare the crap out of a Notre Dame fan, especially in the house of horrors that The Big house has become.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Gardner, but then again — what are we supposed to hear? We’ll find out next Saturday, but if there’s a reason to DVR the Michigan game against a cupcake like Central Michigan, this is it.

andy44teg: What the heck happened with Elijah Hood?? He seemed like such an RKG….

Good question. But I’m guessing a lot of it is family pressure, hometown pressure, and the general challenges Notre Dame faces when they go into opponents’ back yards and try and pull away their prized recruits.

Trusting reports like this always come with a grain of salt, but I thought this was a particularly telling quote from a Rivals.com report last week when Hood decommitted:

“Sources have informed THI this week that Hood and his family were especially concerned about the distance from Charlotte to South Bend, along with the likelihood that his path to the field and early playing time would be significantly longer at Notre Dame compared to UNC.”

If Notre Dame’s depth chart played a role in Hood stepping away from his Notre Dame commitment, then the program has hit a next level, inching closer to the Pete Carroll/USC, “always compete” model than the “we need you to get to the next level” phase that the Irish seem to have been in for the past two decades.

Hood made this comment about his commitment that I think rang particularly crafted by someone much older and mature than a 18-year-old five-star prospect that once flushed a recruiting letter from Alabama down the toilet.

“This decision will allow not only my family but also my community to continue to be a part of me as I grow not only academically and physically but in faith and maturity as well,” Hood said. “This is entirely my decision based on what I view life and football to be about.”

You win some, you lose some. We’ll find out in a couple years if it’s a big loss or not.

italianirish: What’s the level of panic if Tommy Rees tears an ACL during the first series of the Temple game? Would an injury to him have the biggest negative impact to our final record of anyone on the team?

I think it would. Crazy to think that, but outside of a Zack Martin injury, Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on the offensive depth chart right now.

shaunodame: Whats your gut feeling on this ‘BK to the NFL’ talk? Is he content here, do you think he seeks another, higher level, challenge? Do you REALLY read all the comments here on your articles?

Nudeman: Keith, can you please give us the straight scoop on BK and his contract?

It has been “imminent” for 5 months now. The season is 3 days away.

If I told you 5 months ago that we’d be 3 days away from kickoff and no new contract, there’d be a collective “WTF?”

Personally I’m starting to believe they are unable to come to terms and he’ll be gone sooner rather than later.

I’m still willing to take BK at his word, especially since he was so unequivocal in his preseason comments that the deal is finished, but the lawyering is not. But you’ve got to think things like Camp Shiloh and new assistant coach contracts are all proof that things are moving along.

There’s been quite a bit of behind the scenes change in the athletic department over the past year so Brian Kelly’s contract is far from the only thing that’s dragging along. But yeah — Notre Dame fans will feel a lot better when the press release hits UND.com.

All that being said, it’s another new era for Notre Dame. As Kelly said, don’t expect the NFL rumors to stop if the Irish keep winning.

NotreDan: Under what circumstances would we see MZ @ QB? Details please. I guess the other side of the question is… exactly HOW committed is the staff to preserving his redshirt?

They are as committed as they need to be. But an injury to Rees or Hendrix obviously ends that plan.

Hakuna Budi: What happened to CJ Prosise after his spring and why is Chris Brown listed as the starter on the depth chart after Kelly spoke of his lack of consistency in his presser?

Because Chris Brown has sprinter speed and the ability to outrun just about everyone in college football. I was a little bit surprised to see Prosise drop off the two-deep, but remember that Kelly uses spring practice for position switches, experimentation and motivation. It wasn’t too long ago that Kona Schwenke “out-played” Louis Nix in spring ball.

There are reps to go around for everyone, and I think we’ll see Prosise. But as a converted safety learning wide receiver on the fly, he’s a raw prospect. And with the freshman group of James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, perhaps Prosise just got caught in the shuffle.

ngoldandblue: Do you think we’ll get a Luke Massa sighting on Saturday (and I’m not talking about a camera shot of the red army)?

Massa is the team’s starting holder. I get the feeling you’ll probably see him seven times on Saturday.

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.