Temple v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Temple 6

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The game ball for head coach Brian Kelly’s 200th career victory will likely find a place on the bookshelf. But there wasn’t much memorable about the Irish’s 28-6 win over Temple. But on a day where the Irish put up 543 yards of offense and managed to get ten freshmen their first taste of college football, that might just be a sign of how far the Irish football program has come under the fourth-year head coach.

On a day where Notre Dame and Kelly finalized a long-discussed contract extension, the Irish jumped out to a quick start, faltered a bit in the second quarter, but did enough to stay comfortably out in front of a game but overmatched Temple squad visiting South Bend for the first time.

Considering the way Notre Dame last opened a season at home (a shocking 23-20 loss to Skip Holtz’s USF Bulls), an easy 22-point victory was just what the doctor ordered, even if it wasn’t as impressive as many expected. But put part of the blame on the Irish’s early offensive explosion, scoring two touchdowns in the team’s first six offensive snaps. Still, Kelly was happy to exit the game victorious, protecting the playbook as they head to Ann Arbor next weekend.

“Openers are the most difficult, because the preparation and the planning, you don’t know what to expect,” Kelly explained. “We can talk about our team, we can think that we know about our team, but you really don’t until they get out there and play.”

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s 28-6 victory.

 ***

With a newly announced contract extension, both Brian Kelly and Notre Dame have made a commitment to each other.  

Both Jack Swarbrick and Kelly had long talked about an agreement on a contract extension for Notre Dame’s fourth-year head coach. But as the weeks turned into months, many speculated that there was an difficult undercurrent beneath all the pleasantries.

Kelly said in fall camp that there was an agreement in principle. And late in the game, NBC’s Dan Hicks announced that Notre Dame and Kelly had finally agreed to a formal contract extension.

The particulars of the deal weren’t released, though Kelly did say it’s a five year extension, starting this season. That said, comments from both Swarbrick and Kelly indicate that the contract talks give both parties what they want.

“The new agreement ensures that Brian will continue to provide the type of leadership that has fundamentally changed this program, restored it and given it the foundation it needs for continued success in the future,” Swarbrick said after the game. “We could not be more pleased.”

After talking in macro terms early this week about some of the peculiarities that make coaching at Notre Dame different than other elite college football programs, Kelly talked about the partnership this contract signifies.

“The contract is one that’s involved the leadership of the university. We’ve all been in discussion about the future of the program,” Kelly said. “By signing this contract, we’re all in this together.”

***

In his first game back in the starting lineup, Tommy Rees looked just fine in control of the Irish offense. 

While it looked like an opening game for much of the team, senior quarterback Tommy Rees looked in midseason form. Rees opened the game on fire, throwing two deep touchdown passes to DaVaris Daniels on the team’s first two drives, on the way to completing 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

For a season opener, Rees looked sharp and in control, and more importantly showed the capability of throwing down the field, piling up career high yardage totals on just 16 completions while playing turnover free football.

“I think we had four of five chunk plays of over thirty yards,” Kelly said. “A lot of the questions coming in was could we push the ball down field. I think we answered a lot of those questions right away.”

Rees doing it against Temple is different than him doing it against Michigan, but the senior quarterback looked confident and in control of the offense throughout the afternoon.

***

The Irish special teams needs to improve. Quickly. 

It’s clear that Notre Dame needs to find some answers on special teams. While Kelly talked about wanting to turn over the place-kicking duties to fifth-year senior Nick Tausch, it’s impossible to do that if the veteran kicker continues to snap-hook field goal attempts.

Likewise, Kelly talked about the development needed out of Kyle Brindza the punter. That was evident in Brindza’s two end-zone pooch punts, neither coming particularly close to pinning Temple deep in their own territory. Taking over the punting job with Ben Turk graduated, it’s clear that Brindza has the leg to do it, he just needs to refine his abilities.

“We’ll have to be technically better in our pooch punt with Kyle, but I’m confident that we’ll be able to do that,” Kelly said. “And certainly our field goal situation will need to be better. But again, all of those areas I’m very confident we’ll get better.”

With the kickoff team losing contain when Lo Wood missed a tackle, and a penalty on a punt return taking away a TJ Jones return, it’s clear that the Irish are still figuring out their special teams units. But Kelly is taking a glass half full approach, knowing full well that his team will need to play better when the opponents ramp up.

“We would like to execute better, but I saw some very encouraging signs in our special teams,” Kelly said.

Kelly wasn’t willing to commit to Tausch or Brindza as a placekicker for next week. Both missed their attempt, though Brindza got good wood on his, just hooking it left.

While kickoff, punt and field goal duties are a lot to heap on an underclassmen, Kelly might not have a choice if Tausch continues to struggle.

***

Even without marquee names, the Irish will make their share of big plays. 

The Irish are without an offensive star, with big names like Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudoph and Tyler Eifert long gone. But even without the marquee names, the Irish look like an offense that’s going to make its fair share of explosive plays.

DaVaris Daniels proved that early, scoring two long touchdowns — the first two of his career — on his first two catches of the season. And TJ Jones looks like he’ll turn into another all-purpose weapon for the Irish, logging his first 100-yard receiving game with 138 yards on six catches, turning something into nothing quite a few times.

“I thought he was dynamic,” Kelly said of Jones. “Dynamic is a word I’d use as a receiver when we’re talking about after the catch.”

Add in the exciting start to Amir Carlisle’s Notre Dame career, a 45-yard run on the Irish’s first play from scrimmage, and impressive days from Troy Niklas, Chris Brown, and Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, and the Irish might just be alright on offense.

“I think you’re going to see great distribution of the football across the board. And it’s going to be somebody new each week,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a lot of guys contribute offensively and I think it’s for the better. It gives us great balance across the board.”

Daniels would’ve had a much bigger game if he didn’t tweak his groin chasing a deep throw from Rees. Kelly said he the junior receiver could’ve returned, but didn’t want to risk making the injury worse and keeping him out against Michigan.

***

In life after Te’o, there’s work to be done on defense. 

In Notre Dame’s first game without Manti Te’o roaming the middle of the field, there were some slip-ups. Temple gained 362 total yards against the Irish, winning the first down battle against Notre Dame 25-21, with quarterback Connor Reilly throwing the ball 46 times while only getting sacked once.

Still, the Irish limited Temple to six points, benefitting from two missed field goals. And while Dan Fox had ten tackles and Carlo Calabrese had nine, Kelly talked about some of the early struggles the Irish had at inside linebacker with run fits before straightening things out in the second half.

That said, anybody expecting to see a different brand of Irish defense doesn’t know Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco. Limiting points is always the agenda, even if that allows opponents to pick up yardage between the twenties.

“Our defense does not surrender big plays and keeps the points down, and really make you work to sustain drives and get it into the end zone,” Kelly explained after the game.

“I was okay with the dink and dunk that they were going to exhibit on offense. If they were going to continue to just take stick routes and swings, I was okay in letting that happen, as that’s how we play defensively.”

All that being said, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Louis Nix had three penalties and grew frustrated with the constant double teams. In the secondary, Elijah Shumate got beat twice for big gains in coverage. The Irish only made one play behind the line of scrimmage on the afternoon, a Tuitt sack, and let Temple hold the football for 28 minutes on the afternoon, with many drives extended with quarterback scrambles by Reilly. (If that doesn’t worry you in advance of Devin Gardner, nothing will.)

Still, to judge the Irish defense on a game-plan purposely vanilla is silly. And after the game it was clear the team had already moved their focus to Michigan, knowing full well that the Irish would have to play better to exit Ann Arbor with a victory.

“We didn’t obviously show a lot of our stuff today, which was our intention,” Kelly said. “And we’re happy that we didn’t have to put our entire game plan out there for everybody to see.

“We’re going to have to play better in all phases against Michigan next week, but we’re going to enjoy this victory today and our kids will get back to work Monday.”

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.