Temple v Notre Dame

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Temple

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Before we officially turn the focus to Michigan, let’s burn out the DVR and take a much closer look at yesterday’s game. While we can expect to see quite a few different wrinkles next week against Michigan, let’s roll out our first good, bad and ugly of the season.

THE GOOD

Getting off to a quick start: We can bemoan the lull that followed the Irish’s jet-propelled start, but let’s not bury the lede. It was a picture perfect start for Notre Dame (if you just decide to forget the illegal substitution penalty that kicked the game off).

From the opening snap, Tommy Rees was dialed in, changing a call at the line of scrimmage before handing the ball to Amir Carlisle who exploded for 45 yards down the left sideline, sprung by great blocking both up front and down field.

After George Atkinson gained five tough yards before getting stung by a big hit by safety Abdul Smith, the Irish took advantage of Temple’s secondary creeping up when they hit DaVaris Daniels deep over the middle on a perfect post route for the touchdown.

Next the Irish got off the field in three plays on defense and took the ball back at their 13-yard line. After getting the field flipped on them because of a punt rolling out for 51 yards, TJ Jones took a short pass and burst 51 yards on a quick screen, sprung loose thanks to perfect blocking by Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas, who were both split wide on the left side, joining Jones in the slot. Again, Atkinson picks up a decent gain before the Irish take a shot downfield, this time Rees hitting Daniels with a perfect throw on the post-corner, with the defensive back over committing to the middle of the field after being beat the series before on a post.

That’s textbook offense right there, and aggressive downfield playcalling by Chuck Martin.

TJ Jones: Jones had the best game of his career and has ascended nicely into No. 1 wide receiver status. Never looking like a leading man, Saturday’s performance showed a different versatility to Jones, who managed positive yardage as a punt returner and made things happen after catching the ball.

“We know that not having the Michael Floyd or the Tyler Eifert to lean on, you need to make plays any way that you can,” Jones said after the game.

It’s hard to make any concrete judgments against a young defense like Temple’s, but Jones has now played back-to-back big games against Temple… and Alabama. So it’s safe to say while he might not be the physically dominant player that Floyd or Eifert were, Jones is going to be a productive member of this offense, especially as he hears his number called more often.

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Explosive Plays: Again, this one plays big with the Temple caveat, but this team did a much better job of creating big plays, with four receivers making catches of 30-plus yards and four backs gaining 10-plus yards on a carry.

It’s obvious there’s game-breaking ability with guys like Jones, Daniels, and Chris Brown out wide, and it’s going to be mighty interesting to see how the running back position develops, considering the one back that struggled to get something going was Atkinson, the guy we already know is a homerun threat.

Tommy Rees: A truer test will come next Saturday in Ann Arbor, but Rees did everything asked of him yesterday. His numbers were immaculate, not just hitting the obvious deep throws to Daniels early, but throwing a confident strike to TJ Jones on a post pattern in traffic while doing a nice job controlling the offense.

Rees looked very comfortable in the pistol formation, and was particularly deadly with playaction, a good sign heading into the more difficult portion of the schedule.

Davaris Daniels (and his groin): Doubly good news for Daniels, who scored the first two touchdowns of his career on Saturday on his first two catches. His three catches for 69 yards — and a near circus catch on the sideline where he was ruled just out of bounds — solidify his role as the homerun hitter of the wideouts.

Daniels was open for another long touchdown catch that Rees just over-shot, likely because a twinge in Daniels’ groin slowed him down. We didn’t see the junior receiver again, but Kelly said he’d be full-go for practice on Tuesday.

Wide Receiver play (both catching and blocking): It was an impressive Saturday for the depth at wide receiver, with youngsters Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and James Onwualu all getting action, with Chris Brown having a nice day as well. But if you’re looking for the biggest step forward, it was the excellent downfield blocking by the receiving corps, helping to spring big runs and short throws for nice gains.

Credit goes to Mike Denbrock‘s group for doing the little things right.

Second Half Defense: After getting a little loose in the first half, the Irish defense straightened up, giving up just 3.9 yards-per-play while holding the Owls to just 131 yards and had five drives end on two turnover on downs and three punts.

Quick Hits: 

* Nice job by Isaac Rochelle in limited snaps. Got some good pressure on the quarterback on one snap in the second quarter. (He was pancaked on his next snap, showing you life as a freshman defensive lineman.)

* Prince Shembo might not have gotten a sack, but he got five hits on the quarterback.

* He might not have filled the stat sheet, but Jaylon Smith was all over the field, playing in coverage and at the line of scrimmage .

* Great job by Troy Niklas. Not just for his 66-yard touchdown catch, but for excellent blocking on the perimeter and at the point of attack.

THE BAD

Quarterback Scrambles: It’s not hard to wonder what Devin Gardner will do to the Irish defense if Connor Reilly was able to lead the Owls in rushing. The Irish were burnt multiple times by scrambles, the product of man coverage downfield and pass rushers going in out of control. (See Ishaq Williams’ run by Reilly early in the second quarter.)

Those scrambles don’t just fall on the heads of the pass-rushers, but also the linebackers who need to do a better job of keeping their eyes on the quarterback and a better sense of timing. Expect that to be something the Irish work on this week with Gardner, who averaged 7.2 yards a carry against Central Michigan.

Linebackers in pass coverage: Kelly categorized the Temple offense as “dink and dunk,” but it was a tough first half in coverage for the linebacking corps, who gave up quite a bit underneath on Saturday. The Irish held the Owls to just 4.9 yards per attempt, but Reilly’s 230 yards of passing came primarily on underneath throws.

Nick Tausch’s field goal attempts and Kyle Brindza’s pooch punts: We talked about this yesterday so I don’t want to be overkill, but Tausch likely wants a mulligan on his first field goal attempt from yesterday, an ugly snap hook that barely cleared the line of scrimmage.

There’s a lot of pressure on Tausch to win this job and he’s likely feeling that, but that’s no excuse for a guy that’s a fifth-year player and was brought back to compete and win a job.

Likewise, Brindza’s directional punting was brutal, missing badly on his two attempts to pin Temple deep in their own territory. Kelly talked about letting Alex Wulfeck be the short punter, but it’s clear he wants this to be Brindza’s job.

Both guys need to improve this week — though I’m betting you see Brindza kicking field goals in Ann Arbor.

Free Releases: Don’t expect to see tight ends get free releases off the line of scrimmage next week. Temple killed the Irish with that both in playaction and the quick passing game Saturday.

It’s not a new problem for the Irish defense, and you can expect Al Borges to take note.

Elijah Shumate needs to have a better day in coverage. He was caught flat-footed on a slant route that went for 26 yards on Temple’s only scoring drive. Then he extended Temple’s touchdown drive with a sloppy pass interference penalty, giving the Owls the ball at the two yard line.

Louis Nix’s penalties: Notre Dame’s All-American defensive tackle needs to do a better job keeping his head. Frustrated after constant double-teams and giving chase to a quarterback he couldn’t quite catch, Nix had a silly personal foul penalty, and also jumped offsides twice.

Hail Mary Defense: Give credit to Connor Reilly for having an absolute cannon arm, but the Irish need to do MUCH better knocking down a long heave to the endzone. Especially walking back into The Big House, where nobody will forget how successful Denard Robinson was with 50-50 arm punts throws.

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THE UGLY

Let’s keep this section empty for now. There was nothing too ugly in this game, the 200th win for head coach Brian Kelly.

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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.