Central Michigan v Michigan

Michigan Mailbag

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Thanks to everybody for putting in some great questions. Sorry I couldn’t get to all of them. Let’s dispense with the nonsense and get to it.

Nudeman: I saw on another board that Bryant was off to the side by himself during some of the game last week, the implication being that he was sulking over not playing. As we know now he eventually did get in but it was garbage time and probably not what he was hoping for.

I was just about to quote Ferris Bueller when I saw somebody beat me to it on the comments. But I don’t think sulking is going to get Greg Bryant anywhere with Tony Alford and Brian Kelly, nor do I necessarily believe that it was happening.

I expect Bryant to get a few more looks on Saturday night as I think the running game is going to be a major factor. Steve Elmer didn’t get in the game after we heard all spring and fall that he was going to play. We’re just 1/13th of the way into this season, there will be plenty of time for Bryant to make his mark this season.

Andy44Teg: KA (Best Irish Blogger on the Interwebs) Who do you think has the better game: Devin Gardner or Tommy Rees??

How do I not answer that question, Andy? Obviously the answer to this question likely dictates the winner of the game. I’m not making any predictions, but I kind of think that Rees will play the better game, though Gardner has the ability to make mistakes with his arm and still be a gamebreaker, just because of his ability to keep plays alive and make plays down field.

If there’s one guy that should keep Bob Diaco up at night, it’s Gardner.

@jfoneil22: I was concerned/unimpressed with our D line play last week. Did someone get Nix a Xanax this week? Am I overreacting?

I think you are over-reacting. Louis Nix is a nose guard. He was double-team on about 2/3 of them. After spending the last nine months talking about Jadeveon Clowney, he only managed three tackles in his debut.

Nix is going to have to learn that being a preseason All-American puts a bullseye on your back. And he’ll also need to make some plays, regardless of blockers. But let’s pump the brakes for now.

upthera44: The thing I worry about this year (and specifically this week) is one of those recurring problems for Notre Dame. Do you think our guys able to play with some swagger this week? Because that’s what I think you need in these elite games: the belief that you’re better than everyone. I wouldn’t trade the class of our players. But they seem a little too nice sometimes. When interviewed about a good performance you ALWAYS hear our players say they owe it all to the team and other players, etc., talk about what a great game the other team played. Are our players a little too muzzled?

What these guys say and what they believe are two very different things. Being coached up when talking to the media isn’t an issue, though it does make for some boring interviews. I don’t think the Irish have a confidence or swagger problem. Maybe there’s a void that needs filling after Te’o was such a singular leader last season, but I think the Irish will come out on Saturday night with plenty of swagger.

@NDIrish1029: You probably watched Michigan v cent Mich video. Was Mich 59 points good or were cent Mich that bad?

CMU lost their starting quarterback and starting running back in the first half. I did watch the game and to tell you the truth, I can’t decide. CMU looked really bad, and somehow the Wolverines scored 59 while still throwing three interceptions.

chadwalters425: What would you rather fight, 100 duck-sized wolverines or one wolverine-sized duck?

Maybe you aren’t privy to my phobias, but I don’t want to fight any animals. Ever since I was attacked by two geese walking along the pond on hole 3 at the Warren Course in college, I’ve been freaked out of everything — domestic and wild — ever since.

What type of strategy do you use to fight an animal? Boxing? Wrestling?

To answer your question, I think 100 duck-sized wolverines sounds terrifying. A wolverine sized duck just sounds bloated.

mtflsmitty: Based on your observations and access, what gives with Tuitt’s performance this year? He came into camp overweight and all the tape we saw (Martin 3, Tuitt 0) suggested he had lost a step or five. Last week he seemed to being playing a strict contain technique most plays, or he was just taking plays off? What’s up?

Smitty, so far he’s on pace to have 13 sacks and have the choice of returning for his senior season or getting drafted in the first round. Tuitt plays a specific type of defensive end in Bob Diaco’s system. He’s not just crashing off the edge rushing the passer. He’ll be just fine as well.

@JMset3: Sierra Nevada Nut Brown or Sam Adams Oktoberfest. Choose wisely.

Both? I’m hardly a particular beer drinker, though have enjoyed both choices (I think).

irishhaggie: Heading into Michigan I am concerned about who our #2 QB should be in case Tommy was to be taken out (lets hope not). Do you think Andrew is a legitimate backup? I feel like we are an injury away from being an 8-4 football team. What have you heard about Malik’s development?

I have been skeptical of Hendrix’s ability to run this offense since he stepped onto campus, and his mediocre series in garbage time didn’t do much to help. Tommy Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on this offense outside of Zack Martin. You are right on the money with your 8-4 prediction if Rees goes down, and don’t expect Malik Zaire to strap on his cape and spring into action. He’s still out with mono.

@DanFree5: As a Notre Dame fan, why should I feel good about this game?

ND’s offensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s defensive line. ND’s defensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s offensive line. But I don’t know if any Notre Dame fan ever feels good about a game with Michigan.

@ndfanwabashman: Can Notre Dame win without winning the turnover battle?

I don’t want to step all over some six pack topics, but they’d be a lot better off not turning the football over. But they can, they’ll just need to play good defense and special teams.

@jajensen23: Would be helpful if you have everyone a history lesson on Brandon renegotiating the 20-yr contract agreed to by Bill Martin?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Here’s what I wrote back in May:

@SaturdaysNick: Should ND be concerned that their points came from big plays against a less talented D rather than sustained drives?

@JohnnyFlynn33: curious why Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston didn’t play more in the opener?? I understand they are freshman but come on.

They each got a series with the No. 1 offensive line, but I’m guessing they didn’t get as many touches because the game wasn’t that out of reach.

irishdodger: Do you think the three heartbreakers from 2009-2011 have Irish fans gun-shy? I don’t see many prognosticators or fans of other teams giving the Irish much of a chance.

There’s no question ND fans are still gun shy. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly surrounded by this group, but the panic-meter of Irish fans has the acceleration of a Porsche, going 0-60 in a play or two.

I’m not quite sure I understand the line on this game either, though the underdog has covered 20 of the last 24 times.

dudeacow: This is the most important game on either team’s schedule. Winner goes to a BCS bowl, loser goes to the toilet bowl. Last two years, this has been the case. Do you agree?

Makes for a perfect headline, but ND still needs to get by six of the top 29 teams in the AP ballot. I also don’t think one loss is the end of the world for either team (particularly Michigan), but it will certainly dictate the trajectory of each program.

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

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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.