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Pregame Six Pack: Boiler up

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It may lack the wattage of last Saturday night’s primetime affair, but this weekend’s date with Purdue counts the same as the other eleven regular season games. With the Irish coming off a damaging defeat at the hands of Michigan that felt like a game that slipped away, Notre Dame will have a chance to rebound against Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers that still seem to be finding their footing.

Hazell has already talked about the importance of this weekend’s game, and took to the school’s newspaper to implore the students “to get to Ross-Ade Stadium early, be loud and help us turn up the heat on the Fighting Irish.”

With No. 21 Notre Dame and Purdue set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Boilermakers go to battle.

***

Brian Kelly has heard your plea to put Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in the game. But finding carries is the hard part. 

If there was a question that overwhelmed the inbox this week, it was how Kelly and his offensive game plan could feature more of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. After looking mighty impressive in fall camp, Irish fans have waited to see what the freshman — especially Bryant — could do when he got his chance. Eight quarters later, this group is demanding an impact from one of the nation’s top freshman running backs.

When asked about his young backs today, Kelly explained that it wasn’t a learning curve Bryant and Folston were battling, but rather finding the snaps for a unit that’s already pushed Will Mahone into the slot rotation.

“They’re not being held back. The game itself and the way the game is played will determine how many running backs you can get in the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not just going to shuffle four or five guys in there if we’re in a game where I want to do a specific thing offensively. It really depends on how the game unfolds. I have confidence in all those guys.

“It’s not easy. I have no problem playing my freshmen running backs. We just have to find the right opportunities and when they need to be in the game.”

***

Let’s see if the Irish can get their red zone offense back on track. 

Whoever is carrying the ball for Notre Dame this weekend will likely get a few totes inside the Purdue 20-yard-line, especially after passing the ball on 12 of 13 snaps in the red zone against Michigan. That kind of balance could be a product of some unfriendly run looks, but also is something that the Irish need to challenge regardless.

Through two games, the Irish have scored touchdowns on just 42 percent of their red zone appearances, good for 102nd in the nation through eight quarters. And while Tommy Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made some interesting comments this week when talking about the Wolverines decided to defend the Irish offense last week.

“Our game plan was not to sell the farm a lot,” Mattison said. “We didn’t want to put our secondary in a position where a big play could get us. That secondary, I thought, did exactly what we hoped they would do as far as the game plan of keeping the ball inside and in front.

“We just have to hold them to no big plays and then when the field shrinks, now you have to hope that they do what they’re taught to do and how they’ve been practicing, and that’s what they did.”

With a shrunken field, let’s see if Kelly calls on his offensive line to make some room for the offense, doing so even against a sturdy Purdue defensive front.

***

Getting the defense back on track might be helped by playing a Purdue offense that’s really struggling. 

It’s still a surprise that Michigan’s offense was able to put up 41 points against Bob Diaco’s defense. But there may be no better slumpbuster for a unit feeling down than Purdue’s offense, which currently sits at 118th in the country. (Want to see something crazy? Take a look at Alabama’s offense, which enters week three at 123rd. Meanwhile, USC’s is 115th.)

Purdue offensive coordinator John Schoop talked about the challenges his offensive line faces this week playing against Louis Nix, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt.

“We have to be as physical as we’ve ever been on the offensive line this week”, Shoop said. “We’re going against some guys that are just flat big, and we have to be as physical as we can in terms of protection and running the ball. I think we were a little more physical from week one to two, but we have to take it up exponentially this week against these guys.”

Also working against the Boilermakers is an injury to tight end Gabe Holmes, one of Purdue’s better offensive weapons. Hazell categorized Holmes’ injury as “pretty serious,” and all reports have him out for Saturday night and potentially the season. Holmes was the team’s leading receiver through two games.

***

After a tough loss, Kelly and the coaching staff did their best to pick up the slack. 

It’s been quite some time since the Irish had to rebound from a defeat. The team’s last three losses gave the team quite a bit of time to regroup, with defeats coming in two bowl games and a regular season finale.

But with a short week to get their confidence rebuilt and the team ready for another game, Kelly and his staff controlled things more this week than in the past, forcing the players to follow the beat of its leaders.

“Sometimes when you’re winning, you kind of let the players keep moving in the right direction,” Kelly said. “You’re still winning. You kind of let things go. You chalk it up to that’s the personality of this team.

“The coaches took over this week. We made sure that we did the things that we need to do. I’m sure that the players understand that that’s the way that practice has to go and they embraced that.”

It’s interesting that we’ve had all sorts of discussions about this team’s leadership and that after the loss Kelly made sure he and the coaches were providing the direction, not just the team’s three captains. Especially with a group without a transcendent leader like Manti Te’o, listening to the voices of the coaching staff should be one of the quickest ways to get mentally back on track.

***

When Purdue and Notre Dame play, there are always lots of connections on both sidelines. That’s certainly the case this weekend. 

Two in-state teams that have faced off every year since 1946 are bound to have things in common. Let’s check out a couple interesting layers to the Purdue-Notre Dame rivalry.

First let’s get to the obvious one. Running back Amir Carlisle is facing off with his father Duane, Purdue’s strength and conditioning coach. I had a chance to chat briefly with Carlisle after the Michigan game, and one of the few things that brought a smile to his face was thinking about playing against his dad. Duane, who is in his second year as Director of Sports Performance for the school as well as head strength and conditioning coach, talked about facing off with his son this weekend.

“You can think about how you’re going to feel, but I don’t know that I can actually plan for something like this,” the elder Carlisle told the Lafayette Journal Courier. “It’s a situation where Amir is playing for Notre Dame and I get an opportunity to see him.

“I’m just so thankful he’s on the field, because he’s battled through some adversity. It’s an opportunity for us to get a win as a team. I want us to win, but of course I want to see my son play well.”

Coaching against Notre Dame is one-time Irish linebacker Greg Hudson. Now the defensive coordinator under Hazell, Hudson returns to Indiana after coaching linebackers at Florida State.

“It never gets out of your system,” Hudson said of playing against his alma mater. “The (emotions) are probably a little higher, just because you’re directly in charge of that defense, and it’s also back here in Indiana. It feels like home. It’s a home game. And it has the bright lights and the big crew is coming in.”

Hudson was well known in recruiting circles probably for one of his biggest one-on-one battles against the Irish, when FSU went head-to-head for Aaron Lynch. Hudson ended up losing that battle (one that Notre Dame eventually lost just a few months later, when Lynch quit on the team.)

Lastly, key recruit Drue Tranquill will be in West Lafayette watching both teams intently. A soft commitment to Purdue, many believe it’s only a matter of time before Tranquill flips his commitment to the Irish, who see the high school safety following the path of Dan Fox and sliding down into the middle linebacker position. Tranquill will be on campus in South Bend next weekend to watch the Irish play Michigan State.

***

After turning over all three kicking jobs to Kyle Brindza, the Irish have another field position battle on their hands. 

It took exactly one week and a snap-hooked field goal attempt for Kyle Brindza to retake the field goal kicking job and become the Irish’s lone kicking specialist. While there’s time for Nick Tausch to fight his way back into the rotation and punter Alex Wulfeck has the ability to spell Brindza if needed, it’s the junior job.

Brindza talked about the increased workload and even acknowledged the need to put himself on a personal kick count, for fear he could leave his best stuff on the practice field.

“Even though my body might feel good, I’m still going to have a number count or else I might push it too much and wake up the next day and say ‘oh man, I feel horrible,’ ” Brindza told JJ Stankewitz of CSN Chicago.

If there’s one match-up you probably haven’t heard much about, it’s the battle at punter this weekend. Purdue’s Cody Webster is one of the nation’s top punters, and the Ray Guy Watch Lister carries an average of 49.9 yards a boot this year, besting everybody else in the country by more than a yard. With the Purdue offense still struggling to get the hang of their new offensive system, Webster will be a true weapon in the field position battle, a game that Brindza is still getting the hang of with his struggles directionally kicking.

Perhaps there’s one outlier that might actually flip this Purdue advantage in Notre Dame’s favor. While they haven’t been all that good in the red zone, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have started four drives inside their own 20-yard line. They’ve scored touchdowns on three of them.

 

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

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

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

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

 

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

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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

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

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

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

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

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

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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

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

 

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

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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

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

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

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

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

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

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

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

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

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

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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

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

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

 

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

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

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.