Tyler Hoover, Micajah Reynolds, Kurtis Drummond, Max Bullough

And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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Forever tied together because of their consecutive tenures at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio are nonetheless polar opposites on the coaching spectrum. Dantonio’s teams embody the Big Ten archetype, built around a power offense and an aggressive defense. Kelly made his name at Cincinnati putting up points by the minute, spreading defenses out and turning Saturday afternoons into track meets.

As we’ve spent much of September debating the merits of Notre Dame rivalries, another comes this Saturday as the battle for the Megaphone Trophy comes to South Bend. After losing in gut-wrenching fashion in the first battle of Cincinnati coaches past, Dantonio gutted the Irish will a fake field goal in overtime, with “Little Giants” putting the game in the record books and Dantonio in the hospital with a mild heart attack after the victory. Kelly has had the better of the Spartans in the two years sense then, winning fairly easily in ’10, and then going to East Lansing and shutting down the then ranked No. 10 team in the country in a defensive showdown.

Watching it all has been Chris Vannini, who spends his time writing about Spartan football at The Only Colors and as the lead writer at CoachingSearch.com. Chris was kind enough to answer my numerous questions and pump out some really good stuff that’ll get everybody ready for a game that has plenty of subplots.

Enjoy.

Not all 3-0 records are created equal. It hasn’t exactly been easy sledding for the Spartans these first three games, especially offensively. Last Saturday against Youngstown State, things seemed to click. What’s been the problem for the offense? Was last week part of the solution or simply playing Youngstown State?

Problems? Where to start. Just about everything was a problem other than the running backs in the first two weeks. The line couldn’t block, the receivers couldn’t get open nor catch, the quarterbacks couldn’t find guys and the play-calling was odd. Then, against Youngstown State, everything clicked. Sure, part of it was playing Youngstown State, but when the offense couldn’t move the ball against two of the worst teams in FBS, it was a reason to celebrate a little bit.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the offense is fixed or anything, but it was the first time in more than a calendar year that MSU collectively put together a performance to feel good about. Now we know that this offense can actually do something. The ability to perform against better teams is still yet to be seen, though.

Replacing Dan Roushar has been the combo platter of Jim Bollman and Dave Warner. Assess their work so far? If you were Mark Dantonio and needed to find someone to run the offense, who would you go out and hire?

The Bollman hire was a bit odd, but it he had coached with Dantonio at a few others stops, and familiarity is everything with Dantonio. After last year’s offensive struggles, the new coaches promised changes, so there was reason for optimism. Two games into 2013, everything was the same. Last week saw better execution more than anything, and that obviously makes play-calling easier. The hope is that things are figured out. Bollman is a consultant between series, while Warner calls the plays. As for finding someone to run the offense, it’s all about familiarity, as I said. Dantonio loves to promote guys who would have been waiting their turn, as Roushar and then Warner were. If the rest of the season plays out like last year, perhaps a change could be made, but it’s not a guarantee. If Dantonio were to make an outside hire for a coordinator position, I have no idea what he would go for, but it would have to be someone who runs an offense with a mobile QB, as MSU has been recruiting for.

Let’s talk about the quarterback position. Is this Connor Cook’s team now?

It’s his team now, with an asterisk. He’s getting all the first-team reps and is the No. 1 quarterback. But if he struggles beyond belief or is injured at Notre Dame, I believe Andrew Maxwell would take over. MSU knows what it has with him, so first-team reps aren’t as important in practice. It’s not “Cook or die,” but he’s the No. 1 QB about as much as one can be after a quarterback battle.

On the flip side of the ball, the defense has been tremendous and sits at the statistical top of the heap after three game? Is there a regression coming? Or is this just another really, really good Pat Narduzzi defense?

A regression is coming simply because of the opponents, but this will still be a really good Narduzzi defense. It’s a senior-laden group that has been making the negative plays (sacks, TFLs, INTs) that were there in 2011 but were missing a year ago. The front four has been able to wreak havoc on its own, which is important for every team. The young players that have replaced last year’s starters haven’t missed a beat: defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Taiwan Jones and cornerback Trae Waynes.

The Notre Dame offense has run hot and cold this season. How do you see Narduzzi attacking it on Saturday?

This, to me, is the most interesting storyline. Based on what I’ve seen in the past two weeks, opponents have sat back in coverage and forced Notre Dame to dink and dunk down the field, waiting for the Irish to make a mistake. That’s not MSU’s style. This is a heavy blitzing team that leaves its corners on islands, expecting the pressure to force a bad throw. As a result, the defense can be susceptible for some big plays. You’re not going to dink and dunk down the field against this defense, but a big play or two can lead to scores. Narduzzi is all about not allowing an inch, but the past few weeks have shown that it’s OK to allow inches, just not big yards to ND. I can’t see MSU sitting back and only rushing four, even if those four can get some pressure. It’s just not what they do.

Name one player on offense and one player on defense that should give Irish fans nightmares this week.

On offense, I’m going to go with Cook because of his dual-threat ability. Devin Gardner was able to break contain and make plays against Notre Dame, while Purdue’s Rob Henry was able to move enough to keep plays alive. Cook is a big guy that brings the mobility that Maxwell doesn’t have. Given MSU’s poor offensive line performances against the Irish in recent years, he may be on the move a lot.

On defense, it should be Calhoun. He’s actually a better pass-rusher than Will Gholston, who left early for the NFL. He has two sacks, three TFLs, eight QB hurries, an interception and three fumble recoveries. Through two games, he was almost outscoring MSU’s offense, with two of the fumbles and the one interception returned for a touchdown. He’s a fast guy that gets the edge quickly.

Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio have an “interesting” relationship. After Little Giants, Kelly has gotten the better of Dantonio the past two season, winning by large margins both in South Bend and East Lansing. Is this a game that brings out the best in Dantonio, his staff and the Spartans?

If not for that fake field goal, Dantonio could very well be 0-3 against Kelly. I think you’re going to see MSU throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. How effective that will be is hard to say. As we talked about, MSU only has one good performance out of three games against lowly opponents. But it’s good that it was the most-recent one. There’s some positive vibes around that haven’t been there for quite some time. Whatever the plan is, this game is going to come down to whether or not MSU’s offensive line can hold up. The Irish defensive line has destroyed the Spartans for the past two years. MSU has a full offensive line — it hasn’t in the past two years — but some guys are a little nicked up. If MSU can’t block, it’s over, and there’s not much of a way to gameplan against that. If they can block, then things can open up.

***

Read more from Chris and the team over at The Only Colors, or follow on Twitter @TheOnlyColors or @ChrisVannini.

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. 

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.