TJ Jones, Taylor Richards

Michigan State mailbag

28 Comments

Another week, another mailbag.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie in the comments section. It’s starting to feel like our big, dysfunction, happy family is starting to get along. Maybe 12-win regular seasons really help the spirits!

As usual, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Feel free to correct me in the comments (also as usual).

@dickasman: Will Tuitt and Nix breakout this game? How’s MSU OL?

Ah, Dicky. A football question! So nice of you. I think this is one of the more interesting match-ups going because the offensive line for the Spartans has been pretty shaky. Just a quick glance through their depth chart and you’ll see five underclassmen in their two deep, including starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle.

So if there’s a game for the Irish to get some pressure on a young quarterback who up until last week was 12 for 27 for 74 yards, this might be the game.

@JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.

 

@JCirba: Does Tuitt, Shembo, or anybody reach double digit sacks this year?

Can I tell you after Saturday? I think you’ve obviously hit on the two guys that can do it. But we’ve yet to see Shembo get on track, even though he was mighty close to three or four sacks against Temple. (That said, his sacks come in bunches.)

This weekend looks like it could be a favorable match-up for both guys, but you might see a bunch of max protect looks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Before the season started, I thought both Tuitt and Shembo could get to double digits. We’ll know better after this weekend.

@mfmitchell88: Do you think it would be beneficial for Kelly & co. to eval. their own tendencies? We seem to be very predictable/scouted.

Every coaching staff self scouts. Brian Kelly’s does too. (Bill Belichick came in during the offseason and did some evaluation of how the Irish systems ran, so it’s not for lack of brain power.)

That said, I think the one criticism that’s been valid so far of the offense is that it’s been a bit predictable with some of it’s formational looks. Now Oregon is mighty predictable with its formations and tendencies, too. Stopping it is another story.

The offense will likely continue to add wrinkles as the season progresses. They did against Michigan and opened things up in the second half against Purdue. But yeah — I get that when you see Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas spread wide with TJ Jones in the slot that the Irish are likely throwing a screen to Jones. And the Irish’s screen offense wasn’t all that effective against Purdue. So a few change-ups are probably necessary.

don74: Of the following what group is most likely to “break out” this week: The coaching staff (BK, CM, BD), the ILB’s, the secondary or the RB’s? OL not mentioned, if the RB’s break out they did their job.

I’m going to say that the inside linebackers could have a nice Saturday. It’s going to be a physical match-up between the front sevens, and I think Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace should log quite a few tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on: Connor Cook. He’s an elusive kid and that’s given this defense some pains. A big play free secondary performance would also be very nice, and could spell victory for the Irish.

BlackIrish23: Looking beyond Daniels and Jones, who else do you see as having the potential to create additional match up problems from all these teams daring Rees to beat them with his arm?

I think this is the best personnel Notre Dame has had at wide receiver since the early Weis days, and probably much deeper. Forcing any team to look past their best two receivers is a mixed bag, but I think ND feels confident that a guy like Chris Brown can do some damage against defenses, especially as a third option. And just because we haven’t seen much of him yet, Corey Robinson is a guy that’ll be a real headache to defensive coordinators.

What about Troy Niklas? A 6-7, 270-pound Thor lookalike doesn’t seem all that fun to cover. And we’ve seen James Onwualu and Will Fuller get their chances as well. And CJ Prosise had a big catch after having a nice spring in the slot.

If Michigan State tries putting their secondary on an island with the Irish receivers, it could be a long day if Tommy Rees is accurate.

(Speaking of Tommy…)

@dudeacow: Tommy Rees would have passed 1000 yards already if not for a few drops. If he plays like he’s been playing for the rest of the season, his stat line will look like this: 4200 yards, 61%, 28-8 td/int. too early to include in an all-America conversation?

I believe the stat I saw this week is that Rees is leading all quarterbacks in the country in yardage against FBS teams. Project out those numbers for a full season and indeed — Rees will be having a very nice senior season, though I think it’s too early to talk about things like All-American awards.

I’m cutting this answer short until after this weekend. Then we can take another look.

andy44teg: How much stock do you seriously put into MSU having the top ranked D in the country this early in the year? Before last week Alabama had like the 115th ranked offense and we all saw how they spanked TAMU’s D.

Ah, good old sample size questions. Of course, there’s a big grain of salt along with that stat, but it sure sounds good. (Kind of like beating Michigan State when they were a “top ten” team last year.) No, they haven’t played anyone. But they’ve got really talented personnel and the defense has scored almost more points than the offense.

So underestimate them at your own peril.

@mtflsmitty: Based on your experience reading posts from the characters over the years, please write a short, fictional bio for:
– Historian
– Bern
– Dick
– Nude

I am staying so far away from this question it’s ridiculous. But I’d probably end up asking my mom for the answer to this one, as she spends quite a bit of time reading through the comments, asking me about the crew and worrying about all of you when skirmishes erupt and naughty things are said.

(Perhaps I’ll put her on the job and get back to you guys next week. But don’t get your hopes up, she’s a busy lady!)

I only step in once in a while. Most writers stay out of the comments section for their own mental health. And because, well — we’re writing the articles.

sm29irish: I know Prince and Ishaq are ahead of him but do you think Romeo Okwara could be used situationally to put more pressure on qb haven’t seen much of him this year? Also, what happened to the leprecat formation where Slaughter was successful. I think Shumate or Jaylon would really flourish in that position if it was implemented again at times.

This question was right on the brink of being too long to answer. But here goes: I don’t think Okwara is necessarily the answer as a situational pass rusher. He’s always the guy that swings over to the field side, which says more about his athleticism than his pass rush abilities.

What the leprecat Slaughter? I thought that was ND’s version of the Wildcat, which was used sparsely early in the Kelly era. What you’re likely thinking of is when Slaughter dropped down to play outside linebacker, taking over for Prince Shembo when he was at the Drop position. This was more of a product of personnel deficiencies, and Jaylon Smith is the answer there.

Smith’s been put in that spot already and done a nice job. As for Shumate, I think he’s finding life a bit more complicated than last season, where he covered slot receivers and let his athleticism take over. Don’t give up on him yet though. At this point in Harrison Smith’s career, Irish fans were ready to run him out of town.

sweetnd: 1) How much longer will Kiffin be coach at U$C? Forever (I hope). Or if he loses four games this season, until about December 1, after they get beat by UCLA again.
2) Why does Zahm suck? Why is the sky blue? (Love dorm rivalry questions…)
3) If Tommy throws for 4,000 yards and 28 td’s will he get drafted? If so what round? Good question. I don’t think so, but he’ll find his way to a training camp.
4) what’s your prediction? Will ND cover the spread? Predictions aren’t my thing. But if the past two seasons are any indication, this game will feel closer than the score is.

onward2victory: Coach Kelly won’t come out and say it, but do you think TJ Jones is healthy? He got banged up against Michigan and didn’t seem like himself against Purdue.

He looked pretty healthy making that circus catch near the pylon last week. I think Jones is fine, though he was a little banged up after the Michigan game. (I spoke with him then and he said he was fine, only that he got a pretty bad stinger, something he hasn’t had since high school.)

If Jones ISN’T healthy, you’ll probably see him come off punt return first. And if it’s an upper body issue, that’s far better than an ankle tweak or a sore knee. Let’s remember, Jones only hit 50 catches in a season for the first time last year. He’s already got 19 catches through three games.

lambda02750: Do you anticipate an increase in carries for the freshman backs this weekend?

Not really. But if one of the guys gets hot, they’ll keep getting the rock. But I just don’t think this is the type of game where you go out and force a ball into the least experienced guy on the team’s hands.

Let’s not turn this into another one of those only-at-Notre-Dame self-fulfilling prophesies, where fans get so upset that it turns Greg Bryant upset, and he starts looking around for better opportunities. We routinely saw Charlie Weis’s teams wilt down the stretch when the negativity just overwhelmed them.

(That and a lack of a defensive front…)

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
1 Comment

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)
Getty
12 Comments

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
Getty
6 Comments

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)
28 Comments

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.