Prince Shembo

Pregame Six Pack: Shamrocks and Sun Devils

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A Shamrock Series game is usually known for its alternate location and nontraditional uniforms. But when Notre Dame and Arizona State battle in primetime on Saturday night, it might also decide the season. As the Irish take on Todd Graham’s dangerous Sun Devils squad, Notre Dame is likely playing for their BCS lives. A win pushes the Irish to 4-2 heading into their bye week. It’ll likely also reinvigorate the Irish before taking on a wayward USC team, optimistically leading them into a stretch of football games that could get the Irish finally playing up to their potential.

Of course, after watching the Sun Devils blow USC out in the second half, Las Vegas has the Irish as almost a touchdown underdog tomorrow night, leading to the very real possibility that Notre Dame could be .500 after Saturday night, a disappointment at every level, with a bumpy road still ahead.

While the Irish aren’t ranked after two September losses, there are still national implications to Saturday night’s game. It’s time for the pregame six pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Sun Devils.

***

After two tight games with Todd Graham, Brian Kelly is going to need to bring his best on Saturday night. 

Neither guy wearing the headset is playing the game. (It’s tough to call what Graham wears on the sideline a headset, but you get the idea.) Yet the chess match between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham is one to watch. Both Graham and Kelly are well regarded coaches, with both thought to be incredibly ambitious. That ambition has put both coaches in some tough spaces, with Graham making more than a few eyebrow raising moves in his career, walking away from two head coaching jobs after just a single season on the job. Kelly is equally ambitious, leaving two programs before their season was over and shocking many when he spoke with the Philadelphia Eagles just a day after losing the national championship.

After Graham stole a victory away from Kelly when Tulsa came in and shocked the Irish, Kelly won ugly at Pittsburgh. The rubber match is a game both coaches desperately need, and one that’ll likely define the trajectory of each team’s season.

***

Playing another defense that’s going to challenge him with man coverage, can Tommy Rees get back on track?

It’s been a tough couple weeks for Tommy Rees. No stat has defined that more than his completion percentage, with Rees struggling to even sniff 50 percent passing against Michigan State and Oklahoma. Heading into the season as the school’s most accurate passer in its history, Rees’s numbers just don’t make sense, even when you consider that the Irish have pushed the ball down field more aggressively than they had ever in the past.

On his weekly appearance on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook with Jack Arute and former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, Kelly was asked pointedly about Rees’s struggles, and he gave this window into the varying reasons.

“It’s all man to man coverage, the last two weeks has been straight man to man. Part of it has been, you’re not getting any cupcake throws,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “So he’s got to be able to connect at probably a 55 percent completion ratio.

“In our estimation, he missed his last seven in a row late in the game on some basic stuff. He had three of them knocked down,  two of them on poor routes, and one of them where we got pushed back into the pocket. We’re talking about a little bit of everything. Not being accurate enough in man to man coverage. We’re talking about a number of young receivers not getting open in man coverage, not doing a good job of stair stepping or coming off rubs or making tough catches in man to man coverage, and that’s all adding up to a poor completion percentage rating.”

Here’s how Rees has faired against Todd Graham’s defense:

33 of 54 for 334 4 TD, 3 INT
24 of 41 for 215 1 TD, 1 INT

That’s a 60 percent completion number, which falls into the accuracy range Kelly wants for his quarterback. But if Rees is throwing more than 40 times on Saturday night, the Irish are in trouble.

***

Slowing down Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils offense is key. But keep an eye on the hidden yardage as well. 

In a game where some Sun Devils players thought they could’ve put up 80 points, a big key to Arizona State’s 62-point explosion was field position. Todd Graham’s troops started in plus territory three times against USC, while the Trojans never started on the Sun Devil’s side of the fifty.

There’s a stark contrast in field position for Graham’s squads when it comes to wins and losses. In victories, the average starting field position has been the team’s own 37.4 yard line, while in losses its been their own 23.7.

As Kyle Brindza gets more comfortable handling kickoffs and punts, with Alex Wulfeck working in as a situational punter, forcing the Sun Devils to go the distance on their scoring drives will be key if the Irish are going to keep ASU’s points down.

***

Hidden Yardage is cool and all, but getting off the field is imperative. 

Apologies to Brindza and Wulfeck, but neither guy is getting the game ball this Saturday night for his punting. If the Irish are going to win this football game they’re going to need to get off the field on third down.

Right now, Notre Dame’s defense ranks a wretched 91st in the country on third downs, allowing opponents to convert at better than a 42 percent clip. That’s helped opponents extend drives, score points, and win football games.

Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com took a look at one of the big differences between this defense and last year’s edition, with this group already giving up ten touchdown drives of 75-yards or more.

No statistic is more startling than the number of long scoring drives surrendered by the Irish in five games this year. Temple equaled the number of 75-yard touchdown drives from the previous season in the first half of the first game.

Michigan added four more lengthy touchdown drives of 77, 75, 78 and 75 yards. Purdue had a pair of 75-yarders. Michigan State added another. Oklahoma had two, including an 88-yard drive late in the first half.

In 20 quarters of football so far this season, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 10 – repeat, 10 – touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Michigan State also had a 15-play, 75-yard field-goal drive and Oklahoma had a nine-play 65-yard field-goal drive.

A lot of factors go into these struggles — pass rush issues, struggles with man coverage, ill-timed blitzes. But Kelly thinks his defense is close. We’ll find out Saturday night if he’s right.

***

As the season rounds into its second act, freshmen are starting to step forward.

Don’t look know, but that heralded recruiting class Notre Dame landed is going to be called on to start helping win some football games. While some expect Brian Kelly to plug and play elite recruits, that just hasn’t been this coaching staff’s m.o. while in South Bend. Yet slowly but surely, a group many thought was among the best in the country on paper have started to make their presence felt on the field as well.

Let’s take a look at the freshmen that’ll likely be playing a key role on Saturday night:

Jaylon Smith — Starting OLB will carry the load for much of the game with Ben Councell suspended for the first half.
Tarean Folston — Atkinson’s breakout was great, but Folston might have moved into the No. 2 role.
Will Fuller — He’s had catches now in back to back games.
Isaac Rochelle — With Sheldon Day still struggling with an ankle injury, Rochelle’s been called into action early.
Cole Luke — The team’s starting nickel back, Luke will be facing a dangerous offense that plays just ten minutes from his Arizona home.
Corey Robinson — Averaging over 16 yards on his four catches. Is a red zone look coming next?
Steve Elmer — Already a versatile substitute on a group with plenty of depth.
James Onwualu — Yet to make his first catch, Onwualu has been physical blocking and on special teams.
Devin Butler — Another freshman that’s climbed the depth chart, Butler’s getting significant reps in coverage packages.
Max Redfield — The fourth safety on the two-deep, Redfield’s close to seeing the field.

***

Stanford supplied the recipe for beating Arizona State. Now the Irish need to try and replicate it. 

Three fourth quarter touchdowns made Arizona State’s 42-28 loss to Stanford look much more respectable. But if you’re looking for a recipe for victory, David Shaw’s team provided it. Now it’ll be up to the Irish to try and pull it off themselves.

Step One: Get off to a good start.

Believe it or not, Stanford didn’t score on their first possession. (They missed a 51-yard field goal.) But they did on their second. And their third. And kept their foot on the gas with four first half touchdowns.

Step Two: Make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

The Cardinal defense had three sacks of Taylor Kelly at the Farm, while also chipping in an absurd ten TFLs. (The Irish have 20 on the season, good for 104th in the country.)

Step Three: Run the football to win the game.

After jumping out to a 29-point halftime lead, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan only threw the ball five times in the second half, milking 19 minutes off the clock. Stanford was one carry away from hitting the 50 mark. If Notre Dame can run the ball 40 times Saturday night, they’ll have won the football game.

Step Four: Get Arizona State to turn the football over.

In addition to getting to the quarterback and making plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal picked off Kelly twice. The first set up Stanford deep in ASU territory and led to the team’s first touchdown. (The second ended the game.)

Against an offense as explosive as the Sun Devil’s, winning the turnover battle will be key.

 

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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal