Jarron Jones, Stephon Tuitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

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What a difference a win makes.

With the Irish back in South Bend with a week off before needing to prepare for Southern Cal, Notre Dame can look to the second half of the season, where the schedule could stack up nicely for a late season showdown against Stanford, who survived a scare from Washington late last night.

In a game that swung back and forth quite a few times, the Irish made the plays they needed to make to get the win, all while reminding us that this team is still a work in progress. Let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s wild 37-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman linebacker led the Irish in tackles, making nine stops, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Playing his best game in a Notre Dame uniform, Smith’s growing before our eyes, something that Brian Kelly talked about Sunday in his weekly conference call.

“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game‑to‑game basis,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest improvement is that he’s learning football and how he’s being attacked at his position week‑in and week‑out.”

Matched up with a set of very quick receivers and a mobile quarterback, Smith was up to the task, while still learning on the job. Crack back blocks, containment on the edge, and different pass coverage responsibilities are all part of what he’ll need to master. But Smith’s got the opportunity to do a lot of great things, many that we noticed Saturday night.

Prince Shembo. He was a man on a mission, playing primarily with his hand on the ground. Shembo reminded Irish fans — and opposing coaching staffs — why the quick passing game might be mandatory, as he was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Stephon Tuitt. Another really impressive football game for Tuitt, who is playing a ridiculous amount of snaps and doing a really nice job. Tuitt had a key strip sack and was a step away from a couple others, forcing Kelly to run for his life on a a few occasions.

Kelly talked about Tuitt’s recovery from offseason surgery, and his plans for Tuitt’s week off, a break desperately needed for the 6-6 defensive end.

“He needs rest,” Kelly said. “The surgery that he had has affected his back, it’s affected his hip flexors… Some people dismiss it and say, well, you know, you just had minor surgery.  Well, it’s affected a lot of things.  This is a big man, and you know, he’s really struggled all week with back tightness.”

Tuitt answered the bell, playing a key role for the Irish and playing at a high level for much of the evening.

TJ Jones. In my final thoughts before kickoff, I had Jones tabbed as the team’s most important offensive player. He did more than that, contributing a big return on special teams as well as he led the offense with a rock solid performance.

Against a defense that played basically man to man all evening, Jones and Tommy Rees being in lock-step was essential.

“I think really Tommy feels comfortable knowing where he’s going to be getting in and out of his breaks,” Kelly said. “You know, some of the younger guys, at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily.”

Dan Fox. After losing his starting job, Fox came back in and played a ton of good football after Jarrett Grace went down. Fox made seven tackles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

A great job by a veteran that’s going to be counted on down the stretch.

Cam McDaniel. Heckuva job by the Texan who ran for the tough yards down the stretch. After suffering what looked like a stinger on a violent head-to-head collision, McDaniel came right back in and continued carrying the load.

Ben Koyack. He’s been a punching bag more than a few times in his three seasons in South Bend, but Koyack came through in the clutch with a big touchdown and some solid blocking, playing the role of a fullback more than a few times.

The Pass Protection. Facing a relentless blitzing defense, Harry Hiestand’s crew did their jobs immaculately, not giving up a sack of Tommy Rees. On the year, the pass blocking as been rock solid, giving up just four sacks on over 200 throws.

THE BAD

Tough injuries to Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith. Nobody wants to lose a guy for the season, and on Saturday night the Irish lost two. Grace spent the night in Dallas, getting a rod inserted in his fibula. Smith has a fracture in his ankle that’ll end his career playing for Notre Dame.

Kelly talked about the loss of both, with Grace being the biggest blow on the field and Smith being a tough one to stomach in the locker room.

“Jarrett had surgery this morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly explained. “He’ll spend the next couple of nights there.  Just talked to him, got off the phone.  His spirits are good.  You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months.  But obviously a big loss for us.”

Kelly also talked about the loss of Smith, whose injury became an emotional moment during halftime.

“I usually don’t use a win‑one‑for‑the‑Gipper talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked about losing Danny and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame.  He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Giving up big third and fourth down conversions. For as well as the Irish defense played, they gave up two critical conversions on third and fourth down. The Sun Devils converted a clutch fourth down beating Austin Collinsworth in man coverage, and then found a hole in Notre Dame’s zone defense on third and 20, especially back-breaking considering that the Irish called a timeout to get on the same page before the play, and ASU tied the game later on that drive.

Add in some uneven play by both Collinsworth and Matthias Farley and there’s still plenty of work to be done by the back end of the defense. As many wondered, Kelly was asked about the progress of Max Redfield, wondering what could be taking so long for the young freshman.

“He’s getting closer and closer,” Kelly said of Redfield. “There’s so many calls, so many things going on out there. It’s a quarterback position when you’re out there at that safety position.  It’s not just dropping into cover two.”

Nick Martin’s struggles. With multiple snap infraction calls and some confusion on another false start call, it appears that his match-up with Will Sutton kept Martin’s attention divided.

It wasn’t all bad for Martin. Sutton made just three tackles on the night, with one coming on TJ Jones’ punt return.

THE UGLY

Other than Kyle Brindza’s snap-hook mulligan on his first field goal attempt, that he more than made up for with his clutch kicking the rest of the game, the ugly category is going to stay deservedly empty.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

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.