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IBG: Life at halfway and Adios Subway Domer

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Our weekly Irish Blogger Gathering is a little late this week, but I’ve got a good excuse. Or not really a good excuse, but so be it — it’s bye week, people.

That said, I did want to take a brief moment and acknowledge the retirement of noted Notre Dame blogger The Subway Domer. He decided to hang up the keyboard after a great run that lasted almost seven years.

One of the greatest parts of my job is the near daily interaction I have not just with commenters and readers but with the blogging “community” that exists surrounding Notre Dame football. There isn’t a day that goes by — or maybe even an hour — where I’m not checking other peoples blogs, messageboards, Twitter feeds, etc. That very well might be a disease that I’ll one day need to kick, but it’s a really cool group to be a part of, even though as a guy that’s collecting a paycheck to do this, I’m just lucky people want to include me.

In an era where thousands of blogs get started and left for dead after the idea wears off, that Joshua was able to keep the train rolling for so long, and do it in such a unique and funny way, is a testament to how good he is at it. He’ll still be on Twitter, and I hope he’ll still be selling his t-shirts (I plan on wearing my purple faced Brian Kelly T this weekend in Vegas), but the blogosphere will miss him, even if he does bring up a few red flags in language filters all across Corporate America’s I.T. departments.

It was Joshua’s idea to start the IBG and it’ll live on without him. But he’s one of the cool people I got a chance to “know” without meeting, a really large group that I’m happy to call friends, even if my wife does think it’s weird.

Onward to the IBG, where Frank over at UHND.com answered my questions. As usual, here are the other participants in the weekly excitement:

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

As usual, play along in the comments.

1) Who’s your first-half MVP on offense and defense? Rookie of the Year Offensive Defense? 

First half MVP on offense would have to be TJ Jones.  Jones has really stepped into the role of being a #1 receiver for this team and has been huge in Notre Dame’s wins over Temple and Arizona State and had a gutty performance against Michigan after getting banged up early on.  Jones is going to crush his personal bests for catches, yards, and touchdowns and in fact he already has tied his career mark for touchdowns.  It’s scary to think of what Jones may have been able to do this year if he had Everett Golson throwing him the football, but even without Golson, Jones is well on his way to the best season of his career and could easily eclipse the 1,000 yard mark given the level of competition the Irish will face down the stretch outside of Stanford.

Offensive rookie of the year is tough because we’ve seen a couple frosh show flashes of their potential but not much consistency yet.  Tarean Folston, Corey Robinson, and Will Fuller have all made a few plays so far but haven’t been too consistent.  With that in mind, I will go with Steve Elmer here. Elmer’s been a very solid backup in the offensive line rotation and should give Irish fans a lot of hope that the left tackle position will be in very capable hands after Zack Martin moves on the NFL after this year.

Defensively, I’ll go with Louis Nix.  Even though his stats aren’t eye popping and his presence may not be as visible as it was last year, Nix has been doing exactly what he needs to do in this defense – eating up space, occupying blockers, and creating opportunities for plays for his fellow defenders.  With the drop off in production from Stephon Tuitt after his off-season surgery and the big plays the secondary has given up that they didn’t a year ago, Nix’s presence might not be felt as much as it was a year ago, but Big #1 is doing his job very well this year.

Rookie of the year on defense is easy.  Jaylon Smith.  Through the first few weeks Smith showed flashes of his 5-star potential, but against Arizona State it was on full display.  This kid is going to be a big time player for the Irish and is going to make a lot of plays throughout his career.

2) Give me your high-water mark after the first six games? What’s been rock bottom?

Sadly, I think the high water mark might be the first five minutes of the first game of the year against Temple. Notre Dame came storming out of the gates during the first five minutes of the season and it looked like we might finally have a high flying offense on our hands. That ended up not lasting too long unfortunately as the offense has struggled to maintain that level of success since then. Notre Dame hasn’t really had an impressive, start to finish victory where the outcome was never in doubt and has fallen behind quickly most weeks.

Notre Dame’s 4th quarter flurry against Purdue was a lot of fun, but it’s tough to qualify that as a high water mark since it came against a pretty brutal Purdue team and the Irish should have never been in that situation to begin with so it was more a sigh of relief than anything else.

There’s been a few great plays that were exciting at the time, but since the Irish were unable to capitalize on momentum after them, they wouldn’t necessarily qualify as high water marks. I’m thinking of Tuitt’s interception in the endzone against Michigan and George Atkinson’s long touchdown against Oklahoma. Unfortunately Notre Dame never got any closer in those contests than they did at those points though so those moments were pretty short lived.

3) You have a magic potion that improves one specific player on the Irish roster 25%. Who are you using it on and what will that improvement do for the Irish?

My initial reaction to this one was Tommy Rees since I really think this offense is an elite quarterback away from being prolific, but I’m not sure that improving him 25% would turn him into an elite quarterback. Still, if Rees were to just cut down on the mental mistakes and had the arm strength to hit the deep balls that he has consistently under thrown all season – especially in the Arizona State game – this offense would have put up a lot more points this season and the Irish would very likely be 5-1 at worst heading into the bye.

One other name that popped into my head was Stephon Tuitt since I think it’s pretty clear Tuitt is feeling the effects of his off-season surgery and the time he lost in the weight room. He just isn’t the same dominant player that he was a year ago. If he was, this defense would not be giving up points at the rate in which they are right now and the Irish pass rush would not have been one of the worst in the country heading into last week before their 6 sack breakout against the Sun Devils.

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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
247 Sports
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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.