Tommy Trojan

And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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There is no better intersectional rivalry in college football than the one between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. Started in 1926, and now meeting for the 85th time, the Irish lead the all-time series 44-35, with five ties between the two teams.

With quite a bit of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the USC football program, I reached out to our old friend Shotgun Spratling to see what exactly is happening around Troy. In between writing at Conquest Chronicles, College Baseball Daily, SCPlaybook Magazine and Neon Tommy, Shotgun had some great insight into this Saturday night’s game.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1) Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin after just five games. Did he have much of a choice? What were the last two weeks like at USC? Was Thursday night’s win cathartic?

After the Arizona State game, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The same issues that were problematic over the tumultuous final 11 games (4-7) under Kiffin were present in Tempe. USChad trouble blocking up front, struggled to make second-half adjustments and saw breakdowns in the secondary.

Pat Haden likely believed he didn’t have a choice. He had seen what Kiffin could do and knew that a firing was inevitable, so instead of waiting until the end of the year, he went ahead and made the decision sooner rather than later, very similar to his midseason firing of hoops coach Kevin O’Neill earlier this year.

Since the Kiffin firing, there has been a renewed energy and excitement surrounding the team. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron is known for his infectious gravely Cajun voice and for his ability to destroy energy drinks on a regular basis.

His exuberance has permeated the team and spread to the fans as well. He brought back desserts to the training table meals. There was a team movie viewing the night before the Arizona game. Marcus Allen, Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis have spoke with the team. Orgeron allowed the media back into practice, giving fans more access to information. They are all small changes, but it is swinging things back to the Pete Carroll rah-rah, fun culture and people are excited about the rest of the season.

That was on display Thursday night. Though there may have only been 50,000 fans actually in attendance (over 62,000 officially), it was a very boisterous 50K. And Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was calling plays for the first time with USC, gave the fans what they wanted — downfield passing, using the middle of the field and giving several players opportunities to make plays.

2) Help me understand what’s going on with the Trojan defense. Statistically, they do some very impressive things. Yet they’ve also turned in two really mediocre performances in a row, albeit against two solid offenses.

How has Clancy Pendergast done in his first season running the defense?

USC’s defense has indeed been enigmatic. After shutting down Boston College’s Andre Williams, one of the best backs in the country this season, and the dynamic Chuckie Keaton of Utah State, the Trojans showed huge flaws against the Arizona schools.The biggest issue has been the secondary, just as it was last season. Clancy Pendergast relies on an attacking defense and when he brings extra defenders, that leaves a porous secondary in one-on-one situations — the exact goal of the spread option attack.

The key is getting pressure on the quarterback, which has been hit and miss. Leonard Williams and George Uko have been beasts on the line. Outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard have made some big plays, but Breslin has missed two games already and is questionable this weekend.

Combine Breslin and a couple of defensive backs being banged up with USC’s scholarship limitations and there is a noticeable difference in the defense’s performance late in games. On the season, opponent’s offensive scoring increases each quarter from only 7 first quarter points to 46 in the fourth quarter.

While there are some technique issues with the Trojans struggling to contain the read option and the jet sweeps Arizona State ran successfully in the second half, depth issues are a legit concern. Give Pendergast a full roster of USC-caliber defenders that he is able to rotate in more freely and I think there is a noticeable difference from what we have seen the last two games.

3) It looks like injuries are once again killing the Trojans. Marqise Lee is questionable. A half-dozen other contributors could be limited. How bad is it? Will the luck of the Irish once again come in the form of a depleted USC roster.

Along with some of the defensive depth issues I touched on above, the Trojans have been absolutely decimated at the wide receiver position. After Lee went down in the Arizona game, Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell, who had previously missed time, were the only two scholarship receivers on the roster. Walk-ons George Katrib and Robby Kolanz had to be used in the regular rotation. USC also lost starting running back Tre Madden and future NFL tight end Xavier Grimble in the first half of that game.

The good news, however, is that the team is getting healthy. Senior running back Silas Redd returned from knee surgery last week. Receivers Darreus Rogers and De’Von Flournoy have returned to full practice this week. Lee has returned to practice in a limited role but expects to play Saturday. Grimble is probable and cornerback Anthony Brown should be back for the first time since the season opener.

Besides Lee, the biggest question mark is Breslin. It’s tough having your best offensive and defensive weapons out at the same time, but J.R. Tavai had a monster game in Breslin’s place last Thursday and Agholor proved he can fill Lee’s void if necessary.

4) Let’s get to the quarterback situation. It looks like Cody Kessler is playing better football after a pretty so-so start. What did the Trojans do differently against Arizona? After beating out Max Wittek, what’s Kessler’s ceiling? Is he a guy that can be a star, or is he keeping the position warm?

Kessler was hindered by very conservative playcalling early in the season, but even more so, by poor offensive line play. As I wrote after the Washington State loss, there were a number of “whiff” blocks that killed the Trojans. As the offensive line started to come together, the playbook opened up a bit. But against Arizona, Helton forced the issue, pushing the ball down the field to Agholor and using the middle of the field to take advantage of USC’s dynamic tight end duo and the pass-catching ability of the Trojans’ stable of running backs. Tight ends and running backs can be a quarterback’s best friend, so an increase in throws their way will only help Kessler’s development.

Kessler is a vocal leader — whether it’s in the huddle or in organizing offseason workouts this summer. His teammates respect him. While he doesn’t have the prototypical 6-foot-4 frame and rocket arm that Wittek possesses, Kessler can make every college throw and he is accurate on the run, allowing USC to utilize rollouts rather than relying solely on straight dropbacks. Last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Max Browne, could push Kessler for the starting role next season depending on the new head coach’s assessment of Kessler, but as of now, it’s his job to lose.

5) You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire? Who on this staff do you keep? With UCLA back on track and the Pac-12 one of the deepest conferences in college football, how important is this decision?

I love being other people. If I’m Pat Haden, I shoot for the moon, the stars and maybe even another galaxy. This is USC — an undisputed top five job in college football. I make inquiries with Nick Saban and David Shaw. I call Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Do I expect any of these guys to say yes? Absolutely not, but it never hurts to ask and I want to hear Harbaugh’s reaction. Next I move to Baylor’s Art Briles (imagine the offensive excitement between Briles and basketball coach Andy Enfield), Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

The dark horse is Orgeron, who should be considered depending on the Trojans finish. Regardless, he has to be retained. There are very few people that are as revered around USC than Orgeron (and that was before being named interim coach). He is loved by everyone because of his energy and positivity. Plus, he’s a damn good recruiter and defensive line coach.

This is a huge decision because USC is known for its football. It’s even more imperative with UCLA trending upward. Traditionally the two schools are never strong at the same time. Why not? Who knows? But how much fun would it be if the Crosstown Showdown was determining the Pac-12 South at the end of the season every year?

***

You can read more from Shotgun at Conquest Chronicles and follow him on Twitter @ShotgunSpr

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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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.