Notre Dame v Arizona State

USC Mailbag

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Without further ado, here are some answers to your mailbag questions.

ndcanuck: Is USC more or less dangerous Saturday without Lane Kiffin? And can we get “Crazy Train” banned from the PA for this game? Come on Keith – you’ve got some pull, right?

I think they’re way more dangerous. The worst thing has already happened. The head coach is fired and uncertainty hit them, and… well, things are okay. Last week’s victory was huge from a morale perspective, and while some are laughing at the mess, the Trojans are still 4-2 with a lot they can still accomplish this season.

As for Crazy Train — They BETTER PLAY IT. It now stands as that wonderful inside joke song that I hope keeps a permanent spot in the rotation at Notre Dame Stadium, if only because it empowers this group to laugh at itself.

irishdodger: What strategy do u think Diaco will install to contain Marquise Lee & Nelson Agholor?

I think it’ll be similar to what we’ve seen in the past — a lot of cushion and respect, and a group of defenders flocking to the football. I don’t think Notre Dame wants to get into a football game where they’re needing to cover either of these guys one on one. That’s a losing proposition for any defensive back.

Just because Cody Kessler completed a couple deep shots down the field last week doesn’t mean this team is turning into a vertical passing offense. I expect a ton of playaction, establishing the run game, and some high percentage throws that set up Lee and Agholor to get yards after the catch.

oldestguard: Whats the risk / reward of protecting Malik Zaire’s redshirt considering the ambiguities of who will be available to QB next year ? Does Golson have to re-apply ? When would this re-applicaton process take place ?

You aren’t the first person to ask this, but let’s walk through my logic on why taking Zaire’s redshirt off was always a dumb idea.

a) Assuming that Zaire gave Notre Dame a better chance to win this year was a pretty huge leap. Especially when mono sidelined him for much of the first month.

b) All reports have Everett Golson coming back to school in the winter. Brian Kelly talks with him regularly and he’ll be back in at the semester break and participating in spring football.

c) It’s been a while since I had to read Notre Dame’s honor code or Du Lac, and thankfully I never ran into trouble like this in the classroom, but it’s highly likely that the reapplication process has already taken place and that Golson is cleared to return while on scholarship. From the sounds of it, this has already been discussed with Golson’s family, Kelly, ND administrations, the whole crew.

d) Currently, Golson isn’t taking classes, but training in San Diego. That leads me to believe academically he’ll be fine after sitting this semester out.

e) There’s little chance that Zaire will beat Golson out for the starting job next season, even if he did play some football this year. Would you start his clock now with the understanding that Zaire will likely be the No. 2 guy next season, likely forcing him to waste three of his four years of eligibility not as QB1?

charlie617: Who would you say is the more dangerous receiver this year (or which would you worry about more if you were a defensive coordinator), TJ Jones or Marqise Lee ? Keep in mind, here are their stats through the first half of the season:

Lee – 5 games, 30 catches, 385 yards, 12.8 YPC, 1 touchdown
Jones – 6 games, 33 catches, 481 yards, 14.6 YPC, 4 touchdowns

I think TJ Jones is a fine football player. But let’s compare last year’s stats to help complete this picture:

Lee – 13 games, 118 catches, 1,721 yards, 14.6 YPC, 14 TDs (1 KO return TD)
Jones –  13 games, 50 catches, 649 yards, 13.0 YPC, 4 TDs

Come on, Charlie. I think the answer is pretty easy: Lee. He’s a Heisman level talent and will likely be one of the first receivers picked in the NFL Draft.

jerseyshorendfan1: Keith, I’m having some folks over to watch the game and I always try to do a food theme that loosely relates to the culture of the area where the opponent is from. For example, if we were playing Miami there would be some Cuban sandwiches and Mojitos. BC would get some lobster, New England clam chowder and Sam Adams. Get it? Problem is, I’m stuck on this weeks game. I’m thinking self serve taco bar, some guac and chips and some ice cold Tecate. Or I thought some nice sushi that I order in with some Sapporos. As a SoCal guy, what would scream La La Land to you?

I don’t think you could go wrong with some Pacificos and slow cooked carnitas tacos. Get some corn tortillas, fresh guac, and pico and there you go. (Thank you for reminding me that I’m hungry.) Also –A staple outside the LA Memorial Coliseum is the bacon-wrapped hot dog. Strange but true.

steincj36: With Grace gone, has the 2 deep across the LB changed? Will we see more nickel and dime packages to get more talent on the field?

It did. It got A LOT thinner. Dan Fox will be backed up by Joe Schmidt. Carlo Calabrese will be backed up by Kendall Moore. Michael Deeb is the emergency guy behind them. I expect Fox to be the linebacker that stays on the field in nickel and dime packages instead of Grace.

vicpaul: Hey Keith, pretty sure I heard that we laid new sod from goal-line to goal-line, What’s the deal with that? I know that’s not the turf BK wants in there but I also know that the grass has looked brutal from game one vs Temple. What were they doing all summer in there?

They re-sodded the field over bye week. I don’t think the maintenance crew had an answer for mother nature, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and understand that Brian Kelly wants a new playing surface in Notre Dame Stadium.

If they can’t figure out how to install something like what the Green Bay Packers have or Michigan State, I think they need to put field turf in the stadium, especially with the Irish now the faster team on the field most Saturdays.

(Not to take it easy on the grounds crew, but I know they’ve spent a ton of man hours working on the field, even bringing in George Toma, basically the Godfather of groundskeepers.)

If I had to guess the new repurposing and remodel of the stadium will include a new surface.

irishlee10: I won’t be able to watch the game on tv. Is there anyway I can stream the game on my iPhone?

So glad you asked, Lee. Download the NBC Sports LiveEXTRA app, and that should do it for you.

yllibnosredna: I have the feeling that this game could turn into a 2011 redux editon. It seems similar in a lot of ways: Night Game, loads of hype, tons of promising recruits, Tommy Rees at QB, a supposedly inferior (although dangerous and talented) USC squad.

Give three reasons why ND fans should feel that the outcome will be different from 2011 this Saturday night.

tburke9601: Hey Keith, Is all the doom and gloom gone for the rest of the season if ND wins or are we going to continue to hear about Tommy’s limitations and the bad play calling every week?

I’m bunching these questions together because they seem to go together. It’s not hard to find similarities between this game and the ’11 game. Although Lane Kiffin went on to beat Oregon in Eugene that year, and this year he’ll be watching from his couch in Manhattan Beach.

Big games are what you play for. If you don’t want to play in a game filled with hype, packed with recruits and pressure, you’re at the wrong place.

If Notre Dame wins this game, all of a sudden a back-door BCS run is in the cards. Even with three losses you can make an argument that they’ll still have a shot at a bid. And while I want it to stop, there’s no way we aren’t talking about Tommy Rees the rest of the season.

andy44teg: What would you put the odds at of:
ND blows out USC
USC blows out ND
ND wins a squeaker
USC wins a squeaker

ND blow out: 15%
USC blow out: 5%
ND squeaker: 50%
USC squeaker: 30%

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

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.