Amir Carlisle

Pregame Six Pack: More similar than different

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As Notre Dame and USC get set to do battle for the 85th time in the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, it’s time to acknowledge that both programs see a lot more of themselves in the other one than they care to admit. For the Trojans, that means swallowing their pride and starting over, something Pat Haden did after Lane Kiffin lost seven of his last eleven games and watched his team drive away without him after giving up 62 points. (They can certainly look to Notre Dame for advice on that, the Irish have done it four times in the last 12 years.)

For the Irish, that means acknowledging their envy of the past decade of dominance that Pete Carroll created, a head coach with the type of charisma and strategic intellect that Irish fans have yearned for since they let Lou Holtz walk. Brian Kelly may just be that man, even if he doesn’t get the media cooing like Carroll did with his care-free attitude and surfer vibe.

After breaking an eight-game losing streak, Brian Kelly is hoping to build one of his own, winning against the Trojans for the second straight year, and his third time in four attempts. And while another monster recruiting weekend and home night game have the distractions at an all-time high, Kelly stated very simply the priority of his football team.

“The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment,” Kelly said when asked about the circus surrounding the game. “Just win the damn game.  Win the game.  That’s what you need to do.”

In a game where nearly two dozen players chose between playing football in South Los Angeles or South Bend, we’re having a special edition of the Pregame Six Pack. Instead of leftovers, tidbits and miscellaneous musings, we’re looking at six players who very easily could have been playing for the other team.

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NELSON AGHOLOR: 

USC’s sophomore sensation was one of the Notre Dame coaching staff’s most coveted recruits. While Tony Alford spent months building a relationship with the Tampa native, and the Irish rolled out the red carpet for an official visit in October, Agholor ultimately decided to go west and join the Kiffins, where both Lane and Monte played equal roles in landing the five-star athlete.

Kelly talked about how much he liked the way Agholor played the game earlier this week.

“We love the fact that he could go all day. He’s one of those guys that just runs all day, plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “That’s the kind of player he was.  That’s what we saw.  A guy that plays every single play.  He was a very good defensive player too in high school. So that’s the kind of player, that tenacious, every play, and elite speed and size.  So just a complete player from that standpoint.”

Agholor is coming off a career day, catching seven balls for 161 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. He’ll likely carry much of the load against the Irish as well.

***

TROY NIKLAS: 

An Orange County native, Niklas could’ve joined a large handful of Southern California natives that find it too tough to turn down a USC offer. But the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end will instead play against the Trojans, battling against a team that could’ve used another big body on either side of the football.

Niklas talked a little bit about the decision making process with IrishSportsDaily.com.

“In the end, it was between Notre Dame and USC,” Niklas told ISD. “They were both up there, but in the end it was a clear decision on where I was going.

“It was one of those ‘forks in the road’ that you encounter in life.”

Ultimately a late recruiting visit the weekend before Signing Day was enough to get Niklas to pick the Irish, a moment celebrated by the Irish coaching staff live during the UND.com Signing Day show, and a revealing look into how this program evaluated Niklas.

Expect a big Saturday from the Irish’s tight ends, where Ben Koyack has finally joined Niklas as a weapon.

***

MICHAEL HUTCHINGS: 

With Jarrett Grace hurt and the Irish likely depending on former walk-on Joe Schmidt to take major snaps, the Irish almost pulling Hutchings out of California and into the Midwest would’ve been huge for Bob Diaco’s troops.

Hutchings has already worked his way into the two-deep at inside linebacker, a position with a lot of talent at Southern Cal. He talked about the pull that was close to bringing him to South Bend, and also the fellow recruit that would’ve teamed with him to make one of the elite linebacking groups in the country.

“Jaylon has been in my ear a lot about Notre Dame,” Hutchings told Rivals.com back during his recruitment. “He just tells me that if I go there, the two of us won’t have to worry about playing the same position since we’re both being recruited at different linebacker spots. Notre Dame will need linebacker help after this year, and the two of us will be playing right next to each other.”

It turns out the Irish needed that help sooner than later. Missing on Hutchings hurt especially bad with the last minute defection of Alex Anzalone, who has played in four games for Florida, notching just one tackle.

***

GEORGE ATKINSON III: 

If the Irish are going to get the type of offensive balance they want, they’ll have to get a nice Saturday night out of George Atkinson. The California native had an offer in play for Southern Cal, but ultimately decided to head to South Bend, where he could play with his brother Josh.

Atkinson has seen some big moments in the rivalry, his kickoff return in ’11 ignited the crowd and helped jumpstart the Irish after they had fallen behind 17-0. That was something the Trojans’ coaching staff pitched to Atkinson when he was offered a scholarship back in August 2010.

“They want to get the ball in my hands, so that’s good,” Atkinson told USCFootball.com back during his recruitment. “They didn’t really say where they were recruiting at specifically. I said I’d like to play offense, so I think they see me as a wide out.”

Many expected Atkinson to play wideout at Notre Dame as well, but the switch to the backfield looks like the correct role for the big back with speed. He’ll reaffirm that choice with a strong second half of the season that should get started Saturday night.

***

HAYES PULLARD

The Trojans leading tackler was once one of West Coast recruiting wiz and now Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s key recruiting targets. The Irish got Pullard onto campus for an official visit during the Irish’s overtime win over Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies, but couldn’t close the deal.

The Parade All-American made a difference quickly at USC, averaging almost 90 tackles a season in his first three seasons. Charlie Weis wasn’t quite sure what they saw in Pullard, hoping he could play either linebacker or running back.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Pullard told Irish Illustrated’s (AND live-blog contributor) Steve Hare. “They said they’d decide when I get there.”

Ultimately the Irish never got that opportunity, and instead have watched him rack up ridiculous numbers, making 13 tackles last year against Notre Dame and eight in 2011.

***

AMIR CARLISLE

Nobody can say they’ve seen both sides of this rivalry like Amir Carlisle, who chose USC narrowly over Notre Dame during the recruiting process, played one season under Lane Kiffin, then transferred to Notre Dame. After sitting out the last opportunity to play the Trojans with a broken ankle, Carlisle admitted that this was a different game than most he’ll play.

“I’m not gonna lie, yeah, there’s an excitement for me personally to be able to face my former team,” Carlisle told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m going to approach this game like any other game, but there’s a little extra there.”

Finding a job for Carlisle, who has slipped out of the primary game plan these past couple weeks, could be important. After struggling against Purdue and coughing up a late game fumble, Carlisle’s struggled to get much of anything going, something he’d desperately like to change against USC.

The Irish would embrace it as well, with many believing that Carlisle is the team’s answer at slot receiver.

Carlisle stays in touch with some Trojans from Irish Illustrated on Vimeo.

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