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Mailbag: Air Force edition

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Another week, another Mailbag. Let’s get into your questions.

jcmpa: Given the struggles of the ND defense this year, last week not included, is Diaco still a legitimate head coaching candidate?

I think you might be taking “struggles” a little too seriously. It’s not as if this Notre Dame defense is getting torched, and when all is said and done, they’ll likely be a Top 25 unit. That’s three straight seasons as a Top 30 defense.

Diaco is young (just turned 40), energetic, passionate and a good looking dude. That said, I don’t think he’s in a hurry to move his family from South Bend unless the right offer comes his way.

As some background, Diaco and I had a chance to talk before the BCS Championship Game about him taking a head coaching job. He didn’t seem to stressed about it and said it’s all about timing and opportunity. Put simply, Diaco wouldn’t be who he was if he was spending that time looking for a new job.

He’ll be a great head coach one day. Maybe even soon.

irishaggie: After 7 games we only have one RB (GA) go over 100 yards. ND is 96th in the country in rushing yards. With a shaken up Tommy and a bad Air Force defense what RB do you think will have a break out game?

I think you’re on to something Aggie, but guessing what back is anyone’s guess. If I had to wager, I’d think that George Atkinson will bust a couple big plays and that’ll get him over 100 yards. Otherwise, if you’re looking for chaos, how about Tarean Folston getting 13 carries for 110 yards.

onward2victory: At this point of the season, is Jaylon Smith already one of the top 5 players on the roster?

So you’re saying Smith’s behind only this group?

Louis Nix – All-American
Stephon Tuitt — On his way there, likely 1st rounder if he wants to be
TJ Jones – Offensive MVP, Captain
Zack Martin — All-American caliber player

I think that’s probably a little too lofty, though I think he’s probably slotting in around the top ten, with guys like Prince Shembo, Troy Niklas, Chris Watt, and Bennett Jackson all playing more consistent football.

Still, that’s lofty ground for a true freshman.

irishlee: Do you think Tuitt will stay or go?

I think he stays. Don’t think the decision will be easy, but seeing that Senior Day presentation will be tough, and him telling The Observer that he wants to stay is telling.

irishdodger: So Air Force has six losses after one win over a brand of toothpaste, they’ve struggled keeping a QB healthy & their defense can’t stop air. Sounds like a recipe where ND will play down to their competition (ala Temple & Purdue) by waiting until the fourth quarter to put the Falcons away. You know I’m right…what say you?

If you’re right, why are you asking? I tend to think the Irish will take care of business.

mediocrebob: Why are other fans so obsessed with Notre Dame? I understand that their sorry programs don’t add up to all that Notre Dame is, but how do they have time to follow their weak programs, follow Notre Dame, and have a life all at the same time?

Trolls are hardly unique to Notre Dame, but there are plenty of reasons to hate on the Irish and a football program that sometimes plays by different rules. And Bob, don’t be so tough on yourself.

bernhtp: Given that Hendrix appears to be THE alternative to Rees, how much effort do you expect Kelly to expend to rehabilitate Hendrix’s confidence and performance? Do you expect him to get most of the snaps against a weak AF team, assuming the game is put away early? If Hendrix still fails to perform, do you expect Kelly to burn Zaire’s red shirt if Rees goes down again, the game is in jeopardy, and Zaire appears ready?

A lot of effort. (Not as much effort as it took to chop down your question, Bern. But I’ve gotta bust your chops a little bit here…) Getting Hendrix’s confidence up is going to be important, because I don’t think burning Zaire’s redshirt is an option unless they’ve got no other choice.

We tend to forget things as they pass us by. Remember when Everett Golson was playing in his first big game against Michigan and played worse than Hendrix last week? That didn’t ruin the kid, nor will last week ruin Hendrix.

domerboyirish: I’ve been trying to ask this for weeks but never seem to catch this segment. Why don’t we have a standard running back screen pass in our playbook? It seems like the perfect play for the players we have on the line and at tail back. What gives?

It’s a valid question DomerBoy. The Irish don’t tend to run many RB screens and I wonder if it’s a product of the spread attack. Count me among those that would like to see them incorporated more.

mtflsmitty: 1) How did Diaco change his game plan after Rees exited the game? Can you cite specific adjustments that allowed our D to get so stingy?

I don’t think there were that many specific adjustments. Stephon Tuitt just killed USC’s left tackle. And the Trojans didn’t have Marqise Lee to balance the passing attack.

2) The Max Redfield situation is interesting. Why hasn’t he seen more action? Are they waiting for him to put on a bit more weight? Is he having a hard time picking up the complexities of the defensive scheme? What else?

Redfield talked about this over bye week. He’s working on getting himself ready to play, and it’s one of the hardest positions on the roster to just walk in and play. He got some snaps at safety against USC and I don’t think it’s fair to tag the kid as a slow learning. He’s right on the edge of the two-deep and will likely challenge for a starting job by spring.

3) I don’t think Robinson has a catch in the last several games. After getting a lot of attention early why is he getting so few looks lately?

I don’t know if he’s gotten a lot of attention, other than from those of us breaking down the frames of ICON videos from UND.com. There is only one football. Getting the ball to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels are the first two reads in the passing game. Then Troy Niklas. Then you look at the other options… and there’s Robinson with a pack of guys like Chris Brown, Will Fuller and James Onwualu, who is still looking for that first catch.

steincj36: Keith, especially with a thin LB corps, how much will the altitude be a factor? We hear about the 4th qtr conditioning the team has, but South Bend is like 700 ft above sea level, not 7000…

Not much you can do about altitude in college football. If this game comes down to fourth quarter conditioning, something went pretty wrong for Notre Dame.

nducsb: With the recent setback BK has had at Notre Dame, do you think a jump to the NFL has officially been squelched  at least for this year? Was what happened last year basically just the Eagles reaching for straws (case in point, how horrific Chip Kelly is doing?)

This question kind of cracks me up. Setback? What happened? If losing two games to Oklahoma and Michigan is a setback, I think ND fans are getting mighty spoiled and might have their heads tucked while they sit out a pretty special run.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the last 20 games in college football, as pointed out by @OakND1

19-1: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Northern Illinois
18-2: Florida State
17-3: Notre Dame, Clemson, Stanford, Louisville
16-4: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Boise State

If that’s a setback, we’ve got to re-evaluate expectations.

As for Chip Kelly’s NFL debut, NFL teams don’t replace head coaches unless the team is underperforming. That Andy Reid can start off undefeated with the Chiefs but couldn’t win with the Eagles gives you an idea of the personnel that Chip is dealing with.

Brian Kelly should be on a short list of any team hiring. Whether he’s interested is another story.

4horsemenrideagain: Was Hendrix’s “under-performance” against SC due to his nerves and to the big stage, or was it just a clever ploy by Hendrix to play poorly on purpose as a favor to Tommy Rees so that all of the Rees detractors would be a little more appreciative this week?

 

I think Hendrix might have been the second gunman on the grassy knoll, too. My guess? Probably nerves and the fact that he was stacked into some tough situations.

harvupdyke: Keith, do you see Alabama winning an unprecedented 3rd bcs national championship in a row? I’ll take your comments off the air. Roll dam tide.

Harv – You might want to head to Austin, Texas and start buying up some properties. But I think Alabama is the odds on favorite to win, though I would like to see Oregon take a shot at them.

tburke9601: What do you think of the Cam McDaniel photo sans helmet?

Handsome Devil. Now don’t fumble in the fourth quarter.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.