USC Notre Dame Football

Pregame Six Pack: Going up to Air Force

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As we prepared for Notre Dame to take on a 1-6 Air Force team that is winless in five Mountain West games, the storylines on the field between the Irish and Falcons seemed few and far between. For better or worse, the Irish coaching staff had seemingly “figured out” the option attack after their ugly opening attempt against Navy four seasons ago. And Troy Calhoun’s squad has been decimated by injuries, a handicap that too often is mortal at a place like the service academies.

But all of that changed yesterday with the news that Louis Nix won’t be traveling to Colorado Springs with his teammates, left home to rest a balky knee and heal a wounded shoulder. Add to that the loss of Christian Lombard and the insertion of true freshman Steve Elmer into the starting lineup, and all of a sudden there is some intrigue in a game that still hovers around a 20-point spread.

The series has been closer than you’d expect over the past six games. The Irish are 4-2 against the Falcons dating back to 1996, with two of those victories (’96 and ’00) needing overtime. Let’s open up this week’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Air Force play for the 30th time.

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Don’t wait until tomorrow morning, make sure you have CBS Sports Network on your cable package. 

Let’s get the public service announcement out of the way first. Not everybody gets the CBS Sports Network. Available in 99 million homes, CBS’s “growing” cable sports channel, with programming consisting of basically Jim Rome and a few other studio shows, is usually a pay add on to your package.

(I added it before the season kicked off, to catch the USC-Hawaii game.)

So before you come to the live-blog frantically searching for a channel update or website link, spend a few minutes this afternoon — and maybe a few dollars — to add the channel, or find a friend that’s got the game and be social.

Former Irish great Aaron Taylor will be in the both with CBS Sports’ Andrew Catalon and Lauren Gardner. For many the game won’t be broadcast in HD (though DirecTV and Dish Network provide it), so it’ll be a retro game watch for a large group of us.

But take care of it now or you’re stuck with me in the live blog.

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Without Louis Nix anchoring the defensive front, expect to see a lot more Kona Schwenke. 

During his final season in South Bend, Kona Schwenke has emerged as an almost super-sub, sliding into Sheldon Day’s role when the sophomore defensive end was nursing an ankle injury back to health. Now Schwenke will shift back into the nose guard position, subbing for Nix at the position he’s played the past few seasons.

Schwenke won’t likely be asked to play the traditional “two-gap” defensive tackle that Nix does so well. Rather he’ll join a rotation that’ll feature a steady dose of four down linemen, with Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and a host of others helping out up front.

Also moving inside will be Stephon Tuitt, who enters Saturdays game on a straight-up hot streak, trouble for Air Force, considering Tuitt has been so good against option teams.

“My job is to be in the middle, to be a Louis Nix,” Tuitt said this week.

Still, Schwenke’s rise has been plenty impressive, with his final season in South Bend showing the Hawaiian to be a productive performer and a great developmental project. Depth issues forced Schwenke onto the field earlier than the staff would have liked. But for a kid that arrived as a 230-pound outside linebacker and was an afterthought to most in recruiting,  seeing an impressive 303-pounder who has been really productive this season has been a fun process to watch.

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Heading back home to Colorado, Danny Spond takes comfort in finding what’s next.

There have to be a lot of emotions going through senior linebacker Danny Spond today as the Colorado native heads home for a game that’s likely been circled for a long time. Of course, Spond won’t be playing on Saturday, but rather helping coach the outside linebackers.

It’s that unique role that Spond talked about Wednesday. And one that he’s handled with the type of courage and grace that you come to expect from Spond, who embodies what Notre Dame hopes for in student-athletes.

“I know they can’t see me out there as a player, but they know what I’ve accomplished here and how hard I’ve worked to establish my role,” Spond said of the large group of family, friends and former coaches that’ll be watching the Irish take on Air Force. “Just for them to be out there supporting our team is enough for me.”

Perhaps one of the hardest parts to hear from Spond was that the football bug hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

“Each game gets a little bit harder,” Spond told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’ll probably be in my mind another five years, but I’m at peace with it and I understand that this is my role now.”

Spond does his best to fill that void by doing what he did as a player: Grind. He hasn’t missed a practice or a meeting with his position group. He still logs a lot of hours in the Gug. And he’s taken a philosophical approach that’s supported by his strong faith that will surely get him through life after football.

“Knowing that everything happens for a reason, and whatever that reason might be, I know it’s what’s best for me,” Spond said. “To really just understand that this wasn’t what’s in my plan and I’m excited for what’s next.”

***

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A few years after the Niklas brothers shared the field, it’s time for the Rochell’s to go head-to-head. 

The last time Air Force visited South Bend, the Niklas family had a special moment that paired Troy (then an outside linebacker) on the same field as his brother Austin. That baton is being passed down to the Rochells, where Irish freshman defensive end Isaac will have a chance to play against his brother Matt, a sophomore offensive tackle for Air Force.

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s Brent Briggeman caught up with the matriarch of the Rochell family, who talked about how special it’ll be to potentially see one son matched up against the other at the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know how they’ll even keep a straight face,” Gina Rochell told the Gazette.

With the need to keep bodies fresh along the defensive front, the Irish staff will likely lean on young players like Rochell and Jarron Jones more (Jones will be coming directly from Rochester, New York, where he attended a family funeral). And that’s very exciting for the freshman from Georgia.

“He’s pretty excited about playing the game. He may even be matched up against his brother,” Kelly said on Thursday. “I think more than anything else, he’s excited about playing. Regardless of whether he’s playing against his brother or not, he knows he’s going to get into the game. He’s really excited about that.”

Briggeman’s profile on the Rochell family is worth reading, if only for the quotes he got from Matt, who talked about the primary difference between the two brothers’ college football experience.

“The only big difference I see is that they get up at like 9 and we get up at 6,” Matt told the Gazette. “He’s still busy, but he’s not getting up at 6. The big thing is sleep that I see; and food, actually. They eat a lot more food.”

(Score some points for Training Table!)

Back to the more important subject matter, the Rochell family won’t have too hard of time feeling like winners regardless of who walks off the field victorious on Saturday.

“You see your two kids out there and one’s playing for Notre Dame and one’s playing for the Air Force Academy,” Mrs. Rochell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that, academically, as far as I’m concerned.”

***

Tommy Rees may be healthy enough to be the starter, but for the health of the position Andrew Hendrix needs to get some snaps. 

While the Irish got good news that Tommy Rees would be healthy and capable of starting against Air Force, they absolutely need to make sure Andrew Hendrix is ready to play better football if called upon. And that opportunity might be easy to get against an Air Force defense that’s probably the worst group the Irish will play this season.

Hendrix isn’t as bad as we saw last weekend against USC. But Brian Kelly talked about how important it was to get him playing better, especially with the Irish staff trying desperately to hold onto Malik Zaire’s redshirt.

“I think what Andrew has to do is he’s got to take that practice now and he’s got to take that into games,” Kelly said earlier this week. “And hopefully he’ll use the experience that he had against USC and he’ll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.”

During his weekly Thursday update, Kelly talked about the rep breakdown at practice, particularly the added snaps that both Hendrix and Zaire took this week. For those wondering why Kelly wasn’t quick to pull Hendrix last Saturday and insert Zaire into the game, it’s because the freshman quarterback had taken virtually zero reps with the first team offense this season. That changed this week.

“This week he got a handful of first team reps,” Kelly said.

Still, the priority was getting Hendrix up to speed, and the senior quarterback took more snaps Wednesday with the first team than he had all year, and if he does play, Hendrix will likely have access to more of the playbook, not just running packages.

In many ways, this could be a tryout for Hendrix and a potential fifth year. Next year, Everett Golson will be back and Zaire will be ready to compete. But will the Irish staff keep Hendrix around to battle for the No. 2 job over put themselves in a similar situation to this year, where they have a starter (an undersized one at that), an untested back-up, and a freshman that likely needs to redshirt?

Saturday might give us a clue.

While Cam McDaniel became a viral sensation this week, the running back job is still up for grabs. 

Cam McDaniel went from anonymous Notre Dame running back to viral internet sensation thanks to some faulty equipment. McDaniel’s helmet popped off (again) after a run against the Trojans, producing a bizarre (and handsome) photo that got plenty of people talking. It even got McDaniel booked for a segment on the TODAY show this morning, where Savannah Guthrie even asked for his digits. (Remember to dial 4 first for the dorms, Sav…)

Notoriety aside, Saturday will be an interesting status check for the crowded running back position. Will George Atkinson get the first chance to run against the undermanned Falcons rush defense? Can Tarean Folston get back on the field and earn himself more snaps? Will Amir Carlisle get more production out of his touches? Is Will Mahone healthy and ready to fight his way back onto the field?

The Falcons are giving up over 220 yards a game on nearly five yards a carry. And with the calendar about to turn to November, this is the time of year where the Irish ground game needs to work its way into dominance, especially with a favorable schedule the next few weeks.

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Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

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

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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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.