Steffon Batts, Corey Robinson

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Air Force 10

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Things may not have started out as planned for Notre Dame. The offense’s eleven-play opening drive ended with Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt blocked. Then Air Force proceeded to march ten plays for 71 yards and a quick touchdown in under four minutes. But the Irish shrugged off a challenging start and cruised to an easy 45-10 victory, powered by a career-day by senior quarterback Tommy Rees.

The Falcons defense has struggled against good quarterbacks this season and Rees certainly looked like one on a perfect Saturday afternoon in Colorado Springs, throwing five touchdown passes while completing 17 of 22 passes for 284 yards, moving ahead of Ron Powlus for third place in career touchdown passes.

Freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller caught their first touchdown passes. Sophomore Chris Brown did as well. Ben Koyack and TJ Jones also got into the action, with Jones catching a touchdown in his fifth straight game. After the slow start, Bob Diaco’s defense played very well, forcing two turnovers and allowing just ten points on the afternoon.

An easy win pushes the Irish to 6-2 and likely into the Top 25. Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over Air Force.

No Nix, no problem for the Irish defense. 

You could understand why Irish fans would be nervous without Louis Nix, the tip of the spear for the Irish defense. The 350-pound All-American defensive tackle stayed home this weekend, resting a balky knee and shoulder, as his teammates picked up the slack for him. With Kona Schwenke stepping in and Stephon Tuitt sliding inside, the Irish defense rallied after a slow start to hold the Falcons to just ten points and 339 total yards.

As predicted, the Irish started Ishaq Williams and Prince Shembo at defensive end and used Tuitt and Schwenke on the inside. We also saw plenty of reserves getting opportunities, with freshman Isaac Rochell playing (against his brother), Jarron Jones contributing, Tyler Stockton taking reps along with a disruptive performance by Justin Utupo.

The Irish will face a similar scheme next week with Navy likely to be a tougher challenge than Air Force. But getting Nix some rest and recovery, and having the defense pick up the slack, is a good sign.

Matched up in man coverage, Tommy Rees made Air Force’s secondary pay. 

A week after missing most of the second half after taking a vicious hit, Tommy Rees dusted himself off and torched the Air Force defense. Rees may have missed one or two throws he’d like to have back, but he completed an impressive 17 of 22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns, fully in control of the offense against an overmatched Falcons secondary.

It’s hard to draw conclusions after a comfortable victory like the one we just witnessed. But if there’s a step forward Rees made it was with his accuracy throwing against man-to-man coverage. Rees routinely hit on deep throws, many sparked by playaction or double-moves, and connected on a 20-plus yard completion with five different receivers.

Getting into the act was a freshman class that just hasn’t had much opportunity yet this year. Corey Robinson made the type of catch we’ve been looking forward to seeing, snatching a deep throw away from a defensive back before scoring a 35-yard touchdown. Will Fuller also got behind the defense, only the third time in school history that two freshmen have caught touchdowns in a game.

Probably just as important as Rees’ impressive afternoon was the fact that it let Andrew Hendrix see the field and get the taste from last week’s game out of his mouth. Hendrix still struggled, but looked better against Air Force, completing one of his four passes for a 47-yard connection to Fuller and ran for a touchdown.

Jaylon Smith continues to make his move. 

It took a few plays for Jaylon Smith to get up to speed with the Air Force offense. Whether it was his fault or not, Smith lost contain as he tried to read both the run and the pitch as the Falcons got outside of him for a few big gains early. But the freshman showed how quickly he learns on his feet, and rebounded to co-lead the Irish in tackles with eight.

The production the Irish are getting out of Smith at the drop linebacker position is amazing when you consider the true freshman is learning on the job and still not as big as Bob Diaco would like him to be. Through eight games, he’s already matched Danny Spond’s tackle total from last season. In fact, one look back at the Irish defense during the Kelly era and you get an appreciation of how dangerous and productive Smith already is.

Through eight games, here are Smith’s cumulative numbers, compared to the full season stats of other Dog linebackers playing in Kelly’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 system.

Jaylon Smith: 39 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR
Danny Spond: 39 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT,
Prince Shembo: 31 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 Sacks,
Kerry Neal: 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 Sack, 1 FF, 1 FR

Smith was all over the field on Saturday afternoon, and was a referee’s inadvertent whistle away from scoring his first defensive touchdown. It’s becoming abundantly clear that Smith’s moving quickly past the learning phase and that greatness might be sooner than later.

***

In a muddled running back depth chart, Tarean Folston took an important step forward. 

If there’s one disappointing stat on paper in the Irish’s 35-point victory it’s the lack of running game. Against a unit that ranked among the worst in the country in stopping the run, the Irish only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, running for a modest 135 yards on 37 attempts.

Brian Kelly talked at halftime about Air Force’s decision to challenge Rees to beat the Falcons in man coverage. He did that, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the ground game wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

George Atkinson looked hesitant out of the gates, forgetting to run like a 220-pound power back. Amir Carlisle was nonexistent on his three touches. While Cam McDaniel led the team with 61 yards on ten carries, it was freshman Tarean Folston that had the most carries, gaining 47 yards on his eleven attempts.

As Brian Kelly still tries to sort out his running back depth chart, Folston helped his cause on Saturday by looking the part. The freshman ran with a spark and explosiveness that the other backs just don’t possess, looking comfortable running in Kelly’s zone blocking attack, and showed great ability to find creases in the defense and run effectively off his blocks.

The Irish will have another chance to overpower an opponent next weekend when they face an undersized Navy defensive front that entered Saturday 98th against the run. Don’t be surprised to see Folston and McDaniel start to separate themselves from the pack.

As the calendar turns to November, it’s worth watching a few injuries that could prove significant. 

After losing Christian Lombard for the season, Brian Kelly had to be holding his breath when he saw senior Chris Watt down, needing the assistance of two trainers to help him off the field. Kelly already plugged freshman Steve Elmer in at right guard, but the loss of Watt pushes Conor Hanratty into the lineup and weakens a left side that’s one of the finest in college football.

Freshman Mike McGlinchey made the trip on Saturday, an emergency option for the Irish in case there were bodies needed. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Watt’s health for next week, as the depth chart still isn’t as stocked as this staff wants it to be, especially with the hopes of redshirting everybody but Elmer from the rookie class.

Another injury worth keeping an eye on is the ankle of Sheldon Day. After playing early, Day was in street clothes during the second half, likely the product of tweaking an injury that sometimes takes months to get right. Without Day, the Irish production drops off a cliff in a hurry.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated noted that the starting three of Day-Tuitt-Nix allowed just 1.62 yards a play against USC. Compare that to the trio of Schwenke-Tuitt-Nix, who allowed 6.5 yards per play. It might not matter against Navy, but against BYU and Stanford the Irish will need all hands on deck.

Watt was still in uniform as the No. 2 offensive line worked while Day watched the end of the game in street clothes, a good sign if you’re looking for them. He’s also played in all 47 games of his career, a testament to Watt’s durability. That’ll likely come in handy as he spends some extra time in the training room this week.

 

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.