Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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After eight lead changes, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame team did just enough to keep Navy from springing an upset that would’ve undone much of the positives that have come from a season that hasn’t come easy. At 7-2, the Irish will likely climb a few more spots in the polls if only because of attrition, as teams get into the meat of their schedules.

We’ll hear later today just how bad the injury situation is for the Irish, with Kelly updating the media in his usual Sunday conference call. But before that, let’s get into the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s wild 38-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Tarean Folston. The freshman running back looked the part on Saturday afternoon, running for 140 yards on 18 carries, carrying the load for the Irish down the stretch when Notre Dame turned to the ground game.

After rarely trusting a freshman with key touches in games that are tight, that Kelly turned to Folston to be the chain mover was telling. (Then again, every other back has had fumble problems.)

The freshman ran with power and speed, showing great cutback ability and vision as he diced the Navy defense down the stretch.

Kona Schwenke. The senior defensive lineman had an impressive  11 tackles before leaving the game with an injury, wreaking havoc on the interior of the Navy offensive line.

We will see how serious the leg injury Schwenke suffered is, but it’d be a shame if this was a career-ending injury for the Hawaii native, who would likely be returning for a fifth year if Kelly and the coaching staff had any depth along the defensive front when they arrived in South Bend.

TJ Jones. The senior receiver connected with Tommy Rees on a beautiful 35-yard post route for a touchdown, Jones’ sixth consecutive game with a touchdown and his fourth 100 yard game of the season. While his slip on a crossing route resulted in an interception, Jones has been the most reliable Irish receiver all season, and had a 19-yard punt return called back because of a block in the back.

Ben Koyack. Another game, another touchdown for Koyack, who is starting to show how effective the Irish can be with two tight end sets. Koyack’s 17-yard touchdown catch was a perfect design and setup by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.

The running game. So THIS is the running game Notre Dame fans have been waiting for. The Irish rushed for 268 yards even with Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer starting at guard. In addition to the nice game by Folston, George Atkinson averaged over 10 yards a carry and ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run early. Cam McDaniel averaged 7.4 yards a carry and had a 16-yard touchdown run called back as well.

Offensive efficiency. The Irish averaged 9.0 yards per offensive play, the most since the 1998 season, a remarkable 15 years. While the two turnovers the Irish committed kept the Midshipmen in the game, the Irish offense is rounding into form at the right time, especially with the attrition on the defensive side of the ball.

THE BAD

Injuries. There’s no way around it, this team is ravaged by injuries right now, especially on the defensive side of the ball. For those wondering why the Irish struggled against the option after doing so well the previous two seasons, consider the fact that Bob Diaco’s unit barely resembled the group on the field the past two seasons.

Here’s a quick look at the significant injuries the defense has faced:

OLB Danny Spond – Out for Season (Migraines)
DE/DL Tony Springmann – Out for Season (Knee)
S Nicky Baratti – Out for Season (Shoulder)
DE Chase Hounshell – Out for Season (Shoulder)
LB Jarrett Grace – Out for Season (Knee)
DE Sheldon Day – Missed multiple games (Ankle)
DT Louis Nix – Missed multiple games (Knee/Shoulder)
OLB Ishaq Williams – Missed multiple games (Knee)
S Elijah Shumate – Missed multiple games (Hamstring)
DE Kona Schwenke – Left game against Navy (Lower Leg)
OLB Ben Councell – Left game against Navy (Knee)

Councell’s injury looked to be serious, with the junior linebacker carted to the locker room with a wrap on his knee after an injury covering a kickoff.

Containing the option. It’s hard to say just one segment of the option attack killed the Irish since everybody but Keenan Reynolds averaged 4.8 yards or more per rush. But if there was a surprising problem for Notre Dame, it was the fact that the Midshipmen got outside the Irish’s leverage so often.

Multiple times it looked like the defense had Navy strung out only to see the pitch man or quarterback get outside the edge and turn a play in the backfield into a big gainer. It was especially demoralizing for the Irish after making decent plays early in a series only to give it all back a play later.

Third down defense. Maybe the most disappointing stat of the game for Notre Dame is the fact that Navy converted on 10 of 16 third downs, moving the chains often and contributing to a really lopsided time of possession ratio, with Navy possessing the ball for 37:36 to Notre Dame’s 22:24.

Tough penalty flags. The call against Justin Utupo (or Matthias Farley) was a complete debacle. The refs called it on the wrong player, diagnosed the call incorrectly, and then couldn’t explain what exactly was called when Brian Kelly asked for clarification.

The extra 15 yards took Navy out of a sure punt situation and gave the Midshipmen a much needed first down that turned into a touchdown drive.

While Navy wasn’t flagged once, multiple flags against Notre Dame appeared suspect on second glance including the touchdown that was wiped out thanks to a “holding” call on Troy Niklas. (Replay showed it as a perfect pancake block, though a second hold was called on No. 1 (Greg Bryant?) but was meant for DaVaris Daniels, a penalty that didn’t look like much of one when reviewed again.)

Irish turnovers. In a game where the Irish absolutely NEEDED to turn the ball over to keep Navy in it, the offense obliged, with an ugly interception courtesy of the turf monster (we’ll get to that later) keeping ND from stretching the game to a two-touchdown lead early.

The second interception came after DaVaris Daniels lost the battle for a 50-50 ball on the first play of an Irish two-minute drive, a pass that Tommy Rees threw to the outside and Daniels didn’t get to. It wasn’t one of Rees’s better passes on the day, but the quarterback showed faith that Daniels could beat the Navy cornerback and Daniels didn’t do it.

Three plays that changed the game. If you’re looking to distill this game into a three-play sequence, you could do it. The Irish’s fate changed early in the second quarter as the offense was marching to take a 10-point lead that could’ve forced Navy out of its game plan.

But then this happened:

* Cam McDaniel’s 16-yard touchdown run was called back because of Troy Niklas (and Davaris Daniels) holding penalty.
* On 1st and 20, the Irish offense set up a perfect running back screen. With blockers in front of him, Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold onto the quick throw from Tommy Rees, and the pass fell incomplete.
* 2nd and 20, Rees threw a in-cut to TJ Jones, who slipped on the break and had the pass intercepted.

Problems compounded and ten plays later, Navy scored a touchdown to take the lead.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s playing surface. Weather played a factor all across the Midwest yesterday, so Notre Dame Stadium wasn’t the only slippery track in college football. But after spending years and thousands of dollars trying to keep a natural playing surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, it’s beyond clear that the fight isn’t one that can be won without some drastic steps.

When asked about the field after the game, Kelly — who has openly talked about wanting FieldTurf — didn’t throw anyone under the bus.

“Our field people work their butts off, though, to try to get it the best they could,” Kelly said. “This is something that has been inherited in a large degree over a long period of time.

 

“It’s going to be resolved.  It will be handled.  Jack Swarbrick will take care of it. It will be handled. It’s not an easy fix. This is not just roll out some grass and tamp it down. So it will be something that will have to be worked on in the off‑season, looked at extensively, and we’ll come up with a solution.”

Plans are already underway to turn the stadium into something that’s used for more than just seven Saturdays a year, a renovation that could include additional luxuries boxes, classrooms, a potential video board and other modern amenities.

And while people point to hybrid surfaces like Green Bay or great natural turf like Michigan State, the work that needs to be done to allow the grass to hold is a costly and time consuming renovation that might not be possible for reasons other than money.

 

Either way, expect the final home game against BYU to be the final game for natural grass.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

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

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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

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

 

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

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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

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

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

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

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

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

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

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

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

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

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

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

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

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

 

The quarterback battle.

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

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

 

The offensive line should be good again.

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

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

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

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

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

 

The Defense?

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

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

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

 

Good play in tight games

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

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

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

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

 

The Schedule

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

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

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