Senior Day

Pregame Six Pack: Going out on a high note

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If the major concern heading into Senior Day was dealing with the team’s heightened emotions, a dash of reality set in on Thursday evening when the news of Louis Nix’s season-ending surgery sunk in. 

Working through emotions is one thing. Playing without the team’s 350-pound tip of the spear is quite another.

 

As the Irish prepare to take on BYU’s up-tempo, power-running attack, they’ll do so without Nix at the center of the defense. As Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated pointed out on Twitter, the Irish will go their final ten games of the season getting just 23 snaps out of the starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Nix and Sheldon Day, a case of perpetual snakebite after a season that felt kissed by the gods. 

Still, there’s a game to play on Saturday afternoon and the Irish need to win it, sending their seniors out on a high note.

Let’s get into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Cougars at 3:30pm ET on NBC.

***

It won’t just be another Saturday for the guys running out of the tunnel. 

We’ll spend some more time later discussing the senior class. But for a 31 players, this might be the last time they run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame. That’s a factor that Brian Kelly has talked about.

“It’s always a concern,” said Kelly. “The emotional impact is always measured because you certainly don’t want your players playing emotionally. You want enthusiasm.

“We’ll be talking about that balance between the emotions of the last game and the enthusiasm of playing in your last game. We have to make sure we balance it because we’ve got quite a few seniors like BYU.”

On his weekly chat with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook radio show, Kelly revealed that the team spent some time this week savoring the moment, with the hopes that the emotion wouldn’t all pour out on Saturday. We’ll see how that plays out early on Saturday afternoon.

***

With the loss of Nix, slowing down Taysom Hill will be key. 

If there’s an immediate concern without Nix, it’s the health of the front seven. The guys backing up Nix aren’t in the best of shape either.

Kona Schwenke will try and give it a go after a high ankle injury of his own. He’ll slide back inside and try to take snaps at nose guard, even though he’s not fully healed. Jarron Jones will be out of his ankle boot, forced to take important snaps at the point of attack as well, along with Tyler Stockton.

Kelly updated Schwenke’s heath situation on Thursday evening, with the Hawaiian also playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium.

“He’s not 100 percent,” Kelly said of Schwenke. “Jarron Jones will have to play a lot in there. Jarron’s had a great week. Really pleased with his practice. Kona is going to give it all he has. He really wants to play. It’s important to him. He’s going to play. How much do we get out of him, we’ll see.”

Whoever ends up taking snaps, slowing down Hill is going to be key. The sophomore quarterback is second in the country with 44 rushes of 10-yards or more. With an arm (and wide receiver) that’s able to more than keep you honest, the Irish are going to have to play great fundamental football to shut down Hill.

“The first thing is to try and keep the ball away from Taysom Hill,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If you put this kid on the field and give him an opportunity to run 85, 90 plays, they’re going to score too many points.”

***

Look to last year’s game plan for hints at Saturday’s attack. 

The Irish haven’t been able to effectively establish the run like they did last season. And no Saturday last year did the ground game play more importantly than in the Irish’s 17-14 victory over the Cougars.

The Irish ran for 270 yards against BYU, throwing just three times in the second half. With the weather looking like it could be a winter wonderland with temperatures below freezing, it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be a game won in the trenches.

Kelly talked a little bit about using the running game not just to move the chains, but to also establish the playaction passing game.

“Carving out the running game is the first thing we’re going to try to do,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If we can’t do that, the ball has got  to get down the field. Pushing it vertically and trying to make those big chunk plays is the next job at hand.”

While they haven’t been as stingy, Kelly compared Bronco Mendenhall’s defense to Michigan State’s, with the secondary bunched within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If the Irish are going to score points, they’re going to need to hit the Cougars over the top when that happens.

“Once the safeties start making plays near the line of scrimmage, the ball has got to get down the field,” Kelly explained. (Safety Daniel) Sorensen, when he starts making plays near the line of scrimmage, what we have to do with Tommy is that you can’t read him, you’ve got to be able to throw and run your play action game.”

***

On a Saturday that’ll likely tug at your heart strings, Jaylon Smith will honor his mentor Danny Spond in a classy tribute. 

If you don’t see No. 9 out on the edge of the defense wreaking havoc, don’t worry. Jaylon Smith will be there, he’ll just be doing it in teammate Danny Spond’s jersey.

 

Smith’s star turn as a freshman came out of necessity, with the five-star freshman thrust into the starting lineup after Spond was forced to retire because of debilitating migraine headaches. Spond then turned into a student-coach, working with Smith and junior Ben Councell on the ins and outs of a position that has been one of the toughest to fill in the Irish’s defensive system.

As a thank you for the tutelage, pupil will honor master by swapping No. 9 for No. 13.

“Jaylon Smith is going to be wearing Danny Spond’s number on Saturday in a manner to thank him for his mentorship this year,” Kelly announced on Thursday evening.

***

Entering the final home game of the regular season, Brian Kelly finally came clean about the quarterback position.

Expect a nice ovation for quarterback Tommy Rees on Saturday. The much maligned quarterback will be playing his final home game in front of his family and 80,000-plus friends, who will thank Rees for his four seasons in South Bend, an improbable run that’s pushed a guy many thought would only be a backup into the school record books.

While Kelly was effusive with his praise for Rees in his radio show comments with Jack Nolan, he finally came clean about his quarterback plans on the season, acknowledging that there was never any interest in getting Malik Zaire on the field this season.

“Quite honestly, without sugar-coating it and cutting through it, I wanted to redshirt him,” Kelly said. “I wanted a quarterback that was going to be a fifth-year guy. Throughout it all, we wanted that more than anything else, and we’re going to get that with Malik.”

Kelly briefly touched on the plans for next year, with spring opening a competition between returning quarterback Everett Golson and Zaire. He also acknowledged the decision on whether Andrew Hendrix will return or not hasn’t been made.

***

Nobody feels sorry for Notre Dame. But a look at what injuries have done to this roster is pretty staggering. 

Every football team is beat up this time of year. But a look at what’s happened this year gives you a better appreciation of just how decimated this roster has become.

As we look back on the senior class, what better time to look back at what’s happened to this roster. While not all of these subtractions are because of injury, the snapshot of where this roster has gotten hit gives you an idea of why this team is struggling to do something of the ordinary things well.

Wonder why the Front Seven play has been subpar? Consider that injuries have hit Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell.

Roster attrition also struck hard, with Everett Golson gone, Eddie Vanderdoes staying home and Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson transferring. Injuries robbed Tate Nichols, Brad Carrico and Cam Roberson of a career.

It was a lost season for Springmann, Hounshell, Torii Hunter Jr., Nicky Baratti and Danny Spond. Injuries ended the year for Daniel Smith, Will Mahone, Ben Councell, Greg Bryant and Jarrett Grace. Elijah Shumate missed multiple games as well.

Subtract out redshirting freshmen and Brian Kelly doesn’t need to snoop around an NFL program to know what it feels like to play with a 53 man roster.

Kelly maneuvered his way around injuries on Thursday while acknowledging there are some more that’ll be attended to after the season as well.

“There’s a number of guys. I couldn’t tell you who they are,” Kelly said, likely substituting the word couldn’t for won’t. “We’re going to have probably two or three shoulder guys. We’re going to have a couple of guys get scoped. It’s normal, end of the year, those surgeries that you have.”

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

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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

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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.