Shayne Skov, Tommy Rees

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

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Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed.

“You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.”

Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford, but was unable to cash in early chances or make a play down the stretch when it was needed. And as Stanford has done over the past few years, the Cardinal leaned on a power running game and a suffocating defense, daring the Irish to beat them in the fourth quarter.

The Irish couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

Hanging Tough. Brian Kelly won’t take moral victories, but I’m inclined to give them one for Saturday night. As I tweeted mid-game, Notre Dame fans needed to remember the moment, because this was exactly what it feels like to be an undermanned team hanging around with a superior opponents.

Offensive line play. Losing Chris Watt could have killed the Irish. Yet just like the week before, the next man in did a very good job. With an interior of Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer, the Irish did a great good job protecting the quarterback, holding Stanford to just one sack.

Running the ball was a different story, but even against one of the top run defenses in the country, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston averaged a not terrible 3.7 yards a carry on their 18 touches.

Dan Fox. Gutty performance by the fifth-year senior, who made 15 tackles from his middle linebacker position. Fox started the season banged up, lost his job to Jarrett Grace, then finished the season playing the best football of his career.

Austin Collinsworth. Watching the senior safety get steamrolled in the backfield might solidify the opinion that he’s not physically impressive enough to be anything more than a role player, but 11 tackles and an interception is a nice day at the office.

Collinsworth gave it his all and played the best game of his career.

Matthias Farley. He’s been the whipping boy a bit lately, but outside of one bad missed tackle, Farley brought his lunch box to work on Saturday night and played a solid game as well.

Zack Martin. He might not end up being a first round draft pick, but some team is going to be very happy when they take Martin in next year’s NFL Draft.

You’ve got to scroll WAAAAY down the box score to find Stanford All-American Trent Murphy’s name, with the nation’s leading sacker held to just two tackles.

Just as important as his play on the field has been, Martin has been an anchor both on and off the field for the Irish.

Go ahead and talk about Taylor Lewan as one of the top tackles in the draft. I’d make the argument for Martin, and don’t think I’d have a hard time backing it up with game tape.

Quick Takes:

* Great interception by Bennett Jackson. Picture perfect technique and a clutch play. It’s good to see Jackson finish on a high note, making a play that evaded him earlier in the year.

Tarean Folston looked the part. Next year’s running back depth chart will be tons of fun.

Both James Onwualu and Corey Robinson ended up in the box score. But what makes Onwualu so interesting is that he made a big special teams tackle as well as a clutch reception.

Thinking back to some conversations I’ve had with Onwualu’s high school coach Mike Scanlon, Scanlon always thought James could succeed as a jumbo safety. Looking at the profile of Irish recruit Drue Tranquill, could you put 20 pounds on Onwualu and turn him into a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, like the staff will try to do with Tranquill?

Or is Onwualu too good of an offensive player?

Notre Dame has a weapon in Kyle Brindza. Expect some awards attention for Brindza next season.

THE BAD

Late Interceptions. I was told pregame by someone that would know that nearly 80% of the offensive game plan was put on Tommy Rees’ shoulders, relying on Rees to get the Irish in the right play against Derek Mason’s tough Stanford defense.

Kelly echoed that in his postgame comments, calling Rees’ work presnap masterful.

Unfortunately, when you throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, nobody remembers your excellent game management for the other three quarters.

Rees had quietly put together a good game against the Cardinal defense, sitting at 14 of 28 with 2 touchdown passes and no turnovers at one point. But with the game on the line, Rees completed just 2 of his final six throws, with two of those misses going to Wayne Lyons.

Stopping the tight end. I’m not sure Devon Cajuste is technically a tight end, but the Irish were done in by Cajuste and tight end Davis Dudchock, who teams for 6 catches and 99 yards on Saturday, the lions share of the Stanford passing game.

With the Irish selling out to hold up against the run, the Irish were vulnerable against the pass, and even in a season where Stanford’s tight ends all but disappeared, they came back and killed Notre Dame on Saturday.

Red Zone offense. Want to get it done against Stanford? You’ve gotta get 7 instead of 3. The Irish weren’t able to cash in their first two appearances in the red zone, settling for Kyle Brindza field goals before cashing in touchdowns to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels.

Too little, too late.

Third Down defense. Stanford converted 8 of 13 third downs, moving the chains far too effectively, and doing it a few times on some critical draw plays.

I’ve read some criticism today by fans picking on Bob Diaco’s scheme, but it’s hard to take that too seriously when you look at the personnel the Irish were playing on defense, especially with the heart of the unit — the team’s depth — all but gutted.

Rush Offense. It’s hard to be too tough on an offensive line featuring four first-year players, but establishing a ground game in the red zone would’ve been helpful. Getting just 64 yards on 24 carries isn’t good enough.

Critical Decisions. It’s impossible for us to know the progressions of Rees’ reads during the fourth quarter. But the idea to target two first-year receivers with the game on the line isn’t the best.

Throwing the deep ball to Will Fuller isn’t a bad decision. He’s the team’s best home run threat and has shown himself to have great ball skills. But that redshirt freshman CJ Prosise was the intended target running up the seam, and that Prosise was allowed to get bodied off his route, isn’t good. That Rees was so quick to pull the trigger to Prosise also doesn’t make much sense.

With the game on the line, Notre Dame targeted receivers that have caught 11 balls. No, I don’t necessarily think they were the primary read.

But that’s not the way I want to go down.

THE UGLY

The Missed Opportunities. It’s too simplistic and narrow-minded to call this season a lost year. But it’s hard not to think about what the Irish could have been, especially when you think about this team playing with Everett Golson, a full-strength defensive line, and a better idea of the team’s offensive and defensive identities.

The work Notre Dame does from now until the bowl game will be crucial towards building to spring practice, where the Irish will need to develop some key leaders. Don’t expect much from Everett Golson, he won’t be allowed to start practicing until December 20. Depending on the bowl game, that could be just days before the Irish play.

Notre Dame will say goodbye to three captains. They’ll also miss the leader of the offense in Tommy Rees, Danny Spond, a guy who would’ve likely worn a C if he didn’t go down for the year, and key starters like Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

The roster returns plenty of talent, but leaders will need to emerge quickly– and if that’s Stephon Tuitt (or Louis Nix), the Irish coaching staff will be very happy.

 

 

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.