Santa

Holiday Mailbag: Answers and Presents

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here’s hoping you’re all spending these next few days finishing up work and getting closer to friends and family.

And as teased, we’re doing our first ever Holiday giveaway, thanks to LCP and Skybox Press. It’s the Official Illustrated History of Fighting Irish Football.  The book features 20 essays from former Notre Dame greats like Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Dave Casper, Brady Quinn, Ken MacAfee, Ross Browner, Tony Rice and John Huarte.

It’s perfect for a coffee table and features over 300 photos. My niece Sydney picked the winner (don’t blame me!) but all of our readers are able to get the book on sale here, using the promo code “ND230” to cut the price from $75 to $39.95, which includes free shipping.

Here’s the mailbag. Sydney’s pick for the free book is at the bottom.

@Ontario_Bill: What is the greater loss with Diaco leaving…..schematics or recruiting? BD seemed to really connect with high school kids…

Bill, I’m going with “none of the above.” While I think Diaco was excellent as both a schemer and recruiter, his presence and energy in the locker room will be missed the most. We tend to forget that he took over a defense that wasn’t just mediocre, it was horrible. Probably even worse was the morale of the group, players that had seen coaches and systems come and go.

Diaco rebuilt the psyche of this group, starting with a “B.I.A.” chant (Best In America) that people started by chuckling at, but ended up almost achieving in 2012.

@DanFree5: can you explain the “Pot of Gold” craze? I think I managed to figure it out. Wondering where it started and the point.

During the recruiting quiet period, Notre Dame has managed to build momentum with the remaining recruits on the board. A smart initiative by the recruiting office and football staff, and it’s helped build an awareness during a usually slow period, and allowed Kelly to focus on prepping the team for the bowl game and vetting candidates for his coaching staff.

@IrishPhog: who are you hearing about for coordinators? Simply Cooks and Denbrock?

As you’d expect, there’s a pretty tight lid on this search. Talking to people inside the program, they’ve got no clue either. If I had to guess, I think Denbrock gets a promotion and a QB coach is brought in. Cooks might share the title with Mike Elston, but this is the one place where Kelly might bring in someone new to a leadership position.

I put together a pretty comprehensive look at this last night, working into the wee hours of the morning reading about coaching buyouts and contracts.

notthatconfused: Do you think Kelly will continue as quarterbacks coach, or will he hire someone (George Whitfield) to perform those duties?

George Whitfield isn’t coming to South Bend. He’s doing what he wants to do and he’s got a pretty good gig living close to the beach in San Diego and working with quarterbacks from all around the country.

tonyricemajorharris: Besides 5th year seniors, who else might be transferring?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely comfortable speculating on who plans on leaving the program, but I think the biggest group will be graduated players with immediate eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see if these guys go join one of four coaches they had a connection with: Charlie Weis at Kansas, Charley Molnar at UMass, Chuck Martin and Miami or Bob Diaco at UConn.

I do think you have to look at guys buried on the depth chart and wonder if they’ll stick with it. The running back and safety depth chart is pretty daunting. Some veteran cornerbacks have been passed as well.

newmexicoirish: Keith this week has been a pretty good one for Irish recruiting. Of the remaining top targets for Notre Dame (Matt Elam, JuJu Smith, Michiah Quick, Terry Godwin) who do think the Irish have a realistic chance of signing? Is there room for Dalton Schultz or do you think we’re pretty well stocked at tight end?

In the next two years, Alex Welch, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack will all depart. Does that mean Notre Dame will take three tight ends? I don’t know. But I expect them to take a full class and if they can fit Schultz, maybe they’ll take him.

NotreDan: We bounced it around a bunch this year, but in your opinion; how damaging was lack of leadership in the absence of Teo and Kappy, and who are the emerging team leaders for next year?

I don’t know that leadership was the reason this defense regressed. I think we probably overvalued the team’s personnel, and the loss of Danny Spond, the early season injury to Stephon Tuitt and Dan Fox, and some struggles in the secondary did it.

That Te’o was able to be a tackling machine and a turnover creator is really astounding. Many people forgot about the season he had because of the catfishing. But there’s a reason he was the most highly decorated defensive player in the modern era.

irishdodger: can you please lend your perspective as to where ND stands now in the CFB landscape versus the post Holtz era. With the Texas coaching search, it really puts into perspective how important it is for any school to make the right hire. Just thinking back to the Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis eras makes me glad ND finally got it right w/ Kelly.

I think the coaching search at a place like USC ends the idea that prestigious programs can just pluck an elite coach from another top-level program. Notre Dame fans would have rioted if the Irish hired Sark, a guy that only now just won eight games.

Looking back, Notre Dame got caught institutionally napping at the worst time in college football history. It’s never good when you’re the last to realize the arms race has begun, and hiring Bob Davie has to go down as an all-timer. A big-time hire there and it would’ve been a very different 20 years.

bernhtp: Will we see an article titled “Tribute to Tommy” at the end of the season?

I think we’ve written about Tommy quite a bit. Let’s wait until after the season to take a closer look at all the departing seniors.

chadwalters425: How does Greg Bryant participating in bowl game practice not violate his medical redshirt?

You can practice. You just can’t play.

mediocrebob: How has Zaire’s growth and development gone thus far? I remember during spring ball people mentioning that he was very eager to learn. Has he gained weight? Is there a big difference between when he arrived last winter and now?

Bob, if someone in the media can tell you how Zaire is progressing, he’s got a secret view into practice that most of us don’t. He’s likely gained weight, gotten stronger and learned the playbook. We’ll get a better idea come spring ball, when an updated roster is released and a closer look at the team.

One thing I haven’t liked? Zaire’s propensity to get on Twitter and speak his feelings. Kelly already put the young quarterback on notice when he let it slip he was battling mono. But Zaire’s initial reaction to Chuck Martin’s hiring at Miami was hardly the type of response you want from the potential face of the Irish offense.

Still, these past few weeks have been a great opportunity for Zaire. He’s had a ton of one-on-one time with Kelly, and if there’s a way to jump start his career, this is it. With Tommy Rees departing, and Andrew Henrix quite possibly as well, Zaire’s gotten more time than he could dream of with his head coach during preparations for the Pinstripe Bowl.

jcodaniels: first time commenter, long time reader of your work. Love it. Well it looks as though I will again be depending on Amazon to get my wife’s Christmas gift to my house on time this year as I am terrible at getting something ahead of time. My question to you is, do you think it is OK that I got her something Notre Dame which is basically for me. Last year it was an electronic that was basically for me as well that had an ND background on it when she opened it. I think my love for Notre Dame is taking affect on my marriage. 

That’s why there’s Amazon Prime! But on a serious note, this offseason can’t come soon enough for you. Take a couple months away from it and come back refreshed in the fall. Don’t forget Bobby D’s poem.

chejoe: It seems to me that Kelly has been snake-bit by quarterbacks during his entire time at ND: first, Clausen graduates early, rather than play for him; next, Crist was not as good as we all thought (neither was Hendrix) and Dayne was injury prone; then, Kiel decides to transfer *right before* Golson gets kicked out of school. While Rees did all he could, and it was better than most (including me) give him credit for, he was obviously thrust into this role (repeatedly) despite simply not being the right man for the job. As we head into Rees’ final game in an ND uniform, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the ND offense. The one year that Kelly had as least *most* of his wishes at QB the Irish played for the title. How do you see it playing out?

I’m not sure there’s a question there, but I think you’re on to something. It’s worth noting that for the first time, Kelly will have a depth chart of quarterbacks that he recruited.

rocket1988: Alright here are some questions Mr. Arnold
Better beach: Hermosa or Manhattan? — Manhattan, of course.
Steak or Sushi? — Why not both. But I could eat sushi seven nights a week.
Ducks or Kings? — Gimme the Canucks. Lotta ND blood in the front office.
Favorite ND athlete of the past, present, or future? — Too hard. I’m partially to the CDH Raiders: Rashon Powers-Neal, Ryan Harris, Marcus Freeman, Michael Floyd, James Onwualu, and hell — baseball legend J.P. Gagne.
And last, your dream venue to cover and ND game? Dublin was pretty slick. But Fenway should be cool, too.

irishpuma: Seriously who are your favorite posters and who are your least likely to read or have a drink with.

You are each like my own — eh, special children.

ndfenian: For Keith or anybody that has a thought: why didn’t we see the offense employ screen passes to the running backs this year? Does Kelly not believe in the screen game to backs?

There were plenty of screen passes in this offense, but I agree, I’d like to see more running back screens. I’ll dig into this during the offseason.

dudeacow: Flashback: back when Kelly was hired, was this where you envisioned the program would be four years in? Include specifics (i.e., recruiting, offensive/defensive production, team speed, etc.)

That’s a pretty impossible question to answer. But to see the team make it to the BCS National Championship Game in their third season, and to see the defense rebuilt and an offense come together with such young, promising talent, there are on track.

Nudeman:  Many here and elsewhere have scratched their heads this year at the play calling. Too pass-happy for most of us. I could cite specific examples, but it’s not necessary. Personally I’ve never been 100% convinced that BK isn’t still calling the plays, but can’t prove that. Some have surmised it’s Rees audibling into passes; some have blamed Martin.

With a new OC next year and a new QB who doesn’t audible everything, not to mention Folston & Bryant being a year older and stronger, to what degree does this problem go away?

What a wonderfully loaded question. The bottom line is that Kelly’s offense can’t run optimally if the quarterback can’t run the ball. I tackled this a few days ago if you want to read more.

goirish3590: A phrase we frequently heard in reference to Bob Diaco’s style of defense was, “bend, don’t break,” and 2012′s defensive unit came to embody that sentiment. My question is this: do you think we’ll see a philosophical shift to perhaps a more aggressive defense, or do you think Kelly sticks closer to the idea of avoiding big plays?

That phrase was assigned by fans. The phrase that Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco used was “limit points.” And they did a very good job of that. While I think the defense needs to do a better job of taking away the football, avoiding big plays is pretty much the only proven way to keep scoring down.

THE WINNER:

TonyRiceMajorHarris. Congratulations on your Christmas present. Please send me an email with your mailing address (through the link) and we’ll get you a book.

 

 

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.