Kyle Flood

And in that corner… The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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The Fighting Irish boarded a Delta 747 for New York on Monday afternoon, set to spend Christmas in the Big Apple before playing Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday. The mood was jovial (if Twitter and Instagram are an indication) as the team took to the skies, a rare game where the Irish are playing for themselves.

While there was griping among fans about a northern destination, New York was an oasis this weekend, with temperatures reaching the 70s. It won’t last until the weekend, but Saturday’s high temperature should be in the low 40s, perfectly fine weather for football.

Now onto the game. Rutgers salvaged a postseason bid with a win in their season finale against USF, bringing Kyle Flood’s squad up the Jersey Turnpike for their highest profile game of the season. To get us a better idea of what awaits the Irish, The Star-Ledger’s Tom Luicci was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Tom’s been covering college football for as long as I’ve been alive, with 34 years of experience, including 21 seasons as a national college football writer. That means he’s spent a lot of time covering the Irish, attending roughly 60 Notre Dame games between 1979 and 2000. He is New Jersey’s state chairman for the Heisman, a Harris Poll voter, and an instructor of elite Naval Aviators in Miramar (maybe one of these is a fib).

At a really busy time of year, I’m thankful Tom could spare some of his expertise to get us ready for the bowl game. Hope you enjoy.

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On paper, it’s not hard to see why Rutgers finished the season 6-6. They struggled with turnovers, gave up a ton of big plays, and just didn’t compete against above average teams in the conference. A year after winning nine games, what went wrong?

The short answer is this: The NFL Draft and key injuries. Rutgers had seven players drafted last year — which was more than any Big Ten team. And Rutgers isn’t a program like Ohio State that simply re-loads. It takes a little time to rebuild. Three of those players drafted were from the secondary, two were starting LBs (one was the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and the defense had to be overhauled.

Rutgers was the only team in the country to start two true freshmen corners in the same game this year. Teams took advantage of that, spreading out Rutgers’ defense and schooling the young secondary. Offensively, Paul James was the nation’s No. 2 rusher after four games when he broke his fibula and missed eight weeks and QB Gary Nova never elevated his play, which is why he was benched the final two games. In the secondary, one of the new starting CBs (Ian Thomas) abruptly quit the team and another (Lew Toler) suffered a season-ending broken arm. So the secondary was a mess all year.

What’s the latest with the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation. Will the Irish see senior Chas Dodd or Gary Nova? Where does Rutgers go moving forward at the position?

Dodd will start for the third straight game — after not starting a game before this year since the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Nova’s decision-making, turnovers and inability to jumpstart the offense are why he got benched after 23 straight starts. A spark or some change was needed. Going forward there will be a QB competition in the spring. Chris Laviano, a true freshman who is redshirting this year, is expected to give Nova a run for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Blake Ranking could as well.

Rutgers is bowl eligible, but it seems that Kyle Flood struggled to hold onto his job. He fired three coaches on his staff the day after the Pinstripe Bowl announced their selection of the Scarlet Knights. Looking past the bowl game, how does this program look as it enters the Big Ten?

With fewer spread teams in the Big Ten (and a new defensive coordinator to be named) Rutgers should be competitive. I know that sounds strange given how they were beaten up by spread teams this year but this defense is built more for the Big Ten style of play. Offensively, Rutgers returns everyone except WR Brandon Coleman. But Nova may or may not be the starting QB. The offensive line returns intact. TE Tyler Kroft is coming off a breakout year. And WR Leonte Carroo, if he can stay healthy, is an NFL-caliber player. Defensively, Rutgers loses four starters — but the reality is not one had a good year. And there is some promising young defensive talent on the roster. So on paper, this can be a competitive, Iowa-type team.

Flood fired his defensive coordinator Dave Cohen. The unit seems to have given up a ton of points, but they are ranked 4th in the country against the run, though have struggled mightily against the pass. How bad are things on that side of the ball? Or was Cohen fired for the off the field accusations of bullying players?

Cohen was fired because this was the worst pass defense in school history statistically — by a wide margin. And if Notre Dame gains 401 yards it will have allowed more yards than any defense in school history. This defense is good against the run, but the reality is that teams pass on this defense because they can. The secondary is the biggest issue. It’s painfully young. Even the one senior there — free safety Jeremy Deering — played offense his first three years. The front four has not done a good job helping out the secondary by getting enough pressure, either.

What can the Irish expect from the Rutgers offense? One-time Irish running back target Savon Huggins looks buried on the depth chart. Will the Scarlet Knight attack feature a heavy dose of Paul James?

With James healthy, as well as promising true freshman Justin Goodwin, Rutgers will have a run-first offense. Notre Dame appears vulnerable there — at least statistically — and ball control is the best way to keep a wobbly defense off the field. Rutgers is trying to expand its offense with some zone read wrinkles, so we may see more of that. Chas Dodd isn’t a high percentage passer but he does have a knack for making plays and he is a senior. Running the ball, throwing to the tight end, a controlled passing game with a few deep shots. That’s how Rutgers generally tries to approach games — unless (or until) they get out of hand.

The Irish are a pretty resounding favorite heading into the Bronx next week. Do you expect Rutgers to put up a fight and keep things close? Do you think Scarlet Knight fans will try to stake a claim to Yankee Stadium and New York City, or is that just the Yankees marketing department’s dream?

Rutgers is 2-0 in the new Yankee Stadium and I think there’s a general feeling that a good showing — not even a win necessarily — will provide some momentum into the off-season. If Notre Dame gets up by double digits quickly, this could just be another ugly Rutgers loss. But I think there’s far more motivation on Rutgers’ part to be playing Notre Dame than the other way around. But emotion only can carry a team so far. They have to play and play well. And Rutgers will have solid crowd support for the game.

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For more from Tom, check out his work at the Star-Ledger and give him a follow on Twitter @TomLuicci.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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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

Ian Book
via Twitter
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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

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.