Zack Martin

Pregame Six Pack: Bowling in the Big Apple

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Notre Dame finishes its 126th season on Saturday, going for a ninth win as they take on Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. It’s the end of a season that many will remember for opportunities missed, though there was plenty of good to go along with the frustrating four losses.

With the Irish set to play a 6-6 Scarlet Knights team in balmy New York, let’s walk through our last pregame six pack before the offseason begins. As always, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Rutgers do battle.

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1. For Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock, it’s not just an average Saturday. 

With Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin now in charge of the UConn and Miami programs, Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock get their first shots to coordinate the offense and defense. While losing both coordinators this time of year isn’t exactly normal, it’s something that programs playing in bowl games sometimes face.

Both coaches have carried leadership roles on the staff previous to this interim assignment. Cooks was named co-defensive coordinator before the 2012 season while Denbrock received the title of passing game coordinator. They both talked about what Saturday will be like earlier this week.

“I look at it more as an opportunity to step into a role that needed filling so our football team could come here and have success against Rutgers. That’s really all it is for me right now,” Denbrock told Irish Illustrated. “We haven’t talked about the stuff that I know is out there. We’ve concentrated on just trying to prepare these guys the best we can and fill that void as best I can so the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and can play their best.”

Cooks was just as philosophical, though you get the feeling he’d embrace the job if it was made permanent.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Cooks told Irish Illustrated. “At least moving forward, whatever happens after this game, I can always say I was the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, and I can always point back and say, ‘There it is for the Rutgers game.'”

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2. It should be bombs away for Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame receiving corps. 

After starting his second game in Yankee Stadium, Tommy Rees will play his final college game on Saturday at the same place. And with the weather forecast looking perfect and Rutgers secondary historically bad, Rees could go out in a blaze of glory.

The Scarlet Knights fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen just a day after the regular season ended. Interim coordinator Joe Rossi, who coordinated the Maine defense for three years, is now tasked with trying to fix a unit that’s 122nd in the country against the pass.

Rossi talked about the challenge of trying to make big changes in just nine practices.

“It’s hard. You really can’t do too much,” Rossi told the Star-Ledger. “At the end of the day, if you spend too much time changing things, you’re not going to get good at those things. So we’ve really looked at ways we can get a little better here and there.

“It’s been a challenge. But I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Rees has been a strong downfield passer this season, ranking 14th in the country in touchdown passes and 30th in the nation in yards per attempt.  Expect the ball to go vertical early and often Saturday afternoon.

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3. O Captain! My Captain! Part One: TJ Jones. 

This is it for TJ Jones, a four-year starter at wide receiver for the Irish. Jones’ final season has been his best, a productive, explosive year for a guy that grew into a No. 1 wide receiver after playing a complementary role for three seasons.

Forgotten in the loss to Stanford was Jones going over the 1,000 yard receiving mark. He’s also four catches from moving to second on the school’s all-time list, a surprising achievement that illustrates the impressive run Jones has had since arriving as an early enrollee freshman at the same time as Brian Kelly and company.

Jones has also done a good job as a punt returner this season. He’s averaging 8.7 yards a return, more than doubling the team’s productivity from last season. He’s also become a big play threat, averaging 16 yards a catch this year. If Jones gains over 130 yards on Saturday, he’ll move into the top five in Irish history for receiving yards.

While the lifetime achievements have been nice, Jones’ time at Notre Dame will be defined more by the man he has become. He’s been candid and open about that all year, discussing it after the Irish’s victory over BYU, an emotional Senior Day that also welcomed his late father Andre’s teammates back to campus to celebrate the 1988 national championship.

Earlier this week, Jones talked about the transformation he’s gone through since his father’s sudden passing in 2011.

“I believe I grew into the man that I am today at a very young age,” Jones told the Journal Gazette. “I matured quicker. I became the man of my house, and it taught me how to be a leader for my family. It allowed me to think bigger picture.”

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4. O Captain! My Captain! Part Two: Bennett Jackson. 

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bennett Jackson, with the New Jersey native playing this Saturday in front of more family and friends than he can count. For some, Jackson’s senior season was a bit of a disappointment, with the veteran cornerback not necessarily flashing the type of playmaking ability that he started to display in his first season as a starter.

Yet Jackson looks to have once again gutted his way through an injury-riddled season, with a balky shoulder that barely held up last year looking to once again be the culprit. While Jackson’s career in South Bend will end, he’ll need to get to work before the NFL Scouting Combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day, where he can show off his track speed and prototype size for scouts.

“I know I’m nowhere close to my full potential,” Jackson told MyCentralJersey.com. “I talk about it with my coaches all the time. I’m an unfinished product. I have raw talent, but I haven’t gotten all those reps that everyone else has gotten. I’m confident in myself and I think I’m going to grow each year.”

Notre Dame’s defensive leader leaves South Bend with his head held high, doing a lot of good during his four years with the Irish. Those contributions continue to be of great importance to Jackson, who has stayed close with friends, family and coaches throughout his time in college.

“You should never forget where you came from,” Jackson told his hometown paper. “I don’t look at myself as someone who’s bigger or better than anyone else. I think of myself as some small town Hazlet kid that just had an opportunity to play at Notre Dame and made the most of it.”

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5. O Captain! My Captain! Part Three: Zack Martin. 

Perhaps the hardest player to say goodbye to is Zack Martin. Notre Dame’s four-time offensive lineman of the year is probably one of college football’s most underrated players, something very hard to accomplish while wearing Notre Dame’s blue and gold.

For the 52nd time, Martin will start for the Irish, a record that won’t likely be eclipsed any time soon, unless college football significantly expands its schedule. While fellow starters Chris Watt, brother Nick Martin, and Christian Lombard won’t be joining him, Martin will hold tight a unit now featuring four first-year starters in Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley.

Martin is just the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history. He’s as close to a mistake-free football player as the Irish have on their roster, and the margin isn’t even close. He may not be the biggest or the strongest or the most impressive athletically, but Martin does just about everything you could ask from a college left tackle.

We’ll spend a ton of time this offseason talking about what the Irish offensive line will look like without Martin. But before we do that, let’s watch Martin shut down an opposing defensive end one last time.

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6. For one final Saturday, it’ll be Ws and Ls and Xs and Os. But after that, let the games begin. 

Consider this fair warning: For one more Saturday, we’ll have football to talk about. After that, all bets are off.

At this time last year, Notre Dame football felt in a pretty good place. The Irish were set to play for a national championship. Brian Kelly was the national coach of the year. Every assistant on staff was returning. Manti Te’o was the most decorated player in college football.

But it was all downhill once the BCS Championship game kicked off. Alabama pummeled the Irish in the first half, coasting to an easy victory. Kelly shocked Irish fans and the football world by going off the radar as he considered jumping to the NFL. Manti Te’o was defrocked, a catfishing story taking away the gloss that came with all those postseason awards. Eddie Vanderdoes tried to transfer out of South Bend before ever arriving. And Everett Golson’s academic suspension killed the Irish’s BCS hopes before they began.

It’s highly doubtful the Irish could have a calendar year as rocky as the one they just went through. But if you think it’s going to be a quiet nine months before Notre Dame kicks it off again, you’re nuts.

Monday will bring a handful of open NFL jobs. Mack Brown’s replacement at Texas still hasn’t been named. Recruits haven’t jumped in or out, with Signing Day still over a month away. And as Jerian Grant proved, the academic gauntlet at Notre Dame is something to always keep an eye on.

So let’s enjoy the ride Saturday afternoon. And then buckle up and expect the unexpected.

 

 

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.