Nyles MorganAAA

Kelly on the recruits: Front Seven

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One of the more impressive hauls in this year’s recruiting class was the work Brian Kelly and his staff did on the front seven. Needing to replace starters at every position with the exception of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, the group was key in rebuilding the team’s depth chart.

Considering Notre Dame needed to replace their defensive coordinator (who also served as the linebackers coach) and transition in Brian VanGorder during the home stretch of the process, it’s hard to be too tough on this group.

Let’s walk through the signees, with Kelly’s comments from his introductory press conference:

BK on Grant Blankenship

“He just continues to grow.  He’s about 265 pounds.  We loved him in camp.  We had a hard time with anybody blocking him.  He was a guy that just stood out right away for us when we saw him in our summer camp working out.  Had a great senior year, and again, a guy that continued to just grow.  I think he’s just starting to hit his potential level, and it’s only going to get better and better.

“Grant is going to be really a solid player for us with great size, somebody that’s really going to grow into that position at the defensive line.”

BK on Jonathan Bonner

“We really project him to be an outside player for us, an edge player, rush player, a guy that gets after the quarterback, and really was impressed with Jonathan, his personality, his character.

“Has a bit of a connection here with Notre Dame, as well.  When you talk about the right fit to Notre Dame, Jonathan possessed all of the right characteristics, academics, socially, and then as a football player. When he came up here, again, a lot of these guys we see firsthand, so our evaluations in a lot of these young men, we got a chance to see them.  Jonathan really impressed us in all of those areas.”

BK on Daniel Cage

“This guy is a ferocious player.  He’s an inside player, and we love the way he got off the ball.  His strength, lower body strength, he’s a guy that’s going to play the shade, he can play the nose.  He’s a guy that’s very disruptive inside.

“As you know, it was not a long recruiting process. We told Daniel, the circumstances, because of losing a player and then having a couple of guys go early, we had to recruit him in a shorter window, but we were able to show him why we thought Notre Dame was the right fit for him, and he got a chance to see Notre Dame, and he signed with us today.  Daniel Cage, we’re excited about having him at Notre Dame, as well.”

BK on Jay Hayes

“One thing I’ll say about Jay is that he has been probably one of our, I would say best recruiters in a sense from day one.  He’s talked about Notre Dame and why you make a decision to come to Notre Dame.  I remember one of his quotes when I was with him was, Coach, some of these guys don’t get it.  They don’t really understand why you would come to Notre Dame.  And he’s such a thoughtful kid at his age that he understands why he would come to Notre Dame for all the right reasons, getting a degree and opening up doors for him for the rest of his life.

“Having said that, he’s a heck of a football player.  Long, and he’s long.  He’s 6’4″, long arms, about 275 pounds.  He’s got multi‑position capabilities.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  Really like the way he plays the game, ferocious attacking player and a guy that we have a lot of trust in their head coach.  He’s a defensive line coach by trade, and he’s one of the best he’s ever had.  Really excited about Jay Hayes coming into our program.”

BK on Kolin Hill

“Colin was a young man that we offered when he didn’t have a lot of action, but we saw a young man that we thought we could develop into just an outstanding football player.  First of all, we loved him as a person.  Again, a right fit for Notre Dame, character, high energy, yes, sir, no, sir, had all those things that we really liked.  He was engaging.  Really impressed our admissions people.  He had all the things that we were looking for as well as somebody that we felt we could develop.

“After we offered him, of course then he got a million offers after that.  Another kid from Texas that was offered by Texas, but he saw the reasons that he chose Notre Dame and fought through that late recruitment.  Again, I thought Kerry did a great job of recruiting Colin and getting him here to Notre Dame.

“Here’s a guy that really will continue to just develop.  He has not even seen his ceiling yet.”

BK on Greer Martini

“Greer Martini is one of the smarter defensive players we signed.  We got a chance to spend some time with him here on campus.  His leadership skills, his ability to recognize and really‑‑ you have to have leaders.  He’s a really good player, and he’s a really good leader, and he’ll be a very good linebacker for us here at Notre Dame and will also be a guy that makes others around him better.

“He’s a good size at 6’3″, 225.  He’s only going to get bigger and stronger while he’s here.  He’ll be an inside linebacker for us, and again, a position of need for us moving forward.”

BK on Pete Mokwuah

“Pete was a great fit for us, and looking for to augment our defensive line position, we wanted to find the right profile young man.  He’s Nigerian.  We’ve had a great Nigerian connection here, Romeo Okwara, Prince Shembo, just to name a few, and then Pete was able to connect Catholic institution, goes to a Catholic school.  That profile fit very well for us.  A kid that’s serious about his academics here at Notre Dame.  All very good profiling for us in terms of the right fit here at Notre Dame and a 6’4”, 315‑pound defensive lineman, pretty good fit there, too.

“So all of those things together, we really liked his personality.  His mom got a chance to come up with him and see Notre Dame.  He’s got a couple of sisters, one at UConn, one at St.John’s, so the family really understands about college and getting a great education and so it was a really good fit in getting Peter here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nyles Morgan

“One thing that stands out about Nyles is his thirst for knowledge of the game.  Every time I’m with him, he just wants to talk about football, and he’s a good student, and his mom and dad want him to just talk about academics, and he’s a good student and he recognizes the value of getting a degree at Notre Dame.  A couple of his choices were Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, so he understands that clearly, but every time he’s with me he just wants to talk about football.  He is a student of the game.

“He couldn’t wait for today because after today he gets to talk a lot more football, and on a daily basis he’s going to be talking about football.

“Just got a great nose for the football, plays downhill, plays fast, great instincts, and when he arrives, he arrives with a bad attitude when he gets to the football.  He’s just that kind of player.  Very, very talented.  You know, I think from our standpoint, an inside guy that certainly has the physical tools to be an exceptional player here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nile Sykes

“Just a great addition to our class.  Really like Nile and his personality.  He’s got a great family.  Mom and dad, really excited about being a part of the Notre Dame family.  Listen, that matters, too.  We want people that want to be part of Notre Dame and be part of our family, and to bring Nile and his family in, he’s a versatile player.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  He is a physical player.  He’s got very good ball skills, instincts, and again, another versatile player in our front seven that’s going to add to the depth of our football team.”

BK on Andrew Trumbetti

“The thing that I would say about Andrew, the thing that really put him over the top for us is when we were watching his film, he was returning kickoffs in high school, and not many times do you see a defensive lineman returning kickoffs.

“We knew about his athletic ability right away, and certainly we loved the fact that he was a multisport player, was a track athlete, and when we got a chance, when Coach Diaco was here before he moved on to Connecticut, got a chance to see him in track practice and got a chance to see his footwork and his quickness and all those things, and that started the recruiting process for us, and then obviously getting a chance to see him up on campus in our summer camps.”

BK on Jhonathon Williams

“Here’s a young man that just started play the game, 6’6”, 230 pounds, and who knows what his future is going to be.  There’s no ceiling on Jhonny Williams’s future.  He’s an engaging young man.  He just recognizes that he’s got a great opportunity at Notre Dame, and we’re excited to provide him that opportunity.

“You know, he’s one of the top players in the state of Michigan, and I think from our perspective, we’ve got one of those guys that if you call him a sleeper or whatever you want to call it, he didn’t play great competition, but he’s going to get an opportunity to play against the very best competition here.  But we’ll take that any time with his athletic skill set.

“At his size, his athletic ability, we’re really excited about developing Jhonny Williams.  He’s the kind of guy that you want to have on your team because of his personality, who he is, his story, his family background, and then a guy that you feel like you can develop down the road.”

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.