Everett Golson

Pregame Six Pack: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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Welcome back to football. And what easier way back into it than a guaranteed Irish victory. After a long offseason, Notre Dame fans near and far will get their annual spring checkup on their favorite football team. What they’ll see? Well, that might not be that simple.

Everett Golson is back, a long journey completed after last taking the field as the presumed starter in the 84th annual Blue-Gold game. He’s joined by Malik Zaire on the scholarship depth chart, with both signal callers expected to get an extended look on Saturday.

What will Brian Kelly choose to show? That’s not entirely clear, either. After talking up an up-tempo attack and the evolution of the offense to a full-scale spread attack, it’s hard to expect Kelly to show off too many of the cards up his sleeve, especially with a national broadcast and a hungry fanbase that’ll dissect every snap taken.

But why sweat the small stuff? After one of the worst winters in memory, there’s football in Notre Dame Stadium, with a live blog hosted here and the game available to view both on NBC Sports Network and on NBCSports.com starting at 12:30 p.m. EDT. (Here’s an early-bird link to the game.)

Here’s your pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish do battle for Blue-Gold glory. 

***

First off, let’s take a look at the rules.

You might need an accounting degree to understand this year’s scoring system. But let’s start with the easy stuff.

The first half will be close to real football. Each quarter will be two 12-minute periods, with normal clock rules. The second half will be running time, with the quarters set for 15 minutes each.

The offense’s scoring system is as follows:

Field goal: 3 points
Touchdown: 6 points
Extra Point: 1 point
2-point Conversion: 2 points
Big Chunk Pass (20+ yards): 2 points
Big Chunk Run (15+): 2 points
Two consecutive first downs: 2 points

This is how the defense scores points:

Defensive Stop Before 50-yard line: 4 points
Defensive Stop After the 50-yard line: 2 points
Turnover Forced Before 50-yard line: 7 points
Turnover Forced After 50-yard line: 3 points
Forces a Field Goal (Make or Miss): 1 point
Three-and-out: 2 points

Make sense? Good, you can explain it to me during the live blog.

***

Irish fans excited to see Brian VanGorder’s defense? Don’t get your hopes up. 

Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be on display this Saturday, Irish fan’s first opportunity to see the changes Brian VanGorder made to Bob Diaco’s system. Some will be obvious: Expect to see the Irish mostly in four-down sets. Some will be most subtle: Nickel and Dime sub-packages could be plentiful.

But for those expecting to see VanGorder throw the kitchen sink at the Irish offense, don’t hold your breath.

For the first time in five seasons, the Irish will head into the season with the advantage of having VanGorder’s system a mystery to opponents. What tape do you study? A season under Gene Chizik at Auburn? Rex Ryan’s defense will the Jets? Old film from the Atlanta Falcons? Even older tape from the beginning of the Mark Richt era at Georgia?

The first conversation I had with former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a month after the new coaching staff’s first spring game in South Bend. When I asked him how his defense played, he carefully responded, “They did a nice job doing what we asked them to do.” I kindly asked him to explain. Diaco then confided that they played a scheme that they’d never play again, simply for the purpose of not giving anything away.

Don’t expect the attitude to change, especially with a young, unproven personnel group.

***

Thanks to a razor thin depth chart, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. 

The quarterbacks will be off limits. But thanks to a scholarship depth chart that’s exactly two deep, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire on Saturday (and walk-on Charlie Fiessinger). This is hardly Golson’s triumphant return, with a scrimmage far from making this “finished business.” But the rising senior will be in his first game-like situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the South Carolina native wants to put on a show for the fans.

The same can be said for Zaire. After providing one of the rare highlights in last year’s Blue-Gold game with a nice touchdown pass, Zaire won’t have the opportunity to fully take advantage of his skill set if he’s off limits, but he’ll need to show full command of the offense put into his hands.

We just talked about the fact that Brian VanGorder might not throw the type of exotic blitzes he’s known for at the Irish offense on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing it this spring.

I want our quarterbacks to see it all,” Kelly said earlier this week. “They have seen more exotics, more things than they will see next year at any one time, and it’s difficult on them. It’s really hard on them, but I’d rather have it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of, and get better at. Our quarterbacks understand that.

“What they’re seeing is really some 500-level stuff. It’s all good stuff, and I’d rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks and then we get to the fall and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, coach. 
It’s hard, it’s made for some tough meetings, but I think it’s really good teaching in the spring. I’d rather be teaching in those meetings than just saying this is pretty easy.”

***

Even after a disappointing slide to four losses, Brian Kelly is still viewed among the elite. 

It’s that time of year where arbitrary lists and rankings get plenty of attention. Or at least this one should. Athlon released their rankings for all 128 college football coaches and as you may or may not have expected, Brian Kelly was close to the top.

Kelly slotted in at No. 9 in the rankings, falling in just behind Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (who if it weren’t for a play called Little Giants, would be winless against the Irish head coach.)

Here’s the top 10:

1. Nick Saban
2. Urban Meyer
3. Steve Spurrier
4. Bob Stoops
5. Art Briles
6. Bill Snyder
7. Jimbo Fischer
8. Mark Dantonio
9. Brian Kelly
10. Gus Malzahn

Stanford’s David Shaw comes in at No. 12, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino at No. 16, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald at No. 18, Arizona State’s Todd Graham at No. 19. Michigan’s Brady Hoke is No. 38 and USC’s Steve Sarkisian is No. 44. That’s a lot of coaching talent on next year’s schedule.

***

 What in the name of Junior Jabbie? Will we actually learn anything on Saturday?

For every revealing spring game there’s a breakout performer like Junior Jabbie, the anonymous back-up running back who burst onto the scene like a supernova, but never appeared again. There are plenty of chances for that to happen this year, with a stable of walk-on running backs likely carrying the ball in the second half and Charlie Fiessenger probably running the second half show as well.

But a quick look back at last year’s game revealed some interesting tidbits. First, the special teams were a mess. Second, the running game was still trying to figure out exactly what it was.

Mostly, the feeling at the game was one different than most. The Irish were settled. They were coming off a 12-1 season. They had their starting quarterback ready to take the next step.

It’s different,” Golson told Alex Flanagan after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

Obviously, the trap door hadn’t opened yet. But expect a more business-like performance on Saturday, even if we won’t know what any of this actually means.

***

Even with changes on his staff and roster, Kelly seems all in. 

Earlier this week, CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler sat down with Brian Kelly and picked the head coach’s brain. In a wide ranging conversation where Kelly talked about Declan Sullivan (Kelly delivered the keynote at the memorial fund’s annual dinner), Kelly also talked about some lighter things.

A growing duel over surfboards in offices with Bob Stoops, and a recent foursome at Augusta National with Tom Brady (no big deal, Charlie Weis isn’t the only Notre Dame coach that gets to hang with the Patriots)!

Kelly opened up about things big and small about life at Notre Dame.Do yourself a favor and read the entire article, but here are a few snippets that I found very interesting:

Kelly talked with Brady specifically about the workload that exists in the NFL.

As if that four-putt somewhere on Amen Corner wasn’t humbling enough for Kelly, who shot 91, Brady asked Kelly if players today understood the difficulty of making an NFL roster. Most of them have “no idea,” Kelly realized.

“They are putting in 10 hours a day,” Kelly said of NFL players. “Right now, college guys are putting in maybe 10 to 12 hours a week [because of NCAA rules].”

Kelly’s evaluation of this team also was worth noting, a distinct difference between the team that could have three first round draft picks.

“It’s not really a top-heavy NFL Draft pick team, but this might be our most talented top to bottom,” Kelly told Fowler.

Perhaps Kelly’s most revealing detail was just how important he feels the quarterback is in his system. After noticing how quickly Florida State was able to turn the tables with Jameis Winston (and the fact that Kelly himself rode a young quarterback to the BCS title game), he talked about the essential nature of a good quarterback in college football.

“It’s all about the quarterback,” Kelly told Fowler. “Manage the pocket. He’s got to have answers.”

We’ll get our first extended look as to whether Golson and Zaire have those answers on Saturday afternoon.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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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.