Everett Golson

The good, the bad, the ugly: 85th Blue-Gold game

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And just like that, spring football is over. Even with a two week break in the middle, and dozens of stories to follow throughout the offseason, football is done until August… all in a blink of the eye.

Of course, that won’t stop us from sorting through these last 15 practices, especially Saturday’s Blue-Gold game. And with the offense cruising early before holding on for a 63-58 victory, there’s plenty to discuss after a fun Saturday of football.

Let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.

THE GOOD

Quarterback Play. Sunday afternoon I spent two hours sorting through old Blue-Gold game box scores. I made it back to 1998, and didn’t another Blue-Gold game where Notre Dame quarterbacks didn’t throw an interception. That included standouts Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen. It included some not-so-standouts, too — with guys like Jared Clark, Zach Frazer, and David Wolke getting some playing time, too.

Much has been written (and for good reason) about the game Malik Zaire played. After being almost an afterthought — the guy between Everett Golson and Blake Barnett, Zaire reminded people that he’s a really good quarterback, something Brian Kelly has been telling us, though we’ve just been thinking it’s because he wants to create competition for Everett Golson.

Well, consider Saturday’s performance a good indication that there’s competition. While it’s still Golson’s job, Notre Dame won’t be held back because their back-up quarterback can’t get things done.

On second (and third) inspection, comparing Golson and Zaire on an apples to apples day isn’t necessarily fair. Golson faced some more complex looks defensively, and had the challenge of fielding some wayward shotgun snaps from emergency back-up center Mark Harrell. He settled down after missing a few early throws and looked just fine.

But it’s clear that Kelly’s optimism for the quarterback position, a view he’s shared from the minute the Pinstripe Bowl ended, is for good reason. The Irish are in great shape at the position — even if a two-deep is a little too thin for comfort.

The Running Backs. This trio of backs is probably the strongest we’ve seen since the 2001 trio of Julius Jones, Ryan Grant and Tony Fisher. (Debate below, this is a fun one.) While Greg Bryant’s 51-yard run gets most of our attention, the work Tarean Folston did in the passing game should have Irish fans very happy.

Cam McDaniel only played a cameo on Saturday, scoring an early touchdown while contributing a workman like 3.7 yards per carry. But he came through big with a few catches, including a very nice back-shoulder conversion for a first down.

 

Splitting these touches should be interesting. While McDaniel has earned Kelly’s trust, Folston can do everything well, and has an ability to make defenders miss that doesn’t exist with McDaniel. And as Bryant learns to run with patience until he sees a hole emerge, he’ll demand more and more touches.

Jaylon Smith. Even taking limited snaps, Smith had six tackles. Successfully shifting to the Will linebacker position this spring, Smith has the potential to put up massive numbers in Brian VanGorder’s system.

“He’s in a whole different level in terms of knowledge of our defense. Now he knows it from inside‑out and outside‑in,” Kelly said. “So he can play a number of positions for us. We can move him around, and he has an understanding of how to play this defense both inside‑out and outside‑in and that he had no knowledge of going into the spring. That’s a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before.”

The future is now for Smith, who made the game’s most impressive play when he tracked down and stopped Tarean Folston for a minimal gain, even though the running back had the corner on Smith.

RAPID FIRE… 

Nice job, Mike McGlinchey. We didn’t notice you much out there. That’s a very good thing.

Durham Smythe sure looks like he could be a good player. The Texas Longhorns loss is the Irish’s gain. I’m still really intrigued by Mike Heuerman. He’s not big enough, but he’s got the knack of a productive player.

Austin Collinsworth can lead the Irish in tackles all he wants, like he did Saturday. But if he gives up touchdowns like the one he did to C.J. Prosise, who left Collinsworth in his wake, it’s tough athletically to keep him in space.

Speaking of Prosise, that’s the type of game he needs to play more regularly. His touchdown catch and run looked like Golden Tate, only with a lower-half built from a tree trunk. Between Prosise and Amir Carlisle the Irish seem to have answers at the slot receiver position.

Walk-on Austin Larkin is an intriguing player. Taking snaps at inside linebacker until a talented freshman class enters, Larkin will likely get his chance on special teams.

How about that Irish pass rush? A hat trick of (fake) sacks by Romeo Okwara, and youngsters Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell, and Jacob Matuska getting in on the act. Chase Hounshell also got one, a nice reward for a healthy spring practice.

Welcome back, Elijah Shumate. There are still plenty of people who think he’s capable of being the starter at safety.

 

THE BAD

Call me a glass half full kind of guy, so here’s a rapid fire list:

Not the best day at the office for Kyle Brindza. But Notre Dame’s combo kicker punter is one of the best in the country, and he’ll never have to kick off the Irish turf again.

A few drops: I saw two from Ben Koyack and Chris Brown. Two veterans that can’t be part of the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A tough day at the office for the Irish’s cornerbacks. We didn’t see much of KeiVarae Russell on the field, but we did end up seeing Josh Atkinson, a few times in the wrong light. Jalen Brown was seen chasing as well. (I can’t blame Connor Cavalaris for getting beat long by Corey Robinson. He was actually in good position.)

It’s hard to call the wide receivers’ good day a bad day for the cornerbacks, but the broken coverage on Chris Brown’s big catch up the sideline isn’t a good thing.

Let’s hope Nicky Baratti‘s shoulder injury is nothing serious.

 

THE UGLY?

It was a 70 degree day in South Bend! Other than the shoddy field conditions, there’s not much to complain about.

In lieu of ugly, I will point out one thing that I’m not sure Brian Kelly is getting enough credit for. The sidelines were absolutely covered with former Irish players. Whether they were graduating seniors that were back in South Bend, or recent NFL players like Manti Te’o or Theo Riddick, the culture has certainly changed over the past few seasons.

Young alums weren’t the only monogram winners back on campus. Other (older) ex-players were back, and have continued to come back after some awkward years when Charlie Weis was in charge of the program.

There are some that still criticize Kelly for the way he “understands” Notre Dame and for his dalliance with the NFL after the 2012 season. It’s worth pointing out moments like this that show him in a different light as well.

 

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.