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Under Pressure: Where will the Irish find their pass rush?

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Brian VanGorder’s media access has been limited to a small handful of interview opportunities. But that didn’t stop the Irish’s new defensive coordinator from uttering what amounts to a mission statement for his defense.

“My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being more aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out (at cornerback). That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there? If you’ve got a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that’s a huge advantage. That makes sense to all of us. But you can’t just do it to do it.”

In what amounts to the most radical coaching change in the Kelly era, VanGorder’s defense is almost the inverse of Bob Diaco’s. And it also fits the personnel the Irish have, with KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler headlining one of the strongest positions on the roster.

But covering receivers is one thing. Getting after the quarterback is another. And if VanGorder’s defense is built around aggression and pressure, finding the players to provide that spark is as essential as the back end of the defense.

Heading into offseason conditioning, consider these five players crucial in providing the pass rush.

ROMEO OKWARA
Career Sacks: 0.5

That Okwara was just thrown into a starting defensive end job tells you quite a bit about the depth chart after Stephon Tuitt decided to head to the NFL early. On paper, he looks the part of a 4-3 defensive end, and at 6-foot-4, 258-pounds he’s got the length and size to be dangerous.

But Okwara has spent more time backpedaling than rushing the passer in his career, and has been a utility replacement player for two seasons. There’s no more part time work for Okwara anymore. He’ll be counted on to beat offensive tackles and wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield.

A productive spring ended with a nice performance in the Blue-Gold game. But the work has only just begun for Okwara.

 

ISHAQ WILLIAMS
Career Sacks: 1

It’s beginning to feel a little bit like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown with Williams, but Brian Kelly was cautiously optimistic about Williams heading into spring practice, where the now veteran defensive end desperately needs to lead this defense.

At 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, Williams has an NFL body and athleticism. He just hasn’t shown any of the production after arriving in South Bend with a five-star ranking and immense expectations. Being stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo didn’t help. But Williams’ job has been simplified this spring by VanGorder. Go get the quarterback and make plays.

We’ll see if he’s able to do that in his final fall playing for Notre Dame.

JAYLON SMITH
Career Sacks: 0

You’d be foolish to think that VanGorder wouldn’t utilize his best defensive weapon in the pass rush, especially after watching Smith’s brief cameo in the spring game. The team’s best athlete, Smith is already set to be the team’s best playmaker, and a shift to Will linebacker could make him even more productive.

The Irish haven’t been a very good blitzing football team the past few years. But VanGorder was incredibly successful with zone blitzes with the Atlanta Falcons and just spent a year with Rex Ryan, one of the NFL’s true mad scientists.

Expect him to utilized his most skilled pupil.

SHELDON DAY
Career Sacks: 2.5

Let’s give Day a mulligan for 2013, when an early high ankle sprain ruined his efficiency early in the season. But Day will shift inside to defensive tackle in VanGorder’s new system, and should only come off the field when opponents call in the punt team.

Kelly has raved about Day’s ability and explosiveness since he early enrolled. Against Temple, Day was the team’s best defensive lineman. But after suffering the ankle injury against Purdue, it took almost until the season finale to get the Indianapolis native back to 100 percent.

The Irish’s best defensive lineman needs to get to the quarterback. Able to attack a gap and get up field, Day should be able to utilize a very elite skillset that makes him dangerous.

ANDREW TRUMBETTI (or FRESHMAN X)
Career Sacks: 0

You can forgive Trumbetti if this spring was a bit of culture shock. Instead of running track, throwing a shot put, and going to prom, the New Jersey native was tasked with learning an NFL defensive system in 15 practices.

The transition won’t be much easier for the freshmen defenders coming to campus this summer. But thanks to some tweaks in NCAA rules, the Irish coaching staff will be able to study film and implement playbook changes with their new players, which could help get a young pass rusher up to speed.

Freshman Aaron Lynch made an impact as a pass rusher. So did Prince Shembo. Does Jonathan Bonner have the best chance of coming in and contributing off the edge? Is it more likely to be lanky and explosive Jhonny Williams? Or perhaps the added bulk that Grant Blankenship brings to campus will help him get on the field.

Either way, at a position with this little depth, expect a freshman to get a shot.

 

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.