Mailbag

Mailbag: Welcome to the offseason edition

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Okay folks. We’ve got a few months to go before we see some actual football. That doesn’t mean it’s time to hibernate. So we’re going to keep the train rolling here, and a weekly mailbag is a good start.

Let’s get to the fun stuff:

don74: Tommy Rees has been the lightening rod for fan’s comments for four years. Who takes his place as the guy who most incites the fans?

This is a great question. It was looking like a runaway opportunity for George Atkinson, but with the inconsistent running back off to the NFL this makes a tough choice.

I’ll give you two answers: On defense, I think it’s got to be Ishaq Williams. He’s been in the program for too long and still hasn’t made an impact. On offense, I think it’s — dare I say it — Everett Golson. He’s Notre Dame’s quarterback. He’s no longer the new kid in town. And as long as there’s a QB people like behind him, watch out.

In reality, I don’t think there’s anybody on this roster that’ll be anywhere near the lightning rod that Rees was. But somebody will take over as the scapegoat, and it’s hard to look much farther than quarterback.

jerseyshorendfan1: When do you think we see Zaire’s first meaningful minutes? Does he play against Rice in mop up if we’re way out in front? Seeing what you’ve seen, when would you start to bring him along in the process?

Also, I think it is huge but what is your assessment of how important the Michigan game is to our season; how important to BK’s future?

I think you see Zaire against Rice. Get him experience as soon as you can. I think you’ll see him before halftime, just to get a series in and get a few snaps before it’s a situation you can’t script.

As for Michigan, I think it’s an important game, but I’m not sure if it’s going to dictate Brian Kelly’s future. (Don’t get me wrong. It’s a GIGANTIC game for Notre Dame, especially with Michigan going off the schedule.) But it’s Brady Hoke on the hot seat after underachieving. While the early season game has gone the Wolverines way lately, if Hoke keeps melting down against Big Ten competition, AD Dave Brandon might be starting another coaching search.

@Okerland: how many incompletions until I can request that Zaire be in the game?

After the first three and out it’s fair game.

irishinmich: The receiver and TE corps seem crowded and convoluted at first glance. Assuming Daniels leads the team in receiving this fall, who is the second leading receiver, and why?

I’ve gone on record that I think Will Fuller is going to be the guy. But if not him, I think it’s Corey Robinson. The case for Fuller is fairly simple. With TJ Jones’ 70 catches gone, somebody is going to be the beneficiary. Averaging 26.7 yards per catch means you should touch the ball more.

It could be Robinson. An all-around impressive kid and athlete, Golson is an accurate enough thrower that can start using Robinson as a post-up option, and the 6-foot-5 receiver will simply go up and get the football.

kmic000: Why wasn’t Romeo redshirted his freshman year? And, what’s the latest on Grace? Is he going to be able to help us much this year?

Okwara wasn’t redshirted because the roster had zero depth at outside linebacker. Obviously having three seasons left as opposed to just two would be key for Romeo as he transitions to defensive end, plus he is still really young for a college football player. But just like Kona Schwenke, the depth Kelly inherited played a large role in his decision-making, and it’s tough to save a player’s eligibility when you’re down to three outside linebackers.

As for Grace, we haven’t heard anything other than Kelly’s optimistic update after his additional surgery. But I think getting anything out of Grace next season would be a win, and you’ve got to think the Irish are expecting to spend the first half of the season without their inside linebacker.

irishdodger: While I’m not dismissing a break out year for Ishaq Williams, is it fair to say that a 5-star from NY (or the entire Northeast…save maybe Jersey) isn’t equivalent to a 5-star from Florida, Texas, Cali or Louisiana? Personally, I’d welcome a 3-star from FL, TX or Louisiana vs a 4-star from New York

I see where you are going with this, but not sure I can agree. Look at Notre Dame’s luck in Minnesota. Michael Floyd turned out to be a pretty good player, and it’s not as if people are confusing Minnesota high school football for Texas. Then look at Dayne Crist. Five-star QB from a top California program. Complete whiff.

Where I will agree with you is when it comes to evaluating elite talent. Williams was a five-star prospect based on projections, as playing football in Brooklyn isn’t the best measuring stick.

bernhtp: In an alternate universe where Tuitt and Nix stayed for their final year of eligibility, would BVG still have made the same change in base defense, or is the change mostly a capitulation to the (dis)abilities of this team?

Some fancy wordplay here, Bern. I’ll do my best to follow. If Nix and Tuitt stayed, ND would still probably tweak their system, as Brian VanGorder wouldn’t have taken over and not installed his own system. But a three-man front of Nix, Tuitt and Day would’ve stayed on the field a lot more, even if BVG likes to play with a four-man front.

coachtemp: Keith, what has been done to improve the absolutely anemic punt return game as well as the punt coverage team?

What Kelly and his staff did: Ask for help. Kelly took his special teams tape and showed it to coaches in both the NFL and college football. It’s also worth pointing out that at Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, three of the guest speakers were special teams experts.

The punt return game wasn’t really the problem last year. The cover units were. But I’ll be watching carefully if Greg Bryant or Amir Carlisle can upgrade the return teams.

dickasman: Hey Keith, I saw a guy that looked like you stuffing his gym bag full of chlorine stained white towels stealing them at Equinox in Hawthorne. Who dat?? Dat you???

I haven’t taken a towel from that Equinox in months! I gave up my membership there a few years back… and keep the workouts more local (Shoutout to Level 10 Fitness, where I shared a session with former USC quarterback Matt Leinart last week).

But are you allowed to be monitoring locker rooms, Dick? I thought that was against the court order.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Given the SEC’s new schedule format, will Swarbrick get a few phone calls?

In my opinion, it was a bit of a gutless move by the SEC. But yes, it’ll technically open up a potential game for Notre Dame. But I expect an SEC game to be announced sooner than later against Georgia, as Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports reported a few weeks back.

steincj36: Keith, has the Northwestern unionization talk been heard anywhere around South Bend?

It’s been heard, it’s been followed, and it’ll likely never take root.

I’m conflicted about the unionization plans. As a former scrub college athlete, we had countless conversations about the one-way street that college athletics sometimes felt like. But it’s hard for me to feel like a group of athletes getting a free education at one of the best schools in the country is getting taken advantage of, especially at a school like Northwestern, where the football team doesn’t sell out and they’re routinely one of the least popular teams in their own conference.

Leave it to the kids getting a free education at Northwestern to be the ones feeling like they’re being taken advantage of. Meanwhile there are Dean’s List students walking out of Evanston with $250,000 in student loans.

1notredamefan: What are your thoughts about this new playoff system? Are the best 4 teams going to make It? and what have you heard through the grape vine about our chances are of qualifying?

What’s not to like? Nobody’s been hosed yet, there haven’t been any problems, and we don’t have to listen to BCS projections ever again. I think it’s a great step forward, but one that’ll be monitored and tweaked. And the pressure to expand will be immense.

Notre Dame’s chances of qualifying? They can’t lose more than one game. But with their schedule, if they can win them all, they’ll be in for sure. If they lose one, it’ll take some style points and politicking.

jonnybrooklyn: I have an utterly random trivia question for you Keith, this one goes back to somewhere between 1998-2002 (when I was an ND undergrad, and I think you were too?). There used to be a player on special teams, maybe a walk-on, who during the kickoff would literally throw his body sideways into as many opposing players as possible and just take them out like bowling pins. He never really got any mentions on TV or from the live announcer because he didn’t often tackle whoever had the ball, he was just mostly a destroyer who mowed people over indiscriminately. I remember watching him during live games and I’d pick him out because just before kickoff he would take this huge stretching jump into the air, maybe to pump himself up or something. I always got a kick out of it (no pun intended) and I was always amazed that he walked off the field in full health. Any idea what his name is and what his story is?

I actually think I know who you are talking about. It might be former walk-on safety Matt Sarb, who made 13 tackles in his two seasons as a special teams gunner. Sarb was the “tip of the spear” on coverage units and provided a few gigantic collisions as he ran himself into harms way on kickoffs.

He also won a Bengal Bouts title as a senior, shredding down to 180 pounds and brawling his way to a belt.

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
247 Sports
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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.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal