Moshood Adeniji, Stephon Tuitt

Mailbag: Leaving early and early predictions edition

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A good set of questions from you guys. Let’s get to them:

@ontario_bill: KA, with the ascent of Martin his senior year to becoming a 1st round pick, do you think ND guys will see that and be more ikely to stick around? I can’t help but think about the difference 1 more year could make for Tuitt, Nix and Niklas.

I know one person who hopes so: Brian Kelly. After keeping six-star recruits Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd, the odds were in the favor of a few tough coin-flip decisions on whether to stay or go. But in the case of Stephon Tuitt, it sure feels like his decision to go pro cost him millions of dollars.

The farther Tuitt slides down draft boards the less guaranteed money he’s going to get. Sure, he’ll be earning money a full year earlier than he would’ve had he stayed in school. And yes, he’ll be a year closer to his second contract, but the difference in money between a top ten pick and a guy that goes in the middle of the second round is sizable.

If fear of injury were the biggest issue, Tuitt was eligible for an insurance policy that could’ve guaranteed him millions if he were hurt during his senior season at Notre Dame. But to think that jumping to the NFL after a super disappointing junior season (where he put a lot of bad reps on tape for NFL talent evaluators) made sense, he must’ve had someone whispering sweet nothings into his ear.

@mfmitchell88: do you expect to see more up tempo offense with this year’s personnel and new OC?

I do. But then again, we’ve been hearing that every spring since Brian Kelly arrived. But why I think this year will actually be different isn’t necessarily Mike Denbrock or the receiving personnel, but rather the fact that both of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks can run a version of the offense that utilizes the zone read running game.

@steincj36: Any chance we can progress reports on the turf installation? And has there been talk of paint schemes for the field, or will it stay ND traditional?

There won’t be any progress until after graduation weekend, when the natural grass will be torn out and installation will begin. As for the paint schemes — there’s been plenty of talk about it. None of it coming from inside Notre Dame.

But a note on the “traditional” schemes. You’d be surprised at some of the looks Notre Dame displayed in the past. It hasn’t always been hashmarks and diagonals.

irishdodger: Keith, with the least experienced team of the Kelly Era, what are the “musts” in getting this team to 10 wins?

A few musts:

* Win the easy ones: (Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy)
* Win most of the ones they should: (Syracuse, North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville)
* Win half of the ones that are coin flips: (Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, and USC)

That alone gets you to ten wins. But for a few less macro “musts:”

* Dictate terms offensively.
* Improve Red Zone scoring.
* Don’t give up any 30+ yard touchdowns
* Fix special teams coverage units.

@TheCaptain11: I don’t know to be pumped for this new defense or scared to death. Which way do you lean?

I’d be more pumped than scared. Just because this will be a completely different version of Notre Dame’s defense, with smaller, faster, more attacking schemes compared to the heavyweight techniques utilized under Bob Diaco. Do I think the group will be better? No, not with the lack of experience up front. But I do think it’ll be more exciting.

But as Owen Wilson said in Armageddon: “I got that “excited/scared” feeling. Like 98% excited, 2% scared. Or maybe it’s more – It could be 98% scared, 2% excited but that’s what makes it so intense, it’s so… confusing. I can’t really figure it out.”

bernhtp: With good coaching and development, you can turn a bunch of three and four star recruits into a very, very good football team, but it seems hard to break into the elite group (i.e., those making the playoffs) without getting your unfair share (3-5) of five stars as powerhouse teams like Alabama do every year. Furthermore, many of the five-star recruits ND has signed, didn’t last (e.g., Lynch, Kiel, Neal, Vanderdoes). Does this limit the ceiling for the program?

That’s a question that probably requires a few months of research, not 45 minutes. But I can’t help but think your knowledge of Notre Dame’s success rate with five-star prospects far outweighs your knowledge of how other program’s five-star players pan out, making this one a little bit tougher to prove. Cruise through the past few Rivals classes. For as many guys that “made it” and played to that talent level, there are just as many that you never heard from again.

I’m of the mind that Notre Dame lands more than its share of five-star players. And I also think that while landing elite prospects is critical to success, the teams that become consistent playoff competitors won’t be doing so on the strength of elite recruits, but rather by the strength of the middle of their roster.

Washouts like Lynch, Kiel, Neal and Vanderdoes sure don’t help a program. But nobody holds a success rate like you’d expect or hope.

mtflsmittyI’m not crying wolf here, and I realize ranking of recruits has plenty of flaws. But I’d like your thoughts on the health of our 2015 recruiting efforts.

A few observations:
– At this point in the 2014 recruiting cycle ND had secured commitments from eight recruits. One 5-star, five 4-star, and two 3-star.
– The 2015 class seems not to be shaping up as well. Zero 5-star, four 4-star, and four 3-star players. Until yesterday, we had gone for five months without anything but 3-star commitments.
– I expect we’ll have a smallish class this year (16-19 recruits). Therefore, I would have expected us to be more selective than usual. I also don’t see us in play with any 5-star guys.

Are we having issues, or am I making an issue out of nothing?

Smitty — Deep breaths, brother. Get back to me in August. Notre Dame isn’t taking a full freight class, likely capping this group in the high-teens. So while this group might not be shaking out as quickly as some of the earlier efforts Kelly and his staff put together, it’s also a bit more surgical.

almostbrian: Are fans coming into September down to earth regarding expectations? Or with Golson back do they have visions of Championships dancing in their heads? FSU, USC 2.0, Stanford, ASU and Michigan’s one great performance of the year. If they make it to the playoff, I’m dancing. If they make it to the Championship, I’m quite my day job to make and sell busts of Brian “Ditka” Kelley

What the fun of tampering expectations before the season begins? One free tip: Before you get those busts started, make sure you spell check the head coach’s name.

irishdog80: How much of a positive impact will the new turf have on the team both offensively and defensively? Negative impact? During winter weather? In the past, was recruiting negatively impacted by our natural grass field?

Good question. A quick straw poll of players showed almost universal love for the decision to go to an artificial surface. For one, they practice on it already every day. Secondly, it allows the team to actually hold practices in the stadium. And most importantly, it allows the speed and athleticism this roster has to actually be utilized, not held back on a sloppy track.

As for any negative impact, I don’t see it. This isn’t retro 1980s turf that gets slippery (or more slippery than natural grass) in the rain. And nobody was recruiting against Notre Dame Stadium, even if the grass wasn’t up to snuff.

oldestguard: How does a top 10 – 20 football program scout the entire country effectively ? Do they rely on any of the recruiting sites at all ? …or is it strictly in-house ?

I cut down your question a bit, but it’s a good one. Most coaching staff’s utilize some type of outside service. Is it Rivals, Scout or 247? No. But what makes a coaching staff valuable is the relationships they develop around the country. They rely on high school coaches to alert them if they see a great player, and that’s part of the reason they hit the road during evaluation periods, to kick the tires on the well-established prospects and to unearth the guys not yet on the radar.

As for the delicate dance of making offers and accepting commitments, that’s a line that always needs straddling and one that the Irish staff has done a great job on. It’s no secret that Notre Dame has cast a wider net for prospects, but they’ve also had to make sure that they’re able to get in the running for players early, while also making sure they’ll gain acceptance into school.

For the most part, the Notre Dame staff succeeds with honesty. They’ll tell a player where they are on their board, and for the most part kids appreciate the candor. Does it always work out? No. But then again, in recruiting it never does.

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.