Matt Cashore - USA Today Sports

Memorial Weekend notes: Martin, recruiting, scheduling and more

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Here’s hoping everybody has great plans for Memorial Day weekend. Consider this a guess (or hope) that it’ll be a less dramatic weekend than last year, when the Irish’s 2013 season was thrown into permanent disarray.

With the Irish assistant coaching staff out recruiting, and the unofficial start of summer kicking off on this long weekend, let’s share a few stories that I found interesting.

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For those looking for a stadium update, check this out:

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Over at Irish Illustrated, Tim Prister sat down for a long chat with former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). One of the more honest, candid and entertaining guys in college football, Martin didn’t disappoint.

Prister posted chunks of his interview in three parts, and while they’re protected by a paywall, they’re worth every bit of the $9.99 a month to read.

Here’s just a few snippets to give you a feel:

On Andrew Hendrix, now the unquestioned starting quarterback at Miami:

“The biggest thing with Andrew was he was close to being the guy at Notre Dame but never the guy. The confidence that comes with getting over the hump and becoming the guy…Not that he wasn’t confident, but he never got the confidence of really, truly being the guy at Notre Dame.

“Here, his game has really elevated. He’s having tons of success and he’s clearly the guy. There’s something to be said of when you have that comfort of being the guy, then you play better. When you’re always battling to get to the top of the depth chart, it’s hard with the stress of always falling a bit short. He is an unbelievable kid.”

And on Martin’s unequivocal love for Notre Dame:

“Brian Kelly could have gotten the Texas job and I wasn’t going to Texas. Brian Kelly could have gotten the Alabama job and I wasn’t going to Alabama. I wasn’t going to be an assistant coach, but any chance to coach at Notre Dame, I wasn’t going to pass it up.

“It’s Notre Dame. I’m Irish-Catholic from the south side of Chicago. It’s my school. It’s a place I believe in more than any place in the world. How they do their business. The quintessential student-athlete. To me, it wasn’t even a decision.

“When Brian asked, it was not a long conversation. We didn’t talk salary. I didn’t even know what position I was coaching. He said, ‘I’m bringing my coordinators from Cincinnati,’ and I said, ‘Okay, gotcha.'”

And on his desire to take over at Notre Dame when Kelly is finished:

“That would probably be the only goal I have in coaching. Other than that, I’ve never really chased jobs. I’m happy where I am today and during my previous stops in coaching. I always like where I’m at. I’ve never really had a bad job. I love where I’m at now. I don’t concern myself with jobs other than the one I have.

“But if you ask me if there’s one job I’d like to have, it would be Notre Dame.”

As someone who got to know Martin fairly well over the past four years, I can’t give a bigger recommendation to this interview. Part one, part two and part three all deliver the goods. There’s much better stuff from Martin in the articles, so head over and pony up.

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As college coaching staffs spend parts of May evaluating prospects, the heart of “recruiting season” begins to take off in June. Colleges will hold their camps, with Notre Dame’s “Irish Invasion” trying to establish itself on the prospect map, hoping to get on par with top-flight camps at schools like Florida and Ohio State.

In advance of other industry events like the Rivals Five-Star Challenge and Nike’s The Opening, Rivals updated their recruiting rankings, and quarterback Blake Barnett has moved up the most. Barnett’s now the No. 55 player in the country, and classified as a “dual-threat” quarterback, with the 6-foot-4, 193-pounder having the quicks to be a wide receiver if he wasn’t such a promising signal caller.

Joining Barnett in the Rivals250 are offensive linemen Jerry Tillery (#132) and Tristen Hoge (#159), and safety Prentice McKinney (#250), who came out of nowhere to make the list.

Right now Rivals has the Irish recruiting class ranked No. 15 in the country, though it’s the second-highest school with less than 10 commitments, trailing just USC.

Notre Dame is also after some of the top prospects on this list, still chasing blue-chippers DT Kahlil McKenzie, WR George Campbell, RB Soso Jamabo, LB Justin Hilliard, DE Jashon Cornell, WR Miles Boykin, WR Cordell Broadus, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, RB Malik Lovette, WR K.J. Hill and plenty more.

(Quick reminder: These rankings are as subjective as they come right now, especially before any of these players have a chance to get out to camps this summer. Deep breaths. Lot of time left.)

For another look at Irish recruiting, check out the conversation I had with Steve Wiltfong, 247’s director of recruiting about the evolution of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts.

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Interestingly enough, the podcast Brian Kelly did with Bruce Feldman is picking up traction. While we pointed out some other segments that were interesting to us, Kelly’s talk of the difficulties getting traditional opponents like Michigan and Michigan State back on the schedule has some college football pundits accusing Kelly of complaining.

Here’s the section that’s got so many people up in arms:

“All I can do is voice my … you know, as a football coach, especially one that’s been in the Midwest, I love the ability to play Michigan and Michigan State and the tradition of it. But the reality of it is, you know, for our athletic department to enter into the agreement with the ACC, we have to give up a little bit from a football perspective relative to scheduling. To make our athletic department whole relative to soccer and lacrosse and basketball, that ACC agreement was absolutely crucial for our athletic teams.

“Football had to give up a little bit relative to flexibility and scheduling by taking on a commitment with the ACC. Therefore it’s put us in a very difficult situation scheduling and unfortunately, it’s taken some of those schools like a Michigan or Michigan State off our schedule. Because we’re gonna keep Navy. We’re gonna keep Stanford, and we’re gonna keep USC. Those three schools are not coming off and those are etched in stone. So now, add your ACC schools with those three schools and you’re really limited to where you can go.”

Talk about a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Kelly. If he downplays the rivalry with Michigan, he takes a week of crap for not calling the game with the Wolverines a rivalry. If he says that the team isn’t trying to get Michigan back on the schedule, he’s ducking Michigan, especially with Wolverines AD Dave Brandon still milking the cancellation letter he received from Jack Swarbrick.

From the perspective of Notre Dame’s football coach, Kelly has a point, but as the USA Today’s Dan Wolken points out, he also has an advantage.

But from the perspective of Notre Dame athletics as a whole, the move to the ACC is such an unqualified upgrade from the conference that used to be the Big East that Swarbrick’s decisive move is looking better and better each day.

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Lastly, because so many people have sent me this article, I thought it was important to comment on it. The Big Ten Network’s Tom Dienhart thinks the Big Ten should stop scheduling football games with Notre Dame.

Yep. That’s what he actually thinks.

It doesn’t take much googling to figure out Dienhart’s opinion of Notre Dame football, but for a conference that openly brags about its revenue stream while the quality of play — and attendance at football games — continues to decay, removing an opponent that actually fills seats isn’t the wisest move in the world.

Dienhart suggests the Big Ten play a 10-game conference schedule and remove Notre Dame from every schedule. The move to nine games was painful enough for schools that routinely feast on non-conference opponents from the MAC or I-AA, but 10 games? (How would Northwestern get to eight wins every year?)

What next, adding a team from New Jersey because they’ll get cable TV subscriptions in New York City? 

Anyway, read the article and judge it for yourself. I grew up a Big Ten fan and still enjoy watching the conference, but this feels more than a little off base.

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Hope everyone has a great weekend with friends and family. (And that no big news breaks out of South Bend, I’ll be without my computer.)

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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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.

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.