Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter during the NCAA BCS Championship football game in Pasadena

(Post) Spring update: Florida State

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After a bit of a break, we’re back with another update on Notre Dame’s opponents. And this one might be the stiffest of them all.

The Irish will play their first true away game in one of the most formidable venues in college football, visiting Tallahassee and Doak Campbell Stadium to take on the national champs, Florida State. Jimbo Fisher’s team returns the Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a slew of talented players expecting to take another run at a national title.

In the most optimistic of scenarios, the game against Florida State will have national implications. Even if doesn’t, it’ll be the highlight of an Irish slate that has a handful of premiere matchups.

To get us up to speed, Warchant.com’s Ben Jones took some time and answered some (I hope) good questions from me.

Let’s get to it:

On first glance, it’s striking to see the talent that’s returning to this roster. Per FSU’s spring prospectus, seven starters return on both sides of the ball. But there were a lot of key departures as well. Help put into context how this team looks on paper compared to last season’s national champs.

You’re right; there are some big pieces coming back and also some key roles that need to be filled. Offensively, FSU returns a Heisman winner at quarterback, four of five linemen, and a senior who has led the team in receiving in each of the last three years. They lose a Rimington winner at center and their first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, but the roster is well constructed and those shouldn’t be major issues. Replacing Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-6 wide receiver with 15 touchdown receptions last year, is a big deal, but there are enough other receiving options to believe it won’t be too big of an obstacle to overcome.

On defense, FSU has to replace vocal leaders in linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. Safety Terrence Brooks was an impact player also, but again, strong recruiting for several years has restocked the roster and there should be players to pick up their production. Like many teams in June, this team has some questions. But it also has plenty of potential answers.

 

The Seminoles scored more than 50 points a game last year. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns behind a very experienced offensive line. Is there anything that can hold this unit back?

Losing Benjamin, a first round draft pick, is a big deal. He had 10 touchdowns in the final six games, including the game winner in Pasadena, and was nearly impossible to cover. FSU also lost slot receiver Kenny Shaw, who had over 900 yards and was quietly productive as an outlet for underneath passes. With them gone, expect tight end Nick O’Leary (557 yards, 7 TDs in 2013) to take an even bigger role in the red zone and on short routes across the middle.

Having Jameis Winston eliminates a lot of problems, but there’s no veteran behind the redshirt sophomore. Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia and Jacob Coker left for Alabama, meaning sophomore Sean Maguire (21 career pass attempts) is the only player with any experience behind him. He might be able to keep FSU afloat, but he’s an unknown for now.

 

Seems like a similar song for the defense. The nation’s top unit needs to replace (at least one) key starter at every level, but seems primed for a reload. What concerns do you have for Charles Kelly’s defense?

The biggest concern for the defense is replacing defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. It’s not often a nose tackle is disruptive enough to finish third on the team in tackles (63) and lead the team in TFLs, but that’s what Jernigan did as a junior before leaving for the NFL. There’s no defensive tackle behind him who’s as explosive, and that’s a concern.

FSU will have to find someone on the defensive line to draw double teams and give the linebackers a chance to make plays. The best candidate might be junior Mario Edwards, a five-star recruit who’s always had incredible physical ability but hasn’t tapped his full potential. If he develops into a star, the defense should be strong at every level again.

 

For the past few seasons it felt like Jimbo Fisher had one of the nation’s top rosters and a schedule that set up perfectly for a championship game run. Yet the Seminoles always seemed to trip themselves up. Does last year’s championship win — against an SEC team no less — feel like it could open the flood gates?

It absolutely felt like a breakthrough for a program that had fallen into a lull in the last decade toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era. As you observed, beating an SEC team for the title was a significant achievement for a team that considers Florida its biggest rival and regularly competes with Georgia, Alabama and Auburn for recruits. Considering how the roster has been built, FSU fans are hopeful they can follow up with another strong season. The Seminoles open the season with a game against Oklahoma State in Dallas, and their goal is to finish the season in Dallas for the national championship.

 

Can you give Irish fans an idea of how Jimbo Fisher is viewed? While it looks like the coach-in-waiting tab was obviously successful now that the Seminoles have won a title, there had to be some impatience there for a while? Do Seminoles fans view Fisher as an elite head coach or a guy that is merely running one of college football’s flagship programs built by Bobby Bowden?

There were some questions earlier in Fisher’s tenure as the Seminoles had head-scratching losses against teams like N.C. State and Wake Forest. Finishing an undefeated season and winning a national championship quiets a lot of questions though, and his success in the draft (18 players chosen in the last two years) has shown that he can identify and develop talent.

Bowden will always be considered the architect of the program, but this is Fisher’s team now. FSU went 24-16 in Bowden’s last three years, while Fisher has gone 45-10 in four seasons. The decision to remove Bowden was difficult and awkward, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone now who doesn’t think Fisher is the right man to lead the program.

 

It’s hard to write about Jameis Winston without getting into some of the off the field controversy. The embarrassing shoplifting situation, the other minor police blotter material, and the very serious rape charges. None garnering more than a slap on the wrist.

As someone much closer to the situation, what do you make of it? Are we past the youthful indiscretions? The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrayal of the entire situation that the school disputed, but have you noticed any changes in Winston or the program since the allegations late last season?

Frankly, this is difficult to answer. It seems that we never know the athletes we cover as well as we think we do, and that’s true with Jameis as well. There were some media restrictions placed on him this spring during baseball season and football practice. He spoke before spring football started and after the spring game, but not between those two for a full month, if memory serves.

Winston told reporters in New York at the Heisman ceremony he knew he’d have a different life going forward and wouldn’t be able to do some things he could normally do, but the crab legs incident does make you question his judgment. FSU has tried to keep someone around him when he’s in public — for example, he had a campus police officer with him at all baseball road games. But you can’t have someone with him 24/7. It wouldn’t surprise me if this summer and fall passes quietly off the field with no new incidents for him, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if there’s another indiscretion.

Either way, there will continue to be noise around the rape allegations. There may be a civil suit coming (against Winston, FSU, or the Tallahassee police), and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the university for Title IX violations connected to the incident.

 

Turning the subject back to football, getting Notre Dame and Florida State together is always a big deal. Is this the highlight game of the schedule for Noles fans, too?

It’s absolutely one of the highlights. The home schedule this year is very strong, with Clemson and Florida also visiting Tallahassee. The end-of-season game with the rival Gators is probably bigger, but Notre Dame might make more FSU fans more nervous. As of now, it’s my upset pick for this season.

I’m curious to see what Everett Golson in his return to Notre Dame. There are questions for the Irish to answer, but you also saw FSU slow down a bit towards the end of last year. Duke gave FSU some trouble early in the ACC Championship, and Auburn was just a play or two away from winning. If teams can look at those games and see what was successful, they might be able to create a game plan that will really do some damage.

***

Special thanks to Ben for going above and beyond. For more from him, you can find his writing work at Warchant, and follow him on Twitter @WarchantBen

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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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. 

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.