Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - Navy v Arizona State

Post-Spring Update: Arizona State

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Last year, Notre Dame’s most impressive win might have been its neutral site victory over Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. Limiting the Sun Devils possessions while playing extremely efficient football, the Irish beat a team that won the Pac-12 South in Todd Graham’s second season in the desert.

This year, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for a big non-conference showdown, continuing a rivalry between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham that had the Sun Devils’ coach spring an upset with Tulsa in 2010, lose a close game at Pitt in 2011, and fall short last year.

To get us up to speed with the state of Arizona State’s football program, Nick Krueger managing editor of the House of Sparky, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Sun Devils.

 

Todd Graham was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after winning the South division and 10 games. Can you assess the state of the program with Graham heading into his third season? How is Graham viewed by Sun Devil faithful, considering his hiring wasn’t a consensus home run at the time.

If Todd Graham ran for mayor of Tempe, he would probably win right now. Despite the bowl loss last season, fans are incredibly pleased with what Graham has done so far. He’s very focused on the character and attitude of his players (he calls it “speaking victory”) and brings a passion to the ASU football program that hadn’t been seen around here in awhile. It’s evidenced by former players coming back to support the program in a big way which didn’t really happen before Graham arrived.

It’s no secret that Graham’s goals for this program are a Rose Bowl and National Championship victory and he’s not going to settle for anything less. Almost everyday talking with media after practice he’ll evaluate whether or not the team put in a, “championship effort.” He even put a sticker of the Pac-12 championship trophy on the back of each player’s practice helmet as a consistent reminder about the goal.

The Sun Devils have also continued to strengthen their recruiting class reaching deeper into SEC country for more talented players while also convincing more local players to stay put.

The one thing that really convinced me that he is committed to this program was when former athletic director Steve Patterson left for more money at the University of Texas. Graham is from Texas and contract details aside, he could have jumped ship for what many believed was his dream job. Graham elected to stay put stating he wants to become the winningest coach in ASU history.

 

Offensively, the Sun Devils are expected to score a bunch of points again. The engine that drives it is quarterback Taylor Kelly. Is there a more under-the-radar player in college football? Irish fans saw him last season, but what makes him so perfect for Graham’s offense?

One of the biggest storylines coming into this upcoming season will be whether or not Kelly can make the jump from solid starting Division I quarterback to a true Heisman Trophy contender.

Todd Graham is very defensive minded and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is in charge of running the offense and shaping Taylor Kelly as a quarterback. It is tough to find such a talented player in a power six conference as off-the-map as Kelly but it’s not in his nature or personality to soak up the spotlight. He’s just a kid from Idaho trying to improve as much as he can.

What makes him such a great fit for Norvell’s up-tempo zone read offense is his instinctual ability to read the edge rusher and make a quick decision whether to pass or run. The ability that Kelly has to make plays with his feet is incredibly underrated too. Unfortunately for Kelly, the zone-read lives and dies with the play of the offensive line, which struggled against Notre Dame last season.

 

It’s almost a complete reboot on the defensive side of the football. The Sun Devils return just two starters — the biggest overhaul of any squad in the preseason Top 25. Did spring help answer some questions? What needs to be solved before the Sun Devils kick off 2014? What are the biggest challenges for Keith Patterson’s defense?

The defense is a big mystery right now and the Sun Devils have a lot of pieces to put together as you said. The one huge standout in the Spring was early-enrollee freshman DJ Calhoun, a four-star linebacker out of California. He ball hawked really well and made some outstanding plays in practice. he definitely turned heads and has a starting spot as it stands right now.

Rashad Wadood, who would have most likely started at cornerback, left the program last week which only added to the Sun Devils issues. The biggest problem will probably be at the cornerback and safety positions where ASU didn’t recruit as strongly as they did at linebacker or defensive line.

The good thing for the Sun Devils is that they got some impressive junior college commitments such as Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell on the defensive line to help with the inexperience. Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren are also three names to remember as true freshmen who could help in the trenches.

 

Last year, the Irish held off the Sun Devils in AT&T Stadium despite big games from Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Do you expect more of the same from the ASU offense, or will new game-changers emerge? Is the formula for victory the same this year as last?

There are certainly some new players that could come out of the woodwork. The offensive line returns almost all of the starters from last season and adds Christian Westerman who was a four-star recruit and transferred from Auburn. Taylor Kelly should have some more weapons to play with as well. Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster return but the Sun Devils also have high expectations for incoming wide receivers Eric Lauderdale, a four-star JUCO transfer, and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson who showed a lot of potential in spring practice.

The formula for victory comes down to the Sun Devils being more balanced. ASU only had 51 rushing yards against Notre Dame last season so they will have to find more success there. Taylor Kelly also has to limit turnovers. He threw two interceptions against the Fighting Irish last season and the stat that everybody at ASU loves to cite is that Kelly is 6-8 in games when he throws an interception and 12-1 when he doesn’t.

 

Where do you set the bar for the 2014 season? A veteran quarterback and a big-time offense return. But questions on defense and a solid Pac-12 slate is in front of the Sun Devils. Do you expect ASU to challenge for the South title again? What’s your definition of a good season?

As you touched on, the uncertainty on defense makes this difficult to gauge. The Sun Devils will certainly be involved in some high-scoring affairs next season. With Brett Hundley and Myles Jack returning to UCLA, I would put them as favorites to win the Pac-12 South but I wouldn’t put ASU too far behind them. The Sun Devils have potential for a better defense than many might expect. Given that the Pac-12 is only getting tougher, I’ll say anything less than eight wins would be a disappointment next year.

 

Notre Dame’s visit to Tempe was one that former athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep. How highly anticipated is the Irish’s visit to Sun Devil Stadium?

I can’t speak for everyone at ASU but I believe there is still a sense of bitterness in Tempe about that whole situation that the Sun Devils will probably try to use as motivation.

The chance that both ASU and Notre Dame could be ranked in the top- 25 when the game rolls around and the “rematch” aspect definitely adds to the local excitement about this matchup.

Mizzou and Wisconsin came to town in 2011 and 2013 respectively but as far as out of conference traditional football powerhouses visiting ASU is concerned, this game is in my opinion the most anticipated out of conference home game for the Sun Devils since Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green and No. 3 Georgia came to Sun Devil Stadium in 2008.

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Check out more from Nick at House of Sparky or on Twitter @NickPKrueger.

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.