USC Introduces Steve Sarkisian

Post-spring update: USC

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No game means more to Notre Dame fans than the annual battle with USC. College football’s greatest intersectional rivalry serves as an annual litmus test for both programs, and when both teams are playing good football, it turns the Irish and Trojans’ annual battle into one of the year’s premiere matchups.

A rivalry that’s been marked by winning streaks has swung back in Notre Dame’s favor. And after watching the Trojans dominate for much of the 2000s as the Irish program sunk into instability, it’s USC’s turn to covet the program in South Bend, with Brian Kelly winning three of the last four.

After Pat Haden ended the Lane Kiffin era at LAX after an embarrassing September loss to Arizona State, he picked former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian to run the program. The hire wasn’t the splashy one many expected, especially considering the head start Haden had, but it brings an established Pac-12 coach to Heritage Hall.

Getting us caught up on the tumultuous times at Southern Cal is USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham. With the Trojans still looking like a team with elite talent and great expectations, Ryan was able to give us a look inside the Irish’s rivals with a Thanksgiving weekend battle set as the 2014 season finale.

 

Times they are a changing in Heritage Hall. After four head coaches in a 65-day span, Steve Sarkisian enters year one and USC’s scholarship sanctions are complete.

Can you give us a brief state of the union on the USC program, independent of the on-field product that’s still TBD?

Certainly the last several months have been interesting for Trojan fans. The lows of losing at home to Washington State, Lane Kiffin getting fired and losing to both arch rivals made last season tough. But Ed Orgeron did a nice job of rallying the troops and got the fan base excited again with a win over a top-5 Stanford squad. When Orgeron wasn’t retained and left the program, there was more turmoil and a lot of upset fans and players. But Clay Helton stepped in and secured a double-digit win season for the Trojans with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.

When Steve Sarkisian took over, he had plenty of fires to put out. Many felt he was just Lane Kiffin 2.0 and the pro-Orgeon crowd wasn’t going to be happy with any hire let alone another more junior member of Pete Carroll’s old USC staff. Sark started to win more people over with his four-for-four close on Signing Day, including a couple of five-star prospects. Then the up-tempo style and open spring practices gave fans something more to look forward to.

Now with NCAA probation ending last month and fully attended summer workouts going on, the team appears to have some momentum heading into fall camp. But while most of the sentiment around the program is positive right now, an early loss this season could easily derail the team and knock them back down a few notches.

 

On paper, the Trojans look to be rock solid. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler finished with a bang. Do expectations immediately return to the top of the Pac-12 South and a place in the Playoff?

When you are talking about programs like USC and Notre Dame, expectations are always high no matter what. So even though this team will likely have at most 69 recruited scholarship athletes on the roster, a new coaching staff and new schemes, the Trojans will still be expected to make a run at winning the Pac-12 South. It would be a lot to overcome, but they have the roster to do it. Kessler has been dealing well and now has a year under his belt and plenty of weapons around him. The defense should be even better than last year led by Leonard Williams, likely a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Depth is still an issue, but as long as this team can stay healthy, they should be able to compete against Arizona State and UCLA for an opportunity to win the conference.

 

Watching Spring Practice, what are the biggest changes you see happening on the offensive side of the ball? Same for the defense?

The most obvious change has been the higher tempo at practice on both sides of the ball. There isn’t a lot of standing around looking at clipboards or play sheets any longer, they run a play and then run back to the line to run another. All of the teaching is done watching the film, when they are on the practice field it is all about getting in as many reps as possible. It seems much more efficient and the players seem to enjoy the pace.

 

Let’s go back to the hiring of Sark. He’s a native son. He was a part of Pete Carroll’s incredible run. But he didn’t ever seem to get over the hump at Washington. (Granted, he inherited a program in chaos, courtesy of Ty Willingham.)

Various reports had Pat Haden looking elsewhere before going to Sark. Where do you stand on his hiring and will he be more successful than Kiffin and get the Trojans back to college football’s summit?

I have covered Sark before when he was at USC and he was someone that was always popular with players and media. If I was hiring the head coach for USC he would not have been on my short list, but I understand why Pat Haden went in that direction. His turnaround of a 0-12 team in Seattle was great, but taking a team from bad to good is one thing, good to great is another. We never saw great at UW and he was a coach that could have been on the hot seat if they would have lost to rival WSU last year.

But having said all that, I think he and his young coaching staff are set up pretty well at this point. The schedule isn’t overly difficult (skipping Oregon and Washington this year) and they get to recruit 25 players again during what is probably the best recruiting class in California over the past decade. To me, he should be more successful than Lane Kiffin was at USC.

 

Under Carroll, there was an undeniable swagger that came with the Trojans, and they played their best in the season’s biggest games — especially dominating their local rival UCLA. The balance of power has swung in the Bruins favor after a 50-0 beatdown, with two straight losses to Jim Mora.

In a region where SC has held the most power for recruits in their own backyard, has that changed in the years since Carroll exited and the sanctions began?

Jim Mora does have momentum on his side with two-straight victories over USC. But really until UCLA starts grabbing the local top-rated prospects in recruiting battles between USC and UCLA, it is still going to be a USC football town. We saw in the 90’s when UCLA won eight in a row, the balance of power had shifted. USC dominated the series after that and become not just the local favorite but a national power as well.

If you look at last year’s recruiting class, only one of the top-10 players in California took an official visit to UCLA. Of the 12 prospects they had a shot at on signing day, only one signed with the Bruins. That has to change in order for UCLA to get to USC’s level.

I feel with another couple of victories over the Trojans UCLA can get back to what we saw during the Cade McNown years, but they are not there yet.

 

In a series marked by dominant runs by either USC or Notre Dame, after a really impressive run by the Trojans, the Irish have won three of the last four.

Pat Haden is no stranger to Notre Dame and the rivalry. From the SC perspective, where does this game measure on the schedule and what is its importance, both to players, coaches and alumni/fanbase?

The Notre Dame and UCLA games are always the most important to USC fans. On the local level, it is unprecedented to have two major football programs in the same city and that creates unique challenges for the coaches, players and fans. On the national level it doesn’t get much better than USC and Notre Dame and having that out of conference game on the schedule always creates drama and adds credibility to both programs.

Most USC fans you talk to feel that if they had to pick one, the game against the Fighting Irish is the most important. So much history and so many All-Americans, Heisman Trophies and National Championships to make that rivalry second to any. But I think if you ask the players and coaches I feel UCLA would likely win on the importance scale simply because of the proximity of the two schools. The teams not only compete for recruits, they compete for headlines in the same newspapers and local television stations. You can keep a loss to Notre Dame in the back of your mind a lot easier than you can a loss to UCLA.

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Special thanks to Ryan for taking the time over the holiday weekend to get us up to speed on the Trojans. For more of his excellent USC coverage, check out USCFootball.com on the Rivals network and follow Ryan on Twitter @InsideTroy

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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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.