USC v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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After presenting our first five players on the countdown, we move on to another group of players with high expectations. And while four others will certainly draw attention, we come to our annual exercise on evaluating the promise of Ishaq Williams.

Some (including quite a few of you in the comments below) have given up on Williams, the former five-star recruit who has yet to make an impact in the Irish defense. Others believe his senior season finally gives him a true opportunity to own a job and play a position where he’s a natural fit. However you come out on it, Williams is ranked lower today than he was in 2012, about what you’d expect after three seasons of data pointing to an underwhelming career (thus far) in South Bend.

Besides Williams, two sophomores make the list here, both coming off promising — though far from statistically dominant — seasons. It’s also time for the first running back to come off the board, with the panel all feeling pretty much the same way about the Irish’s leading returning rusher.

Counting down the Irish continues.

2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)

 

20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.): That Williams enters his senior season without making a true impact on Notre Dame’s roster is one of the few disappointments of the Brian Kelly era (at least of the players that stuck around). But before we shovel what’s left of the dirt onto Williams’ coffin, let’s finish the book.

No player had a tougher road into the starting lineup. Stuck behind NFL draft picks Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, Williams saw the field right away as a freshman, forced to learn how to play linebacker after chasing down quarterbacks for much of his prep career in urban New York, not exactly a football haven.

Williams has all the physical tools you’d want and an NFL body. He’s also almost the perfect prototype for a strongside defensive end, and at 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, he’s a monster. But we’re out of excuses, with Williams’ final shot at redemption allowing him to play every down in a defense that desperately needs him to perform well.

Count me among the few that hasn’t given up on him. Having erased the “five stars” that came next to his recruiting profile the moment he stepped on campus, if Williams has a productive final season in South Bend he’ll have a career on Sundays in front of him.

Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.): That Luke is rated so highly speaks to the promise he showed briefly as a freshman, playing in all 13 games of his freshman year and holding up just fine in coverage. But with Bennett Jackson gone to the NFL, Luke will need to prove he’s ready for a full-time job as a starting cornerback.

Playing in Brian VanGorder’s system will give us a much better idea of Luke’s top-end skills, playing a ton of man coverage after playing primarily zone under Bob Diaco. That’ll put Luke’s feet to the fire, and give us a true understanding as to whether Luke’s a solid Cover 2 cornerback or a guy that can lock down a receiver.

It’s too early in Luke’s career for this to be a make-or-break year. But players on the cusp — with a handful of unproven, but talented defenders on the Irish roster just like Luke — will determine whether the Notre Dame defense can hold up or fall short of expectations.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked: (two ballots).

 

18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.): The first running back listed in our rankings, McDaniel is the Irish’s leading returning rusher. And while the senior has likely be passed in the depth chart by both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, McDaniel doesn’t seem likely to give up any carries in his final year of eligibility easily.source: Getty Images

With an up-tempo offense and a quarterback who can run the zone-read, there should be carries for everyone to share. And if we’ve seen anything from McDaniel over his three seasons in South Bend, it’s that you should count him out at your own risk.

Last year, there wasn’t much explosiveness displayed when McDaniel carried the football. Now that he’s less likely to be carrying the load in short yardage or goal line situations, perhaps we can see some big play potential return to the native Texan.

McDaniel hasn’t been the weapon in the passing game that many expected early in his career. But if he’s a capable pass protector and can show solid hands, perhaps McDaniel can carve out his niche on third downs.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).

 

17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.): With about half the 2013 season remaining, Jones was working his way towards the bottom of the Irish roster, not into the Top 25. But a ravaged depth chart gave Jones the opportunity to slide into the nose guard job and resurrect his career. From November on, the Rochester-native went from near-forgotten man to centerpiece of the future, a credit to Jones acknowledging the lightbulb going on.

Jones looks the part of a massive run-stuffer on the interior, a big, strong and sturdy player who held his own while learning on the fly in place of an injured Louis Nix. While he’ll be the tip of the spear when the Irish go to three down linemen, Jones will spend most of his time next to Sheldon Day, taking on a single blocker and dominating a single gap.

Looking every bit the 315 pounds he’s listed at, Jones will play a key role in the Irish defense, freeing up Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt to get to the ball carrier and make plays. He’ll also have an opportunity to take advantage of his knack for making a big play, an impressive skill considering his relative lack of experience on the field.

Entering his junior season (though he has a fifth year of eligibility), Jones is the type of first-time starter you want in the trenches.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

source: AP

16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.): That Robinson ranks ahead of both classmate Will Fuller and junior Chris Brown says quite a bit about the promise the lanky, velcro-handed wide receiver showed in his first season in South Bend. Robinson saw action in all 13 of Notre Dame’s games last year, starting three, with his best performance a three catch, 54 yard effort against the Big Ten Champs Michigan State.

A relatively modest season total of nine catches for 157 yards and a touchdown make this ranking more about upside potential than what Robinson’s already accomplished. But entering his sophomore season, we’ve seen plenty of instances — even if they were only in UND.com practice videos — of Robinson making circus catches that make defensive backs look silly, something the 6-foot-5 receiver can do pretty easily.

He’ll need to show the ability to beat press coverage and get into his routes quickly. And Robinson also needs to take a step forward as a red zone threat, with a puzzling lack of opportunities presented in 2013 for jump balls. But the sky is the limit for the young receiver, and we’ve yet to hear a bad word about Robinson on or off the field during his time in South Bend.

The Irish coaching staff plucked Robinson out of relative obscurity when they offered the San Antonio native a scholarship. He’ll reward that projection in 2014 with a potentially big season on the horizon.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

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.