Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Setting the bar: Expectations for the 2014 Irish

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When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.

While the academic probe has throw the past few weeks out of sorts, the only constant at Notre Dame seems to be distractions. In addition to the unknowns that surround DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, the Irish coaching staff also had to work through the cancer diagnosis of offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy. Weighty issues that play both on and off the field.

But even with a defense that’s filled with question marks and youth, the Irish are expected to be one of the better teams in college football. Facing a schedule that Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, entering his fifth season with the Irish, Kelly didn’t hesitate to talk up the lofty expectations that he and his team hold.

“Expectations haven’t changed. They can’t change,” Kelly said. “We don’t have a conference championship to play for, so we only have one goal in mind, and that is to get in the playoffs. That’s our only focus, to be one of those four teams to get in the playoffs.”

As the Irish continue final preparations for Rice (not to mention a must-win game against Michigan on the horizon), let’s take a look at where we should set the bar for the 2014 season.

 

OFFENSE

For Everett Golson, the suspension of four teammates has somehow taken the spotlight off the returning quarterback, finally back on the football field after his own highly publicized academic indiscretion cost him the 2013 season. But Golson did all that was asked of him, returned to campus in the winter and reclaimed the starting quarterback job.

Golson will be piloting an offense that’s far more complex than the one he capably steered in 2012. Likely asked to move quickly and to score points by the bushel, even without Daniels as his No. 1 receiver, the Irish have weapons, though they won’t be optimized without Golson leading the charge.

 

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The maturity Golson talks about in his interview with Doug Flutie has been echoed by Kelly, Denbrock and new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur. And his role as a leader on this offense will be accentuated as he leads a young group of talented skill players into action.

Junior Chris Brown is the closest thing the receiving corps has to a veteran. Senior tight end Ben Koyack is a starter because Troy Niklas decided to head to the NFL. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will be asked to step up. Senior running back Cam McDaniel will lead a position group that’s likely going to be powered by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.

Up front, the offensive line has come into focus, with Harry Hiestand and Kelly deciding on veteran Matt Hegarty to move into the starting lineup in front of sophomore and first-year contributor Mike McGlinchey. Hegarty taking over at left guard solidifies the tackles, with Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer starting. A veteran interior with senior Nick Martin surrounded by Hegarty and fifth-year grad student Christian Lombard should help power the ground game.

The offense Notre Dame fans expected to see once they brought in Kelly has not existed. The Irish have had a Top 50 offense only once in Kelly’s four seasons, ranking No. 49 in scoring offense in 2011, a year where turnovers decimated their productivity. Scoring 30 points a game needs to be the baseline goal — a number Kelly’s offense hasn’t reached yet in South Bend.

They can do that by being more productive in the red zone. They can do that by moving quicker and running more plays. With Golson behind center and talents like Bryant, Folston, Fuller and Brown, the Irish have home run hitters. But they need to see those results on the scoreboard for the Irish to reach even their most modest goals.

 

DEFENSE

With nobody knowing quite what to expect from Brian VanGorder’s defense, Notre Dame will have mystery in their corner. But taking a closer look at the personnel the Irish need to utilize and that mystery cuts both ways. The Irish can be a productive defense, but they’ll need to do it in a way completely different than Bob Diaco did.

Bending won’t be an option, with the Irish completely lacking the personnel — or philosophy — to slug it out. Dictating terms may be the only way to survive, especially with speed and athleticism one of the true assets on this side of the ball.

The Irish staff believe they have two stars on their defense: Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Add a third if KeiVarae Russell is allowed to return.

Behind that trio, a dependable core needs to emerge. At safety, Max Redfield needs to grow up quickly while Austin Collinsworth needs to play error-free football. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt might be an unlikely starter, but he’s capable of being productive and needs to anchor the defense, keeping a young group from making costly mental mistakes.

Up front, the biggest challenge falls to defensive line coach Mike Elston. After working with sure-fire NFL prospects Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Elston now needs to find productive snaps from a defensive end position that’s filled with youth. On one side, true freshman Andrew Trumbetti gets an opportunity to start while sharing snaps with first-time defensive end Romeo Okwara. On the other, it’s Isaac Rochell sliding into Ishaq Williams’ spot, backed up by true freshman Grant Blankenship.

During his Tuesday press conference, Kelly acknowledged that this may be his most inexperienced defense ever. That’s saying quite a bit. But it’s also one of his most athletic, so while we might see some growing pains, finding a way to be productive under the current constraints is key, and VanGorder’s skills as a schemer and game manager will be put on display almost immediately.

 

THE SCHEDULE

In the first year of the College Football Playoff, playing a difficult schedule will be a key factor in the selection committee’s process. Notre Dame certainly fulfills that part of the criteria just fine, with a daunting slate that forces a week to week approach that demands the Irish play good football every Saturday.

First goal? Get out of September alive. That means beating Michigan, a team that’s seemed to own the Irish even if Brady Hoke is barely holding onto his job. The Irish won’t need to get on a plane until the end of September, when a date against Syracuse at the Meadowlands brings Notre Dame back to the New York metropolitan area, all but a home game even against the Orange.

From there, October gives Notre Dame perhaps the toughest three-week stretch of the Kelly era, with Stanford and North Carolina visiting South Bend before the Irish head to Tallahassee to take on the defending champions Florida State. The Irish will get a much deserved week off before starting November, a five game month that starts with Navy and ends with a visit to USC.

The Irish could conceivably lose all five games — Navy, a visit to Tempe to play Arizona State, visits from Northwestern and Louisville before playing the Trojans, the fifth game in as many weeks. That’s a pessimists view, but a possibility, especially when taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s opponents.

With a defense in desperate need to stay healthy,  the Irish can’t afford to have anything happen to key players Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Even with all hands on deck, November looks like a month that that’ll define this team.

 

FINDING THE WINNING FORMULA

In 2012, Kelly devised a formula that depended on the Irish defense and allowed the offense to complement the game plan. In 2014, those roles will be reversed, with the offense serving as the team’s engine and the defense likely devised to fill a role as well.

What will the formula look like?

First, let’s look at special teams. The Irish have taken a lot of flack for their lack of excellence in the third phase of the game. They spent the offseason digging deeper into their problems, and the results are a mix of personnel changes, new schemes and superior depth helping out.

While some will still claim that special teams are a third of the game, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The smart guys over at Football Outsiders basically concluded that the DNA of a quality NFL team is four parts offense, three parts defense and one part special teams. So while that helps quantify how serious (or unserious) the Irish’s struggles have been, Kelly is still determined to get more from this unit, especially in a season where big plays will be needed.

Putting Greg Bryant or Cody Riggs back as punt return shows that emphasis. Both guys are critical position players, especially Riggs with KeiVarae Russell sidelined. With Amir Carlisle returning kicks, another starter is being given an opportunity to make plays. One look at the starting kickoff team and you see former four-star recruits just about everywhere. Apologies to the Walk-on Players Union, but those playing opportunities likely evaporated for good.

With Kyle Brindza capable of kicking plenty of touchbacks, while holding down both the field goal and punt duties, solidifying Scott Booker’s unit looks under control. But getting a few game-breaking opportunities in the return game shows a willingness to push the envelope.

Of course, if you’re looking for envelope pushing, Brian VanGorder is your man. This won’t resemble Bob Diaco’s defense. VanGorder is closer to a mad scientist, with sub groupings and personnel packages that could make the Irish look like a hockey team changing on the fly.

The key to all of this is not losing control of the core basics. Forgetting Jon Tenuta took four long seasons. But the Irish’s reliance on youth could put some of VanGorder’s schemes in Tenuta territory, especially if the young guys are struggling to mentally process what’s happening.

But as a head coach, Kelly has learned that scheme doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as he did in 2012, fitting his offensive and defensive game plans together is crucial.

VanGorder coaches defense the way Kelly wants to play it. That’s a fairly amazing statement considering the Irish just got done playing four years under Diaco. Expect Kelly and the Irish staff to add an aggressiveness to game planning this year. It’ll give the Irish a chance to fight their way to victories, even if it’s in a style that looks much different than in years past.

 

HOW TO MEASURE SUCCESS

The fact that Notre Dame’s nine-win season in 2013 was mostly viewed as coming up short of expectations is a sign of the progress that’s being made in South Bend. But 2014 could be anyone’s guess. With so many variables still being defined, this is an algebra equation that isn’t capable of being solved quite yet.

The Irish charging their way into the first ever College Football Playoff with one loss isn’t crazier than what happened in 2012. But the combination of a young team, new systems, distracting suspensions and a really difficult schedule also turns 2014 into the type of year that could be a huge setback.

The volatility that comes with this team is a big reason why coaches go grey early. And even with Golson back at the helm, the defense needs to build quickly, taking advantage of every trick shoved up VanGorder’s sleeve possible.

Just about anybody that looks at this team sees a bright future and a playoff run that looks primed for 2015. But you don’t throw away football seasons and play for next year at Notre Dame.

So with the first chapter of the 2014 season ready to be written this Saturday, an unknown journey will begin to reveal itself.

Let the games begin.

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.