Appalachian v Michigan

And in that corner… The Michigan Wolverines

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A week after both Notre Dame and Michigan took their opponents to the proverbial woodshed, they’ll do battle one more time, with both proud programs hoping to do the same to their nemesis.

In a game that’s one of the premiere matchups in college football, the lights will shine bright over Notre Dame Stadium as Brian Kelly tries to even things up with Brady Hoke. While Hoke’s seat in Ann Arbor may be warming up after a significant regression the past two seasons, he’s beaten Brian Kelly in two of three matchups.

With a primetime kickoff and the game a key September barometer for success, the last scheduled meeting between both teams will likely be even saltier than usual, in a rivalry recently defined lately by close and heart-wrenching games.

Getting us ready for action is Bleacher Report’s Adam Biggers.

 

Let’s get this first question out of the way: How strong is the hatred coming from Michigan’s side of this “rivalry.” As strong as it is for Michigan State? That “team from Ohio?” (After being in Ann Arbor last year, I’ve got to think strong to quite strong at the very least.)

There are a lot of Notre Dame alums and fans in Michigan, so Wolverines fans have the experience of running into one of three enemies at every turn, especially those in Ann Arbor, who are minutes away from the borderline of savage society (just kidding, Ohio!).

Saturday, the No. 1 enemy will be Notre Dame—the only team that should exist for the Wolverines this weekend.

 

Outside of the revenge/upset storyline, how much can you learn from the Wolverines beating an Appalachian State team that was 4-8 in the FCS last year? Change the name to another directional school and would there be as much excitement about the impressive victory?

Michigan did what it had to do, so I’m not going to get too excited about the 52-14 victory. Brady Hoke’s staff had a solid game plan. The players did their jobs. The O-line held tight, the D-line pretty much owned the trenches. Everything that a Michigan fan wanted to see was clear and present at The Big House.

At the end of the day, the Wolverines removed a thorn from their side, but I don’t think they’re looking at it as some monumental accomplishment. But I know for a fact that they’re geared up for Notre Dame.

Jake Ryan told me that the game will be a real test for the defense. I agree. It’ll also be one for the offense, which didn’t dazzle me for four quarters this past weekend.

 

That said, this was Doug Nussmeier’s debut as offensive coordinator and playcaller and all reports had to be rosy. The Wolverines offense racked up 560 yards on 55 plays. The running game plowed its way to 350 yards, at an astounding 9.7 yards per touch. Devin Gardner completed 13 of 14 passes with three touchdowns to Devin Funchess.

Is Nussmeier in walk-on-water territory after Game One? Is there a grain of salt with all of this? After Al Borges’ offense torched the Irish last year, just how terrified should Notre Dame fans be of the Michigan offense come Saturday night?

Hahaha. No. Not yet. Not even close.

However, to say that Michigan fans are happy about his presence would be an understatement. Watching Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess play catch during the first half of the season-opening win over Appalachian State was a welcome sight; likewise with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who combined for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

It appears that guys whose names start with “D” are going to be stars this fall. Doug Nussmeier could very well be next.

But let’s wait and see how he does against Notre Dame before going bonkers over bonking the Mountaineers.

 

Greg Mattison tweaked his role in the defense, coaching linebackers now as he and Mark Smith switch roles. There looks to be a lot of talent returning. After Mattison (or the moment) seemed to overwhelm Everett Golson in 2012, how do you think the Wolverines will attack the Irish offense?

Michigan’s defense is going to throw everything at everyone, regardless of helmet color, jersey creed or nationality. Michigan fans should prepare for what could be Mattison’s best defense yet—and that’s saying a lot, considering he brought the Wolverines from the cellar to top-25 contention (defensively) in his first year.

Respecting Golson’s athleticism, I’d imagine that he’ll have a linebacker glued to him for much of the game, anticipating his every move. I’m also going to guess that Notre Dame receivers won’t get a lot of breathing room.
On media day, Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess, both corners, told me that they were more than confident in their secondary.

That’s a great sign, obviously. A defense is only as strong as its last line of…well…defense.

I like the D-line, especially with Brennen Beyer, Ondre Pipkins, Willie Henry and Matt Godin, among a few others, looking like they’ll be all hustle in 2014. During Week 1, the Wolverines gave up 153 yards on the ground. I wouldn’t think that they’d be too keen on letting sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant getting remotely close to that. If there’s one “weakness” evident after the opener, it’s run defense up the middle—that has to be buttoned down quickly, which shouldn’t be a problem. You can bet that Mattison’s pumping film right now.

 

If you were Brian Kelly, how would you attack the Wolverines defense? On the ground, where Michigan gave up a 100-yard rushing game? Through the air? Brady Hoke might be on the hot seat, but he’s beated Kelly three of four times.

Well, as kind of mentioned above, I’d go up the middle until the Wolverines stop allowing positive yardage. Again, this area needs to be tightened up before Saturday; it’s the most concerning aspect of Mattison’s unit so far.

 

What’s your gut tell you about Saturday night? Notre Dame opened as a six-point favorite in a game that really favors the underdog. In the last game until both ADs can kiss and make up, what are the keys to victory?

Keeping emotions in check will be huge. Neither team can afford an ejection, especially of a star player or even coach, so it’s important for both sides to remain relatively calm—which is easier said than done, considering that this is it (as of now, anyway).

Staples of solid defense, such as winning first and thirds, creating turnovers and limiting the big play are always a good place to start. If I’m Kelly, I want to make sure that Green and Smith are cold. Once warmed up, they can go through walls.

When I asked Smith if he and Green proved anything Saturday, Smith told me this: “[Derrick and I are] powerful runners. It’s going to take more than one person to bring us down.”

These guys are focused and ready to do damage. The Irish have to find a way to cap them—not to mention Devin Funchess—if they want to ensure victory. I see this one going down the final moments, with Michigan slipping away by less than a touchdown.

***

You can get more from Adam on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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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.