Once a prototype for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense, Grant Blankenship stepped onto campus at Notre Dame looking like a less than ideal fit in Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 system… and had a productive freshman season anyway.
If system fits seemed vital under Diaco, Blankenship showed that VanGorder can succeed (or fail) with defenders of all shapes and sizes. Of course, it helps to play at a position with little depth. And as one of the last remaining healthy bodies on the defensive line depth chart, Blankenship had a baptism by fire in 2014, and came out looking all the stronger.
Let’s take a look at the Texas native and what to expect from him come his sophomore season.
Soph., No. 92, DE
Blankenship wasn’t your textbook blue-chip recruit, though his senior season drew quite a bit of interest from schools, including Charlie Strong at Texas. But Blankenship was an early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.
Blankenship grew up a gigantic Notre Dame fan, camping in South Bend since grade school, with his mother actively pursuing attention from the Irish coaching staff. (Nice job, mom.)
He wasn’t a Top 100 or 250 prospect, but had the size/speed/strength combo that usually does pretty well with defensive ends.
Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 of 13 games as a true freshman, one of only five true freshman to notch at least 10 tackles. Collected his first career sack at USC.
WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR
Blankenships projection assumed that both Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann were going to play defensive end in 2014. Whoops!
In a perfect world, Blankenship isn’t needed in 2014. Both Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann are more physically developed, and forcing Blankenship into the lineup now could do more harm than good. But one look at the depth chart gives you an idea that Blankenship could be used sooner than later.
The youth movement up front, with seven or eight recruits that can play defensive line, will judge the Irish’s staff to identify prospects. And while the scheme changed late when Bob Diaco took the UConn job, it’ll be Brian VanGorder’s job to utilize the talent the Irish have accumulated. Blankenship brings a long-bodied edge player, one of the true 3-4 prototypes if he grows into his size.
Seeing a high school player rush the passer wearing a number in the 80s gives you an idea that he’s physically athletic enough to wreak havoc on both sides of the ball. With Blankenship’s length, it’s likely the Irish will find a spot for him, though it might on the inside of the defensive line if he lacks the athleticism to get after the quarterback.
All things considered, Blankenship had a great season. He flashed some of that athleticism we saw, and while he was raw, he did everything you could ask for a mid-level recruit playing from jump street.
In many ways, the 2015 season will be a critical one for Blankenship. While we spent so much time talking about the immediate impacts players like Bo Wallace or redshirt defensive end Jhonny Williams could have, their departures make way for Blankenship to stick in the two-deep, something he’d have likely done even if Wallace and Williams departed.
At nearly 6-5 and topping 250 pounds, there’s plenty to like about “UNNAMED DEFENSIVE END” if you’re just looking at the raw tools. But this is where Blankenship’s recruiting profile (and if we’re being honest, his skin color) tend to undervalue what he’s capable of doing.
There were some who thought Blankenship was a candidate for a rare sophomore redshirt, saving a year of eligibility. That’s looking like a slim, slim possibility with roster attrition hitting defensive end hard, and just as importantly, it undervalues what the staff thinks they have in Blankenship.
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.