Author: Keith Arnold

Notre Dame v Syracuse

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship


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.


6’4.5″, 252
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.



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.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL

Offseason Q&A: Texas

Charlie Strong

As the 2015 season inches closer, it’s time to start thinking about the Irish’s opponents. To that point, we begin our summer series taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s upcoming schedule.

When the Irish and Texas announced their plans to open the 2015 season playing each other, things looked quite different. Mack Brown was coaching the Longhorns. DeLoss Dodds was the Texas athletic director. Brian Kelly was set to embark on his first season leading Notre Dame.

Brown and Dodds are gone, with Charlie Strong entering his second season and former Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson now running the Longhorns’ sports empire. And while the 2019-20 games have been lost from the scheduled four-game series (Patterson, no stranger to scheduling battles with Jack Swarbrick, was unwilling to work with Notre Dame after they forged their ACC alliance) the Irish and Longhorns will kick off the next two seasons in fine fashion.

To get us ready for this series, Wescott Eberts from Burnt Orange Nation was kind enough to answer some questions. It’s been a chaotic 18 months for Texas fans after Brown’s reign over the Longhorns came to a frustrating finish.

So as Charlie Strong continues a reboot that’s got plenty of scorched earth, let’s dig into a blue-blooded season opener that’s coming on September 5.


It’s been 18 months since Texas hired Charlie Strong. And to put it lightly, plenty has happened as Strong has reshaped the program. From someone who follows things pretty closely, can you put into perspective the heavy lifting that Strong has done since taking over?

There’s certainly been plenty of heavy lifting with numerous dismissals and departures via transfer, including some highly-rated prospects who were either contributors in the past or expected to become key contributors in the the future. From that standpoint, the future of Texas football looks much different than it did in January of 2014 when Texas announced Strong’s hire.

So there’s been a full-scale culture change underway in Austin that also had to deal with season-ending injuries in 2014 to three key starters in quarterback David Ash, center Dominic Espinosa, and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson.


If I’m looking at this Texas football team, I see a team with a big question mark at quarterback and a young roster (29 freshmen?!) that’s going to be asked to do a lot. How much progress was made during spring practice, and what do you think is the primary focus of summer before a stern test in the season opener?


Strong said that the team was better coming out of spring practice than it was against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, but given the nature of that devastating and disappointing beatdown, that’s not saying much.

Finding a quarterback is certainly a key storyline heading into the fall, with summer 7-on-7 workouts often a major proving ground for those battles, but this is also an offense getting used to a new system that the offensive brain trust installed this spring with the intention of better highlighting the skill sets of every player offensively.


Strong made some headlines when he spoke at a booster event and said that Everett Golson’s No. 1 preference was to play at Texas in 2015, a move not necessarily realistic considering the opening date on the schedule (at least from Notre Dame’s perspective). But it leads me to this question: Is the offense really just a quarterback away? What would Golson have been walking into? What type of skill talent surrounds the quarterback?

The offensive line play last year prompted Strong to say that even Teddy Bridgewater would have looked bad playing behind them, so the unit needs to demonstrate some significant improvement in order to get a major jump in production from the starting quarterback. Senior running back Johnathan Gray could have a huge breakout season, but there’s no particularly proven talent behind him.

Texas lost the top two leading receivers and three tight ends, so a number of young players will have to emerge for the offense to maximize its potential. There’s some talent, it just hasn’t produced yet.


Who starts against Notre Dame at quarterback? Tyrone Swoops? Jerrod Heard? Is that quarterback the same one who’s starting in November? How do you think Strong will handle the most important position in the program and how much faith does he have that the guy he needs to lead this team is currently on the roster?

Starting a redshirt freshman in South Bend isn’t Strong’s preference, so sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will likely come out with the first team unless Jerrod Heard takes a major step forward by the end of fall camp and clearly outplays Swoopes. It’s impossible to say at this point which one will start by November, but the odds are high that Texas will start both at some point this season — there will likely be a quarterback controversy in Austin this fall. As for Strong’s confidence in those two, it’s difficult to say. I think he would prefer to have more competition.


It wouldn’t be much of a Q&A if we didn’t talk about the Longhorns defense. How has Strong’s DNA impacted the unit? With six starters gone, among them All-American Malcom Brown, how will the Longhorns do against a Notre Dame offense that has pretty elite personnel?

Strong’s arrival resulted in some notable leaps by multiple Texas defenders and he also brought his 30-Stack defense with him to Austin, which resulted in some changes like defensive tackles playing outside in the three-man line and the addition of the Fox end position, which is a versatile hybrid defensive end/linebacker role.

After losing two players at every level of the defense, including six of the top seven tacklers, the unit will likely experience some growing pains and Notre Dame is a strong candidate to ensure those struggles start early.


Give me your best case/worst case scenario for 2015. A few eyebrows were raised when the early line had Notre Dame a 10.5 point favorite. We’re still 90 days away from the game, so this is kind of a ridiculous question. But what’s your early feeling heading into a pretty exciting season opener?

The worst-case scenario features the Longhorns losing multiple key starters to injuries again — guys like junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, senior cornerback Duke Thomas, and senior running back Johnathan Gray — then having young players struggle defensively and the offense fail to take off behind continued shaky quarterback play.

The best-case scenario featues one of the quarterbacks stepping forward to provide consistent play, young players across the roster emerging quickly, and Texas competing for the Big 12 title. In all likelihood, Texas will take a step forward in some key areas like becoming more consistent and more explosive offensively, but experience some struggles with the young defenders and have to battle hard to win six or seven games.


Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

Matt Cashore /

In his two seasons in South Bend, Hunter Bivin has found himself shifting inside and out as he looks for a proper fit along the Irish offensive line. And even though he was manning the left tackle position during the Blue-Gold game—and wearing the familiar No. 70 jersey that Zack Martin wore during the most impressive offensive line career in Notre Dame history—Bivin’s game is still a work in progress.

Entering his junior season, Bivin’s career seems at a crossroads. While he’s technically No. 2 on the depth chart behind Ronnie Stanley, few think he’ll play over Alex Bars. And while he once projected as a potential heir apparent to Nick Martin at center, he now faces challengers young and old at that position as well.

There’s still three seasons of eligibility remaining in the Kentucky native’s career. Let’s dig into Bivin’s future, an important year for his development.



6’5.5″, 302 lbs.
Junior, No. 70, OL



Bivin was an elite recruit. Rivals ranked him a Top 250 prospect. 247 Sports saw him as one of the top offensive linemen, and players, in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin had offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan before choosing the Irish early in the process. Bivin was a starter on a state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.



Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.



After last spring, it looked like Bivin was on the trajectory to be the team’s next center. Or at least that’s what I thought.

When it’s all said and done, expect Bivin to be the Irish’s next starting center after Nick Martin. That it means he could wait two more seasons to see the starting lineup is a sign that everything went according to plan.

Athletically, Bivin has everything needed to be an elite college football player. And with no time constraints to see the field, Harry Hiestand can continue to mold Bivin to his liking, taking the athlete impressive enough to win state titles in basketball and shot put and turn him into a gifted player.

The battle up front will be one worth watching over the next few years, especially as Christian Lombard and Martin move on. But Bivin looks like the kind of player who has what it takes to win a starting job… even if it’s not right away.

With Bivin shifting outside during the spring, it’s hard to tell if that was a depth issue or where this coaching staff sees Bivin fitting. Either way, time to check the batteries on the Crystal Ball.



Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.



For all the patience I called for just a few seconds ago, I’m thinking that Bivin’s time at Notre Dame will only come if things don’t go according to plans. At this point, I think it’s going to take an injury to get him into the lineup, and that he’s still better suited to play on the interior of the offensive line.

In the Blue-Gold game, Bivin gave up too much depth in pass protection as a  tackle, going against a defensive line that isn’t exactly overflowing with pass rushers. And while he’s got the versatility and size to be a valuable program player for five seasons, I just don’t see him making the move to the starting lineup at any position other than center, and Tristen Hoge could be a more viable option in 2016—not to mention Sam Mustipher.

You don’t hit every recruiting victory out of the ball park. So while Bivin hasn’t progressed like some have expected, he’s a big, strong, athletic kid. And that’ll be useful sooner than later.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal / Blue & Gold

In soon-to-be-freshman Asmar Bilal, Notre Dame landed a linebacker who looks like he should be playing in the SEC. A star player out of Indianapolis power house and state champion Ben Davis, Bilal is the type of lightning quick and athletic linebacker that may not weigh 235 pounds, but he’ll cover sideline to sideline and beat opponents off the edge.

As part of an exciting linebacker corps, Bilal joins fellow Hoosier Josh Barajas and early-enrollee Te’von Coney as potential impact players. He’ll need to find a position and hit the weight room, but there’s plenty to like about Bilal.

Let’s dig a little deeper as we look at the incoming freshman.


6’3″ 210 lbs.
Freshman, No. 27, LB



A four-star recruit, Bilal made a difficult decision in choosing Notre Dame over Michigan. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team.



Right now, Bilal screams upside potential. In Ben Davis’ state championship victory, Bilal shifted to free safety, serving as a tackling machine in their runaway victory over Carmel.

That move will likely necessitate a look at Bilal at a variety of positions, especially if he’s capable of running like a defensive back. While he might join the group of recruits who end up shrinking a few inches once they hit the official program, if Bilal is 6’2 even, he’ll have the type of length that could play really well on the edge—though there’s also some who believe he’s a prototype middle linebacker as well.

It’s hard to say you know what a player brings to the table when you’ve only seen his YouTube highlights. But there’s reason that Bilal has many thinking he’s the real deal and the top player out of Indianapolis, and the Irish have a great starting point with him.



At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL


Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

South Bend Tribune

Even in the middle of a redshirt freshman season, lineman Alex Bars made sure that he’d be among the leaders in his class expected to become impact players. As the Irish were preparing for the Music City Bowl, head coach Brian Kelly singled out Bars’ performance—hopefully a sign of very good things to come.

“Alex Bars is one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years. He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about whose job he’s going to take,” Kelly said. “He’s that good of a player. If there’s one offensive player I can point to, Alex Bars clearly is the guy that stands out on offense.”

Fast-forward six months and Bars is already making his move up the depth chart. While Ronnie Stanley’s return has the left tackle position spoken for, Bars will join a rotation this fall with fellow sophomore Quenton Nelson at guard, getting his talent on the field with four seasons of eligibility remaining.

Let’s take a closer look at Alex Bars.


6’6″, 316 lbs.
Soph., No. 71, OL



A top-100 player with elite recruiting offers. Bars chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

By every measure, the Irish legacy (father Joe played linebacker for the Irish in the early-80s) was an elite recruit.



Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.



Looks like the Crystal Ball was pretty in focus last year, though the departure of Matt Hegarty and Christian Lombard, not to mention the decision to keep Steve Elmer at guard, forces you to flip-flop the early playing assignment:

It’s getting clear that under Hiestand and Kelly, the best five linemen play. The past two seasons, they’ve shifted players to make that happen. So if Bars works his way into that conversation soon, he might find a role at right guard, where Christian Lombard departs. Nick Martin is the next lineman off the board after 2015, and at that point you begin to wonder what the optimum number is for the depth chart, with some fifth year options coming up that could be telling.

That Bars is in South Bend and not anywhere else tells you that he’s a prospect that this Irish coaching staff truly coveted. But he’ll likely spend his freshman season learning the ropes and hitting the weight room, as most freshman offensive linemen should. If Mike McGlinchey struggles at right tackle, Bars will challenge for the job in a year or two. Otherwise he could break into the rotation at guard before shifting outside to tackle during his junior and senior seasons.

Bars is right on schedule, or at least the schedule we assigned him.



I’d be shocked if Bars wasn’t Notre Dame’s next left tackle. And as we’ve seen from the last two to play there, that’s saying quite a bit.

That being said, I don’t want to dampen the spirits of those that are expecting Bars to be an instant star, but his play this season will likely dictate how quickly he ascends to the level of standout. As we saw with Steve Elmer, sometimes a guy who looks like a no-brainer at tackle doesn’t necessarily fit there—especially after getting his first bit of playing time at guard.

But there’s no reason to think that Bars and Elmer are the same type of athlete. And all reports have Bars more than capable of handling the edge. So if he’s able to make an impact taking his snaps at guard, a position where Kelly and Harry Hiestand want maulers, he’ll certainly be ready to slide outside come 2016.



Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S