Keith Arnold

Mike London

Offseason Q&A: Virginia

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Part two in our series looking at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents. Check out our entry on Texas here. 

 

You can understand if Virginia fans aren’t dying to talk about the football season. That’s because the Cavaliers are back playing for the College World Series title, a return to Omaha and a chance to win the title for former Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor.

If O’Connor’s ability to bring the Hoos to the top of the mountain fulfilled the promise that the top-notch assistant showed when he worked under Paul Maineri in South Bend, Mike London’s tenure in Charlottesville has been a little less cheery.

Since taking over the program in 2010, London has had a winning record only once, an eight-win season that ended in a lopsided loss to a 7-5 Auburn team. So with one of the country’s most difficult schedules ahead of them and a head coach on the hot seat, forgive Virginia fans for enjoying these final days of the baseball season, especially if they can sneak pass Vanderbilt.

Nice enough to give us the intel on Virginia during the middle of a title run is Jay Pierce of Streaking the Lawn, the SBNation home for all things Virginia sports.

Let’s get to it.

 
Let’s start with pretty much the only connectivity between these two programs:

JON TENUTA.

Charlie Weis’ former defensive coordinator is now running the UVA defense, meaning that sunny press conference personality is now on display in Charlottesville.

How has the Tenuta era been at Virginia? And what type of defense will he utilize against Notre Dame? (Safe to guess, a blitz until you can blitz no more approach?)

Considering all of the frustration UVa fans have with the football program, Tenuta’s one of the more appreciated members on the coaching staff. Tenuta’s defense at UVa last season improved from allowing 433.1 yards per game in 2013 to 353.2 ypg. Turnover production is up, sacks are up, and the defense has a more aggressive style of play all around.

While they haven’t won too many games recently, no one would put that on the quality of the defense – and at the very least, I’ve enjoyed the team’s penchant for beating the crap out of the opposing QB weekly. The Hoos will run primarily out of a nickel set and certainly you can expect plenty of blitzes from any position out there.

 

After a relatively hard-luck 5-7 season, Mike London was brought back for a sixth season, a somewhat controversial decision. AD Craig Littlepage cited progress that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the won-loss record.

Tell Notre Dame fans a little bit about London the head coach. And if you think Littlepage made the right decision.

To put it bluntly: London is a great guy, solid recruiter, wonderful figurehead for a program, and has produced very little in terms of success on the field. Aside from an 8-5 2011 season, every one of his years at UVa has been a losing season, including some abysmal records in conference games.

He’s 23-38 in five years overall and has managed to win 11 ACC games in that timespan. Was keeping him the right decision? Perhaps there are/were pressures (financial, political, or otherwise) that led it, but to me, it says nothing more clearly than an acceptance of mediocrity by the athletic department.

 

Big news came last week with the transfer of Greyson Lambert after starting nine games last season. Matt Johns won the job out of spring practice, but what’s the state of a quarterback position that’s seemed like a rollercoaster since London came to town?

For most of Mike London’s tenure, UVa has used multiple starting quarterbacks each season, often switching out QBs every few series. Rarely does this ever work and as such, it’s brought little success to the position for the Wahoos. While Greyson Lambert was a leader on the team and probably the most talented of the quarterbacks, UVa fans can take solace in the fact that now there’s a legitimate QB1 with (hopefully) no threat of an in-game carousel.

Johns showed some moxie last year, appearing in 12 games, starting 3, and throwing for 1109 total yards with a 54.9% completion rate. While he brings a little more of a gunslinger mentality than recent UVa QBs, he did struggle with some costly turnovers at times, throwing 5 picks to match his 8 touchdowns.

Where does that leave the team this year? I like Johns. Especially now that he’ll have a whole summer and fall to know that he’s the go-to guy. However, if he gets hurt, or the wheels really come off, UVa’s only got RS-Fr Corwin Cutler, incoming Fr Nick Johns, and newly-committed transfer Connor Brewer as the scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. That said, with an experienced guy in Brewer transferring in this summer, perhaps the coaching staff can start shuffling again soon.

 

One gambling website put the over-under on Virginia wins this season at 4.5. The schedule is a meat grinder. The roster lost some talented players. But what are your expectations after a three-year stretch of 11-25 football?

Bet the farm on the under.

Really, like most fans, I try to be optimistic going into each season. But, as they say: “fool me five times, shame on me.” Like you said, the schedule is brutal.

At first glance, there’s one (should be) definite win and maybe one or two probable wins but there’s just way too many “ifs” to think this team will win five games.

If the defense can replace two star DEs, if Matt Johns stays healthy and shows a year’s worth of progression, if we continue whatever voodoo hex we have on Miami, if we catch a UCLA team replacing their star QB off guard, if we avoid disastrous time management blunders, if we finally manage to beat our coastal division overlords (that would be Duke, of course, not Virginia Tech). The list could go on and on.

UVa usually wins a game or two that they’re not supposed to each season, but getting to five wins would require that – plus not losing the game or two that they’ll be favored in. My expectation is a four-win season.

 

A handful of graduate transfers. Former 5-star recruits Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell. The home opener. I could make the argument that this game sure feels like a trap for Notre Dame.

Will you?

Absolutely. Would I bet on it? No.

But, considering our knack of handing one team a year a big upset, you can’t completely ignore the possibility of a UVa win here. As you said, there’s talent on the roster – though the defense is replacing a lot in the front seven. The team should come out amped for their home opener and the crowd should be lively with a big-name school in town.

I really like the potential of TJ Thorpe and Canaan Severin as the starting wideouts having months of reps with one (and only one) starting QB. You force a few turnovers (as we know Tenuta’s defense can do)…make a few plays here and there…get the desperate-for-a-winning-team crowd behind you…

I’ll say this: I’d be shocked if UVa pulled out the upset, but the players wouldn’t be. There’s enough talent and experience to keep it closer than most fans might expect. That said, the differences between the two programs should be clear by the second half and the Irish should get a double digit win – if they show up ready to play.

Irish Invasion lands recruits Jalen Elliott and Kevin Stepherson

150608_MalikZaire
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Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class expanded this weekend, with the Irish Invasion camp leading to commitments.

Safety Jalen Elliott became the seventh commitment in the 2016 class before wide receiver Kevin Stepherson became the eight. Both currently rate as three-star prospects, though that’ll likely change throughout the summer evaluation process.

A Virginia native, Elliott had offers from both Virginia and Virginia Tech, along with some impressive options like Auburn, Georgia and Miami. With his parents along with him, Elliott felt immediately that Notre Dame was the place for him, and he’s already started recruiting his 2016 classmates.

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Multiple reports had Stepherson putting on a show at the Irish Invasion. Rivals’ Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt called him the camp’s “Super Standout,” and while his 6-1, 180 pound frame doesn’t make him a physical freak, offers from LSU and Florida give you a hint of his athleticism.

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There’s plenty of good buzz coming out of the camp with Notre Dame making a big move with plenty of the top talent that took the visit to South Bend. A year after their first Irish Invasion camp, it sounds like the staff built a bigger and better experience for recruits, and the early returns brought two weekend commitments, with more good news potentially on the way soon.

Notre Dame staff prepares for Irish Invasion

Malik Zaire
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Notre Dame’s biggest recruiting weekend of the summer is upon us, with the Irish Invasion camp bringing over 100 high school football players to campus. With the recruiting efforts led by Mike Elston and player personnel director Dave Peloquin, the Irish staff has turned their summer camp into one of the biggest events on the circuit.

With Notre Dame’s commit list lagging behind the pace of their last few years, the staff will likely look to capitalize on the opportunity to show some of the country’s best talent campus. And the talent has arrived—a credit to the work the coaching staff has put in to get kids on campus from all across the country (and Canada).

For those recruitniks out there, the group on campus gives you a little bit of everything. There are stars like linebacker Caleb Kelly, 2017 quarterback Hunter Johnson and Canadian receiver/safety Chase Claypool.

There are repeat visitors, like California teammates Javon McKinley and Chacho Ulloa and safety Devin Studstill. And it’s a good bet that as the Irish staff looks to build a recruiting class that’ll most likely max out in the high-teens, a commitment or two will come out of this group.

We’ll do our best to keep you up to speed on the events. But it’s a busy week on campus with some of the country’s top players checking out Notre Dame.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Property of the Elkhart Truth
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Sophomore Jonathan Bonner‘s momentum was halted this April when he became one of the only injury casualties of the spring. A turf toe surgery kept Bonner from making a statement at strongside defensive end, a spot where the 275-pounder looked to settle in after some moves over the past calendar year.

Bonner’s short -term detour doesn’t look to be anything more than a speed bump, though if the injury robs an athletic and explosive defensive player of a key component to his skill set, it’s certainly a significant one. But after a year learning and adding to his already impressive measurables, Bonner is still on pace to be one of the defense’s most surprising newcomers.

Let’s dig into the rising sophomore.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 275 lbs.
Soph., No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner’s recruitment was just starting to take off when he pledged to Notre Dame. He had garnered 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 on campus.

Bonner was an All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. He also wore the “RKG” tag more than well, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler going viral, and an impromptu standing ovation by his high school student body one of the more memorable things assistant Bob Elliott has ever seen on the recruiting trail.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not participate, saving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Bonner’s already solidified his tweener status, starting his career as a jumbo-sized outside linebacker, and now playing strong side defensive end. But even with the injury he seems pretty on track to our projections last season, even if he didn’t use a season of eligibility.

It’s not hard to see that I’m bullish on Bonner’s future. But that’s not to say that projecting a productive career is easy. Bonner isn’t a better prospect than Anthony Rabasa, who has yet to make an impact after being evaluated and recruited by Kelly and his coaching staff. He’s not the type of recruit that Kerry Neal was either, who came into South Bend with sky high expectations and left never tallying more than two sacks in a season.

But there’s reason to believe that Bonner can be a better player than both (though the jury is still technically out on Rabasa). Bonner is a player that seems to embrace the grind, and listening to Bob Elliott talk about Bonner is the type of testimonial that gets you excited about a football player.

At defensive end, there doesn’t seem to be much certainty behind Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. Is Bonner more ready to play than Isaac Rochell or Jacob Matuska. We’ll see.

But after exploding onto the scene in his senior season, Bonner could continue that ascent during summer workouts and work his way into some sub-packages starting this fall.

If Bonner plays behind Isaac Rochell, he’ll be competing with some young talent at defensive end. But his speed and explosiveness could also let him shift inside, a place where he could rush the passer from the interior and also mix and match up front.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a ton to like about Bonner, but until we see him on the field, we’ll have to find out if he’s got the length to be a good defensive lineman, or the athleticism to play in space.

At his best, Bonner certainly looks like a guy on an NFL trajectory. At his worst, he could be a tweener like Justin Utupo or Anthony Rabasa, a guy who isn’t big enough to make an impact.

There’s a reason Brian Kelly has talked repeatedly about the weight room exploits of Bonner, who reportedly has a vertical leap among the best on the team, not too shabby at 275 pounds. So if you’re looking for a guy with high upside, Bonner is your man.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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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.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’4.5″, 252
Soph., No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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.

 

PLAYING CAREER

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.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

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.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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