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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The NFL case for Jarrett Grace just got better

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Of all the performances that drew attention at Notre Dame’s annual Pro Day, none were more eye-opening than Jarrett Grace‘s. The fifth-year senior linebacker, two-plus years removed from a leg injury that should’ve ended his football career, might have tested his way into a dream job.

Not by acing any interviews or showcasing the mental fortitude that allowed him to work his way back from the painstaking odyssey. Not by showcasing a trim and fit frame that’s 25-pounds lighter than the one that made nine tackles against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

But rather, Grace likely punched his ticket to an NFL training camp by running, jumping, lifting and moving like a legit NFL linebacker.

Grace’s Pro Day performance in front of 31 teams looked like that of a prototype inside linebacker. Standing nearly a half-inch taller than 6’3, he’s got the height team’s covet. At 240 pounds, he looked the part of an Underwear Olympics standout. And Grace’s explosiveness in short distances—shuttle and cone drill times that essentially matched guys like Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown—show a linebacker who is more than just a great story.

After the workout, Grace talked to reporters about the progress he’s made. And as you might expect, he doesn’t think this is the end of the road.

“To see where I’m at today, I’m definitely very pleased,” Grace said, according to the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel. “I’m not done, though. I’ll tell you that. I’m not done. I think the best is in front of me.”

That Grace managed to put himself in a position to impress the NFL is a testament not just to the work he did to get back on the football field in 2015, but the time spent since the Fiesta Bowl. Taking a 17-credit load in Notre Dame’s MBA program is no joke. Doing that while training to ace performance-specific drills that most NFL prospects drop out of school to focus on? Very impressive.

In an interesting breakdown on Grace’s eventful Thursday, UND.com’s John Heisler detailed not just Grace’s job audition, but the road to get there. And this quote from Notre Dame strength coach Jake Flint crystalizes the Cincinnati native’s tenacity.

“He came to me as soon as the bowl game ended and said, ‘Can you help? I want to train and get a shot,’” Flint said. “We talked about a training program and he’s got his schedule with school and it needed to be a little flexible.

“So sometimes he came in and trained with our team and then sprinkled in some other things specifically for his Pro Day. But he’s a self-motivated kid. We built the goals and he executed it. What we did was less about football and more about some of these specific drills. He’s leaned up, and he’s done a great job.

“He was going to do whatever he needed to do. He did a lot of this by himself. We had a lot of good talks. I just tried to keep positive with him.

“He’s gonna go out there and he’s going to look good. We’ve seen what he can do and he’s going to get a shot and that’s all he wants. He’s here every day, and he’s positive and he has energy. He wants to give it one more go and see what he can do. He knows how to play and we all know that.”

Grace might not ever be the linebacker he was on track to be before that ugly injury against Arizona State. But the hard work he put in from that day forward—and the chance opportunity to play big minutes in the Fiesta Bowl after Jaylon Smith’s injury—opened the door.

Thanks to an impressive Thursday in front of 31 NFL teams, Grace’s chance of chasing his dream just got a lot better.

Pro Day brings NFL to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame hosted its annual NFL Pro Day with former Irish athletes performing in front of 31 NFL teams. With a who’s who of NFL general managers and coaches in South Bend (not to mention a flock of media), 17 former Irish players put their best foot forward in front of future employers.

Chris Brown 
Amir Carlisle
Sheldon Day 
Matthias Farley 
Will Fuller 
Everett Golson 
Jarrett Grace 
Eilar Hardy 
Matt Hegarty 
Nick Martin 
Romeo Okwara 
C.J. Prosise 
KeiVarae Russell 
Elijah Shumate 
Jaylon Smith 
Ronnie Stanley 
Ishaq Williams

With plenty of footage posted on social media under the #NDProDay hashtag, it didn’t take a press credential to get a good look at the workout in Loftus. But those on hand saw big days from a few prospects who certainly lifted their draft stock.

Scouting combine invitees Chris Brown and KeiVarae Russell worked out for the first time and didn’t disappoint. Neither did Amir Carlisle or Matthias Farley, two fringe prospects who certainly helped boosted their chances of finding a job at the next level.

Everett Golson came back to Notre Dame to throw the football—a skill that he certainly showcased. Fellow graduate transfers Matt Hegarty and Eilar Hardy were on hand as well, along with Ishaq Williams.

Jaylon Smith gave NFL teams another look at his recovery in person and also managed to hit 24 reps on the bench press. Will Fuller ran crisp routes and showed no struggle with his hands.

For the first time in recent memory, there’s an argument that every former player working out in front of scouts had a chance to make an NFL team. If that’s not a signal that the arrow is pointed up when it comes to talent evaluation and player development, I’m not sure what else is.

Here are the results of the Pro Day, along with some Tweets that’ll get you up to speed on Thursday’s event.

Pro Day

On to the Tweets:

Competition, self-scout key to secondary’s improvement

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Cornerback Cole Luke #36 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s coaching staff spent the winter months evaluating their shaky play in the secondary. And it likely didn’t take a spot on Brian Kelly’s staff to understand some of the deficiencies that plagued the unit.

Just as Brian VanGorder discussed on Wednesday, explosive plays, blown assignments and underperforming personnel added up to the mixed bag we saw on the field last season. And it’s a big reason secondary coach Todd Lyght enters his second season coaching at his alma mater with an open competition at every position.

That’s why we’ve heard about Devin Studstill challenging Max Redfield. That’s why Lyght revealed that rising senior Cole Luke—the most experienced player on the field next season for Notre Dame’s defense—is cross-training at nickel back. Lyght seems focused on taking the lessons learned from season one and applying them to a secondary that’ll be reloaded and more versatile, even after saying goodbye to KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate.

Lyght talked a bit about the open competition, perhaps giving us a clue at the expanded rotation on the back end in 2016 while doing it.

“I think the open competition is great,” Lyght said. “Everybody is still challenging for the starting spots and we know that we’re probably going to have to play eight guys deep across the board, especially with our nickel and dime packages. Everybody is going to have a hand in making this team successful on the back end.”

An eight-man rotation wasn’t possible last season, not after losing Shaun Crawford, Avery Sebastian and Drue Tranquill by mid-October. But as Lyght’s secondary looks to bounce back, those injured players—especially Crawford and Tranquill—seem to have made themselves indispensable.

“Last year, we lost our nickel package. Shaun Crawford we knew in training camp was our best nickel and we lost him,” VanGorder acknowledged yesterday. “We lost our speed package, too, when Tranquill got hurt. That was really important to us. That’s just the way it went.”

Maybe it was the lack of versatility that accentuated some of the deficiencies. With a top-heavy snap count in the secondary—only Luke, Shumate, Russell, Redfield and Matthias Farley played more than 150 snaps—there were times the Irish must’ve felt like they were defending with one arm tied behind their backs.

But a self-scout also revealed some schematic weaknesses that opponents exploited, with Lyght acknowledging some of the adjustments that’ll be made. IrishSportsDaily.com’s Matt Freeman pulled this interesting nugget from Lyght’s comments, acknowledging the soft middle that too often was exploited in the defense.

“We played a lot of split safety defense, an of middle open defense, quarter/quarter half and half coverage. I think this year with our self-scouting, we might close the middle a little bit more and challenge the outside of the perimeter more. We did a great job on third-down and I want to improve on that success.”

It’s a lot easier to close the middle of the field with competent play from a free safety, or sticking with your preferred Cover 1 scheme. But with injuries and personnel struggles, the tendency to protect the secondary might have opened up the defense to some other vulnerabilities.

Recruiting is the best solution for those ills. We’ve seen Studstill come in and give the Irish what they want at free safety, even as he’s learning on the job. They’ve also seen it from Redfield, if only in flashes.

With young talent like Spencer Perry, Crawford, Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins, there are competitive bodies ready to challenge for snaps. Even better, there’s more versatility coming to campus this summer. It won’t be long before we hear this staff rave about Jalen Elliott, the team’s strong safety of the future or jumbo cornerback Donte Vaughn. The efforts in the 2016 recruiting class made it clear that Brian Kelly and the Irish staff are unwilling to be caught shorthanded again.

Until then, Lyght’s job is to learn from an eventful debut season. More importantly, to take those lessons into 2016 as a rebuilt secondary faces great expectations.

 

VanGorder looks for solutions within his scheme

Brian Kelly, Brian VanGorder
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As Notre Dame takes the field this spring, improving the defense is Job No. 1.

Brian VanGorder‘s unit struggled with consistency in 2015, plagued by big plays and red zone struggles. Now asked to rebuild without stars like All-Americans Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day and key starters Joe Schmidt, Romeo Okwara, KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, it’s back to the drawing board for VanGorder and his defensive staff as they work to prepare a young but talented group.

VanGorder spoke Wednesday morning to reporters looking for answers to questions that all of ND Nation have. And VanGorder—not always the easiest of interview subjects—was fairly candid in his responses, especially as the staff spent the offseason self-scouting and evaluating what went wrong.

“It was a very difficult year for quality control to look at,” VanGorder conceded, before talking through the ups and downs. The positives included strides on third down and three-and-outs. The negatives? Big play touchdowns, red zone struggles and slow starts.

After making great adjustments against up-tempo attacks and the option heading into 2015, VanGorder keyed in on those three big factors when working to solidify this defense.

“I think starts; the start of ball games were not good. Our explosive play count, while somewhere in the middle of pack respective to the country, was really bad relative to big-play touchdowns and long, long yardage,” VanGorder said. “And we’ve got to get better in the red zone. We started red zone today. Those three things to me would be really critical moving forward.”

Billed as a mad scientist and Xs and Os specialist when he came to South Bend, that reputation has been thrown back in VanGorder’s face by those looking for answers for the defense’s mental breakdowns. When asked about finding a more simplified approach to delivering the message, VanGorder pushed back on the entire idea of dumbing things down.

“A player that comes here and plays in our defense, he’s going to put a lot of tools in his toolbox. It’s not just wild tools thrown from all over. It’s pretty consistent from the player,” VanGorder said. “It’s likeable and it’s learnable. That’s how we approach it. We’ve got smart players.”

Those smart players are going to be asked to step into roles that they haven’t had much experience filling. Back from injury, defensive backs Drue Tranquill and cornerback Shaun Crawford open up the flexibility that helps VanGorder thrive. Pushing Nyles Morgan into a starting role will add an explosive playmaker at middle linebacker. The versatility of James Onwualu will help keep opposing offenses honest with the Irish in their base defense.

Yet none of that can be accomplished if the big problems aren’t solved. And VanGorder knows that all too well.

But those expecting a major change in teaching philosophy or scheme are going to be disappointed. After giving the cliched “players have to play better and coaches have to coach better, he also supplied what looks like the money quote, recounted by Tim O’Malley of Irish Illustrated.  This might be the closest thing to a rebuke of the “keep-it-simple-stupid” philosophy as you can get.

“It’s because we have a large inventory and we didn’t play real good defense, right?” VanGorder said. “So if you have a large inventory and you don’t play real good defense, then that’s the assumption. That’s true in athletics and true in competition. That’s just the way it goes. If you don’t do well you’re going to hear those different things that come out. But within our room we know. We know the truth.”

The truth is it’s a results based business. And heading into 2016, if the Irish are going to get back into the CFB Playoff mix, they’ll need VanGorder’s defense to improve during a youth movement. No small task.

Notre Dame’s Big Ten move a hockey only proposition

DENVER - APRIL 12:  The Notre Dame Fighting Irish salute as they leave the ice after being defeated by the Boston College Golden Eagles in the 2008 NCAA Frozen Four Men's Ice Hockey National Championship at the Pepsi Center on April 12, 2008 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Last week, Notre Dame’s hockey program made some national news when it was announced that the Irish would join the Big Ten in hockey as an affiliate member. The move will come in the 2017-18 season, meaning one more year playing in the Hockey East, Notre Dame’s conference since the CCHA dissolved before the 2013 season.

In a statement provided by the athletic department, Jack Swarbrick cited the following reasons for the move:

“While we have enjoyed our affiliation with Hockey East, the opportunity to participate in Big Ten hockey is a compelling one from the perspective of our student-athletes. The move will significantly reduce the time our team spends traveling, increase the broadcast exposure for our program and allow us to take advantage of the natural rivalries that exist with the Big Ten schools that participate in hockey,” Swarbrick said.

The move raised some eyebrows on the national level. After decades of discussions about joining the Big Ten—but only as a full member participating in football—it was Notre Dame’s hockey team that was allowed to join the conference as an affiliate member.

Was there more to this? (Count the South Bend Tribune’s Al Lesar as one of the loudest voices asking the silly question.) Could this be the first step in a relationship that seemed all but dead?

Don’t count on it.

Swarbrick joined the Big Ten Network to discuss the move, and in doing so made it pretty clear that the Irish were plenty happy with their current partnership with the ACC and the hockey-only affiliate membership that is set to begin after next season.

“I think hockey is very different. Different in terms of the Big Ten needs, the Big Ten’s own assessment of the hockey conference arrangement, and ours as well,” Swarbrick told the B1G Network’s Dave Revsine.

“When you extend beyond hockey you’re in a situation where, of course, the Big Ten is very pleased with its conference alignment and the structure of its conference and we’re very pleased with both our ACC relationship and our ability to maintain independence with football.”

Unpacking that statement requires a look at the hockey conference the Big Ten has struggled to build and a general understanding of today’s college hockey. After essentially destroying the WCHA and CCHA by forming its own league, the Big Ten hasn’t turned into the hockey juggernaut many expected, mostly because of downturns in historically strong programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

That’s likely exacerbated a problem that college hockey has been struggling with as a whole—getting people to watch a sport that relies heavily on geographic rivalries. Just look at some of the scary photos that came from NCAA regionals, played in historic hockey hotbeds like Minnesota and Boston.

 

While most look at Notre Dame as a school with a gold-plated checkbook, travel challenges and logistics are a real factor in a decision like this. So is finding the right institutional match for the conference.

Swarbrick mentioned a natural rivalry with Boston College. But a run down the 12-team conference shows few matches, especially when you consider that most Hockey East programs build their roster through experienced junior hockey players, putting the Irish in a situation where even their oldest senior is often times one of the youngest of the ten skaters on the rink.

The Big Ten is a supporter of legislation that’ll set an age limit for incoming recruits, moving the threshold from 21 down to 20-years-old, or two years removed from a player’s expected high school graduation. That’s the type of player that Notre Dame recruits, and it’s the type of player that Big Ten programs build around as well.

The move isn’t unprecedented for the Big Ten. In lacrosse, Johns Hopkins became an affiliate member of the conference in 2015. Swarbrick revealed that the move wasn’t out of the blue, but rather the product of discussions that started with a scheduling alignment and ultimately resulted in joining the conference on the ice.

 

You can watch Swarbrick’s entire interview with the Big Ten network below. But for those worried that the Irish are considering uprooting an athletic department that’s found a very comfortable home in the ACC, fear not.