Malik Zaire

Notre Dame staff prepares for Irish Invasion

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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

Offseason Q&A: Texas

Charlie Strong
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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 / Scout.com
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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.

 

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 302 lbs.
Junior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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.

 

PLAYING CAREER

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.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

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.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

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.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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