ND A to Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame defensive end Grant Blankenship found the field early in his Irish career, joining the defensive line rotation as a true freshman from the outset last fall. Increased competition up front will challenge the rangy sophomore to do the same in 2015.

Pressed into action along Notre Dame’s youth-filled defensive front last season, Grant Blankenship played his best football as a rookie at the season’s outset. In September outings vs. Rice, Michigan, and Syracuse, the undersized freshman recorded a combined six tackles – half of his end-season total – while lending weekly aid to an Irish defense that rolled to a 5-0 start, allowing an aggregate 60 points in the process.

Exiting Spring Ball 2015, the six-foot-five, 252-pounder is back where he started, backing up Isaac Rochell at the “Big End” spot along Notre Dame’s 4-3 front. But Blankenship appeared to cede that role to classmate Jonathan Boner before the latter was lost to turf toe surgery in mid-April. The two appear set to battle for playing time throughout August Camp and beyond.

Blankenship emerges as the No. 2 beyond Rochell while also providing enough pass-rush punch to work into defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s sub packages – the Irish need a pass-rusher and though viable candidates exist, nothing is set in that regard.

Though he won’t start if his line mates remain in good health, Blankenship could carve a niche as a regular backup at either end position, both in the base defense and sub packages.

Bonner returns and claims the backup role at Big End, leaving Blankenship to fight for true third-team reps at both spots (Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti have the opposite DE spot of “Rush End” on lock down). Blankenship’s pursuit of added bulk this summer leaves his a half-tick slow in terms of impact as a speed rusher off the end and classmate Kolin Hill and/or junior Doug Randolph claim that role in the Irish nickel and dime fronts.

A redshirt season in 2014 would have greatly benefitted Blankenship’s career arc – not to mention the Irish defense down the road -- but he was clearly one of the top eight defensive linemen last fall and the staff had no recourse. If he’s not at least No. 9 in the pecking order at the outset of 2015, a sophomore redshirt should be explored.

(It’s not unheard of, at least in theory: Irish head coach Brian Kelly had a sophomore redshirt planned for Kona Schwenke in 2011 but he was forced into late-September action in what became a wasted season for the still-growing nose guard.)

Blankenship’s six tackles as a true freshman contributor are identical to the number posted by the like-sized Ishaq Williams as a rookie in 2011. Both played extensively throughout September, saw their impact wane as the season progressed, and appeared in 11 of 13 games overall.

A blast-from-the-past comparison to Blankenship would be Eric Jones, the Portage, Indiana-product from the Lou Holtz era. A defensive tackle, the six-foot-six, 235-pound Jones faced similar challenges as an undersized battler up front.

Jones played in 10 games as a true freshman during the 1989 season for the 12-1, national runner-up Irish, primarily at defensive tackle and on special teams. He finished with 7 tackles, 3 passes defended, and also recorded a potential game-changing sack and forced fumble of Miami quarterback Craig Erickson in the regular season finale – Notre Dame’s only defeat.

A four-star prospect per Scout.com and the 91st ranked player overall in the 2014 class, Blankenship earned early offers from home-state heavyweight TCU, upstart Baylor, and national powers Oregon and Oklahoma before Notre Dame courted and secured his pledge in the summer of 2013.

Incoming Texas head coach Charlie Strong offered late in the 2014 cycle but Blankenship stood with the Irish. His rookie season assimilation to the field is on par with a four-star prospect’s expectation – the opportunity to compete for a starting job or shared starting role as a third-year player in 2016 is within reach.

Though he recorded a sack against USC and notched a career-best three tackles vs. Syracuse, Blankenship’s best outing was likely last year’s 31-0 bundling of Michigan in South Bend. He combined with mike linebacker Joe Schmidt for a stop of Wolverines running back Derrick Green at scrimmage as his statistical highlight but it was Blankenship’s continued presence in the rotation for what was that night a dominant defensive line that stands out – and in his second career contest, to boot.

“Grant is a tough, rugged player. It’s important to him…he's non-stop. He has a high motor, which is fun to watch. He's going to make mistakes but he can make up for it with the way he plays in a lot of areas.” – Former defensive line coach Mike Elston on his rookie contributor last fall.


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