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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.