Pushing the chips into the middle

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Welcome to “Inside the Irish,” the new NBCSports.com blog that will bring you daily news, rumors, analysis, commentary, and just about everything you’d ever want to know about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. As your fearless leader and the guy behind this bold new experiment, I thought it’d be as good a time as any to make an introduction and get started talking about one of the “highest leverage” seasons in recent Notre Dame history.

Much has been made about the past two seasons. Head coach Charlie Weis has seen a variety of labels put on him, and as his tenure in South Bend continues, those labels have gotten significantly less flattering. The 3-9 season of 2007 was one of the darkest in the storied history of Notre Dame football. Yet last season’s 7-6 campaign was the year that truly brought despair to the core of ND Nation.

The Irish saw a promising season begin to chip away in a bizarre loss at North Carolina. While the squad rallied to bury a dismal Washington, the rest of the regular season found Notre Dame failing in all of the games they played. The overtime loss to Pitt was a game that ND found a way to lose. The Boston College domination pulled the series between the two schools even, and the six consecutive BC wins pointed decisively to the opposing directions the two programs were trending. Even the chaotic finish of the Navy game couldn’t be categorized as a win, but simply a respite for a game that wouldn’t have created a new chapter in heart-stomping losses, it would’ve created an almanac. And the Syracuse loss… Rock bottom.

Notre Dame came into the Coliseum dead men walking. There wasn’t a shred of hope that day among Irish fans, as I witnessed first hand. In the days that followed the embarrassing defeat, many wondered if the fate of Weis had already been decided. New athletic director Jack Swarbrick had given Weis a (dreaded) vote of confidence just weeks before, but the humiliating loss brought radio silence from the administration. Recruits hung in the balance. A rebuilding job that Weis believed was nearly complete was close to being detonated again.

In the end, Swarbrick stuck with Charlie Weis as the man in charge of the Irish. The team, with nearly a month to heal, came out rejuvenated and showed the promise of a squad loaded with young talent, throttling an overmatched Hawaii team in what was essentially a home game. The positive vibe rolled into the recruiting season, as Weis and ace recruiter Brian Polian struck another victory with the successful recruitment of Manti Te’o.

Last season’s hopeful finishing uptick instantly reminded me of one of the quintessential lines of The Dark Knight:

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Will last season’s terror and frustration be the darkness that Notre Dame pulls out of, or merely a sign of what’s to come? What made last season so unbearable wasn’t going 7-6, it was watching the variance in how the record was achieved. All of this leads me back to leverage.

While we can postulate and hypothesize all we want about the effects of the Hawaii Bowl win and a productive offseason, what remains to be seen is how Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish perform when the chips have been pushed to the middle of the table.  Last season, the results were decisive. When push came to shove, the Irish folded. While eight long months have passed since the Irish last played a game, you’ve got to wonder if the offseason brought the confidence needed to a team that has to learn how to win close games.

In nine days, the preseason static is tuned out. The talking heads will forget that Jimmy Clausen flew his wide receivers to California and that Manti Te’o gave Notre Dame its first big win against Pete Carroll since 2001. In nine days, the Irish will be punched in the mouth, and we’ll finally know what kind of jaw the team has. In the high stakes game of college football, nobody has more to prove than Notre Dame this season.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.