And in that corner… the Nevada Wolf Pack

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(“And in that corner” will be a weekly feature where we find an expert on Notre Dame’s opponent to give a look from the other side. Because opposing viewpoints are good, right?)

While Vegas sportsbooks have the Irish hovering a bit above a two-touchdown favorite, there is a solid minority that truly believe that Nevada can come to Notre Dame stadium and shock the college football world. One member of that minority is Juan Lopez, the sports editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, the university’s independent newspaper. 

Juan was kind enough to chat on the phone with me a few times, trade more than a few emails, and let me into the mind of the Wolf Pack. He and about 3,000 other Nevada football fans will be making their first trip to Notre Dame this weekend, and needless to say, they are a bit excited.

Inside the Irish: Let’s start straight, Juan. How nervous should ND fans be this weekend?

Juan Lopez: Very. Nevada’s offense was one of the most prolific in the nation last year. It ranked fifth in the country with 508.5 ypg and scored 41 or more points in 7 games last season. The team speed is much improved this season. Our two stud defensive ends are back (Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped). They combined for 21.5 sacks last season. Colin Kaepernick is one of the premiere dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Rush defense ranked 6th last year.

ITI: (Having Minter-like flashbacks…) Both ND and Nevada went 7-6, although ND ended with a resounding win in the bowl game while the Wolf Pack were thumped. What do you expect from the Wolf Pack this season? Over/Under on wins?

JL: I wouldn’t say the Wolf Pack was thumped. The score was 42-35 against a previously ranked ACC team. I, realistically, expect, at worst, a two-loss season for Nevada this season. 10-2 would be the worst the Wolf Pack could finish. Looking at the schedule, the only two losable games are Notre Dame on Sept. 5 and Nov. 27 at Boise State (haven’t beaten BSU since 1998) The over/under on wins is 9.5.

ITI: Chris Ault has been with Nevada football for a long time. He’s had three different terms as head coach. Can you tell us a little bit more about Ault?

JL: Ault is a very blatant guy — with his players and with the media. If you ask a stupid question, he’s going to tell you it’s a stupid question and then give you a stupid answer. But his knowledge of football is vast. He created the pistol offense in 2004, which has been imitated across the country by other schools and he thinks the pistol has been responsible for putting us in prime time games. (LSU, Hawaii, Syracuse, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech — these are some of the guys who have used a version of the pistol.) I can see how players are drawn to play for him. Yes, he yells at you, but it’s insightful, it fires you up and leaves you a better player. Not many people can get to say they practice in front of a Hall of Fame coach every day.

ITI: The offense has really been the story of Nevada’s success. Most of the people that really follow ND football have heard about Colin Kaepernick, but there are quite a few offensive weapons in Chris Ault’s offense. Can you pump these guys’ tires for a bit?

JL: The running back group should be one of the top groups in the nation. Vai Taua began as a 4th stringer last season, and because of some injuries, he moved up to starter and led the WAC in rushing (1,521) and was eighth in the nation. He’s a big guy at 220 pounds, but he had 17 runs of 20 yards or more last season.

ITI: (Gulp, as I think of Armando Allen…)

JL: Luke Lippincott, he led the WAC in rushing the year before with 1,420 yards and is a standout receiver. Offensive lineman Alonzo Durham is one of the top tackles on the West Coast. He was named first-team All-WAC by a ton of publications, and has started 37 games so far. The other tackle is Mike Gallet, he was picked All-WAC first teams too, and he’s only a junior. 

Receivers are a question. Brandon Wimberly is a projected starter at one of the spots. He has the potential to be big-time. Last season on the scout team, he would torch our first-team corners. Tight end Virgil Green is set for a breakout season. He is about as uber-athletic as they come. Body type reminds me of Vernon Davis. Very fast, pure muscle, runs great routes and has solid hands. He should be a factor in the passing game.

ITI: Can you talk a little about what makes Chris Ault’s pistol so special? Was it his design or was it something that offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis brought in?

JL: It was mostly an Ault creation. The basics of it are this: the QB lines up 3 yards behind the center (a semi-shotgun) with the running back about 2 yards behind him. There are three WRs. What makes this pistol special is Kaepernick. He is a threat to run any time he touches the ball. The zone read uses Kaep’s abilities perfectly. The play gives him the option to hand off the ball to a running back or keep it and take it around the edge.

ITI: Now let’s get to the ugly part. Nevada ranked #6 in the country in run defense, but ranked as the 119th best passing defense in college football, which was dead last. Was your secondary that bad? (Or your run game that good?) What can we expect from the defense?

JL: Very ugly part. The rankings don’t tell the entire truth. There’s a mixture of both that go into the rankings. If teams were to pass and run evenly on Nevada, the run defense would probably rank in the 30s while the pass defense would be somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a reason team’s passed 57 percent of the time versus Nevada.

The defensive backs coach was in his first year, our defensive coordinator was in his first year, and three of the five DBs who played the most were in their first year. Basically, they were young and inexperienced.

To completely answer your question: The run defense was stellar, but not as good as the No. 6 ranking. The pass D was bad. Very, very bad. But not as bad as the 119th indicated.

ITI: If the game unfolded perfectly for Nevada, how would it go? Can you give me a recipe for an upset victory for the Wolf Pack?

JL: The recipe would start with rushing the football. IF Nevada can rush the ball, keep Clausen and the rest of the offensive weapons on the sideline, the Wolf Pack should be fine. 300-plus yards on the ground is not a stretch.

The next step would be limiting and creating turnovers. This goes pretty much for any game, but especially this one. If Nevada wants to go into this hostile environment and win, it cannot turn the ball over more than twice. Its defense must also cause at least two turnovers while pressuring Clausen all game. It might not be possible to slow down ND’s receivers, but it’s very likely Clausen will eat dirt a few times.

Last is special teams. Nevada’s return games were terrible last year. No spark came from that until This year, though, the punt returner is Vai Taua and kickoff returner is freshman RB Mike Ball who has more talent than anyone else I’ve ever seen in person. Special teams will play a role in field position.

If Nevada does these things well, a win by 10-plus points shouldn’t be a surprise.

ITI: (Beginning first Rosary of the week…) What scares you the most about this Notre Dame team?

JL: The scariest thing about Notre Dame is the scariest thing about any team facing Nevada — it’s passing game. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd look very impressive from some videos I’ve seen of them and Clausen has good pocket presence and great arm strength. I don’t think Notre Dame will be able to run the ball successfully so its passing game will be on full display Saturday.

ITL: You’re around the team quite a bit, can you get a feel on the team’s attitude traveling for the first time to a place like Notre Dame? Is it just another game? Or do they understand that this is a historic matchup?

JL: The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in. And they’re very excited to see the sights of South Bend. The team is going to visit the College Football Hall of Fame.  

ITI: Most Vegas books have the Irish as two touchdown favorites. If gambling were legal and we promoted that sort of thing here (it is legal where Juan is), what’s your pocketbook say?

JL: What I’m about to say will extract a lot of “homer” calls, but I truthfully believe Nevada will win. Everyone keeps talking about last season and how the Wolf Pack lost to Hawaii and New Mexico State (very poor teams), but everyone is quick to forget how many near upsets Notre Dame escaped. Last season was last season. I’m sure ND is much improved as well and is ready for the game, but the Wolf Pack is a better team. My money would definitely be on Nevada.

If you’d like more of Juan Lopez and the Nevada Sagebrush’s coverage on the historic Notre Dame matcup, please check it out at http://www.nevadasagebrush.com/notre_dame

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

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.