And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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Little has gone right for the Purdue Boilermakers the past two weeks. After outplaying Oregon in the always intimidating Autzen Stadium, Purdue inexplicably lost to Northern Illinois, giving the Big Ten another black-eye courtesy of the MAC. New coach Danny Hope has brought a new attitude to West Lafayette that hasn’t been seen in last years of the Joe Tiller era, but the team is still in the midst of a program defining transition.

Travis Miller runs the Purdue fan site Hammer & Rails, one of the better named sports blogs out there, and an off shoot of his popular Purdue football blog Off the Tracks. Travis was kind enough to take some time and answer a few questions I had on the Boilermakers, and to see if they were taking away sharp objects from the guy in charge of banging the World’s Largest Drum yet.

Inside the Irish: Where do Purdue fans stand right now after two soul-crushing losses?

Hammer & Rails: It is hard to say where we stand right now. Last week at this time, we were sky high because we had played a great game at Oregon, only to beat ourselves. We were encouraged that we went into one of the most hostile venues in college football, fought off giving the home team 17 points on turnovers, and still had a chance to win. Unlike last year’s Oregon loss, I felt we had played a better game and had a better attitude coming out of it.

Then Saturday happened. Not only did was lose to a mid-level MAC team, they dominated us in all phases of the game. There was no excuse for it and no one expected it. We had absolutely no energy at all. Right now, I don’t know what Purdue fans expect. I know we can compete with anyone on our schedule, but it is clear that if we lose our focus things can get ugly in a hurry. Personally, I still think this season can be salvaged, but a win this weekend is absolutely necessary. Everyone expected us to be 2-2 after the Notre Dame game anyway, so beating the Irish erases the Northern Illinois loss in my mind.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory this weekend?

H&R: We have to stop beating ourselves. Our own mistakes killed any chance at regaining the momentum against NIU. At Oregon, we gave up 17 points on two defensive TD’s and an interception deep in our own territory that led to a field goal. By simply cutting down on our own mistakes I think we can compete with Notre Dame.

We also need to regain the edge we had in the first two games. Everyone on offense looked about a step too slow against Northern Illinois. We cannot afford to have that again against Notre Dame because the talent difference between the Irish and Huskies is huge. Finally, we have to tackle better. The return of our top cornerback, Brandon King, should help there.

ITI: The Irish defense has been anything but impressive. Who will haunt us this year? Who will be the next Kory Sheets or Desmond Tardy?

H&R: I think at receiver it will be Keith Smith. He is the big target we have not had since Dustin keller was playing for us. He had an off game against NIU, but was very good against Toledo and Oregon. Then there is Ralph Bolden. Much was made of NIU “holding” him to just 64 yards after an explosive first two games. In truth, we did not have the ball enough to give him more touches. He still averaged over 5 yards per carry and had a couple of nice catches on our final drive as we scrambled to tie the game. Last week we fell into the same trap we did last year in South bend. We fell behind and panicked even though there was plenty of time left. We went away from what was working, the running game, even though it would have allowed us to rest our defense and move the ball while wearing down the team with less depth. If we stay committed to the running game this week I like our chances.

ITI: With Joe Tiller gone, Purdue’s identity is still being determined. What do you make of Danny Hope? How do you look back on the Joe Tiller era?

H&R: I like Danny Hope’s fiery attitude. Near the end, Tiller just did not seem to have any kind of fire and the entire team was complacent. I think coach Hope has this team thinking it can compete with anyone in the country. The one positive I can take from last week as that we kept fighting. We were down 28-7 at home and most of those late Tiller teams would have folded. Despite every mistake, we kept fighting. If we had stopped the fact punt or had NIU simply punted at that point, I was absolutely confident we were going to go down and tie the game. Even though we got pushed around all day long, the offense was finally moving and probably would have scored to tie if we had just one more minute.

As far as the entire Tiller Era, I haven’t made up my mind about it. It was obviously one of the most successful eras in school history, and was especially welcome since it came after 12 straight losing seasons. I think in the end Tiller’s greatest success ended up being his greatest failure. Before he came, we did not have more than four wins in one season since 1984 (I don’t count the 1992 season where a loss to Michigan State is no officially a win via forfeit, making us 5-4-2). He immediately made us believe that Purdue’s program could be successful. Unfortunately, we never sustained that success and made the jump to being a consistent championship contender. It is unfortunate, but we are still under the specter of The Fumble.

We were ready to make that jump when we were ranked #5 in 2004 with Wisconsin and College GameDay in town. We blew a 10 point lead in the final eight minutes, the final six coming on Kyle Orton’s infamous fumble that was returned for a touchdown. We were inches from rising even higher, but since then we have not been able to recover, going 28-32 since that game. It sucks, but that Fumble was Tiller’s final epitaph because it ultimately comes back to him for us not recovering.

ITI: How does a Purdue fan look at the Notre Dame rivalry?

H&R: I view it as our biggest football rivalry, and it has gotten here because of what Joe Tiller. It was his modest success, going 5-7 against the Irish after a 12 game losing streak in the series, that elevated the rivalry above Indiana. At the same, Purdue dominated Indiana much like Notre Dame dominated Purdue for years. I don’t think it is even so big as it is to us if not for the fact Tiller’s first win came in a shocking upset in 1997.

I know Notre Dame will never take the rivalry as seriously as we do, but beating Notre Dame, even a historically awful team like in 2007, is still a name win for Purdue. For one day we have the entire country looking at us. I think some people still view any win we get over the Irish is an upset no matter how good we are. It is that perception that adds to the rivalry because it comes off as disrespect toward our program. Those people cannot believe it is possible Purdue could compete with the vaunted Irish. These people ignore the history in the series where Purdue has numerous wins over Notre Dame, more than any other program in the country save USC and Michigan State.

ITI: Are you excited for the Robert Marve era? Are you worried about the headaches, or just looking forward to the potential?

H&R: I don’t think there is any guarantee he will be the starting quarterback in 2010. Since my wife is a Miami alum, I watched his freshman year at the U and was not impressed. When the recruiting frenzy for him was reaching its peak I actually wrote that I did not want him. I have since changed my mind, but I want him to earn the job. We are also going to have a scramble for the starting quarterback job next year. Marve will be competing with current backup Caleb TerBush, current true freshman Rob Henry that is very similar to Marve in style, incoming true freshman Sean Robinson who is having a very impressive senior season, and possibly Justin Siller who could return from a one year university suspension.

If Marve has his head on straight I think he is the best of those candidates. He is the most polished, but a torn ACL has prevented him from even practicing so far. This hurts his chances because he does not get that year of practice to learn the system. Marve, Henry, Siller, and Robinson are also mobile quarterbacks that can escape the pocket, so it will be hard to distinguish between them. Siller has an edge in that he was likely going to start this year before his suspension. Henry and TerBush can each practice right now and get better in the system. Robinson is a bit of a wild card in that he is still in high school.

Ultimately though, Marve did not come to Purdue to sit the bench. I would say it is his job to lose, with either TerBush or Henry as his top backup. I have no idea where Siller would come in if he came back.

Here’s wishing Hammer & Rails and Purdue best of luck when the Big Ten season starts. Check out their site for some great ND coverage this week.

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.

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.