Bye weeks have been kind to Irish

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With Notre Dame coming off of a bye week, I decided to do some digging into the Irish’s history of playing after a week off. There is good news: the Irish have had great success after a week off — a 61-14-2 record since 1900.

The extra week of practice and preparation should help the Irish against Southern Cal. The Irish will have had time to familiarize themselves with the pared-down Trojan attack, and after five seasons of facing Pete Carroll’s squad, there is little schematically that Carroll can do that will surprise the Irish coaching staff.

Outside of the X’s and O’s, the Irish will need to make great strides psychologically if they want to win on Saturday. The last outings against the Trojans have been disastrous. 38-3, 38-0, and 44-24 blow-outs have been monumental throttlings that make it seem like the divide between the Trojans’ talent level and the Irish’s have never been larger.

Thanks to a tip from our friends at Blue-Gray Sky, we stumbled upon a great article of theirs written by a former player who discussed the strategic moves former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz made during the bye week of the 1993 season as the Irish team prepared to play the vaunted Seminoles of Florida State.

Here are some highlights:

The beginning of the bye week was different than most weeks during the
season, in that the game plan was not yet finalized. As such, we did
not practice on Mondays. Rather, we spent the afternoon in film
sessions, getting treatment and working on conditioning. In total, it
was a rather light day – this set the tone for the rest of the week.
Although we returned to a normal practice schedule on Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday, we were working more on fundamentals of the
game, footwork, balance, positioning, and accurate reads, rather than
focusing on our upcoming opponent. If it wasn’t for the media (and a
few of our teammates) there would have been no mention of Florida State.

In
hindsight, this was one of the most powerful tactics that Coach Holtz,
and the rest of the coaching staff, employed to prepare us for the game
– it was a matter of pacing ourselves for the emotion that would
undoubtedly build in week two. In week one, there was no hype – it was
back to basics, Football 101.

However, as the bye week came to a close his strategy began to unfold.
Coach Holtz normally played to the media, giving them the sob story of
how every team has a legitimate chance at beating us each week; in
internal discussions, however, he was always adamantly clear that we
would win without a shadow of a doubt. Strangely, as the game with
Florida State approached, the message to the media and the team was
fairly similar – Florida State was faster and more athletic than we
were. We wondered why he felt the need to remind us of this fact so
frequently. But as we continued through our daily practice schedule it
slowly became clear that it was Florida State’s speed and athleticism
that would eventually be their downfall. The new offensive schemes for
FSU were based on misdirection and cutbacks – “let their whole team
swarm to the ball and over pursue, then we’ll go the other way.” Our
offensive linemen had dark visors added to their helmets to give them
an advantage on eyeing angles and gaps without being noticed – even the
slightest advantage would equate to a magnitude of success. Slowly we
began to see the total picture of the plan – and we now believed we
could win.

Coach Holtz often repeated the phrase “games are won on Monday through
Friday, not on Saturday.” He was an avid believer that “you practice
like you play.” He demanded focus and perfection every day, on every
play. Unfortunately, the Wednesday before the Florida State game was a
practice that, if translated into game execution, would have resulted
in an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. For some reason our timing
was off – the execution of the new strategy was simply not there.
Coaches were frustrated and the confidence that we were beginning to
build was turning into doubt.

Suddenly, the legendary offensive
line coach, Joe Moore — as old-school and rugged a football coach as
there ever was — lost his cool. He had had enough of misdirection and
cutbacks – he was tired of the thought of playing Florida State
football in order to beat Florida State. Yes, there would be the time
and place to employ this strategy in order to keep them off-balance,
but he believed that the best way to beat Florida State football was to
play Notre Dame football. In the middle of practice Coach Moore huddled
with Coach Holtz…and then exploded. “Get
me the managers! Get these f*cking visors off these f*cking helmets! We
don’t need this bullsh*t! We’re going to look them right in the eye,
tell them where we’re running the ball, and kick their f*cking asses
all over the f*cking field!”

** snip **

The team went through the usual post-rally schedule: returning to the
Loftus Center for a team meeting and then into our relaxation routine.
Our team meetings on Friday night were more administrative than
anything, covering logistics for the weekend and so forth.
Additionally, we would always watch a short film comprised of
highlights from the previous week’s game and highlights from the
previous year’s game vs. the upcoming opponent. However, with no game
over the bye week and having not played Florida State in several years,
there really wasn’t anything to show. At least that’s what we thought.

Instead
of a game film, Coach Holtz had arranged to show highlights of the 1988
Miami game. As music pumped through the speakers and highlights of
Zorich, Stonebreaker, Rice and Rocket filled the screen, we began
cheering for the players whose performance influenced us to join ND in
the first place. We started to think about the magnitude of the event
at hand. We began to realize that we were about to write another
chapter in the history books. Then, the music stopped, the screen went
blank, and a picture of the 1988 National Championship Ring went up…
and the team went crazy! The sounds of the pep rally were silent
compared to the uproar that filled the meeting room at Loftus – it was
literally an out-of-body experience.


Weis and his coaching staff already told us a stress on fundamentals was at the forefront of practice last week. You’ve also got to believe that Weis has had his team thinking about the Trojans since the moment the Irish squeaked their way past Washington two weeks ago, and probably spent parts of the past few weeks game-planning and preparing for this mid-October date with their rivals.

It was the truth 16 years ago, as it is truth today: This Saturday’s football game will be predicated on many of the same things that resulted in the Irish winning the game of the century.

As was designed, the game would be about execution, Holtz said. Florida State could not win
if we executed the game plan. It was simple: hit them in the mouth and
get them on their heels, then we’ll work misdirection, and they will be lost.
Holtz then talked about what the media believes, what the critics
believe — and how none of that matters. Inside these walls and inside
your hearts was a belief that victory was imminent. Then he said: “Let
there be no doubt… this sucker doesn’t have to be close!” And with
that, we stormed out of the locker room.

Well, we all know what happened on that unseasonably warm November
Saturday. It was a great game against two pretty evenly-matched, albeit
very different teams. This “Game of the Century” definitely delivered
on the hype. The game, though, was not won simply on Saturday. The
foundation had been laid by Coach Holtz over the previous two weeks: a
skillful balance of gameplanning and emotional management that made us
believe we could beat the #1 team in the country. Notre Dame catapulted
to the top of the college football world on that Saturday, but the game
had been won long before kickoff.

The Irish don’t have nearly as daunting of a challenge ahead of them as the 1993 squad did. But the mindset will need to be the same if the Irish walk out of Notre Dame Stadium next Saturday victorious.

(Special thanks to the guys at BGS for the great source material…) 

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.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.