The return of Mr. Floyd

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(THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED…)

With Charlie Weis delivering the official news today at his press conference, Michael Floyd is now officially cleared to return for the Irish offense. Let’s take a look at the return of the sophomore receiver and what it means to the Irish offense.

While Golden Tate has been building up his Heisman Trophy resume, Michael Floyd has been healing his broken clavicle. Saturday’s game against Navy will represent seven full weeks the gifted sophomore has rested after his collarbone broke against Michigan State. In the two-plus games that Floyd did play, the results were pretty much transcendent.

Floyd’s 2009 season started with astonishing efficiency. He had four catches against Nevada, three of which he took to the end zone. Against Michigan, Floyd had his way with the Wolverines, and was only slowed by the pavement surrounding the playing field, which sunk a deep cut into Floyd’s leg and kept him off the field for the pivotal minutes of the game. While Floyd was out, Jimmy Clausen’s critical third down pass sailed past Floyd’s replacement, true freshman Shaq Evans, giving Michigan the chance it needed to defeat the Irish in the final seconds. Michael returned to action against Michigan State the next week, seemingly unharmed by the flesh wound and started off his afternoon with a bang, hauling in a touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen in the corner of the end zone and moving into a tie for 9th place in the Notre Dame record books with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown at 12 career TD receptions. Brown played 43 games in his Irish career. Floyd was playing in his thirteenth. Just minutes later, in the opposite end zone, Floyd came down with what looked like touchdown catch number 13, but a replay official somehow disagreed. While settling for a short field goal was disappointing, seeing Floyd scamper to the bench with his arm pinned to his chest was devastating.

Last year, Floyd missed the final three regular season games with a knee injury. The maturing Irish offense went 6-4 in the ten games that Floyd played during his true freshman season, averaging 285 yards in the air with him in the lineup. With Floyd out, the offense fell apart, it’s total yardage down a third and the passing yardage down to just 147 yards a game. While this  year’s offense was clearly better suited to replace Floyd, even if he was a much larger part of the offense, I had my worries.

I wrote this after the Michigan State game:

When Michael Floyd went down with a broken collarbone in the second
quarter, the Irish offense changed. With Floyd, the Irish are a dynamic
deep-strike offense, with a capable second receiver in Golden Tate and
an emerging star at tight end in Kyle Rudolph. Without Floyd, the Irish
rode the back of Armando Allen, relying on key third down conversions
from the Wildcat, or short throws to the remaining receivers. In a best
case scenario, Floyd will be back for the USC game, but a capable
second receiver needs to emerge. Duval Kamara seems to be the most
likely candidate, but we’ve yet to see any true results from the
promising start of Kamara’s career. With Floyd on the field, the Irish
can take shots down the field and open up the game with a wide array of
screen passes and runs. Without him, the Irish need to execute better
than the opposing defense, a task made more difficult with the sloppy
mental play we’ve seen thus far from the Irish. When the Irish take the
field next Saturday against Purdue, a capable second receiver must
emerge.

Golden Tate has done more than just emerge, forcing himself into the conversation for the nation’s best player. But for all the talk of the Irish offense not missing a beat, there’s been pretty good evidence that the offense has stagnated. In the red zone alone, the Irish conversion rate has plummeted. In the 10 red zone appearances the Irish made with Floyd, Notre Dame scored 7 touchdowns and kicked 2 field goals, converting 70 percent of their trips into touchdowns. In the 19 red zone appearances since Floyd was injured, the total conversion rate only dipped minimally from 90 to 84 percent, but the touchdown rate plummeted, falling from 70 down to 47 percent, dropping the Notre Dame offense to 75th in TD conversion rate.  (The 70 percent the Irish were averaging with Floyd would’ve been good for 20th.)

On a larger scale, the Irish’s total offense has also taken a hit without Floyd. While looking at yardage totals could skew the data even more, taking a look at Notre Dame’s offensive performance against the average performance of each defense does a good job comparing apples to apples. Notre Dame is gaining 91 yards more than what their opponents are giving up to the rest of their schedule. Yet to see the difference Floyd makes to the offense, note that in the games Floyd played, the Irish averaged a robust +126 yards over the average, while in the five games he missed they out-gained opponents at a more modest +68 yardage rate.

Some will argue that Floyd’s return against Navy might not be as important as getting him back and healthy for Pitt. Right now, the Irish are auditioning every week for voters and bowl representatives, and getting Floyd back in the swing of things against Navy makes a lot of sense, especially in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium.

Besides, assuming he’s gotten a clean bill of health, we’ve been robbed of seeing Floyd on the field for the past six weeks. The fan in me is ready to see the Irish’s most talented player get back on the field.

(Special thanks to the always incredible FunkDoctorSpock for some statistical help…)
 

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.