Onward to Stanford

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I’ve been as guilty as anyone these last two weeks looking past the actual football games to the juicy subplots that seem to have taken over the month of November. But today the Irish board a plane for Palo Alto where a Saturday night date with the Stanford Cardinal awaits. And if there was anything this team needed, it was an actual football game, somewhere to take the season’s frustrations out on an able opponent. 

Vegas has Stanford favored by ten points against Charlie Weis’ Irish squad, and that number is kind of mystifying, but signifies the dead in the water feeling many have for this football team. That point spread also has a lot to do with the respect the national media gives Jim Harbaugh and this Stanford team, who up until last week’s upset loss to Cal, looked to be the hottest team in the country.

What can we expect from the Cardinal? Well, we all know about Toby Gerhart. The bruising running back has catapulted his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation and is second in the country in rushing yards and leads the entire country in scoring (23 touchdowns, 2 two-point conversions). We’ve also seen redshirt freshman Andrew Luck blossom, playing efficient football and showing a dangerous mobility that will likely haunt the Irish defense. The Stanford Cardinal that throttled USC did so behind 325 rushing yards, 73 percent efficiency on third down, and absolutely stepping on the throats of the Trojans in the fourth quarter, running up 27 points on Pete Carroll’s squad in what was questionable, but definitely understandable, sportsmanship.

So how do we explain the four Stanford losses? The early season loss to a four-win Wake Forest, where Stanford blew a 17-3 halftime lead? Or Jacquizz Rodgers putting up 271 combo yards and scoring four touchdowns in a ten point Pac-10 track meet loss that looked much closer than it actually was? How about blowing a 28-13 lead and giving up 415 yards passing to Arizona quarterback Nick Foles while losing another high scoring affair 43-38 to the Wildcats? Then, after beating Oregon and USC, hemorrhaging  477 yards of offense to Cal, including 193 on the ground to backup tailback Shane Vereen, and losing the biggest game of the season 34-28.

Even amidst all the distractions, I’m not one to count the Irish out, and I’m certainly not one to think that the Irish should be ten point underdogs, especially since they’ve played every game this season to within a touchdown. The biggest reason I think the Irish will compete is the Stanford defense. It’s mediocre.

Deep in the lower tier of total defense rankings is Stanford, notching in a slot below the disappointing Irish defense at 81st. Even worse, they’re ranked 97th against the pass, giving up a woeful 244 yards per game. Even more surprising is their inability to force turnovers. Even including turnover heavy games against USC (four) and Washington (three), Stanford has only forced 14 turnovers, good for 101st in the nation. Even more horrific is the Cardinal red zone defense, which should be a suitable tonic for Notre Dame’s own deficiencies inside the twenty. Stanford ranks 115th in red zone defense, allowing their opponent to score 89 percent of the time, with a touchdown registering at 62 percent. If you’re looking for a reason why Stanford isn’t an elite football team, it’s because the defense has been letting them down. (Sound familiar?)

Most have the Irish dead and buried, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see a care-free Irish team looking to make a statement against a team that’s probably getting far more respect than they deserve. While Gerhart has been getting it done on the ground, his 1568 rushing and receiving yards are only 102 yards better than Golden Tate’s 1466 combination yards, and that doesn’t take special teams yardage, or the fact that Golden is doing it on a fraction of the touches.

Whatever the outcome, it’ll be good to get back to talking about football, instead of all the action that’s taking place far from the sidelines.   

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.

 

 

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.”