Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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The end is here.

Even with the usual heroics from Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen, and Michael Floyd, a punishing performance by Robert Hughes, and 448 yards of offense, the Irish lose to Stanford. Like many teams before them, the Irish failed to contain Toby Gerhart, who ran for 205 yards on 29 carries for three touchdowns, even adding a touchdown pass of his own.

Even when Jack Swarbrick did his best to refute speculation this evening, reports are coming fast and furious that a decision has already been made on Charlie Weis’ future. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reports that Weis has already cleaned out his office and the next few days will be full or rumors, speculation and hearsay, as reporters race to confirm the official ouster of Charlie Weis.

Here’s what we learned tonight:

1) Notre Dame’s defense cost the Irish this season.

When Robert Hughes was stuffed on a 3rd and short, you could feel the game slipping away from the Irish. The second half started to feel like a tennis match between two power servers, and when the Cardinal broke the Irish offense’s serve, it was a foregone conclusion that Stanford was going to score.

You don’t need stats to back up an argument that Notre Dame’s defense was terrible this season. They struggled in every segment of the game, a toxic mix of an inability to get pressure with down linemen and linebackers unable to stuff the run. Notre Dame’s secondary missed David Bruton’s ball-hawking presence, and for all the credit Kyle McCarthy deserved got this season, he’s a poor Cover 2 safety.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Weis’ demise was his inability to recruit front seven players early. The heralded recruiting class of 2006 had zero impact players, and Notre Dame seemed to stockpile tweener defensive ends in hopes that they’d become Justin Tuck. Morrice Richardson, Kerry Neal and Kallen Wade never developed, and players like John Ryan never became more than marginal reserves.

Weis’ inability to find a suitable defensive coordinator will be the number one reason why he loses his job, and his gamble to bring in Jon Tenuta, a well-respected defensive coach was the one that likely cost him the most. It would’ve been interesting to see what this Notre Dame defense would’ve looked like in a 3-4 base, utilizing the plethora of edge-type players that Notre Dame seems to have, and also giving the defense a better chance to hide their blitzes, something the Irish never did very well this season.

2) Golden Tate is a transcendent player.

Tate went for 205 yards tonight, pushing his receiving yards to an even 1,500 for the season on 93 catches. He’s scored 14 touchdowns in the final 8 games. Those are MONSTER numbers. People that fancy themselves technicians are eager to pick on Tate for some inexact routes and a few head scratching decisions, but why can’t we all just appreciate the incredible season that #23 has had? I understand that the Heisman has now become college football’s version of the MVP, but what does a .500 record have to do with a player’s greatness?

Tonight, ESPN’s announcing team was hellbent on recognizing Toby Gerhart as a legitimate Heisman contender, yet never seemed to mention the wide receiver that matched Gerhart’s numbers on the opposite sideline, doing it in a fraction of the touches from a position that’s much harder to make an impact. In a season where no single player stood alone, I’ve got no idea why Golden Tate isn’t getting more respect from the national media, even if it’s for a .500 team. If Notre Dame pulled that game out tonight, what’s the difference between a five loss Stanford squad and a five loss Notre Dame team?

3) Jack Swarbrick will certainly earn his salary this week.

A friend of mine with very good sources heard from two people in positions to know that both Bob Stoops and Brian Kelly were done deals. That two people with connections deep inside Notre Dame’s athletic department had such conflicting news goes to show you that Swarbrick is truly the man pulling the strings in the athletic department.

We can only take Swarbrick at his word that no decision has been made and no coach has been contacted, but I’d be shocked if a new coach isn’t announced within the week if Weis is out as head coach. The differences between Swarbrick and his predecessor Kevin White are startling, and Notre Dame fans should feel good about the man in charge of the university’s athletics.

4) The Irish football program is at a tipping point.

The decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will determine the fate of the Notre Dame football program. If Charlie Weis is fired, Jimmy Clausen is as good as gone. If Clausen goes, Golden Tate likely follows. Even with weapons like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Armando Allen, the Notre Dame program could look vastly different with a new coach roaming the sidelines. Add to that equation that the new coach will be running spring practice without Dayne Crist and no true backup quarterback, and spring installation will likely be limited as well.

Nobody knows for sure the thought process of Clausen or Tate, but they’re two players that are fiercely loyal to Charlie Weis. No player is bigger than a football program, especially one as storied as Notre Dame, but the decisions made off the field in the coming weeks, could greatly determine what happens for the next few seasons.

5) Charlie Weis is a great ambassador for Notre Dame.

Whether he’s the coach of Notre Dame’s football program for another season or another week, Charlie Weis was a true ambassador to the school. As Jack Swarbrick mentioned during his interview with the New York Times, the difference between perception and reality for Weis is stark. No coach has taken a larger beating these past few seasons than Weis, and it’s a puzzling dichotomy that has turned Weis into such a polarizing figure.

Watching ESPN’s GameDay this morning, I was touched by the story of Pete Carroll and young Jake Olson. It’s an uplifting story that shows us how important college football is to many of us, and how important Carroll and the Trojans are to a boy fighting insurmountable odds.

After watching that story, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had in the press box during the USC game. I chatted with a national reporter that had covered college football for years. Her image of Charlie Weis and Pete Carroll, two coaches that both do incredible work in the community outside of football, was so divergent.

I can’t help but think that Notre Dame needs to do a better job letting people see the true head coach. With a school that so obviously understands branding and tradition, they failed Weis for five seasons, allowing him to be a punching bag in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, and rarely letting people get a glimpse of the great humanitarian that has run the football program the right way.

Just looking at the media relations team that USC has put together around Pete Carroll — whether it’s his official website, the cutting edge Heisman campaigns for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, or the incredibly visible work Carroll does with “A Better LA” and his other charitable work, USC has created an image that promotes its coach and his beliefs.

While Notre Dame has made great strides in the past few years and the Sports Information department is filled with true professionals, they’ve struggled to fight a very real battle with negativity that’s b
eing waged in the media, on
the recruiting path, and in the collective psyches’ of college football fans. Whether you want to believe it or not, that negativity is a large reason why the football program is on shaky ground.
 
If Charlie Weis loses his job this week, he surely has these last three seasons of mediocre football to blame. But if Notre Dame ever wants to truly win again, it’ll need to be as proactive protecting and managing its head coach as it is with its heralded tradition. 

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.