The art of information

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(Posting is going to be a little sporadic the next few days. I’ll do my best to keep everybody updated if anything big happens, but most likely things will be quiet here on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, as I’ll be in a semi-remote part of the great state of Minnesota that doesn’t tend to agree with the internet. Either way, Happy holidays.)

Brian Kelly’s decision to meet with the media yesterday — two different sessions, one with print writers, the other with internet reporters — was a strategic move that truly showed that the new Notre Dame head coach understands the flow of information and how important the media is to his job as the head coach of Notre Dame. While Charlie Weis was always candid in his media sessions, there was always an adversarial relationship with Weis and working members of the media. Whether it was ESPN or a local reporter, it seemed like there were guys that Weis didn’t like, and guys that didn’t like Weis. That’s not a good thing for a coach, especially when you have a team so susceptible to mood swings like those of the Weis regime. 

During Kelly’s session with the internet writers, the role of subscription websites came up (Rivals, Scout, etc.). Here’s what Kelly had to say on the subject:

“You guys have a job to do, but you also represent the interests of Notre Dame with your subscription members. I would think, and maybe I’m wrong, a lot of them are Notre Dame supporters. My expectations would be that you would want to provide content that allows your subscribers to continue to subscribe.

“We can give you access and allow you to do some things that other people can’t do. Whether it be the Tribune or the Chicago papers, it really just depends on how we want to lay the ground rules down to be quite honest with you.

“If you want access to players, if you want access to players, if you like to do things that others can’t do then we’re going to carve that out. We can treat you like the newspaper journalist or you could get some access that others can’t get. I think we’ll have to sit down and our next time we get together after this will be, ‘What’s the rules of engagement? How do we do this?’ I can tell you how we did [it] at Cincinnati. When I got there no one [cared] about Cincinnati football. So we were just happy as heck to have anybody write something about us. So it was like, ‘Come on. You can stand on the sideline with me. You can call a play.’

“At the end of the day, we want to win. You want Notre Dame to win. If Notre Dame wins and it’s positive, you get more people. Again, Brian [Hardin] will probably lead that kind of initiative because we haven’t even crafted it yet. I just wanted to meet you guys and give you guys some access and talk about some of the things that were on the agenda for where we are. We’ll have to sit down and say ‘Okay, here’s how we’re going to do this stuff.’ Then maybe you guys after this conversation can kind of communicate your wants, desires, concerns. Then we can craft back some of those things.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I agree with Kelly’s approach to these subscription websites. For many, this is the source material for their impressions of the Notre Dame football team. The information they find out about recruiting, about player development, the daily source for “insider” scoop, these websites funnel information to websites like ND Nation, where thousands more get their information, and eventually, the collective decides whether or not they like the direction the Notre Dame football program is going. For Kelly to reach out and understand that sites like Tim Prister’s and Mike Frank’s are different than the stuff you’ll find on Brian Hamilton’s blog at the Chicago Tribune is essential to understanding what makes the media tick.

Charlie Weis acknowledged that this separation existed when he hand-picked certain writers for his infamous final interview. But the fact that Weis’ message was lost when he stupidly felt comfortable to talk about a sleepy beach community that kicked Lebowski to the curb underscored the fact that Charlie never figured out how to use the media.

Using the media doesn’t mean exploiting the media. But it does mean understanding the job that all of us working to cover the team have to do. Notre Dame built its tradition on the back of unrivaled media coverage that turned Notre Dame into America’s college football program. While it’s silly to argue that Notre Dame still has the same stranglehold on the national headlines that it did back in the days of Rockne (or even Parseghian), it’s just as naive to think that Notre Dame doesn’t need to be proactive when cultivating it’s imagine in an era that finds just as many people in the media resenting Notre Dame’s ubiquitous position.

While Kelly has yet to do anything that has do to with actually playing football, yesterday’s interviews continue to show that he has a masterful ability to focus on the minute details. If those skills translate to the football field (and they have in his past two stops at the D-I level),  Irish fans will be incredibly happy next fall.  

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.