Uncommitted recruits still hold key to class

7 Comments

As we approach the home stretch of the recruiting calendar, Brian Kelly’s first class could hinge on the decision of four key recruits. While Kelly and his staff are likely to continue reaching out to both familiar names and wild cards, the balance of Notre Dame’s recruiting class still hinges on reeling in any of these four players.

MATT JAMES

While Seantrel Henderson may be the apple of many Irish fans’ eye, getting James seems to be a more realistic goal, and hardly a consolation prize. With Florida now out of the equation, James is down to Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Cincinnati. You would think that the Bearcats inclusion in James’ finalists was because of a coaching staff that mostly migrated to South Bend, and if Kelly is any type of salesman he can sway the gigantic tackle prospect to the virtues of Notre Dame over the upstart Cincy program. There have been reports that the Buckeyes actually have the lead for the St. Xavier star, but interestingly enough, James’ decision could hinge on Henderson’s choice, as it’s been widely reported that the St. Paul native has Ohio State as a front-runner as well. If James has aspirations to stay at left tackle, he may very well wait to hear where Henderson goes before deciding on a program. But there’s a realistic shot that either the Buckeyes or the Irish could land both these blue-chippers. It’d be a terrifying site for opponents to see James and Henderson on opposite sides of the offensive line. It’d also be a dream for Kelly and his staff if it’s in an Irish uniform.

SEANTREL HENDERSON

Henderson’s recruitment is a complete mystery with the exodus of Pete Carroll. Many reports had Henderson and his family ready to move west and join a Trojan program that would groom the St. Paul native for the NFL. While Carroll’s departure pushed the Trojans back into line with Henderson’s other suitors, don’t discount the recruiting acumen of new coach Lane Kiffin and his ace-in-the-hole Ed Orgeron. It’d also be foolish to discount Jim Tressel, who has been a favorite of the Henderson family since the beginning of this process during Henderson’s freshman season. Cretin-Derham Hall has sent Rashon Powers-Neal, Marcus Freeman, Matt Carufel, and now Michael Floyd to Notre Dame, and a pipeline of Minnesota talent has flowed into the Irish program. That could either help or hurt Henderson, who could fall in line with a friend like Floyd, or chose to chart his own path. What Henderson decides to do on Signing Day could determine the fate of any program he choses, as he’s a rare breed that is hulking physical specimen that’s ready to step onto campus as a true freshman and compete for a left tackle job. 

DIETRICH RILEY

For the past few seasons, the Irish seemed to have a back-log of capable safety prospects, but now suddenly find themselves with a real question mark along the back-line of defense. Kyle McCarthy is gone, and Harrison Smith is a gigantic question mark after last season’s struggle transitioning to safety. As our friends at BGS mentioned, the Irish only return two-percent of their playing time at safety (if Smith is no longer a candidate to return to the defensive backfield) with Zeke Motta and Leonard Gordon leading the charge with only a bakers’ dozen of minutes played between them. Chris Badger is already on campus and working out with the team, but the Irish could use a player like Riley — an athletic roving safety that has the jets needed to cover ground in center field. The Irish felt good about their chances with Riley when Weis and his staff were still in charge. Now news comes that Riley has visited UCLA the past two weekends — his first an official visit, and last weekend unofficially — and the next two weekends will have Riley at LSU and USC respectively. Riley said he had Southern Cal as his leader before Pete Carroll left, but now claims that he’s starting over. For the Irish to have a chance, Kelly and his staff with have to wow Riley during their in-home visit, which is scheduled for this Wednesday. Riley’s high school — St. Francis in La Canada, California — has sent plenty of kids to Notre Dame for college and has a strong Catholic background. Whether that helps convince Riley that South Bend is the place for him, we’ll soon find out.

ANTHONY BARR

Barr is precisely the kind of athlete that Kelly prides himself on building his program around. Barr projects at a variety of positions, but recently made it known that he’d like to be considered as a safety, which works perfectly for the Irish depth chart. Over the weekend, there were rumors that Barr committed to UCLA, but those have been refuted. Still, Rick Neuheisel and staff made quite an impression on a recruit that has Irish blue and gold in his DNA. I’m incredibly high on Barr as a recruit and potential star in college, and he looks exactly like the long, lean, and cat-quick athlete that Notre Dame needs to bring into the fold. The fact that both his mother and father have strong ties to the program should help negate the fact that Kelly was late to the recruiting party. It’ll be an interesting few weeks for Barr, and the Irish coaching staff should pull every rabbit out of the hat to convince Barr he’s best suited to follow his father’s footsteps and play for the Irish. 

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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)
3 Comments

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. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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)
11 Comments

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.