What just happened? A recruiting recap

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Barring a miracle, the Irish look to have finalized their recruiting class, with 23 recruits joining the 2010 recruiting class.

If you weren’t up and following things from 7:00 AM EST on (or 4:00 AM for us unlucky saps that live on the West Coast), here’s a quick rundown of how the morning went.

The Early Shift:

The first faxes came in just around the 7:00 o’clock hour. Defensive lineman Bruce Heggie from Florida, QB Luke Massa from Cincinnati, and offensive lineman Tate Nichols from Kentucky were the first batch in, with Kentucky wide receiver Austin Collinsworth, Derek Roback, the athlete from Ohio, as well as Ohio quarterback Andrew Hendrix joining the party.

Before the first hour was over, three more names came rolling in with North Carolina linebacker Prince Shembo, wide receiver and South Bend native Daniel Smith, and Ohio tight end Alex Welch. Shembo’s fax was especially nice to hear for Irish fans, as he had wavered a bit when Charlie Weis was fired.

Those nine combined with the already enrolled freshman defensive backs Chris Badger from Utah, Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood of Florida, Illinois quarterback Tommy Rees and Georgia wideout Tai-ler Jones.

Sixteen members down, in just the opening minutes of the morning

The Excellent UND.com Coverage:

For those of us that were watching UND.com, we also got our first look at the early enrollee freshman, who broke into offensive and defensive groups to do interviews with UND’s Jack Nolan. It was fun to see players for the first time as sleepy college students, dressed like every other varsity athlete in baggy issue-gear, doing their best to balance school, lifting, and sleep, not to mention the fish-out-of-water experience of moving into a dorm at mid-term and jump starting their college career.

It was also a nice touch adding in interviews with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o, two high-profile players that had pretty memorable Signing Day experiences.

Brian Kelly sat down for an early check-in with Jack, and his background in politics was immediately recognizable.

“The early returns are in and we’re pulling our base,” Kelly said. “The Cincinnati area guys — Luke Massa, Tate Nichols, Andrew Hendrix, Austin Collinsworth, Alex Welch. Now we’re starting to get some of the other guys from other areas, like Prince Shembo. I think we’ve done well early in the process with guys we think can contribute to what we’re going to be doing.”

Matt James Lands at Notre Dame:

The biggest news of the day for the Irish was the signing of Matt James. James had come down to Ohio State and Notre Dame, and apparently chose the Irish last night before faxing in his paper work just after 9:00 AM. He gives the Irish a true left tackle, something that’s plagued the Irish for the last few years.

But before the James announcement, the Irish received faxes from Illinois lineman Christian Lombard, New Jersey wide receiver Bennett Jackson, and Florida defensive tackle Louis Nix. Lombard has been committed to the Irish for a long time, and is far from an afterthought in offensive line recruiting, even though James’ decision stole the show. Jackson also looks like he’ll be a player that’ll bring quickness and speed to the offense, and could do very well in the slot of Brian Kelly’s spread.

And beside James, Louis Nix’s signature is one that should make Irish fans the happiest. Any commit that makes a decision to come to Notre Dame without knowing the head coach is truly picking a school for the right reasons, and should be a fan favorite. 

Following up the James announcement, linebacker Kendall Moore’s fax arrived at a quarter past nine. He’s another big time defensive recruit that has the ability to play both inside and outside linebacker. Another blue-chip athlete, this one recruited only by Brian Kelly and his staff joins the fray, with Danny Spond of Littleton, Colorado officially signing with the Irish. Spond was widely recognized as the best athlete playing high school football in Colorado.

The West Coast Faxes arrive:

Two California commitments sent their letters-of-intent into The Gug. Linebacker Justin Utupo, an All-State defensive lineman as a high schooler that was also named Lineman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times sent his fax in around 7:30 Pacific time. Running back Cameron Roberson sent his fax around an hour later, the powerful ball-carrier now the sole running back prospect with Giovanni Bernard deciding to go to North Carolina instead of the Irish.

Irish running back coach Tim Hinton sat down with Jack Nolan and got visibly excited when talking about Roberson. Also sitting down with Nolan were defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who once again broke down the intricacies of the 3-4 defense, as well as offensive line coach Ed Warinner, outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin. Each one of them was a polar opposite from former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who certainly wouldn’t win a Mr. Sunshine pageant.

Finally, the Irish received a fax from defensive lineman Kona Schwenke of Hawaii, who became the 23rd recruit and 18th signee from today. Schwenke was a first-team All-State selection that already stands 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds, which gives him plenty of frame to grow into.

The Ones That Got Away:

It wasn’t all good news for the Irish, as some high profile targets decided to go elsewhere. Elite linebacker Christian Jones chose Florida State over Notre Dame live on ESPN, and after looking at the reaction of his father, it was clear that the elder was rooting for his son to play football for the Seminoles, his alma mater.

Likewise Ego Ferguson chose LSU on television, picking the Tigers over the Irish and a few other finalists, to the delight of his family and friends, a few of them dressed with his name printed across their chest.

Illinois safety Corey Cooper chose Nebraska over the Irish and a few other teams, but there were reports that after Charlie Weis was fired, Cooper cooled on the Irish and the new coaching staff cooled on him.

As it stands, the Irish are waiting on safety Dietrich Riley and lineman Seantrel Henderson, two recruits that still consider the Irish as finalists, but don’t realistically have a shot.

All in all, a successful day for Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program. There were no defections on Signing Day, and the Irish were able to nab the top recruit on their board, signing Matt James away from the home state Buckeyes. 

 

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.