Stepping up… The defensive line

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As the Irish prepare to shift philosophies back to a 3-4 defense, no position seems better equipped for the change than the defensive line. With Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams, and Ethan Johnson, the Irish have three returning starters that played significant minutes, and also fit the physical dimensions needed to play in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s system. With Lewis-Moore and Johnson in their third year of college football and Williams entering his senior year, all three will have had sufficient developmental time physically to make a difference.

More interestingly, defensive line coach Mike Elston will also have a few more weapons at his disposal than any other position coach. Players like Darius Fleming may not be a perfect fit, but he has a skill-set that could greatly benefit the defense if used properly. The change in system could also help a guy like Kerry Neal, who has yet to reach the potential many believe he has. 

Returning starters doesn’t necessarily correlate with results, and after last season’s disappointing play in the secondary, nobody can be sure what the widespread system change and returning minutes will bring. Let’s take a closer look at who’s moving on, who’s staying put, and more importantly, who’s stepping up.

KEY LOSSES:

The majority of minutes lost by the defensive line come with the departure of defensive end John Ryan. Ryan logged the fifth most minutes of any defensive lineman, so it isn’t a devastating loss by any stretch of the imagination. The St. Ignatius graduate never truly fit into the Irish defensive system, lacking the explosiveness to be an effective 4-3 edge rusher and lacking the mass to play a 3-4 defensive end. Ryan saw the field as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, logging 36 minutes of playing time and costing himself a much needed redshirt year of development. Morrice Richardson also graduates after playing only eight minutes this season, four years after stepping onto campus as a highly sought-after recruit.

RETURNING STARTERS:

The Irish defense returns more starters than positions. The key will be finding a role for all of them. Inside, the Irish can rely on Ian Williams to anchor the 3-4. Williams has the size and frame necessary to play the nose, and for the Irish front to be better than average, will need Williams to make “the leap” during his final season with the Irish. The future is also now for junior Ethan Johnson. Johnson was an all-everything recruit for Charlie Weis, but has yet to truly be the difference maker colleges all across the country throught he’d become. Johnson never truly fit as an interior defensive lineman, but also lacked the quickness off the edge, so the transition to the 3-4, along with nine months in Paul Longo’s strength program, should have him ready to make good on his potential. Kapron Lewis-Moore also returns for a second season starting at defensive end. KLM surprised people when he went from a redshirt season to the starting lineup, but the previous coaching staff properly identified Lewis-Moore as a guy with a very high ceiling, and he’ll only get better with experience. Darius Fleming also returns as a starter without a position. It’ll be interesting to see what Elston, Diaco and Kelly chose to do with Fleming, who might be the best pure pass-rusher on the team, but also lacks the size of a prototype defensive end or outside linebacker in the new defensive system.

STEPPING UP:

Competition is going to be steep this fall for the defensive front, as only Ian Williams has truly solidified himself as an unquestionable starter among the returning players. Johnson has little in terms of production on Sean Cwynar, who impressed as an undersized 4-3 defensive tackle with his ability to disrupt. On the other side, the choice between Lewis-Moore or Fleming could all come down to individual game plans. Either way, with the new coaching staff’s offensive philosophy of throwing the time-of-possession battle out the window, the Irish will need to develop depth at every spot along the front-line. Here are a few guys that need to make a move this Spring:

The Entire First String: Yeah, it’s a cop-out, but each one of these guys needs to take things to the next level. Williams needs to play to the potential he showed as a scrappy, underdeveloped freshman. Johnson needs to show everyone why he was the most coveted recruit on the West Coast. He disappeared far too often last season. Lewis-Moore needs to take his impressive physical presence and turn it into some impressive on-field production. Darius Fleming has to prove to the coaching staff that he’s too dangerous of a player to keep off the field.

Kerry Neal: Neal was identified early by Bill Lewis and the former coaching staff as a guy that would develop into an elite prospect, and once the recruiting process was over, the staffs at Alabama, Miami, and a ton of other big time schools agreed. Neal played in every game during his freshman year, getting thrown into the fire immediately. With two sacks or less in his first three seasons, Neal hasn’t developed into the threat off the edge that many hoped, but watching him play this season, there were still flashes of the player many hope will develop in this new scheme. It’s up to Neal to make his senior season count.

Tyler Stockton: While Stockton redshirted during his freshman season, expect him to get every chance to get in the rotation with Williams at defensive tackle. People forget just how promising of a prospect this guy was; ESPN had him rated as the third best defensive tackle in the country. We many not know much about Stockton now, but expect to hear a lot from him this season.

Dark Horses: By the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sean Cwynar in the starting lineup. Brian Kelly recruited Brandon Newman while he was at Cincinnati, so he likely sees promise in the defensive tackle prospect as well. Hafis Williams could also be a guy that get in the rotation. With the lack of depth at defensive end, expect a guy like Justin Utupo or Kona Schwenke to get a chance to see the field as a freshman. 

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.

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.