Thursday notes: Independence, pipelines, and buy-outs

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As they often do, SportsCenter jumped on the Notre Dame / Independence story a few days late and contributed little to the discussion, with only Brian Kelly’s most recent quote — something he’s said consistently for weeks — being the main bit.

“From my standpoint, being the head football coach of Notre Dame, there’s nothing better than being an independent football school,” Kelly said at the Moose Krause scholarship dinner. “I know you’re hearing all these rumors about the Big Ten and all these other things, but let me tell you one thing, the tradition of Notre Dame football is steeped in that independence.”

I’m not sure what it is about Notre Dame that makes people frame an argument with “facts” that are really disputed assumptions, but it continues to happen, in large part to fan the flames of the juiciest and most prominent off-season story of the year.

Yesterday, SI.com’s Andy Staples, one of the best guys covering the sport, once again trumpeted the often repeated, though never confirmed $20-$22 million figure for Big Ten school’s TV revenues, at least hedging a bit by calling the number a cumulative figure including bowl and NCAA tournament revenue. Yet every time people seem to mention Notre Dame’s revenues, they stick to the (again estimated) $15 million that Notre Dame gets from NBC for seven or eight home football games. Never a mention to the approximate $2 million earned for Big East basketball, in addition to the revenue the Irish earn for their other five football games, not to mention a guaranteed BCS payout.

At this point, it’s pretty clear Notre Dame is standing firm unless Jim Delany and the Big Ten try to destroy the Big East, but that’s a pretty big decision to make based only on financial gain for the conference, especially when everyone would make mountains more money with the implementation of a college football playoff. Don’t be surprised if the real repercussions from all this Cold War rhetoric will be a new postseason system, as we’ve found out that dollars and cents, not tradition, rule this discussion.

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Staying on the topic of much discussed financials, Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune pulled up the university’s tax records and got to the bottom of what Charlie Weis was actually making to coach the Fighting Irish. As Weis said at the end of his tenure, there was quite a discrepancy between speculation and reality.

For the 2008 school year, Weis earned a total of $2,927,090 in total compensation. Notre Dame payed Weis $649,090 for his base salary, Adidas paid $850,000, and Play By Play Sports (formerly Notre Dame Sports Properties) paid $1,303,000, making about 3/4th of Weis’ income coming from outside the universities’ bank accounts.

Three million dollars is hardly chump change, but it’s nowhere near the four and five million dollar numbers being lobbed around between pundits when discussing Weis’ achievements. More interesting than any of that, Weis was the second highest paid football coach on Notre Dame’s ledger. Tyrone Willingham, who hadn’t coached a game for the Irish since 2004, received $650,000 salary from the university, as part of the buy-out that came with his controversial ouster after only three seasons on top.

As the years pass, we’ll likely find out more about the buy-out paid to Weis on the last five years of his Kevin White negotiated contract. I’m guessing it’s nowhere near the amount many guessed. 

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Friend of the blog Bruce Feldman has a nice piece on his blog about pipeline schools into college football, with the focus on Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, home of center Dan Wenger, former tackle Sam Young, punter Ben Turk, and snapper Jordan Cowart. Head coach Jay Connolly has produced so many D-I offensive lineman that he’s lost count.

“Maybe 30? 35?” He guessed, when talking with Feldman.

More from Bruce:

Connolly attributes the Aquinas O-line factory to a few key factors,
starting with a good strength and conditioning program. “Over the years,
we have a good offseason program that has really gotten better,” he
said. “Our strength coach, Rob Biasotti, does a great job. We try to
build the whole core athlete and keep ’em flexible. Then, a lot of it is
working on footwork and hand placement and reading defenses.”

Connolly and the Aquinas staff have spent years going to coaching
clinics and picking the brains of the recruiters who have made visits to
the Florida powerhouse. It also doesn’t hurt to have an imposing group
of athletes to groom.

“I take a lot of kids that look more like basketball players then
offensive linemen,” he said. “They sort of grow into the position. They
all have good feet and good hands. They’re coachable kids and smart
kids. That’s a big part of it.”

Aquinas is a private school, but Connolly says he’s not out recruiting
all these future college linemen. “We don’t go hunting for kids. Kids
come to us,” he said, adding that Datko, Johnson, recent Dallas Cowboys
draft pick Sam Young (a four-year starter at Notre Dame), Wenger and
Gilbert, along with his two most recent standouts, Jermaine Barton and
Brandon Linder, were all at Aquinas for four years.

Feldman mentioned that Notre Dame and a slew of other schools were in town making the rounds, likely looking at 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman Bobby Hart. For assistant Tony Alford, keeping the Aquinas pipeline to Notre Dame open will be imperative, and Alford’s probably the best guy on staff for keeping that open. 

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Finally, Brian Kelly addressed the arrest of Mike Ragone for speeding/marijuana possession on the Indiana Toll Road.

“It’s a serious matter, obviously,” Kelly said.”It has to take its course, so I’m not prepared to talk in depth about it. I’ve talked to Mike. I’m still trying to put together all the facts. I think a lot of this is something we’ll be able to talk about in more detail a little bit later, but right now it’s too early to have any definitive comments.”

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.