Assorted notes: Big Ten Champs, game in Denver, and June visits

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A few interesting notes from the last day or two as we push toward the summer.

While school is out, football players will report back to campus on June 7th for summer school, less than three weeks until incoming freshman and the 2010 football team get started with their summer workouts. According to some message board rumbling, offseason workouts have started even earlier for quarterback Dayne Crist, who is working out with Kyle Rudolph, Braxston Cave and Shaq Evans. They’ll be joined by Duval Kamara and Michael Floyd in the coming weeks before reporting to South Bend in early June.

(I’ll be reporting to camp around the same time, but more on that later…)

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Former Notre Dame defensive end Gene Smith has plenty to say about the Notre Dame to the Big Ten rumors. Smith is now the athletic director of Ohio State, where he’s openly pulling for Notre Dame to join the 11 teams already in the conference.

“For me, I just have to believe a Notre Dame football player winning a
conference championship and having that conference ring is a memorable
experience, and then chasing a national championship,” Smith said for the Big Ten meetings in Chicago earlier this week. “You
can do both. But when you only have one, I struggle.

“I would hope if they end up being one of the schools (invited), I hope they would consider what a conference championship means to a young person. I was blessed to be there when we were winning national championships. I won two — one as a coach, one as a player. The landscape has changed.” 

As much as I agree that the landscape in college football has changed, there’s little chance that playing for a conference championship ring would be the impetus for change. Especially in the Big Ten, which every year seems to have a distinct scheduling factor built into the formula. If the conference championship is so important, you’d think that Smith and the rest of the athletic directors would go the way of the Pac-10 and actually play for the championship.

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The Brian Kelly barnstorming tour was in Denver Tuesday night, where he spoke to a group of 500 from the alumni club, including Denver Broncos Ryan Harris, Brady Quinn and David Bruton. While Kelly hit all the standard notes, here’s an interesting bit from the piece.

Kelly arrives at Notre Dame during a time
of transition in college football. While conferences jockey for
position in the probable realignment game, Kelly staunchly stands behind
Notre Dame’s independent status.

He’s looking forward to playing Army at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 20 and
Navy in Ireland in 2012. He talked of starting series with Texas and
Florida, and a 2012 game against Miami at Chicago’s Soldier Field is
nearly finalized. He mentioned the Irish playing a potential
neutral-site game in Denver at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Kelly is reaching out to alumni on this spring barnstorming trip.
Denver was his estimated 25th stop and he started the day visiting an
alumni group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He will be in Fresno, Calif., today.

A neutral site game in Denver would be absolutely awesome, with Invesco Field at Mile High a perfect venue in a terrific football city. You’ve got to think a game against Colorado could be the perfect usage of those annual games and would be a great experience for all involved.

(Even more ridiculous, how about the fact that Kelly’s on stop 25 of his May tour? He’d make some political campaigns blush with his hard work.)

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A final note from the Big Ten meetings, where coaches lobbied the NCAA for June official visits.

This from Dave Birkett at AnnArbor.com:


The conference’s football coaches met Tuesday to discuss legislation they want to get
in front of the NCAA board of directors. One possibility? June official
visits.

“So many kids are taking unofficial visits right now and the cost
to families is astronomical trying to go see X amount of schools in
June,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It only
makes sense. How many of these kids are making early decisions, making
verbal commitments, without ever taking an official visit that you can
pay for to be on campus for that 48-hour window? It makes a ton of sense
to us as a group.”

This would be a huge advantage for Notre Dame as well, allowing the Irish to get recruits on campus in a warm weather month before many elite prospects make final decisions before their senior season.

(Then again, Fitzgerald is likely pushing for it because there’s no difference in the Northwestern campus between the stoic summer months and football season, when dozens of crazed NU football fans flock to Ryan Stadium.)

I’d be surprised if this got approved, because there are plenty of schools in warm weather climates that don’t want the playing field leveled, but it’s a good suggestion that would show that the NCAA is adapting to the times as opposed to staying stuck in their ways.

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.