Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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If you’re interested in getting caught up, here are the lists for 25-21 and 20-16.

Day three of our countdown gets us into the top-flight of Irish players. While we’re only talking about Notre Dame, it’ll be interesting to see how the recruiting rankings of the best players on the Irish roster turn out as compared to some other major programs that have done well recently in national recruiting rankings.

A few observations from yesterday’s list:

* I’m high on Robert Hughes, but in retrospect, maybe I’ve got him ranked a bit too high. As TLNDMA mentioned yesterday in the comments, if Hughes makes judges’ Top 25, there will likely be four backs in the top 25 on the roster, showing the depth that the Irish have in the backfield. For the record, I had Jonas Gray at 26, just outside my list, and the thinking was that he’d have a smaller impact on the Irish offense than the others listed, as he’s a different mold of back than Hughes, and he’ll probably slide behind Cierre Wood and Armando Allen in primary back duties.

* The boys at Rakes and Pat both had Brian Smith in the 16-20 range, a spot I think is a little low for him. Smith has had an up-and-down career, and he had quite a few plays last year where he looked like he was on roller-skates at middle linebacker while he was trying to shed blocks. That said, not every linebacker can play inside and outside (especially with an undersized defensive line in front of him), and some Mel Kiper types (even Mel himself) had a high draft grade on Smith the past few years. I expect a big year out of B. Smith at a position tailor-made for him, as it’s his last chance to fulfill the promise he showed as a freshman.

* Resident wiseguy “Art Vandelay” had some kind words for Matt and Pat and their flashy prose. In the defense of the other guys, I told them to keep it to one-line, limiting the flair they could bring out in their writing. I’m still formulating my defense, but I’ll try to add a little flavor today for Art’s sake.

On to the lists…

Frank of UHND:

15. Steve Filer, OLB: The Irish coaches are going to have to find a way to get Filer on the field more this fall.
14. Jonas Gray, RB: Has the talent to be ranked much higher. Needs to hold on to the football consistently to move up.
13. Cierre Wood, RB: Like Theo Riddick, he’s a playmaker and needs to have the ball in his hands more.
12. Brian Smith, OLB: He looked his best as a freshman in the 3-4 defense. A move back to OLB should improve his stock in 2010.
11. Theo Riddick, WR: Riddick’s a difference maker. Notre Dame needs more players like him. His position switch knocks him down a few spots.

Anthony of Clashmore Mike:

15. Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE: Raw athlete improved as 2009 progressed, but needs to continue to be active.
14. Dayne Crist, QB: Has the physical tools to be great, will experience hold him back?
13. Duval Kamara, WR: Rising senior should return to freshman form with Golden Tate’s departure.
12. Darrin Walls, CB: Physical ability to be a lock-down corner, needs to improve against the run.
11. T.J. Jones, WR: Route-running skills make him very difficult to cover.

Matt of Her Loyal Sons:

15. Shaquelle Evans, WR:  All that speed — time to stop spending it on curl routes.
14. Theo Riddick, WR: Averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry in an inept running game and now moves to wide receiver…
13. Gary Gray, CB: One of the few facets on ND that seemed to gain momentum as 2009 progressed.
12. Zeke Motta, DB: His position on this list = my one entirely hunch based selection.
11. Robert Blanton, CB: Best solo tackle stats out of the backfield once you remove other guys who got a lot of solo tackles because they were 40 yards down field chasing the guy who caught the ball. On 3rd and 8.

Chris and Matt of Rakes of Mallow:

15. Braxston Cave, C: Cave likely beat out fifth-year senior Dan Wenger for the starting center spot and is reported to be putting up ridiculous numbers in the weight room.
14. T.J. Jones, WR: He has yet to play a down for the Irish, but the early-enrollee had a fantastic spring and looks to have earned a starting spot already.
13. Shaq Evans, WR: Showed flashes early as a frosh last year, but some iffy coaching decisions had him riding the pine for the second half of ’09. Look for him to flourish a la Mardy Gilyard in Kelly’s offense.
12. Steve Filer, OLB: Google “Steve Filer jumps out of a pool.”
11. Armando Allen, RB: Even though fans are higher on Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray right now, Allen will find enough seams in the spread to keep the Irish faithful cheering.

Pat, man of the people:

15. Braxston Cave, C: Braxston really came on strong in spring practice and looked good in the spring game. The fact that he beat out Wenger is a sign of his desire to get on to the field.
14. Ian Williams, NT: Ian’s six TFLs last season show that he at least has the ability to get into the backfield. He may not rack up sacks, but he can be disruptive to blockers.
13. Gary Gray, CB: The fact that Gray is now starting over Robert Blanton is a testament to his athletic ability and he looked very good last season and in the Blue-Gold game.
12. Theo Riddick, WR: Riddick has the potential to bloom in Kelly’s offense. Averaging over five yards a carry and seven yards per catch, he’s a dynamic player with excellent speed.
11. Dayne Crist, QB: Mostly a potential pick, but QBs in Kelly’s offense seem to perform well. Last season, Cincinnati used four QBs. The lowest of them had a passer efficiency of 129 and they combined for 39 TDs and just 8 INTs.

Keith:

15. Harrison Smith, DB: While he certainly looked lost last year, I put that more on the coaching staff yo-yo-ing Smith back and forth between linebacker and safety than on Harrison, who was playing with zero confidence last year and thinking too much, a terrible combination for the last line of defense.
14. Cierre Wood, RB: While I’m certainly high on Wood, I’d probably rank him a little higher if I went with my gut, but I’m not going to let his Blue-Gold game turn me completely delusional.
13. Darrin Walls, CB: I see Darrin’s season going two ways: The first would make Irish fans very happy. The second would bring back memories of Jonathan Baldwin at Pitt. I’ve got him ranked this high because I think it’s more likely the former.
12. Ethan Johnson, DE: Gone is the flashy single-digit number that came with far than flashy results. With a year in Paul Longo’s strength program, and a move back to his more natural position, maybe this is the season Johnson delivers on his prodigious potential.
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE: I’m a big fan of KLM’s physical gifts, and after a year of learning on the fly and moving to the 3-4, I could see a Victor Abiamiri-type junior season, where Vic was named lineman of the year with 8 sacks and 15 TFLs.

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.