Opponent preview: Michigan Wolverines

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This is the second of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For part one, please check out the Purdue preview.

The Overview:

While there’s obvious anticipation for the opening game against Purdue, there’s no game that the Irish should look forward to more than the September 11th date with Michigan. Entering his third season in Ann Arbor, head coach Rich Rodriguez is a woeful 8-16 coaching the Wolverines, whose faithful have become largely split on the future of the head coach. While last season started with a perfect September and a national ranking, the Wolverines won only once after September 26th, beating Delaware State in mid-October for their fifth and final win, finishing 1-7 in conference and without a bowl bid for the second straight season.

Last time against the Irish:

There is no loss that eats at the stomach of Notre Dame fans more than the 38-34 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. With just over three minutes left, and clinging to a 34-31 lead, the Irish opted to throw the ball on second and third down, missing on both attempts and allowing Michigan to preserve two timeouts and precious time on the clock. After a 29 yard Eric Maust punt, freshman Tate Forcier drove nine plays, using both timeouts before throwing the winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to bury the 18th ranked Irish.

Irish fans will point to a controversial overturn on an Armando Allen touchdown and some off-balanced Big Ten officiating, but even 490 yards of offense, 100 yard days for Allen, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate, and 336 yards of passing from Jimmy Clausen couldn’t keep the Irish from giving away the football game, thanks to anemic defense and mediocre special teams.

Said head coach Charlie Weis after the game:

“I watched that tape a hundred times this morning, okay?
Just like when I watched it when it happened, just like their two guys
that were standing right on top of the play when it happened. From what
I understand, the TV copy on top of it, I still haven’t heard anyone
tell me there’s any evidence of Armando stepping out of bounds.
The way I thought the rule is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be
conclusive evidence. I’m perturbed at that call.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank  Michigan as the fourth most difficult on the schedule. I could make the argument that they’re anywhere from the second toughest to the eighth toughest, but there’s an aura attached to the maize and blue, and after last season’s upset defeat, you never know what might happen.

The Match-up:

It’s tough to gauge what’s coming out of the opposing locker room when the Wolverines face-off with the Irish on September 11. Michigan played horrific football down the stretch, free-falling after a promising 4-0 start. Offensively, Michigan returns just about every contributor from 2009, on a team that racked up 430 yards against the Irish defense. Whether or not last year’s hero, quarterback Tate Forcier plays over Denard Robinson is likely the major question for the Wolverines offensively, with the dynamic Robinson making strides in his passing game this offseason. Rodriguez has endured growing pains through two years as he has worked to recruit more speed onto his roster. Whether or not those players flourish in year three will likely determine his fate.

On defense, the Wolverines lose their best player in Brandon Graham, the disruptive pass rusher that went in the first round of the NFL draft. They look to freshman All-American Craig Roh to potentially fill his spot at DE, shifting down from outside linebacker. There is promise along the front line for the Wolverines in former blue-chipper Will Campbell and one-time Irish recruiting target Mike Martin, but the learning curve is steep for this group. Of real concern is the shaky Wolverine secondary, that’s been bludgeoned recently by transfer (J.T. Turner) and injury (Troy Woolfolk). If Michigan plans on stopping Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, they’ll do so with untested underclassmen and DBs that struggled mightily last season. 

How the Irish will win:

With a front-seven that graduated its best pass rushers and a secondary that belongs on the back of a milk carton, the Irish should have a field day throwing all over a Wolverine defense that can do little to slow Notre Dame’s numerous offensive weapons. The transition back to a 3-4 defense, along with a quick start for the Irish offense, will force Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson into throwing almost exclusively, a bad recipe for success with Bob Diaco’s pressure system confusing an offensive line that struggled last season. 

How the Wolverines will win:

If the Irish did anything well last year on defense, it was making opposing offenses look good. And after a third year learning Rich Rodriguez’s system, the Wolverines won’t need nearly as much help. Tackling mobile quarterbacks in space will once again be the Irish’s achilles heel, and both Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will make big plays, getting the Irish to play another shoot out that’s decided down the stretch. While Michigan’s defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has been chastised, he’s beaten Notre Dame the past two times he faced them — once as the head coach of Syracuse in 2008, and running the Wolverines defense in 2009. The 80,000-plus that showed up to watch the Irish avenge last season’s mind-blowing loss will feel more of the same if the Irish can’t solve Michigan’s spread attack.

Gut Feeling:

There was nobody more surprised than I was last year when Michigan escaped the Big House with a 38-34 victory. While everybody in the locker room’s focus is on Purdue, there’s no doubt that the game against Michigan is the biggest for the Irish this season. With the advantage of practicing every day against an offense that’s similar to the one directed by Rich Rodriguez, and Michigan’s desperate situation in the secondary, I expect the Irish to exorcise some demons.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.