Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans

21 Comments

This is the third of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For more, check out previews for Purdue and Michigan.

The Overview:

It was a season of “what could’ve been” for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio, who Brian Kelly replaced at Cincinnati three seasons ago, enters his fourth year coaching the Spartans. After two promising seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans reverted into the inconsistent squad that existed under former coach John L. Smith, losing five games by single digits including heart-breakers to Central Michigan, Notre Dame (more on this in a second), and Iowa. While Dantonio was brought into East Lansing to instill his trademark defense and toughness, it was the defense that let the Spartans down, giving up over 26 points a game and ranking an abysmal 114th in passing. The result was a mediocre 6-7 season, ending with a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, it looked as if the Irish were going to fall in the final seconds to a rival from Michigan. But Kirk Cousins overthrew Larry Caper who was all alone in the end zone with just over a minute left, and the next play Kyle McCarthy stepped in front of Cousins’ throw on the Irish four yard-line, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a home win against Michigan State for the first time since 1993.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Irish suffered two injuries that would help define their season. When a jailbreak sack came up the middle, Jimmy Clausen tried to protect himself from a big hit, but instead injured his foot. While he remained in the game, the injury hobbled him for the remainder of the season, and eventually necessitated surgery during the winter. Later that quarter, Clausen threw a fade route to the right corner of the end zone where Michael Floyd skied above a Spartan defensive back and looked to come down with his two feet in bounds for a touchdown. The officials disagreed, and worse for the Irish was the loss of their star receiver to a broken clavicle, suffered when he hit the ground. Clausen returned to the game, Floyd did not and the woeful Irish defense again struggled, getting torched for 354 yards passing and giving up 459 total yards. The Irish were also sloppy — broken plays, falling prey to an onside kick, and committing 11 penalties (including back-to-back personal foul calls), but it wasn’t enough to stop the cardiac kids, who somehow held on for the win in dramatic fashion.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had this to say after the game: “I need to throw the ball away or take a sack, do anything to throw the ball away.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank the Spartans as the fifth most difficult on the schedule. While there are still question marks in the secondary, Michigan State has seemed to have been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, with the Irish splitting the last eight contests, with all four of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. Winning a night game in East Lansing is never an easy task.

Bonus Reverse Degree of Difficulty:

Michigan State fansite The Only Colors ranks the Irish the fourth-hardest game on the Spartan’s schedule, with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State seemingly tougher opponents. Here’s the crux of the issue for them:

“Essentially, your opinion on ND’s chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly. I think he’s excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.”

The Match-up:

Kirk Cousins returns to pilot an offense that only lost Blair White from an offense that averaged just a touch under 30 points a game. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who combined for 13 catches, 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year will once again challenge the Irish secondary. The question on offense is whether or not the Spartans can replace three starting offensive linemen.

On defense, Michigan returns All-American linebacker and Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, the Spartans leader in just about every defensive category, who was third in the country in tackles. Linebacker Eric Gordon is no slouch either, returning after 92 tackles and a starting streak of 27 games. The defensive line has a steady anchor in sophomore Jerel Worthy, but behind him they are unproven. The secondary needs big years out of underachieving Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, who missed last season for disciplinary personal and medical reasons.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish want to neutralize Greg Jones and pick on a thin secondary, they’ll have the weapons available to do so. If they can protect the quarterback, Notre Dame can spread teams out, using four and five wide receiver sets, running mostly one and no-back formations to give themselves as good a match-up as possible with the questionable Spartan defense. (Theo Riddick will be huge.) Last year, the Irish ran the ball almost to prove a point, content to eat clock and unsuccessfully protect the defense. We already know Brian Kelly won’t do that. The defense will still need to avoid giving up the big play, as the Spartans threw every trick in the book at the Irish, including a successful onside kick recovery. While it’ll be more than unruly in Spartan Stadium that night, a quick start by the offense could have fans sitting on their hands.

How the Irish will lose:

There might not be a more hostile environment for the Irish this season than this Saturday night, and it’ll be the first trip away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish and starting quarterback Dayne Crist. This game comes down to handling the pressure of an away game, and if Crist and the offense stumble out of the gates it could be tough sledding for the Irish. Look out for big games from Jones, the proven commodity and true freshman William Gholston, the unproven one. On defense, the Irish still need to figure out how to stop a Spartans offense that racked up gigantic yardage throwing the ball while platooning their quarterbacks. With back-up Keith Nichol now playing wide receiver, one trick play may be all the Spartans need to capitalize on the Irish defense, that will surely be tested in the air.

Gut feeling:

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, your gut should never feel good against the Spartans. That said, if this team is as good as many believe they can be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t walk out of East Lansing with an undefeated record. Consider me Missouri: I’m in a “Show Me” state.
 

Path to the Draft: Nick Martin

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a six-yard touchdown run by C.J. Prosise against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Part four of the series. See earlier work on Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith. 

 

NICK MARTIN
No. 50 overall to the Houston Texans

While it feels like Nick Martin’s path to Notre Dame was destiny, it’s worth pointing out that it took until his recruitment’s final weeks to even get him to commit to the Irish. Even with brother Zack fresh off an impressive redshirt freshman season as a starting left tackle, Nick was a solid commit to Kentucky, where the Martin brothers’ father Keith played his college football in the 1980s.

But as Notre Dame’s coaching staff saw the early returns on their inherited left tackle they also saw something worth gambling on with brother Nick. And while it took a while to make an official offer, it didn’t take long to realize it was a very good idea.

So five years and four seasons of captaincy later (not to mention a mantel full of lineman of the year trophies), the Martin brothers leave Notre Dame with a special legacy in place. If you saw that challenge coming at the beginning of the Brian Kelly era, head out and buy a lottery ticket.

A late offer and addition by the Irish coaching staff, Martin flew below the radar in a 2011 recruiting class that was heralded by analysts, but had just as many hits and misses. But on Signing Day, even if fellow classmates Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch were the headliners and fellow lineman Matt Hegarty came in with more pedigree, head coach Brian Kelly saw the traits and demeanor that played out in Martin’s five seasons in South Bend.

“The common theme here with the offensive linemen is their ability to move,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He’s got really good athletic ability, and he finishes off blocks. He’s got a demeanor again. That offensive line demeanor for us is the way they play the game. And he plays it very, very well.”

Kelly sprinkled a few other lineman buzz words when describing Martin’s play—brawler and athleticism noted—while also throwing in the prerequisite, “his brother’s not bad, either.” And while Kelly was wrong in one regard, Nick didn’t end up playing tackle as projected, the slide inside to center now appears to be the template Kelly and Harry Hiestand have followed on their way to developing interior offensive linemen.

Martin’s ascent followed a traditional path. A redshirt season. Limited time as a sophomore, serving as a backup tackle and special teams contributor in 2012.

But after needing to replace Braxston Cave at center heading into 2013, the move of Martin to center helped bring the look of the line into focus, with his size, strength and athleticism helping trigger the running game. Martin starting the first 11 games of the season at center before suffering a knee injury.

That knee injury wreaked havoc with Martin’s lower-body strength for all of 2014. A hand injury forced him to move from center to guard, versatility that paid dividends as he displayed multi-position ability but also a tremendous amount of toughness playing at less than 100 percent.

Martin’s return to center was a logical decision for the coaching staff. So much so that they understood why Matt Hegarty would transfer as a graduate instead of stick around and back-up Martin or compete for playing time with Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer. With the two-time captain’s strength back for his final season, even battling a high ankle sprain, Martin played like one of the country’s best centers, the second off the board in the draft behind Alabama’s Ryan Kelly.

That body of work—not to mention the pedigree Martin brings with an All-Pro brother already an anchor in the league—weighed into the decision by the Houston Texans to trade a sixth-round pick to move up a few slots and select Martin.

“I think you know from my history, I put stock in careers, I put stock in leadership, I put stock in a lot of those things and Nick certainly has those,” Texans GM Rick Smith said. “He’s got pedigree, he has an NFL pedigree, so he’s been around it.

“We just really feel like he adds to our offensive line group. He’s a guy that can come right in, he’s a plug-and-play guy, he’ll compete right away we think, so we’re happy to get him.”

Smith quipped that it pained him as a Purdue guy to spend the team’s first two draft picks on Notre Dame players. But as the Texans try to get their offense up to speed with other Super Bowl contenders, they’ll lean on two former Irish stars to make it happen.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
1 Comment

Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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)
7 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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.