Offseason Cheatsheet: Offensive line

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The series continues with your Du Lac approved crib-sheet for the upcoming season. For more, check out the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers.

POSITION OVERVIEW:

After two nightmarish seasons, Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line played respectable football last season, forming a cohesive veteran group that protected Jimmy Clausen and helped establish a respectable running game, averaging for 4.9 yards per carry. Now Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Ed Warinner will have to retool and reload an offensive line short three starters from 2009, tackles Paul Duncan, Sam Young and center Eric Olsen. While Charlie Weis inherited a depth chart incredibly thin on developmental prospects, he’s left behind a nice collection of talent up front, and early returns are promising as they transition to a more lineman-friendly spread attack. While competition is fierce, sophomore Zack Martin has locked up the left tackle job while Taylor Dever is the front runner on the right side. Braxston Cave and Dan Wenger battle for the center position, while Chris Watt is knocking on the door both inside and out as he tries to crack the starting lineup.

ROSTER READING:

Short a program? Here’s every offensive lineman listed on the roster:

     No.    Name                     Yr.       Ht./Wt.       Hometown/High School
      72     Alex Bullard           So.      6-3/295      Franklin, TN (Brentwood Academy)
      52     Braxston Cave       Jr.       6-3/301      Granger, IN (Penn)
      73     Lane Clelland         Jr.       6-5/290      Owings Mills, MD (McDonogh School)
      75     Taylor Dever          Sr.       6-5/297      Nevada City, CA (Nevada Union)
      62     Bill Flavin               Sr.       6-3/260      Darien, IL (Benet Academy)
      57     Mike Golic, Jr.        Jr.       6-3/283      West Hartford, CT (Northwest Catholic)
      65     Mike Hernandez     Jr.      6-2/275      Pasadena, CA (Loyola)
      74     Christian Lombard  Fr.      6-5/290      Inverness, IL (Fremd)
      71     Dennis Mahoney    Jr.       6-7/289      Baltimore, MD (Boys Latin High School)
      70     Zack Martin            So.      6-4/290      Indianapolis, IN (Bishop Chatard)
      64     Tate Nichols           Fr.       6-8/303      Walton, KY (Ryle)
      76     Andrew Nuss         Sr.       6-5/297      Ashburn, VA (Stone Bridge)
      78     Trevor Robinson    Jr.        6-5/295      Elkhorn, NE (Elkhorn)
      77     Matt Romine          Sr.        6-5/292      Tulsa, OK (Union)
      59     Chris Stewart         Sr.        6-5/351      Spring, TX (Klein)
      66     Chris Watt              So.       6-3/310      Glen Ellyn, IL (Glenbard West)
      51     Dan Wenger           Sr.       6-4/298       Coral Springs, FL (St. Thomas Aquinas)

KELLY ON OFFENSIVE LINE:

On Stewart: “Chris is the consummate student-athlete. He has excelled on the field and in the classroom and while I don’t envy his workload this fall, I have complete confidence that Chris will balance law school and line blocking this year.”

On Cave and Wenger: “Braxston Cave is a very physical player, I have great confidence that he
can move any nose. He can do the things physically in the run game. He
needs to continue to polish in the pass game…  Wenger is a pretty good pass protection guy. He needs to get the same kind of push Braxston Cave can get.”

On Martin: “Zack has been our most consistent. Your left side right now is Stewart and Zack, obviously, they’re doing a great job.”

On Watt: He lacked a
little bit of experience in understanding the offense, and again, it was
just because he hasn’t played very much. He’s just a really good football player that has gotten better each and
every day. We’ve been cross-training him at that center position, too,
but it’s pretty clear he’s put himself in position to compete at that
left guard. So we don’t want to hold him back there. He’s made great
progress. He’s strong and physical and he moves his feet very, very
well.”

Tim Hinton on Robinson: “His ability to finish and play with a lot of tenacity. Up front, you can have all the fundamentals and all that stuff you want, but if you don’t have a strong will and toughness, you’re not very good, because that’s just not a game for soft guys.”

Kelly on the offensive line depth: “I believe we have on the offensive line 10 guys that can play championship football.”

CRYSTAL BALL:

Replacing three starters along the offensive line isn’t a good thing, especially if you look back at the last time Notre Dame had wholesale changes along the offensive front. But the system that Brian Kelly brought in — and bringing in offensive line coach Ed Warinner to teach it — has me feeling rather bullish about the line. If I had to guess, the starting five of Martin, Stewart, Cave, Robinson and Dever will help the Irish run the ball more effectively, and with quick drops and precision passing, the transition process for both tackles and the starting center will be much smoother this time around.

POSITION STRENGTH:

B- As much as I feel good about what’s going on up front, it’s hard to give this group any higher grade, especially when Martin will be playing in his first college football game against Purdue and right tackle (and potentially center) will be breaking in a new starter as well. Add to that the curve of learning an entirely new system, and this is as good as you could expect on a report card.

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.