Opponent preview: Boston College Eagles

1 Comment

The beat goes on as we preview Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out previews for Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.

The Overview:

Boston College made headlines for all the wrong reasons last offseason. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired in January after interviewing for the head coaching position of the New York Jets. Quarterback Dominique Davis was ruled academically ineligible, and more devastating, All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Still, former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani took the reins of the program and steadied the ship, guiding a team that was predicted to finish last in the ACC Atlantic to within a game of the conference championship game. While the offense struggled behind 25-year-old freshman Dave Shinskie, the defense was stingy, giving up only 19.8 points a game.

Last time against the Irish:

A week after crawling back into the game with a furious rally against USC, the Irish found themselves in gut-check time once again, the defense leaking oil after turning Shinskie into an All-American as they clung to a four-point lead with the Boston College offense driving down the field. After giving up an inexplicable 4th and 17 the Irish defense finally put the game away, thanks to a Brian Smith interception with 1:43 seconds left on the clock.

Down 16-13 entering the 4th quarter, the Irish were stuffed on a 4th and goal from the one when they decided to run Robert Hughes in the Wildcat. Once again, the offense was bailed out by another heroic effort from Golden Tate, who turned an out pattern into a 36-yard touchdown for the Irish’s final score. On a sloppy field, the Irish looked intent to run the ball, with Armando Allen running for 98 yards on 21 carries. Thanks to five turnovers, the Irish held Boston College to 16 points, stuffing running back Montel Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, a season low. Yet Notre Dame’s emphasis on stopping the run left them susceptible against the pass, where Shinskie and wide receiver Rich Grunnell had career days in a losing effort. Warts and all, Notre Dame’s victory took their record to 5-2, and it was the first Irish victory over Boston College since 2000.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Boston College as the third-toughest game on the schedule for the Irish. Here are the rankings so far.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Purdue Boilermakers
      7. Stanford Cardinals

While the ACC was weak last year, Boston College’s 8-5 record was pretty impressive, especially considering the turmoil the team was under last season, breaking in a new quarterback, head coach, and losing Mark Herzlich to cancer. When the Irish head to Chestnut Hill, they’ll face a team mostly intact, with a defense that’ll likely be one of the toughest the Irish face.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish seemed almost content to play a horizontal passing game, taking minimal shots downfield and relegating Jimmy Clausen to the distributor role. While he didn’t throw any interceptions, it was one of Clausen’s worst on the year, nearly picked twice as the BC coverage flattened and the zone tightened the middle of the field. On a sloppy track, the game seemed to be played in slow motion, something BC took advantage of an the Irish could not. While the Irish offensive system is different, they’ll still need to account for sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly and the returning Herzlich, who’s return from cancer has been slowed with a stress fracture in his foot. Both the defensive line and the secondary need to replace starters, but the depth is there for the Eagles.

Offensively, Shinskie returns at quarterback but is being pushed by Mike Marscovetra, a dual-threat option. Whoever wins the quarterback battle, the offense will run through Montel Harris, who set BC freshman and sophomore rushing records and returns for his third season. Harris will be supported by the Eagles’ offensive line, one of the best in the ACC and anchored by Anthony Castonzo.. Through the air, BC won’t be able to depend on wide receiver Rich Grunnell who graduated, but will look to get production from Colin Larmond* and tight end Chris Pantale.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat BC if they attack the defense, not tip-toe around it. The Irish were their own worst enemies last year, playing a possession game without taking any shots down the field, allowing the Eagles to shrink the field vertically. This year, the Irish will attempt to blow the top off the zone, hitting on a few deep passes that also open up the middle of the field. Defensively, while the Irish forced five turnovers, the coverage in the secondary was horrendous. (Don’t believe me, check it out here.) While Shinskie will still be turnover prone, the Irish will do a better job of blanketing coverage on a mediocre passing attack, forcing the Eagles to play a game they know they can’t win.

How the Irish will lose:

Chestnut Hill is not friendly to the Fighting Irish, and behind a robust defensive attack, and some strong running by Montel Harris, the Irish will feel the heat of the rivalry get to them. After five straight games against top-level BCS teams, the Irish defensive front will be worn down, and the Eagles strong offensive line will take advantage. Dayne Crist’s could see healthy doses of both Herzlich and Kuechly in the backfield, and that could spell trouble.

Gut Feeling:

Boston College is a lot like Michigan to me. My gut tells me to expect the Irish to win handily, but my head tells me that it’s always a different story with these two programs. BC is coming off a huge game against Virginia Tech the week before and one year of scouting tape on offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill will be enough for the Irish to fix the problems that plagued the defense. On offense, don’t expect Kelly to try and play slug-it-out football the way Weis did last season. Pedal to the metal will let Notre Dame’s athletes run away from Boston College.

* UPDATED — Thanks to former Irish pitching great Drew Duff who checks in from Chicago to point out that Boston College wide receiver Colin Larmond is out for the season with a knee injury.

“Obviously this is a very unfortunate situation, both for Colin and for our team,” BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “Our first priority is to get him on the road to recovery. Now we will need some players to step up and fill his role.”

This is a pretty crushing blow to the Eagle wide receiving corp. Their returning receivers have caught a total of 24 passes in college football collectively. 

 

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
Leave a comment

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
21 Comments

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
11 Comments

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
Getty
6 Comments

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.