Opponent preview: Pitt Panthers

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We continue on profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. If you have a spare hour or two, check out Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College.

The Overview:

After three mediocre seasons, Dave Wannstedt has led Pittsburgh back to respectability, winning nine and ten games in back-to-back seasons, turning around a football program that was seemingly stuck in neutral. Both those seasons had critical victories against Notre Dame: The 2008 contest a four-overtime epic that ended with Pitt winning 36-33 and the 2009 victory an equally memorable 27-22 win, where Wannstedt’s Panthers held on as Notre dame mounted a furious comeback. While Wannstedt may have had the better of then coach Charlie Weis, new coach Brian Kelly has beaten Pitt two years in a row, a 28-21 victory in 2008 over the 20th ranked Panthers, and a remarkable 21 point comeback victory, a 45-44 triumph for Cincinnati capped by a last second touchdown pass that ended the Pitt regular season with two losses after climbing to a top-ten ranking and a 9-1 record.

Last time against the Irish:

It looked as if Notre Dame’s freefall was peaking at halftime, with the Irish offense shutdown, failing to get into the red zone as they went to the locker room down 10-3. Things were even more dire after the Pitt offense found its stride, and the Panthers had a 18-point lead before the Irish came to life. Only then did Charlie Weis’ intentionally conservative game plan go out the window and the Irish offense opened things up, once again hopping on the back of receiver Golden Tate who scored two touchdowns in a matter of minutes to get Notre Dame back within five points deep in the fourth quarter. Mike Ragone dropped a shovel pass to get the game within a field goal, but that was as close as the Irish would come, though controversy couldn’t stay far from an Irish team that desperately needed to get back on the right side of close finishes (and referee calls).  With one final chance to drive the team down the field, Clausen had 3:39 to march the Irish down the field for a touchdown, but that effort was largely sunk after a chop-block call on Dan Wenger flipped a 2nd and 1 from the 42-yard line into a 2nd and 16 from the ND 27. After throwing the ball away, the Irish were faced with a 3rd and 16 that Clausen got out of his hands just before getting hit. Faced with a 4th and Career call, Weis called timeout. That timeout gave the Big East replay crew a chance to look at the “incompletion,” which they turned into an Irish fumble, anticlimactically giving the ball back to Pitt and effectively ending the game.

Charlie Weis had this to say about the controversial replay overturn a few days later:

“I watched it a whole bunch of times and I really think that if they
would have called from watching the play a bunch of times, if they would
have called the play a fumble on the field, I could see them not having
enough information to overrule it. But the fact that they called the
play incomplete on, an incomplete pass on the field, I believe the same
thing. I believe that there was no evidence to change the call that’s on
the field.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Ranking the 12 opponents of the Irish, I slot Pitt in as the sixth-most difficult* game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers

*In retrospect, I definitely screwed up putting Purdue ahead of Pitt in these rankings, and I’m correcting it here. While Purdue poses a unique set of threats to the Irish with the unknown commodity of Robert Marve and the added hype of the opener, Pitt is a better football team.

Pitt has had the Irish’s number the past few years, but Brian Kelly has had Dave Wannstedt’s number, so consider it a wash. Even more boldly, I’ve never been impressed by Wannstedt’s coaching acumen, and really feel like the scale tips heavily in the Irish’s favor in that category.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish intentionally handcuffed their own offense to keep Pitt’s offense off the field, worried about getting in a shootout with the dynamic Panthers. If Cincinnati’s 45-44 victory was any indication, Brian Kelly doesn’t worry about shootouts, so expect the Irish offense to be going full-bore from the outset. The three players that hurt the Irish the most last season all return, in wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. That said, the offense lacks the distributor that got them the ball, the underrated Bill Stull. Also gone are tight end Dorrin Dickerson and all three interior offensive linemen, forcing the Panther offense to retool their attack, likely anchored by sophomore Tino Sunseri.

On defense, the Panthers will also need to reload. While both standout defensive ends, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, return, gone are tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, integral cogs to the defensive machine. Romeus and Sheard dominated Paul Duncan and Sam Young, constantly harassing Clausen and disrupting the Irish offense, but likely will miss a step without a robust interior. Also gone is linebacker Adam Gunn, the most prolific tackler on the squad. In the secondary, Pitt will need to find new cornerbacks to cover Irish wideouts, as both Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel are gone. The secondary brings back Dom DeCicco, a jumbo sized safety that finished second on the squad in tackles and also had three interceptions.

How the Irish will win:

Unafraid to play a high-tempo game, Notre Dame comes out throwing, spreading a thin secondary out wide and forcing the Panthers to cover skill on skill. While Romeus and Sheard had their way with the Irish offensive line last season, they won’t have time to get vertical, with Dayne Crist throwing quickly from the shotgun before the Pitt pressure can disrupt the offense. More importantly, a hostile crowd and an improved defense will make things miserable for Sunseri, whose growing pains force an already predictable offense into being even more nondescript. While Lewis and Graham get the carries, a second-half scoreboard puts the Panthers offense into a position where they need to throw, and even though Baldwin put together a highlight film last season against the Irish secondary, expect the secondary to make a few interceptions in a fairly easy Irish victory.

How the Irish will lose:

Driving a car with an engine powered by horses like Lewis, Graham, and Baldwin won’t be too hard for Sunseri, who beats the Irish secondary for a few big plays on play-action when the safeties bite hard on play-fakes. Acting as a true game manager, Sunseri continues to hand the ball off, asking Notre Dame to stop their physical rushing attack, and the Irish can’t answer the bell. On defense, Pitt’s defensive ends make easy work of the ultra-green offensive tackles, disrupting the timing of an offense predicated on clock-work precision.

Gut Feeling:

Maybe it’s bias (or having watched Mark May for too long), but I expect Pitt to take a fairly substantial step backward this season. Between a schedule that starts off markedly harder with Utah and Miami sandwiched between cupcake New Hampshire, and replacement parts giving neither the offense or defense much margin for error, I expect a coming out party for the Irish similar to the one CW and the boys had in 2005.

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.