Opponent preview: Navy Midshipmen

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Eight and counting for series of previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt and Western Michigan.

The Overview:

Make no mistake, this is no longer a friendly rivalry. With Navy stunning the Irish 23-21 at Notre Dame stadium last season, the Midshipmen now have won two consecutive games at Notre Dame stadium, after a half-century of ineptitude against the Irish. Making things even more heated, was head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s comments in the postgame press conference, calling out the Notre Dame coaching staff’s game plan. Under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame treated Navy reverentially, leveling the playing field psychologically, and possibly doing the Midshipmen a favor by treating an inferior football team (talent-wise) with too much respect. The senior class, with two losses to Navy in three years (and a narrow escape in 2008) will likely come out looking to at least settle the series. While everybody realizes it now, with 12 returning starters including Heisman dark horse Ricky Dobbs, this game will be a true test for the Irish.

Last time against the Irish:

If the Michigan loss eats at the stomach’s of Notre Dame fans, the Navy loss was the one that broke their heart. The Irish found a way to lose the game without punting, a statistical anomaly made all the more ridiculous when you consider the Irish neither punted nor scored a point in the first half. Niumatalolo’s gameplan was orchestrated to perfection behind a running attack that absolutely killed the Irish defense, who gave up 348 yards rushing on 6.1 yards per carry. Notre Dame’s red zone execution, which including baffling play-calling, terrible execution, critical turnovers and missed field goals started the Irish on the freefall that would end their season.

Said Niumatalolo after the game:

“I really hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but I think the thing
that helped us this year was last year because we knew that they’d line
up the same way. We didn’t execute very well last year, and coming into
this year they did a great job against us last year defensively, so we
had a pretty good clue that they were going to come back and do the same
things as they did last year, and we had a few things. We were
expecting that same defense that we saw last year.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Navy as the ninth-toughest game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Only when you look at Navy as the 9th hardest game on the schedule do you start to understand that this slate isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. There’s absolutely nothing positive the Irish get out of playing Navy anymore. Beat them, you’re supposed to. Lose? You’re packing your bags and coaching the offense in Kansas City. If Notre Dame comes out flat at the Meadowlands, I’ve extremely overestimated this coaching staff’s ability to motivate.

The Match-up:

The Irish defensive will live and die by how they stop star quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs had one of the more impressive statistical seasons in the country last year, both rushing and throwing for 1,000 yards. He only threw the ball three times against the Irish, but of one was a crucial third quarter strike for 52 yards that all but broke the Irish’s back and pushed Navy’s lead to 21-7. Also rejoining Dobbs is fullback Vince Murray, who absolutely shredded the Irish defense with the dive play, rumbling for 158 yards on only 14 carries. The 3-4 defense will help when playing against the vaunted Navy triple-option, but the Irish would be wise to key on Dobbs and Murray if they want to win.

The defense loses stand-out linebacker and Irish nemesis Ram Vela, but returns a veteran group. Three of four members in the Midshipmen secondary return, including both starting safeties. One name you’ll likely hear plenty of is rover Wyatt Middleton, who led the team in interceptions. For the Irish offense to succeed, they’ll need to play mistake-free football as well as attack the Navy defense on both the ground and through the air. Notre Dame racked up 502 yards of offense last year, so moving the ball wasn’t the problem, executing when it mattered, whether on field goals or in the red zone will be the key for success. 

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat Navy by stopping the run and playing solid fundamental football. Regardless of whether or not the coaching staff had a good gameplan, the linebackers failed to tackle the fullback, a mortal sin when facing an option attack like Navy’s. With the athletes the Irish have at linebacker, and run-stuffers like Ian Williams and Manti Te’o in the middle, there’s no way that Navy can have the same success on the ground as the year before, especially if Bob Diaco has properly coached his defense. Offensively, the Irish will win with a solid run-pass ratio, and by keeping a handle on the football. Navy knew they needed to steal possessions and starting with Robby Paris’ first-half fumble, they did just enough to keep the clock in their favor and the ball in their hands. In the brand-new Meadowlands, the Irish should start a new winning streak.

How the Irish will lose:

Take last year’s blueprint, wash and repeat. Want to beat a football team with superior talent? Control the clock, win the turnover battle, and force an offense to become one-dimensional. Navy did all of that with an option offense second to none, and they’ve got all the pieces coming back to do it again. Ricky Dobbs is an elite college football player, the defense is opportunistic and good enough. If Navy wins this match-up in late October, the Irish will most likely put another opposing quarterback on the front-burner for the Heisman.

Gut Feeling:

Remember all those Irish fans who thought Charlie Weis meant no more losing to teams like Purdue, Michigan State, and other seemingly inferior opponents? Well, I’ve got a feeling by late October Irish fans will be feeling the same way about Brian Kelly. There’s too much motivation out there for the Irish starters to lose to Navy again, and the coaching change will allow this team to step back from the reverential treatment of the Midshipmen and treat Navy the way they should be treated: like a dangerous but undermanned opponent. Paced by a high-powered running attack, the Irish will take care of business, beating the Midshipmen by double-digits.  

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.