Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

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It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.

Brian Kelly’s debut at Notre Dame was a successful one, as the Fighting Irish beat a very able Purdue team 23-12 at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Irish were in control for much of the afternoon and looked to be cruising to an easy win when Michael Floyd fumbled heading into the end zone. Instead of pushing the score to 27-3 with an Irish touchdown, Purdue seized the momentum with a gigantic 15-play drive, a safety, and a Robert Marve touchdown run to pull within one score at the beginning of the final quarter.

With the game dangerously close to turning into another fourth quarter barn-burner, the defense stepped up, the running game ate up clock, and David Ruffer booted a clutch field goal to put the game out of reach. While the Irish would’ve gladly taken a run-away win, grinding out a fourth quarter win is a great way to start a season, and a great way to erase the bad memories of 2009 that might have snuck back into a few heads after Robert Marve somersaulted Purdue back into the football game.

For the first time since last October, the Irish won a football game. Here’s what we learned this afternoon.

1. The Notre Dame running attack paced the offense.

Spread offense? Try smash-mouth football, with the Irish running the ball 58 percent of the time. Armando Allen did most of the heavy lifting, with 93 yards on 18 attempts while Cierre Wood showed flashes of that explosiveness we saw in the spring, with 58 yards on only seven carries. The Irish had nine carries of 10 or more yards, eating up chunks of field quickly and effectively. Kelly told anyone that would listen that the Irish would run the ball, and even with three new starters along the offensive line, the Boilermakers had no answer for the Irish run game. Breaking in a new quarterback is always a challenge, but the most effective recipe for quarterbacking success is a vibrant running game, and almost exclusively out of the shotgun, the offensive line created great running lanes for Allen and Wood. Dogged for most of his career for not breaking long touchdown runs, Armando Allen’s 22-yard touchdown scamper was the longest of his career, a sign of big things to come as the offensive line gels.

2. Notre Dame’s defense won the game.

One of the season’s biggest questions was answered this afternoon when the Irish defense held an explosive Purdue offense to just 322 yards on 74 plays. A unit plagued by explosive plays last year only gave up one this afternoon, the 23 yard touchdown scamper by Robert Marve. Bob Diaco’s unit limited the Boilermaker offense to just 10 points, the most impressive defensive performance since last season’s shutout of Nevada on opening day. While many expected the Irish offense to power the engine, it was the defense that stepped up and won the football game.

“We talked on the sideline that, look, we put you in a bad situation here,” Kelly said after the game. “We are putting it on your shoulders.”

And those shoulders handled the weight well, coming up with big plays at all three levels: great interceptions by Darrin Walls and another aided by Gary Gray, active linebacking play by Kerry Neal, Carlo Calabrese, and Manti Te’o, and vastly improved line play, including sacks by Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, and Ian Williams. The decision to switch to the 3-4 defense paid off immediately, with Irish cornerbacks playing stellar run support defense (Gary Gray led the team in tackles) and disguised pressure that had Robert Marve running for his life. It was far from a perfect game, but the Irish walk away knowing that the personnel they have on the defensive side of the ball is more than good enough.

3. Brian Kelly is very good at winning football games.

Veering dangerously close to Herm Edwards territory, Kelly showed today that he played to win the game. Too often, Notre Dame outsmarted itself the last few years, over-processing situations and getting away from the fundamental things that help you actually win football games. Kelly avoided the temptation of making a “statement,” and instead chose to do it on the scoreboard. When finally given the keys to his shiny new car, give Kelly credit for skipping the joy ride and instead keeping it between the lines and guided her home. New quarterback? Ease him in with easy throws over the middle of the field and a strong running game. Dangerous receivers and a mobile quarter? Concede the short throw to take away the long one. Up eight points playing into the wind in the 4th quarter? Trust your kicker to make a 37-yard field goal. While style points would’ve been nice, having a coach stay within his means brings confidence to a team that might have been having flashbacks to a few fourth quarters from last year.

4. The Irish will win football games with excellent special teams.

There’s no overstating David Ruffer’s clutch performance this afternoon, kicking a career long 47-yard field goal as well as icing the game with a 37-yard boot in the fourth. Ruffer is an interesting story, having never even played in a football game until he went to William & Mary for college. A transfer student that came to Notre Dame as a sophomore after not getting accepted out of high school, he gave walking-on a shot, and the legend was born. Ruffer has made all eight field goals in his Notre Dame career, and none were bigger than the two he made this afternoon. There won’t be many non-scholarship athletes in college football that have a better story than Ruffer’s and today he was a great weapon for the Irish. Another weapon was freshman Bennett Jackson, who has already filled Mike Anello’s shoes as a special teams ace. Jackson was all over the field, finishing with four tackles on coverage teams, utilizing his blazing speed. With returners Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Armando Allen, the Irish are going to be incredibly dangerous on special teams, and will win a football game this year because of it.

5. The Irish are still looking for that killer instinct.

While it didn’t bite them this afternoon, Notre Dame still is in search of a killer instinct. And Brian Kelly knows it.

“I still think it’s about developing a mentality,” Kelly said after the game. “Call it what you want. Just the instinct of a champion senses that he’s got his opponent on the ropes. We have not acquired that yet but we will. Today, obviously, was a pretty clear case that when we had our opponent in a position to put him away, we didn’t execute when we needed to.”

A champion’s mentality is something that Kelly’s been drilling since day one at Notre Dame, and part of me thinks that the coaching staff is almost happy that they have a built-in teaching point as they prepare to take on a dangerous Michigan team. At various points last season, the Irish looked as if they could run away from an opponent, only to find themselves letting the other team back into the game. Kelly’s frenetic tempo and coaching philosophy takes away any of the hesitation in players, and now it’s a matter of the Irish going out and playing with the mentality of a champion.

Regardless, champions aren’t made in week one of the college football season. That’ll take time. But after one Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, step one of the season’s goal was accomplished. Win every Saturday. Next weekend against Michigan, they’ll tackle step two.

 

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)
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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.

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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)
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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.