Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan edition

8 Comments

Round two of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we into towards the Michigan game.

1. Mother Nature might be playing a factor in this one.

Maybe it was Rich Rodriguez’s premonition during his Tuesday press conference, but it looks like rain for South Bend this Saturday. Here’s what Rodriguez said about his recollection of Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s an intimate setting, just like the Big House,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “You’re in a confined area. It seems like it always rains when we go down there, I don’t know what the forecast is. The few times I’ve been there it seems like it’s always raining and the grass is usually high. Because of the rain, I guess.”

Tossing Rodriguez’s dig of the field aside, the weather is going to be a factor on Saturday and the Irish are already preparing for it.

“Today we did a wet ball drill in (special teams), in particular because
the snapping, punts, field goals, things of that nature,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Wet ball in
7-on-7, we did that in camp. We have to play in the elements. You have
to practice them. but I don’t think I over-coach it. I think we have
great balance in our offense and defense that if we have to take shape
differently during the game because of the elements, we’ll do that.
Thirteen years of being on Lake Michigan at Grand Valley State, I think
I’ve seen every kind of weather pattern that’s blown through here.”

2. With Jamoris Slaughter limited, walk-on Chris Salvi is the next man in.

Much of this week has been dedicated to looking at the thin depth chart in the Michigan secondary, but with Jamoris Slaughter being held out unless it’s an emergency situation, walk-on safety Chris Salvi now serves as the primary back up for Zeke Motta.

Want the dish on Selvi? How about this blast from the past from the suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald on November 9th, 2007.

Salvi is a two-year starter for the 9-2 Corsairs, who
will take on De La Salle Saturday night in the Class 7A quarterfinals. A
cornerback turned safety, he’s become a focal point of the defense with
his textbook tackling and hard hits.

He ranks second on the team with 93 tackles. He also has
4 interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt against Notre Dame that he
recovered himself and ran in for a touchdown.

“Last year, Chris had a good year, but this year he’s
had a breakout year,” Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. “Part of it has to
do with the fact that he switched from cornerback to safety and safety
seems to suit him a lot better. He’s great against the run and he’s the
kind of player who really loves to hit people.

“But the other part of it is that Chris has worked so
darn hard to improve himself and establish himself on this team. He was
in the weight room so much over the summer that I had to practically
kick him out. I think I’ll be able to use him as an example for many
years about what you need to do to really get ahead. This is a kid who
is just extremely motivated to do his best.”

Brian Kelly’s confidence in Salvi seemed to be similar to that of Carmel coach Andy Bitto.

“I’m good with four and Salvi is a real solid player for us. He’s on all of our (special teams),” Kelly said. “He’ll be our fifth guy and we’re not afraid to put him in the game if we have to.”

3. Barry Gallup Jr. filled the role of Denard Robinson this week.

No word on whether or not Gallup actually laced up his shoes, but he did take the scout team reps at quarterback, trying to replicate the offensive prowess of the speedy Michigan quarterback. He might not have the top-end jets of Shoelace, but Kelly was happy with the work he did.

“You can pay attention to pursuit angles, how you’re working in
different levels defensively, and not have a guy who’s 4.3, 4.4,” Kelly said after practice Thursday. “Though I will say Gallup did a nice job running that offense for us, because you
get banged around a bit running the ball as much as he did.

4. The Irish just added a much more visible sign of tradition to the football offices. Seven of them.

Brian Kelly added some serious hardware to the lobby of The Gug this week, bringing in the school’s seven Heisman Tropies to be displayed alongside a National Championship trophy and a bronze bust of the Four Horseman. Kelly’s rationale was simple:

“The tradition here can be talked about all we want and it can be read
about, but you can also see it tangibly when you walk into this football
facility now,” Kelly said. “Obviously, with the national championship trophy on
display, it’s real when a recruit or an alumnus or a former letterwinner
comes in. You can tangibly see the success of Notre Dame. It’s not just
what was talked about.”

5. That tradition will be on display for some pretty impressive recruits.

The Irish welcome a nice collection of recruits to South Bend for the big game against Michigan. Irish fans better hope that the potentially stormy weather doesn’t wash a few of the uncommitted targets away.

Some of the expected visitors that are still being recruited by Notre Dame:

      George Atkinson, WR
      Josh Atkinson, CB
      Wayne Lyons, S
      Stephon Tuitt, DE
      Maty Mauk, QB (2012)

Here are the recruits already committed to the Irish that will join them in South Bend.

      Kyle Brindza, K
      Jalen Brown, CB
      Brad Carrico, DE
      Jarrett Grace, LB
      Eilar Hardy, S
      Justice Hayes, RB

Wayne Lyons is a five-star prospect that has just about every team in the country chasing him. The Atkinson brothers are also a pair of prestigious national recruits, and Stephon Tuitt has offers from SEC powers like Georgia, Florida, and LSU. With scholarships opening up with the departure of Derek Roback and Shaq Evans, this weekend could be a big one.

6. Looking for the last time Brian Kelly squared off with Rich Rodriguez?

November 17, 2007. Pat White and the No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers survived a fourth quarter run by Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats, and held on to a 28-23 victory. Ben Mauk (Maty’s older brother) led the Bearcats with 323 yards passing and two touchdowns, as well as paced the rushing attack with 52 yards on 15 carries. Pat White and Steve Slaton both had 100 yard days, with White getting 27 carries for 155 yards, and Slaton ran for 103 yards on 23 carries.

7. Looking to see how Kelly’s offense has done against a Greg Robinson defense?

After holding Cincinnati offenses to 22 and 17 points in Greg Robinson’s first two seasons coaching at Syracuse, the Bearcats exploded for 52 points in Kelly’s first match-up against the Orange in 2007, scoring double-digit points in each quarter, on their way to racking up 544 total yards.

In 2008, a week after handing Notre Dame a 24-23 loss on Senior Day, Cincinnati coasted to an easy 30-10 victory over the Orange in what was Greg Robinson’s final game as head coach of Syracuse. Tony Pike did most of the work, throwing for 272 yards and two TDs, with the Bearcat defense also forcing two turnovers.

8. ND’s offensive line vs. UM’s defensive line could be the story.

Michigan’s secondary may be a mess, but this game will be won or lost in the trenches for the Irish. The Wolverine defense played pretty stout against a UConn running attack that many thought was lethal. Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and Craig Roh will be the main threats battling Zack Martin, Chris Stewart, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

The 3-3-5 system of Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez relies on bringing pressure from different places, so if Ed Warinner’s group can identify who is coming and where he’s coming from, there should be holes up front to run between, and time for Dayne Crist to dissect a porous secondary.

9. Dayne Crist will have the opportunity to play a breakout game.

How big of a deal is Dayne Crist? Even though he only joined Twitter in June and has exactly one start as a college quarterback, he’s got over 2,750 Twitter followers already. In fact, Crist’s right arm even has its own Twitter page, with “The Cannon” starting to rack up followers all around the Notre Dame blogosphere.

Crist played a solid game, completing 73 percent of his throws for 205 yards and a touchdown, but he missed on two or three more explosive plays, including potential touchdowns to both Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd (twice). Crist will need to harness some of the emotions and energy that maybe had him missing some easy opportunities last Saturday. If he does that, expect a very nice day from Crist. And his right arm. (They can both tweet about it later that night…)

10. This is a big game for defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Elston played football for the Wolverines, lettering from 1994 to 1996 as a linebacker. After his playing career he worked in the football department for four years, starting as a camp coordinator his first two years, then climbing to the ranks of graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000.

Elston had to leave Ann Arbor to get a full-time coaching position, and went to Eastern Michigan, before joining Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004. The two have been together ever since. This will only be the second time Elston has faced off against his alma mater since he began coaching over a decade ago. The first was a 41-17 loss in 2006 when Central Michigan was beaten by a Michigan team that would walk into South Bend the next week and blow out the Irish.

11. Denard Robinson certainly announced his presence with authority.

In his first start, Denard Robinson set a Michigan record for most yards rushing for a quarterback, with 197 yards on 29 carries. His 19-of-22 passing moves him to second all-time on the Michigan lists for completion percentage in a single game behind Elvis Grbac. Robinson’s 383 total yards is the sixth-highest total yardage mark in Big Ten history and the top mark for the Wolverines in school history.

Even more bizarre, while Robinson may have burst onto the scene with his performance against UConn, he led the Wolverines offense in rushing last year with 351 yards on 69 carries last year, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 5 touchdowns.

12. Coach worth watching? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

The opening performance by the defense against Purdue was impressive, but if Diaco really wants to earn the adoration of Notre Dame Nation, he’ll need to orchestrate an equally-impressive performance against Denard Robinson and the Michigan offensive attack.

Diaco discussed what the defense needs to do to stop Robinson.

“It’s a real challenge,” Diaco said. “All we’re going to do is do the best that we can in selecting from the menu of installation that we have, preparing the players mentally, focusing on the nuts and bolts of defense in terms of block destruction, tackling and effort. Then they need to just clearly know their assignment and do their assignment the whole time.”

Kelly already hinted earlier this week that the Irish wouldn’t send a lot of pressure after an option quarterback. We’ll see what Diaco has in store for Michigan Saturday afternoon.

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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)
6 Comments

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.

***

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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
22 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.