The Good, the bad the ugly: Michigan

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A little over 24 hours after the Irish lost to Michigan 28-24, Brian Kelly was given more than a few opportunities to try and find a silver lining in the heartbreaking defeat. He never took the bait.

“I’m not a real big believer in that you learn a lot after a loss,” Kelly said. “I’d rather learn after winning.”

So would Irish fans, after watching Notre Dame lose a second consecutive rivalry game against Michigan on a last minute touchdown drive.

Before we turn the page, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly from Saturday’s defeat.

THE GOOD

Armando Allen is turning into a elite running back. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d describe Allen’s running style as punishing, but watching the tape of the game, it’s pretty clear that Allen was a man on fire on Saturday afternoon, gaining 89 yards on 15 carries, and breaking countless tackles as well. Even more impressive is Allen’s role on the offense. As a four-year player, this is very much his offense, and the senior is stepping up.

“I really like his leadership. You could tell it hurt him when we lost the football game,” Kelly said. “He’s made a huge investment and you can see it in the way he plays the game.”

The Irish had five different players break runs of 10-plus yards, with Allen’s 29-yard gain in the third quarter the longest run of the day for Notre Dame. With Cierre Wood stuck in neutral and only gaining 10 yards on six carries, Allen’s blue-collar approach helped keep the offense two-dimensional even when playing from behind.

THE BAD

The quarterback situation behind Crist. Tommy Rees and Nate Montana combined to go 8 for 19 for 104 yards with two interceptions. Even those numbers are misleading, because 37 of the yards came on the near Hail Mary heave from Montana to Theo Riddick, who was left wide open on the penultimate play of the second quarter.

Rees’ first college throw was a terrible decision — a play designed to give the quarterback only one option, and Rees unfortunately took the other one. Montana also seemed lost, complacent to just roll from the pocket, giving himself only half-field reads as he scrambled to his right. While I agreed with the decision to go for the touchdown at the moment, never did I suspect (or Kelly and the coaching staff for that matter) that in a no-risk situation that the quarterback would sail one into the stands instead of trying to squeeze a ball into a tight spot.

With it clear that neither of the two back-up quarterbacks were ready to lead the team to a victory, Kelly shouldered the blame.

“”We’re not going to play Massa and we’re not going to play Hendrix. So I gotta get ready those two kids,” Kelly said. “Flat out, that’s
my job. We’re going to have to do some things a little differently to
make sure they’ve got a package they can handle. That was too much for
them. It doesn’t mean we can’t be successful, but we gotta get a
different package for them and I gotta get that done this week.”

THE UGLY

Notre Dame fans have to be kicking themselves playing the “what if” game. After the opening Irish drive, it looked like Notre Dame could’ve put up a really large number on the scoreboard. Even after stalling out with Rees and Montana at the helm for most of the first half, the Irish gained 535 yards on offense, throwing for 381 yards and averaging 18.1 yards per reception.

But one series into the game, the Irish faced an offensive predicament that was as close to a worse-case scenario as you could imagine.

“It was not what was prescribed,” Kelly admitted. “You’re just trying to find out about
your starting quarterback and now when you lose him against Michigan you
put yourself in a position to go to somebody who has never played a BCS
college football game.”  

I was guilty of playing the moral victory card after the game and finding positives in the effort shown by the Irish, but to Brian Kelly’s credit he will be putting those kind of kudos to rest.

“I’m going to tell our team tomorrow that’s the last time I want to hear
us talk about Notre Dame playing hard for four quarters,” Kelly said. “That is now a
given. Notre Dame needs to execute and win football games.”

It’s been said before that every Saturday in college football is a season in itself. That’s a little bit how it feels after this defeat. If Notre Dame walks out of the stadium with a victory and a 2-0 record, the trajectory of this year feels mightily different than the path they find themselves walking now — heading into a hostile environment on Saturday night against a Michigan State team that’s coasted behind a powerful rushing attack against two inferior teams.

You can say it now: There’s no bigger game than this Saturday for Kelly’s Irish. The psychological difference of being 2-1 and 1-2 is staggering, especially with another daunting task coming the next weekend with an impressive Stanford squad coming to South Bend.   

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.