IBG: Bring on Stanford

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The Irish Blogger Gathering continues with some pertinent questions about the game against  Stanford. Running the show with a Q&A befitting the written exam on the GRE is the crew from One Foot Down, who have certainly put some time and effort into the questions at hand.

I’ll do my best to answer them. (Apologies for no Opponent Preview this morning, you’d be shocked at how hard it is to find someone that actually writes and follows Stanford.)

1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses
how have your expectations for this season changed?  Has the rough start
affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?

I’m rethinking my Rose Bowl prediction, but I don’t think I’ve changed my expectations. From an end-game perspective, I didn’t have a number of wins in mind that would make me think this season was a success or not, but it’d be great to see this team get better as the year went on, which would be a change from the past few seasons.

The last two coaching staffs did a great job of building early momentum, infusing excitement into the fanbase and recharging everyone. Obviously Kelly’s two last-second losses killed the momentum he was building and some fans understandably reacted. I’d like to think of myself as a level-headed, logical optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, and I’m not going to let two brutal breaks change that.

2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two
games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has
looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde?  Or are
we just a work in progress?

I think work-in-progress is a fair label. I also think that this defense is structurally flawed, thanks to some poor roster management. Kelly was left in a bad spot, particularly with depth at defensive end and in the secondary, and it’s hard to play winning defense without those two positions having good depth. That said, I’m more bullish on the Irish defense than others, probably because I’ve had the chance to sit with Bob Diaco and listen to the staff’s philosophies. Make no mistake: If the Irish don’t play great defense this year, it isn’t because of the coaches. Habits are hard to break, and while there have been improvements, last year’s Irish defense did a lot of things poorly, and we’re seeing some of those habits come out at the worst of times.

3. I’ve heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player
make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to
consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great
plays against State.  Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at
critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his
staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?

Kelly hinted at the problems on the offense when he discussed ball-control throws yesterday. For the Irish offense to move the chains, Dayne Crist needs to do a better job making the short throws, making the proper two-man reads, and getting the Irish offense to operate at a higher efficiency level. I fully appreciate how difficult the transition must’ve been from a Charlie Weis pro-style, downfield offense to a Brian Kelly no-huddle, spread attack. Crist hasn’t played a lot of football, had to rehab a torn ACL this offseason, and still is playing at a pretty high level.

4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents?
Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?

Before the season, I ranked the Stanford game as the 7th hardest on the schedule, and I absolutely take that back right now. Even if Stanford is a paper lion, I think they’re a more dangerous team than BC, Michigan, and Michigan State, so Notre Dame has to play a clean football game to win.

As for the biggest win of the last six years… Huh? This is still Stanford. Don’t get me wrong it’d be a big win, and looking back at the last six years and the quality wins is a depressing exercise, but I can’t call beating a Stanford team that beat up on Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest the best win of the last six years. 

5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND’s
academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish
supporters consider Notre Dame’s unique combination of strong academics
and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the
college football world.  With stricter admission standards and far-less
football notoriety, Harbaugh’s Cardinal have burst onto the national
recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football
players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance
to compete at the highest level.  Could you foresee sustained excellence
by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong
Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame’s niche?

Without getting too macro, Stanford is taking advantage of having a prestigious name brand, something Notre Dame knows plenty about. That said, there aren’t too many similarities that Notre Dame and Stanford share after crossing off good academics and private institutions. What’s getting good football players to Palo Alto is Jim Harbaugh. He’s an aggressive recruiter chasing top-talent, and doing it in one of the premiere states for football talent. Do I think Stanford threatens Notre Dame’s niche? No. But if last year was an indicator (Notre Dame and Stanford each poached players from each other), the Irish and Cardinal will see plenty of each other on the recruiting trail, just because they’re forced to look at the same profile of athlete.

6. Let’s talk statistics.  Will they matter this weekend?

a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense
nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33
yds/gm).  Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the
99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). 
Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford’s rushing attack?  

This is the match-up of the afternoon. Stanford’s offense and quarterback Andrew Luck both depend on a strong rushing attack. Stanford pounded the ball 49 times against UCLA and averaged 4.3 yards a carry — not all that spectacular when you consider that UCLA turned the ball over four times. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been stout by any means against the run, but they should stack up physically, and need to eliminate the big play.

b. Notre Dame’s Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318
yds/gm) and Stanford’s Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74
yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack? 

The Irish need to be able to throw the ball against UCLA. I’m not buying the hype on the newly transformed Cardinal defense. I’m throwing out games against Sacramento State, a mediocre team in the Big Sky Conference, and UCLA has some of the most dreadful quarterback play in the country. That said, the 3-4 defense could be exactly what Stanford needs to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish should get a very good luck from their scout team and defensive coaches this week. As long as Dayne Crist and company can stop turning the ball over, Notre Dame will be able to score some points.

c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?

Kelly will go with what’s working, but I suspect we’ll see Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and possibly Robert Hughes getting some carries Saturday. There hasn’t been great balance on offense for the Irish, but before we get worried, they’ve only played three games and Armando Allen has looked great this year. The Stanford run defense looks susceptible, and I’m sure Kelly will try and control the game on the ground.

d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the
Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%).   Stanford’s Red
Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish
Defense’s Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%).  Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford’s RZ conversions and improve theirs?  How would you do that? 

I don’t have any idea if the Irish will stop Stanford in the red zone. Ideally they’d do it before Stanford gets there, or win the field position battle and set up longer fields for the Cardinal. Andrew Luck is a really really good quarterback and his mobility makes Stanford dangerous in the red zone. The Irish need to hold on to the football and make their red zone possessions count. No team is going to keep a 50 percent red zone average like Stanford’s defense has, but the Irish need to hold on to the football down in Stanford’s end of the field and get touchdowns instead of field goals to win the game.

7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still
trying to find its identity.  Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a
well-oiled machine thus far.  Do you think this Irish squad can really
bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal?  What
if it’s not all that close?

Slow down, Mr. Negative. On paper, Notre Dame matches up fine with Stanford. It was only last year where Notre Dame moved the ball up and down the field with a team playing for nothing with a dead-man-walking coach, and a defense not much better.  Put frankly, the Irish have just been on the wrong-end of two very heart-breaking losses. But Brian Kelly isn’t going to lose his team after three games, and like it or not, transitions are tough. There are going to be bumps in the road. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Irish win, and for as lopsided as this may appear, Stanford is only a four-point favorite in Las Vegas. 

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.

***

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.