Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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Van Morrison said it best: There’ll be days like this.

Stuck in neutral for much of the afternoon, Notre Dame’s took a large step backward as Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad easily defeated the Irish 37-14, dropping Notre Dame to 1-3 on the season.

The Cardinal physically dominated the game, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The revamped Cardinal defense was all that was advertised, holding the Irish to only 44 yards rushing and continuously taking Dayne Crist to the ground. On offense, Stanford put together a workman-like performance, getting 166 yards on the ground and giving Andrew Luck all day to throw the football. Even on special teams, Stanford had the upper-hand, limiting the Irish kick returners to meager gains and consistently dominating the field position battle.

With three losses in the first four games of the season, Notre Dame will have to reevaluate their goals for the season. Here are five things we learned during Stanford’s 37-14 win over Notre Dame.

1. Notre Dame’s offensive line was exposed.

Today was not a banner day for Ed Warinner’s crew. The three-man front of Stanford’s defense confused and dominated the Irish, keeping Notre Dame’s running game obsolete. More surprising, Stanford was able to pressure Dayne Crist with a three- and four-man pass rush, allowing Cardinal defenders to drop seven and eight men into coverage and clog up passing lanes.

Stanford blitzed early and often and drilled Dayne Crist just as much, continually putting the Irish quarterback to the turf. The first three weeks, Notre Dame’s inexperienced tackles looked up to the task at hand. This afternoon, they didn’t. No offensive line is immune to growing pains, but this afternoon’s performance was an ugly reminder that Notre Dame is breaking in three new starters up front. Expect an emphasis in practice this week to be put on the snap count, as Stanford took advantage of Crist’s predictable delivery and timed their blitzes perfectly.

2. The Irish special teams need to improve quickly.

There’s no excuse for Notre Dame not to be better on special teams, and this afternoon’s performance was mediocre at best. Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly put Cierre Wood on notice that his hesitance on kick returns wouldn’t be tolerated. Wood failed to answer the bell this afternoon, tip-toeing out of the end zone on the opening kickoff and failing to get past the 20 yard line multiple times. It’s not all on Wood either, as the blocking up front failed to create running lanes.

The hidden yardage battle was also becoming glaringly obvious, with punter Ben Turk only averaging 32 yards a kick on his five punts, including a massive shank when he tried to kick one rugby style. While the game was already out of reach, the onside kick attempt by the Irish was a triple-failure as well, with kicker Nick Tausch failing to kick the ball ten yards, Harrison Smith running offsides, and Stanford recovering the ball.

On Thursday, Kelly had this to say about the special-teamers:

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically, Kelly said. “Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams… I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.”

Mike Elston’s a very good special teams coach and you can bet there will be plenty of time dedicated to fixing these problems. Now we’ll see if Kelly is true to his word when the travel squad is announced for next week’s game at Boston College.

3. Manti Te’o is a dynamic presence.

While it was in a losing effort, Manti Te’o was all over the field this afternoon, making a career-high 21 tackles this afternoon. Te’o runs sideline to sideline as good as any middle linebacker in college football, and the hit he made on the Stanford sideline is a great reminder that he’s a got knock-out power as well.

“He played with a will today,” Kelly said about Te’o. “He had a look o his face, a toughness to him that he hasn’t displayed since he’s been a player here at Notre Dame. Today is one of those watershed moments for a defensive plyer that we can model.”

If you’re looking for reasons to believe that Te’o’s becoming a complete player, don’t look at the stats he’s putting up. Instead, rewatch the great job he did in coverage, running stride-for-stride down the seam and making a great play on a well-delivered Andrew Luck pass for a pass break-up. Te’o is a true sophomore and still very much a work-in-progress, but Notre Dame has found the rock in the middle of its defense.

4. Dayne Crist is having growing pains.

Dayne Crist reminded us that he’s only making the fourth start of his career this afternoon. Even though he got off to a quick start, Crist once again hit a lull in the middle of the game, grinding the Irish passing attack to a halt as he missed on five consecutive throws and struggled making the correct reads. With the Irish ground game MIA, it was up to Dayne to carry the offense and the first-year starter just wasn’t able to get it done.

“Every day he’s growing,” Kelly said of Crist. “There’s new things he’s confronted with. He’s learning. But it is a process. This is the maturation of a quarterback right before your eyes.”

Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had Crist off-balance or in the turf much of the afternoon, giving the quarterback multiple looks and dropping as many as eight white shirts into coverage. Fangio also took away tight end Kyle Rudolph, and Crist was lost without his safety valve.

5. Stanford is in a different class than Notre Dame right now.

At the quarter-mark of the season, it’s clear that Stanford is just a better football team than Notre Dame right now. Think about this: The Irish defense picked off Andrew Luck twice, held him below 250 yards passing, kept the vaunted Cardinal running game below four yards a carry… and Stanford still beat Notre Dame by 23 points.

“Begin by tipping my hat to Stanford, Coach Harbaugh,” Kelly said. “Well-coached football team. They were well prepared. It’s a fine football team. They deserved to win today.”

Harbaugh’s troops play an incredible effective brand of football, controlling the clock, the line of scrimmage, and never backing down from an opponent. We’ll find out if Stanford has a Rose Bowl worthy squad in the next two weeks, but Stanford’s last three wins — dominating UCLA, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame — certainly rank among the best in college football.

As for the Irish, they’re at a fork in the road and Kelly knows it.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out.”

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.