Tuesdays with BK: Pitt edition

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There has been little familiarity for Brian Kelly in the opening five games of the season, as Kelly battled traditional Irish opponents that rarely showed up on the schedules of Central Michigan or Cincinnati. As the Irish prepare to face Pitt this Saturday afternoon, Kelly will square off with a team he’s battled the past three years at Cincinnati.

“I think we both know that we have a good grasp of — they know what we’re going
to do offensively, and we kind of know what they’re going to do
defensively, so I think that’s a wash,” Kelly said this afternoon. “I still think this comes down to who’s better prepared and who executes
better on Saturday, because we know each other so well. They’re like a
conference opponent more than anything else, going into a conference
game.”

The fine folks on the video team cut together some highlights from the rest of Kelly’s press conference.

 

A few thoughts on the presser as a whole:

The Irish coaching staff unearthed a great left tackle in sophomore Zack Martin, who saved a year of eligibility last season.

“When you look at Zach Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees
new things and maybe doesn’t handle it like a veteran starter, but those
things that he has encountered already, he’s playing at a high level,” Kelly said.
“He’s grading out as our top lineman at this point.”

Before the season started, even Notre Dame wasn’t sure who they had at tackle, as even the university was misspelling his first name (It’s Zack, not Zach). But Martin has been next to invisible at left tackle (a very good thing for an offensive lineman), bringing the Irish their surest blind-side tackle since Ryan Harris took over during his true freshman season.

*****

While much of the preseason hype — even Heisman discussion — went to running back Dion Lewis, it’s another sophomore running back that’s risen to the forefront of the Pitt rushing attack. Ray Graham has been a monster this year, missing the Utah game to open the season, but then racking up nearly 500 yards in three games, including a staggering 277 yards against Florida International last Saturday.

Kelly discussed how the Irish need to keep both Graham and Lewis, a guy that lit up the Irish last year, in check while also making things tough on first-year starter Tino Sunseri, who has top-flight wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin at his disposal.

“You have to pick your spots. I mean, if they know and you know and
everybody what’s watching the game knows that Baldwin is one-on-one the
whole game, that’s not a good situation,” Kelly said. “We have to make Sunseri not
know whether he’s getting help on his receiver, and that’s really the
game within the game, making sure that the quarterback is not sure when
it is double zone or when that corner is getting help on a particular
play.”

Putting a physical wide receiver like Baldwin on an island isn’t a recipe for success, while causing as much confusion as possible for Sunseri is, so hopefully the Irish find a way to commit enough man-power to stopping the running game without letting Baldwin make the big plays that killed the Irish last season.

*****

Speaking of Baldwin, he’ll likely be matched up again with Pittsburgh product Darrin Walls on the edge. Kelly had this to say about his senior cornerback.

“He’s been outstanding. He’s been our best cover corner consistently.
He’s played through injury. He’s probably been our most professional and
locked-in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint,” Kelly said.
“He’s very purposeful in what he does. He’s somebody we can point to in
our senior class and say, that’s mental and physical toughness. He’s
displayed that each and every week.”

And if Kelly had watched the film of Baldwin getting the best of Walls last season, he did his best not to show it.

“Clearly we have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Baldwin, and Darrin
Walls is a pretty good football player,” Kelly said. “I think you’ve probably got —
whether it’s Moss versus Revis, I don’t know if they’ve put it in that
degree, but you’ve got two really good players out there that want to
win. Again, I think within our scheme, he’s going to have to defend him
one-on-one sometimes, and we feel good about that match-up, as well.”

*****

Looking over the stats after last Saturday’s game, I was shocked to see Mark Herzlich barely make a dent in the ledger. Kelly attributed that to a schematic decision and the evolution of Theo Riddick playing as the slot “Z” receiver.

“It’s really about how you’re going to play the box for us, how many guys
you’re going to put in the box,” Kelly said. “If you drop that Sam backer and you
want to put him in the box, Theo is out in space with nobody over him,
and that’s probably not a match-up that teams want.

“So now you take a Herzlich out of the game against BC because he’s got
to stay out over Theo Riddick the whole game. I don’t know if he had a
couple of tackles, but he was effectively taken out of the ballgame. If
we can do that, it allows Armando to run and allows some other things to
occur then he’s doing his job, as well.”

That’s an interesting look at the game inside the game, and could be one of the reasons that Boston College coach Frank Spaziani was so effusive with his praise for Kelly and his gameplan after his team was easily defeated by the Irish.

*****

One thing is for sure: Cierre Wood isn’t in Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

“Here’s why I like Cierre Wood. It seems to be a big topic of
conversation, my sideline demeanor,” Kelly said. “When I went to talk to him about
that play, talk to him about the play, he said, ‘Coach, it’s inexcusable
what I did. I can’t tell you why it happened. That’s ridiculous.’ He
immediately took accountability for his actions. I didn’t say another
word to him. I’m a Cierre Wood fan. We’re going to keep developing that
young man and he’s going to be a good football player. He just needs to
continue to develop, gain more confidence. He needs recognition
awareness. When he sees things, he’s got to go, and he’s still thinking
too much. When we can get that out of him, when he can just react, man,
he’s going to be fun to play.

“I’ll tell you what, he had a couple runs, real hard runs early in the
game, made that mistake obviously, you can’t put the ball on the ground
in a competitive situation. But what I loved about the kid is
immediately it wasn’t, well, I didn’t get the call, I didn’t hear it, I
was getting a little tired, we hear a lot of that around here at Notre
Dame, and we hear about it too much, and I didn’t hear it from Cierre
Wood. And that’s why I’m in his camp and we’re going to keep getting him
to move forward and be a really good player for us.”

Quotes like these are the ones that should have Notre Dame fans very excited about having Brian Kelly as the man in charge. While it may have been coincidental, Charlie Weis never trusted Shaq Evans after he failed to catch the crucial third down out-pattern that Jimmy Clausen threw him against Michigan. The coaching staff never said that Evans didn’t play because of it, but it threw Shaq’s confidence in a lurch as the season continued and likely helped Evans make his decision to transferred after the the initial two-deep depth chart was released.

Kelly’s made it known he’s not going to bury a kid that’s made some mistakes, even if he does get all over his case. That’s likely the difference between a college coach and a coach with an NFL background. In the NFL, if you can’t trust a guy, you get rid of him. With an 85 man roster, Weis was able to simply not use Evans. But Kelly seems to understand that guys like Cierre Wood are going to be important football players for Notre Dame, and burying their confidence is only going to hurt the team collectively. Kelly made it clear that laying the ball on the ground is unacceptable, but he also let everybody know that’ll be watching this press conference — players included– that Cierre Wood is a great football player.

That’s the kind of discipline-heavy leader that’s considered a player’s coach.

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.