Pregame Twelve Pack: Pitt edition

18 Comments

We’re back with the Pitt Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Pitt game.

1. Feel good about the Irish this weekend? Feel good about October 9th.

If you’re looking for a reason to feel confident about the Irish this Saturday, just look at the calendar. Notre Dame plays some very good football on October 9th, having never lost a football game on the date in the program’s history.

The Irish have gone 13-0-1 all-time on the date, the lone tie coming back in 1937 when the Irish played a scoreless draw with Illinois.

Here’s a rundown of the Irish on Oct. 9:

     2004 — ND 23, Stanford 15
     1999 — ND 48, Arizona State 17
     1993 — ND 44, Pitt 0
     1982 — ND 16, Miami 14
     1971 — ND 17, Miami 0
     1965 — ND 17, Army 0
     1954 — ND 33, Pitt 0
     1948 — ND 26, Michigan State 7
     1943 — ND 35, Michigan 12
     1937 — ND 0, Illinois 0
     1926 — ND 20, Minnesota 7
     1915 — ND 34, Haskell 0
     1909 — ND 58, Olivet 0

The 1943 game between the Irish in the Wolverines featured the number one and two ranked teams in the country, with No. 1 Notre Dame coming out victorious.

2. Irish have the size advantage up front, Pitt holds the size advantage on the edges.

I was surprised to see Notre Dame have a fairly large advantage in the battle up front. On average, Notre Dame’s offense line out-weights Pitt’s defensive front by nearly 37 pounds, with Irish offensive linemen averaging 306 pounds and Pitt defensive linemen averaging 270. On the flip-side, Pitt’s offensive line only out-weighs the Irish front three of the Irish by a mere 8 pounds, stacking up at 299 pounds on the Panthers offensive front while the Irish d-line averages 291 pounds.

In the secondary, the advantage heavily skews in the favor of Pitt though, with the average Pitt WR/TE checking in at 6-foot-5, and the average Notre Dame DB measuring a shade above six-feet tall. Meanwhile, the average Notre Dame WR/TE stands a quarter-inch under 6-foot-2, while the Panthers secondary averages over 5-foot-11.

Last year, the size advantage of Pitt’s receivers and tight ends played a massive part in the game. We’ll see if the Irish can nullify that advantage with some smart pressure on raw quarterback Tino Sunseri.

3. How good was Ray Graham last week? Historically good.

Pitt tailback Ray Graham set the world on fire last week with a monster game, rushing for 277 yards on 29 carries for three TDs. Graham’s game was the best rushing performance of the season in FBS, out-gaining the day Denard Robinson had against Notre Dame by 19 yards, on just one more carry.

Graham’s game also went down in the Pitt record book as one of the best in school history. His 277 yards was shy only Tony Dorsett’s game in 1975 against Notre Dame where he ran for 303 yards on 23 carries and one touchown, averaging an astonishing 13.2 yards per carry.

Graham had 374 all-purpose yards against Florida International, gaining those yards on 34 plays, an average of 11 yards per touch.

4. Tausch takes Ruffer’s kickoff job, Ruffer could take Tausch’s record.

Brian Kelly announced that sophomore Nick Tausch will be taking over for David Ruffer on kickoffs, but Ruffer would continue to kick field goals.

“Tausch was pretty consistent with his kickoffs in terms of placement,” Kelly said about the switch.
“One of the big things in our kickoff is ball placement. And we weren’t
getting a consistent ball placement. He was kicking it, he was kicking
it hard. But we’d have a squeeze left on and he’d kick it to the right
and really compromise some of our coverages. This is really about ball
placement. Nick’s always been a little bit better at ball placement. He
hasn’t kicked it as deep. But we’re willing to take a little bit off to
ensure some better placement.”

Tausch will get to put his foot to the ball, but Ruffer still will be taking dead aim at the school record Tausch holds for consecutive field goals made with 14. Ruffer sits at 13, making every single kick he’s attempted since he saw the field last year.

5. Brian Kelly 2, Dave Wannstedt 1.

That’s the overall record when these two coaches get together, with Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats beating Wannstedt’s Panthers the last two times they’ve played. Last season’s loss might have been the most crushing defeat for Wannstedt’s troops, losing their second straight last-second defeat, after falling in the Backyard Brawl to an unranked West Virginia team on a field goal as time expired. Wannstedt’s loss to Kelly’s Bearcats was had the Panthers blowing a 31-10 first half lead, and losing on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike to Armon Binns with 33 seconds remaining in the game, a loss made possible when holder Andrew Janocko mishandled a snap on an extra point with just 1:36 remaining.

In 2008, Kelly’s Bearcats survived a late charge by Pitt led by running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Dorrin Dickerson and held on for a 28-21 victory, the victory for the No. 19 rated Cincinnati squad clinching the Big East championship. In 2007, it was Wannstedt springing the surprise on Kelly, the Panthers winning just their third game of the season and holding a Ben Mauk led offense in check as the Bearcats lost just their second game in eight attempts.

“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 earlier this week. “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.”

6. There’s another ugly home losing streak that the Irish would like to end this Saturday.

While it doesn’t match the streak Boston College had run up over the last decade, Pitt is playing for an unprecedented third straight road victory at Notre Dame Stadium. The Panthers have won their previous two stops in South Bend, including the quadruple overtime win over the Irish in 2008, where Pitt escaped with a 36-33 victory.

In all, Pitt has won three of the last four games against the Irish, including their 27-22 victory over Notre Dame last year. Over the last 31 games, Pitt is 22-9, their winningest stretch since the 2001-03 seasons. In contrast, over the last 31 games, Notre Dame is 11-14.

7. Stopping the run with be the key to Irish victory.

With Ray Graham and Dion Lewis the best one-two punch the Irish will see all season in the backfield, stopping the run will be the key to victory for Notre Dame. The Irish saw a statistical surge after their dominating performance last week at Boston College, having their rush defense go from near the bottom of the heap in FBS up to a much more respectable 68th against the run.

In fact, the Irish run defense was one of the best performances the Irish have had since the Lou Holtz era ended. The Eagles’ five yards of rushing was the best performance the Irish have had since they held Stanford to -11 rushing yards in 2005, and the second-best performance by an Irish defense since 1998. The Eagles two rushing first downs were the fewest allowed since Holtz’s Irish squad held Vanderbilt to just one rushing first down on September 5, 1996.

8. Both Pitt and the Irish have been on the wrong side of some very close losses.

Over the last two seasons, the Irish have lost an incredible amount of close football games. Even including the 23-point victory by Stanford, the Irish average loss over the past two years has been by 6.4 points — a combined 58 points in 9 defeats.

Pitt has also had its share of hard luck, with their five losses over the past two seasons coming by a combined 42 points, an average of 8.4 points per game. A pretty remarkable number when you consider that the Panthers lost by 28 points to Miami two weeks ago, skewing the numbers quite a bit. Throw the Miami game out, and Pitt’s average loss the past two seasons has been by 3.5 points. That’s nearly a mirror image of their three losses in 2009, games Pitt lost by a combined 11 points, with two of those losses coming in the game’s final minute.

9. The Irish need to play a better game of give and take.

Pouring through the weekly stats, one area that Notre Dame needs to improve is their give/take ratio. Notre Dame is -4 on turnovers, taking the ball away from opponents 8 times, but giving it away 12. The Irish have given up 30 points off turnovers, allowing three touchdowns and three field goals to the opposing team. Offensively, the Irish have only managed 10 points off opponent turnovers, with a touchdown against Purdue in the first quarter of the season and a field goal after Zeke Motta recovered a muffed punt against Stanford.

It’s interesting that seven of the eight turnovers the Irish have forced have come via the interception, and the defense has yet to force a fumble. Meanwhile, the Irish turnovers come equal parts fumble and interception, with the Irish already losing five fumbles.

For the Irish to play winning football down the stretch, they’ll need to capitalize on the turnovers they force and do a better job of holding onto the football.

10. Irish try to keep it in the family with the Martin brothers.

With Zack Martin one of the best surprises on the season, Notre Dame looked to make it a family affair by offering Zack’s younger brother Nick a scholarship this week. The younger Martin is a three-star recruit, and currently committed to Kentucky, where both of Martin’s parents went to college.

Martin has offers from Big Ten schools like Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern, and has been committed to Kentucky since August. Former Irish assistant and current Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips also was a teammate of Keith Martin, Zack and Nick’s father, so it might be a tough recruit to pull this late in the game. The Irish offer came in the last few days, so if Notre Dame is going to gain another recruit along the offensive line, they’ll likely have to make up quite a bit of ground.

11. The career starts leader on defense is probably not who you’d expect.

When you think of guys that have been a lynch-pin of the Irish defense for the past few years, you’re not likely to think of Kerry Neal. But it’s Neal that sits atop the career starts list on the Irish defense with 26 games, joined by safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Darrin Walls.

Neal winning the outside linebacker job over Brian Smith and Steve Filer was one of the surprises of fall camp. And while his 17 tackles over five starts this year aren’t going to bowl anyone over with his productivity, Neal is playing better as the season goes on.

You tend to forget that Kerry started five games as a true freshman in 2007, 11 games as a sophomore and five games at defensive end in 2009. Neal’s development as a player was likely stunted by the shifting between a 3-4 system and a 4-3 system, and while he isn’t the prototype of what Kelly and Bob Diaco look for in their defensive system, Neal has become a solid veteran player getting key minutes for the Irish defense.

12. Don’t blame John Goodman for all the fair catches.

I was especially hard on John Goodman last week for his inability to get anything going on punt returns after taking over for Armando Allen as the primary deep man. It seemed like Goodman was content to either fair catch the ball or he continued to let punts land and roll for an extra chunk of yardage, one of my biggest pet peeves for any return man. But Brian Kelly placed the blame on the erratic punts of Ryan Quigley, who kicked 11 times for an average of 40 yards, his worst day of the season.

“They sprayed the ball. They had about 60 yards of roll on the ground,” Kelly said.
“The kid came in as the top punter in the country and didn’t kick it 40
yards. So one of those things where, finally, he did kick a couple, and
it was just a fair catch situation.”

Pitt starts Dan Hutchins at both punter and kicker and he’s one of the best in the Big East, so Goodman is likely to get a chance at returning kicks from a punter that’s far more accurate this week.

 

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.