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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan

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Notre Dame got off to the perfect start on Saturday afternoon, with Dayne Crist hitting a wide open Michael Floyd for an 80-yard touchdown pass on the games first play from scrimmage. The rest of the first half? Not so great.

“I was not happy obviously about the first half and we hadn’t played that way this year,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “At halftime, we had a little chat about that, and I think that chat went pretty good.”

In what was likely a closed-door outburst that would put his sideline antics to shame, Kelly whipped the Irish into shape, and Notre Dame cruised to an easy 44-20 victory against visiting Western Michigan, led by three Floyd touchdown catches.

The victory pushes the Irish to 4-3, their three game winning streak erasing an earlier three-game losing streak and pushing the Irish season back onto track.

“Absolutely progress,” Kelly said about the win. “This team was 1-3. I think when we talked about that at the time, you can go in
one of two directions at 1-3. You
can fall off the cliff and have a disastrous season or you can work towards 9-3. I think this is another step. Our players are learning, learning how
to play football games, regardless of who the competition is.”

Here’s what we learned this Saturday:

1. If you forgot, Michael Floyd is still an All-American wide receiver.

A game time decision with a balky hamstring, Floyd stepped up and was the best player on the football field this Saturday afternoon, running around, over, and through Western Michigan defenders as he caught nine balls for 157 yards and three touchdowns.

On the game’s opening play, Floyd broke wide open on a deep post, slowed to catch an under-thrown ball by quarterback Dayne Crist, hopped over a defensive back and sprinted for the end zone. His second catch was also a great individual effort, picking up a low pass from wide receiver John Goodman and powering his way into the end zone. His third touchdown was a replica of the failed 3rd down play in overtime against Michigan State, with Crist choosing correctly this time by throwing to a wide open Floyd instead of a covered tight end running a quick out.

When asked about the opposing team’s star receiver, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit didn’t mince words.

“I remember (Texas All-American) Roy Williams, and I didn’t think I’d see another guy like him, but I just saw him,” Cubit said. “He’s a great player. He’s as physical and as good a receiver as I’ve ever seen. He plays the game the way its supposed to be played.

“There’s no show-boating and he’s appreciative of the game. I’m not going to tell you he was fun to watch, but maybe tomorrow it will be.”

After the game, Kelly explained that the coaching staff knew they needed to incorporate Floyd into the game plan even more, breaking down the way the ball’s been distributed thus far.

“We did a breakdown and we threw the ball to Michael Floyd 74 times, Theo Riddick 55 times, and Kyle Rudolph 55 times. We have pretty good balance there. Michael, as we broke down who was getting the football, needed to get the football even more than that. So there was a focus in our game plan to make sure that we were creating opportunites for him, in what happened to be some one-on-one opportunities, he’s going to win most of those times.”

2. The kids are alright.

For the first time, the Irish were able to play a bunch of developmental players, and that experience gave us a chance to see first-hand the work the coaching staff has done with their young team.

Freshmen Austin Collinsworth, Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson, Prince Shembo, Lo Wood, and Tommy Rees all played this afternoon, and Kelly liked what he saw of the young guys, particularly on special teams.

“Daniel Smith helped us out. Obviously today we wanted more athleticism on our kick teams,” Kelly said. “But I would say that the young guys continue to show. Collinsworth, outstanding in all phases of our kick games. Daniel Smith gives us speed and athleticism in there, and obviously Bennett Jackson.”

Smith’s ascent to the the kickoff team is an interesting one, as he doesn’t show up on any of the two-deep positions at wide receiver. But as large and as physical as Smith is, the fact that he’s becoming a special teams ace speaks very highly for his future as a wide receiver.

3. Brian Kelly really doesn’t care about time of possession, but is glad others do.

In a funny light moment, Kelly called out the media for not mentioning that the Irish finally won the time of possession battle this afternoon.

I’m really surprised and disappointed I didn’t get
this comment made, but for the first time in two and a half years, we won time
of possession,” Kelly joked.For all of you guys
that live and die on time of possession, please note that we won today’s time
of possession.

The Irish did that by riding the back of Robert Hughes late in the second half, and running the ball consistently after a mediocre start to the afternoon. The Irish possessed the ball for 11:39 seconds of the fourth quarter, wearing down an undersized Broncos defense that had no answer for Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes.

When pressed on time of possession, Kelly deferred to a stat that really matters:

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we believe we have got a play that matches what we think we see, we are going
to call those plays to score points. 
When we needed to control the clock in the second half, we did, and
obviously took about five minutes off the clock late in the game when it was
pretty much in our hands.  Again,
we are going to score points first and time of possession comes later down the
road.

4. Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone did a capable job of filling Kyle Rudolph’s shoes.

While Eifert laid a ball on the ground early in the game, he had four catches for 72 yards, including his first touchdown in an Irish uniform, on a clutch 4th down conversion. He’s a capable receiver, surprisingly nimble, and will look very good running in space in Kelly’s offense. Even more encouraging for Irish fans, Eifert didn’t blink when he made his first mistake of the day.

I wasn’t worried about that as much as, you know,
he clearly was engaged in the game. 
This was not a far and away look in his eye, where, oh, my goodness, the
guy is in the play now and we’ve lost him,” Kelly said.
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I’m usually going to be pretty good in those
situations, I don’t want the ball on the ground, but you can tell looking at a
kid that he’s locked in and knows what he’s doing. I got a good feel from him today.

While Crist’s lone interception came on a pad throw that hit Mike Ragone in the shoulder pads, Ragone did a nice job as the second tight end, making a nice play on Nate Montana’s lone completion, and doing a good job blocking.

Overall, Irish tight ends had five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, plenty good production for the position. 

5. The battle for first down is crucial for the Irish offense.

As we discussed earlier in the week, Notre Dame’s ability to be productive on first down is the surest sign of whether or not an offensive drive is going to go anywhere. After the game’s opening touchdown pass, the Irish struggled on early downs, and predictably, drives stalled out.

“I wasn’t pleased with out management on
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first and second down,” Kelly said.I thought we made some poor decisions at the quarterback
position. Dayne didn’t play very
well in the first half.  You guys
watched the same game I did, he played much better in the second half, saw some
things and made some plays.

In the first half, the Irish scored two big touchdowns on first down, the 80-yard pass to Floyd and Goodman’s 32-yard completion to Floyd on the reverse. The rest of their production on first down? Non-existent.

Even including Dayne Crist’s nine-yard touchdown run on first down, the Irish total six net yards on 10 first downs in the first half, an absolutely abysmal rate. If the Irish are going to win as the schedule gets tougher, they’ll need to do a better job on first down.
 

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.