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Candor not helping the Kelly narrative

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After the first eight games of his inaugural season, Brian Kelly has won exactly as many games as he has lost, which has quite a few members of the Irish faithful weary. Kelly has failed to win the close games that got Charlie Weis removed after his fifth season, and even worse, has openly conceded he hasn’t had answers for two opponents’ schematical game plans.

Last minute losses to Michigan and Michigan State aside, Kelly’s inability to counter Stanford’s drop-eight coverage kept the Irish offense from mounting any sort of challenge against the Cardinal. On Saturday, the Irish coaching staff had no answer to Navy’s veer-option, a tweak the Irish defense was simply unable to counter when trying to stop the Midshipmen’s attack. Two different sides of the ball, two different games, and Kelly’s stated plainly after both losses that the coaching staff didn’t have the players prepared for what the opponents did.

If we learned anything from the Charlie Weis era, it’s that a coaches’ narrative is often written in the opening days of his tenure. For Weis, that included the dreaded quote where he promised Irish fans something they yearned to hear, that Notre Dame would now have a “decided schematic advantage” over their opponents. That was far from the only quote from his opening press conference that came back to haunt him in the end, as Weis’ hubris and a ego went from perceived assumption to assumed fact, and the final three seasons of his tenure at Notre Dame became exercises in completing the narrative of failure for sportswriters and message-boarders alike, with Charlie Weis receiving a proper comeuppance in the end.

The first months of Brian Kelly’s tenure weren’t remembered for preposterous proclamations, rather for a man that worked tirelessly reuniting a fractured fanbase. From the opening days of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, he hit the road visiting alumni groups and donors, working to heal the psyche of a fanbase that’s long assumed the university’s adminstation has failed it repeatedly since Lou Holtz left South Bend. Amidst those 180-some-odd visits, Kelly was also tasked with assembling a coaching staff, implementing a new spread offense with an inexperienced quarterback recovering from major knee surgery, and putting together a defense hamstrung by depth issues and saddled with a roster filled with players that had just put together one of the worst defenses in the school’s history.

Even though Notre Dame just hired the National Coach of the Year, Kelly’s hiring was hardly universally approved. Whether it was the rumored chase of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, or Kelly’s small school Grand Valley State upbringing and D-I resume that includes the dim lights of places like Central Michigan and Cincinnati, the naysayers looked at Kelly not as an offensive innovator and proven winner, but as a guy that had never done it on a stage close to the one he was stepping onto at Notre Dame.

With the last two Notre Dame coaches sprinting out of the gates, Irish fans have become reliant on a new coaching staff bringing immediate results, as if the breath of fresh air was all that was needed. Now that Kelly has shown that there will be no easy solution during his first season, the narrative many of his detractors formed early is starting to take shape: Kelly’s an overwhelmed coach not ready for a spot like Notre Dame.

Supporting those claims is Kelly’s willingness to fall on the sword for the losses against Stanford and Navy. His candor after both of those games, when he admitted that the opposition confused his players by showing a look they hadn’t seen during film study was something fans and press aren’t used to hearing from coaches that never concede strategic defeat. It’s ammo for those that believe Kelly’s overwhelmed, but it’s also likely a sign that he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he realizes his team’s psyche is much more fragile than a 20-year veteran head coach.

Kelly and his regime received quite a bit of heat for closing the doors to media during practice sessions, when he was unhappy with information making it into the media that could hurt the progress of the team. In this case, Kelly’s post-game candor — a reporter’s best friend — is something that’s hurting his perception among a segment of the Irish faithful, many of whom already have their minds made up.

After eight games, it’s far too early to write any story on the fate of Notre Dame football under coach Brian Kelly, regardless of performances against Stanford and Navy in Year One. That said, Kelly understands that won’t be the case forever.

“Let’s put it this way,” Kelly said Sunday. “If we play like we played defensively, there won’t be a year five or six for me.”

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

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.