Kinne

And in that corner… The Tulsa Golden Hurricane

7 Comments

With Irish fans still smarting after last week’s loss to Navy, the team and coaches have turned the page to Tulsa, who play Notre Dame for the first time in the program’s history this Saturday. The Golden Hurricane bring in a high-octane offense that’s coming off a bye week and a dominating homecoming performance against Tulane.

With Tulsa knowledge difficult to come by, I turned to the source — the Collegian, the student-run newspaper at Tulsa. Sophomore staff writer John Lepine was kind enough to fill me in on uber-short notice and get us ready for what we can expect out of the Golden Hurricane this weekend.

Inside the Irish: This is Notre Dame’s first meeting with Tulsa, who has secretly put together some scary offensive football teams under head coach Todd Graham. This year’s edition has been putting up points in a hurry. What can we expect Saturday?

John Lepine: If there is one characteristic that has defined TU’s gameplay this past month, it is explosive offense from the first tick of the clock. Tulsa has scored on its first drive in the past four games, and getting that initial momentum and confidence has been making a big difference in the team’s cohesion and success. The players realize what a monumental victory this would be, and they’ll be playing to win. Playmakers like Charles Clay (senior, Halfback) and Damaris Johnson (junior, Wide Receiver) will especially be taking this game seriously, as both of them are close to breaking records. Clay is just two touchdowns from tying the school’s all-purpose TD record, and Johnson needs only 80 more kick return yards to claim the title of most career kick yards in the C-USA.

ITI: The past few years, Notre Dame’s defense has made a habit of giving up career days to opponents. Who is the guy that’s going to potentially haunt the Irish this Saturday?

JL: There are a couple of good candidates for this on Tulsa’s squad. Sophomore Curnelius Arnick and true freshman Marco Nelson both have great stats and will be the twin anchors of the TU line in years to come, but Tanner Antle (senior, Linebacker) has a chance to really make a great game for himself. He’s 6’4”, 228 lbs, and has made 55 tackles already this year. With two sacks, six tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries so far in the season, he has proven to be one of the key players for putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, which is one area that the defense has to emphasize in this game. If Tulsa is going to win this match, they cannot let Dayne Crist get comfortable, and Tanner Antle has the size and skill to harass him all game long.

ITI: The flip side of that coin is the Golden Hurricane defense. They’re giving up yards by the bushel through the air, but have a tough run defense. Is the passing defense that bad, or are teams shying away from running the ball?

JL: Well, the statistics don’t lie on this one—every opponent the Hurricane has faced this year has averaged more yards per passing attempt than yards per rush.  At the same time, I think it would be easy to underestimate the strength Tulsa’s passing defense on the basis of its two most recent losses. TU gave up 574 passing yards to OSU, but the Weeden/Blackmon duo has overwhelmed better teams than Tulsa this year. And though SMU was a lot more effective in its passing game against Tulsa than in its rushing offense, I think that speaks more to the quality of Kyle Padron as a quarterback than the weakness of TU’s defense. So the Hurricane may have a stronger defense on the ground than in the air, but several of the teams TU has played have specialized in passing instead of running, and that changes the way those statistics should be interpreted.

ITI: A lot of coaches say they circle the Notre Dame game on their schedule, but how important is a game in Notre Dame Stadium for Tulsa?

JL: After this game, the Hurricane hosts three conference opponents and heads south to play Houston. Houston beat SMU last week, but lost to Rice the week before, which lost to SMU in early October. The C-USA West Division title is still very much in play, and Tulsa does not want to lose sight of that in face of this game. On the other hand, playing a team as prestigious and storied as Notre Dame is an exciting opportunity for TU.  “This game is special, there’s no question,” says Coach Todd Graham. Beating the Fighting Irish “would be something that these kids will be telling their grandkids about.”

ITI: What’s the recipe for beating Notre Dame?

JL: What really doomed Tulsa in the OSU game was a lack of early productivity. TU scored 28 points, but three quarters of those were in the last 20 minutes of the game; OSU was too far ahead for Tulsa to catch up. Keeping pace with Notre Dame from the outset, both by pressuring their quarterback and cracking through their defense, is going to be critical in this game. The Tulsa players cannot let the crowd or the big-game nerves get to them.  But if the score at halftime stays more or less balanced, then there’s a chance for G.J. Kinne and that versatile TU offense to get to work.

ITI: What do you see happening this Saturday?

JL: If Tulsa had faced Notre Dame early in the season, the Fighting Irish would likely have gotten the win without too much trouble. But Tulsa is coming off a bye week and a big homecoming blowout, so the energy level is high for this game. The Hurricane has built up a lot of confidence, losing only one of its last five games, and that one by just three points. The four most recent wins were all by more than 25 points. This contest will still be an uphill battle for TU, absolutely, but Notre Dame looks a little vulnerable with a lackluster record of 4-4, and the Tulsa squad has good positioning to try for an upset.  Whether or not the Cinderella story has a happy ending is anyone’s guess.

*****

John Lepine is sophomore Economics major at the University of Tulsa, and a staff writer for the Collegian, the student-run campus newspaper. He writes about politics, music, literature, and much more at http://www.ptbruiser.tumblr.com.

 

 

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.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
11 Comments

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.