CristINT

How we got here: Turnovers

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It was no secret that there were going to be some growing pains in the evolution of the Notre Dame offense. Brian Kelly was taking a drop-back quarterback with a total of 20 mop-up throws under his belt and putting him into an offensive system that relied on quick throws, quicker data processing, and presenting the threat of both running and passing. And oh, yeah… Crist would also be spending 95-percent of his time in the shotgun.

To call the union of junior quarterback Dayne Crist and Brian Kelly an arranged marriage wouldn’t be far from the truth. Both were stuck with each other, with Kelly having little to no depth behind the departing Jimmy Clausen thanks to the attrition of Weis recruits like Zack Frazer and Demetrius Jones and selective recruiting. There was plenty to like in Crist, a highly touted recruit that ran the football effectively during his prep days, but the Irish offense would hinge on how quickly Crist could learn the new offense, and how quickly his surgically repaired ACL would heal.

Crist took every snap in spring practice, absorbing as much of the offense as he could while the Irish also learned a vastly different way to practice. With a playbook in hand and a collection of skill players, Crist also worked diligently with his receiving corp, establishing a rapport in the offseason to help jump-start the season.

With a ruptured patellar tendon ending his first season as a starter, we can look at Crist’s numbers and compare them to the last few Notre Dame quarterbacks in their first complete season behind center. Crist completed just over 59 percent of his throws for 2033 yards, completing 15 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. Even if we throw out Clausen’s 2007 season, where he ran for his life behind an abysmal offensive line, Crist’s numbers match up well to Jimmy’s 2008 campaign, with Clausen completing nearly 61 percent of his throws for 3172 yards, to go along with 25 touchdown passes and a staggeringly high 17 interceptions. While you’d think Charlie Weis’ vertical offense would show us something different, Clausen’s 7.2 yards per attempt is not that much better than Crist’s 6.9 per throw. Looking further back, even though Brady Quinn played in 11 games as a true freshman, his first sophomore campaign saw him put up numbers remarkable similar to Crist, completing only 54 percent of his throws for 2586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Quinn averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, surprising when you think back to the offense that Tyrone Willingham was running at the time.

This isn’t an article about Dayne Crist’s performance compared to Clausen or Quinn, but it does put in context Crist’s performance in his first season playing college football, as well as point out how similar quarterbacking performances help determine overall records, with Clausen and Quinn both ending up a game better than .500, and if Crist would’ve only finished the game against Tulsa, he’d have likely finished at the same place.

If there’s an easy stat that reflects how the 4-5 Irish got to where they are, it’s turnover margin. The Irish rank 82nd in the country in the critical stat, turning the ball over three more times than they’ve taken it away, with 19 turnovers to 16 takeaways.

Even worse, in games the Irish have lost, the ratio is even more pronounced. Notre Dame has turned the ball over 14 times in their five losses, a staggering 2.8 times per loss. Making things even worse, they’ve only managed to force six takeaways in those games, clocking the Irish in at a -1.6 turnover margin during those five losses, the equivalent of the nation’s worst football teams during Irish defeats.

Looking even closer at the Irish turnovers, you’ll see just how catastrophic they were. Against Michigan, the Irish were intercepted three times. With the Irish leading 7-0 and Tommy Rees called into duty with Dayne Crist’s vision blurred, Rees threw a brutal interception to Jonas Mouton. The next play, the Wolverines tied the game 7-7 with a 31-yard touchdown pass. With the Irish driving past midfield thanks to two large runs by Armando Allen, Nate Montana threw a drive-killing interception at the Michigan 37, stopping the Irish in their tracks. While Dayne Crist’s lone interception of the afternoon didn’t end up hurting the Irish, it killed a major momentum swing for the Irish, with Crist making a terrible decision on the first play of a Notre Dame drive and turning the ball over deep in ND territory.

Against the Spartans, it was more of the same. Michael Floyd coughed up the ball just outside the Michigan State redzone, costing the Irish at least three points in the second quarter, with the lead already 7-0 Irish. Crist’s interception on the first play of a drive later that quarter killed the Irish again in Spartan territory and turned into a 94 yard touchdown drive for the Spartans. Crist’s fourth quarter fumbled didn’t lose the game for the Irish, but it killed a potential go-ahead drive close to midfield.

Not to belabor the point, but a Dayne Crist fumble turned into seven points against Stanford. A Crist interception gave the Cardinal 14 points straight from the Irish quarterback’s hands to the wrong team. Against Navy, the Irish could’ve walked into the locker room down only four points, but Crist’s late interception added seven more to the Navy score, and a third quarter pick cemented the Midshipmen’s route. As for the Tulsa game? Well, Rees’ pick six was hardly his fault, but to say that turnovers killed the Irish in that game is an epic understatement.

When looked at cumulatively, the turnovers are maddening for Irish fans, and nearly a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong this season, and why the Irish are looking uphill at a bowl game. But when looking at the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks — two of the best to every play the position for the Irish — Crist’s struggles, especially while experiencing meaningful minutes for the first time and doing so in a new system, begins to make a little bit more sense.

When Brian Kelly talks about the razor thin margin for error this team has offensively, it sounds like coachspeak. But when you look at the games the Irish have lost, that observation looks a lot more insightful. Turning the ball over at critical times, that’s how the Irish got to 4-5.

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.