Kelly talks bye week

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Having not met with the media since his emotional press conference after the Tulsa game, Brian Kelly spent roughly 20 minutes answering questions as the Irish prepare to take a well-deserved weekend away from football.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Unfortunately, Kelly’s suspicions are confirmed, and Armando Allen has played his last football game in a Notre Dame uniform, with the damage to his hips extensive.

“Armando had surgery today in Tennessee, and it was a specialist. Had only one of the hips repaired. He’s going to have to have another one,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of things in there that showed that maybe this was an injury he’s had for many, many, many years. They’re talking about the timetable to be between 3-4 months.”

Allen exits Notre Dame with the fifth most all-purpose yards in school history, behind Julius Jones, Autry Denson, Allen Pinkett, and Tim Brown, and just in front of Raghib Ismail and Golden Tate, pretty illustrious company.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Allen’s football career, and I suspect that the NFL team that gambles on signing or drafting Armando won’t regret it. He’s a versatile guy, has a nice burst, and if Ryan Grant’s NFL success showed us anything, it’s that a Notre Dame running back doesn’t have to have great collegiate success to have a rock solid NFL career.

*****

With Dayne Crist out for the season, Kelly has moved true freshman Andrew Hendrix into the third quarterback position. When asked if Hendrix was ready to be thrust into game duty, the answer was pretty emphatic.

“His head is spinning. It’s a lot,” Kelly said. “We really tried more than anything else to slow it down. He’s not involved much right now in game-planning. It’s more about just understanding the big picture. Want to make sure he can get the snap, hand it off, if he needs to do that. We’re really going slow with him at this point.”

Hendrix may turn out to be the quarterback of the future for the Irish, and his work on the scout team this year has been impressive by all accounts. But Crist’s injury exposed one of the biggest worries Kelly had going into the season, a gaping lack of depth at the quarterback position.

*****

During the off week, Kelly held a scrimmage for the guys who haven’t gotten a lot of playing time, almost a development report for those freshman and sophomores that haven’t broken into the two-deep. Kelly pointed out a number of players that stood out.

“A number of players. Cam Roberson did a very nice job,” Kelly said. “Alex Welch. Christian Lombard. Kendall Moore was all over the field. To name a few. I was really pleased. Louis Nix, a very difficult guy to block. It was good to see some of those kids play.”

Irish fans expected a guy like Louis Nix to potentially see the field as a freshman, but Nix didn’t show up to camp in optimal shape, and Kelly and his staff have been wise not to play too many young players along the offensive and defensive lines, saving some much needed eligibility.

I was really impressed with what I saw out of Roberson in preseason camp, and with the running back depth as thin as it is with Allen hurt and Gray not yet getting on the field after suffering a knee injury, I wouldn’t have been shocked to see Roberson work his way into the two-deep.

*****

With the Irish getting an extra week of preparation for Utah, Kelly was asked if now-starting quarterback, true freshman Tommy Rees, has taken a more vocal role as “the man” running the Irish offense. Kelly laughed the question off.

“None of that. I would’ve liked to have him walk in and say, coach, don’t worry about it, I got this thing, it’s on my back, let’s roll,” Kelly almost jokingly said. “He’s still a true freshman. He’s got really good savvy, he’s got a great understanding of our offense in a very short period of time, but let’s make no mistake about it. He’s a true freshman that has had one game, and he’ll continue to get better. He loves the game, he’s a great, competitive kid, but we have to take into account that he’s a young player.”

Rees really impressed me with his ability to throw the ball on the short completions, with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated pointing out that Rees went 11 for 11 on passes that covered five yards or less, but missed on every throw that went over 20 yards.

(Let’s hope Utah doesn’t notice this trend.)

*****

While many traditionalists would revolt, sign me up for the Irish changing the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium to field turf. And while Kelly tried to be diplomatic about it, it sounds like he wouldn’t mind the change either.

“The offense, obviously, is such that we like to play fast. And I think it’s pretty clear that that surface plays very fast. It’s not going to be my decision,” Kelly said. “I know that I’ll have my say, and that’s all it will be. I want the best for our football players. I want the best for our team and the best for the kind of offense that we run. I know we’ve been able to play really fast on those surfaces. Don’t know that that’s going to be enough to push it over the top, but it’s more about the kind of team we’re putting together.”

I’ve been pretty vocal in my complaints about the grass in Notre Dame Stadium, and every game you seem to see the turf monster reach out and tackle someone, often times to the detriment of the Irish. I’m not advocating a big Jumbotron or Muscle Milk advertisements on the stadium walls like USC does, but Michigan made the switch to field turf and nobody seemed to really notice.

The Irish offense is going to be predicated on speed and the Irish have done a very good job upgrading that part of the football team, and will continue to do so under Kelly. It only makes sense for Notre Dame to consider changing the surface, considering that the grounds crew hasn’t found a good way to keep the grass in good condition for even half a season, let alone an entire year.

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)
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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
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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.