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And in that corner… The Utah Utes

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It’s hard to know what to expect this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Enter Utah, who a week ago was in contention for the national championship, and ranked fifth in the country. With a true freshman quarterback now manning an offense without it’s All-American tight end and emerging star Theo Riddick, there was little reason for hope if you were an Irish fan.

But then last Saturday happened. While the Irish were home resting, the Utes got exposed on a national stage in the biggest football game of last week, getting drubbed by No. 3 TCU 47-7, in a game that poked plenty of holes in the legitimacy of Kyle Whittingham’s troops.

To get a better feel for Utah, we’re bringing in Sean Reynolds, the proprietor of Block U, the “home to the University of Utah and all its classless fans!” (I’m guessing this self-endorsement was a nod to former BYU quarterback Max Hall.) A Ute fan for most of his life, he’s also got the unfortunate ability to say that he’s been a Notre Dame fan since birth, even holding onto a rare 1993 keepsake t-shirt, “Catholics vs. Mormons.”

I asked the questions and Sean gave the answers:

Inside the Irish: Notre Dame fans know firsthand the feeling that Utah fans felt last Saturday. What do you really know about this Utah football team after nine games?

Sean Reynolds: I think the Utes are a very good team who played a very bad game and the result was their first loss of the season. They’re not at TCU’s level and with how talented and experienced the Frogs are, it shouldn’t be a surprise. With that said, I really don’t think TCU is 40 points better than Utah. That made their loss that much harder to accept. It was an ugly game all around and I think proof that even good teams can be de-pantsed if they don’t bring it every week.

ITI: Obviously, Utah isn’t in the same league as TCU, which isn’t surprising after looking at the youth on offense for the Utes. What type of team walks into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday?

SR: I’m hoping a team that is very focused. Their loss Saturday certainly stung and cast some doubt on this team’s ability. However, they didn’t just luck into eight wins and they have proven over the course of the season they are a good team. They can’t get caught up in how poorly they played Saturday and instead use that as a template of what not to do the remainder of the season.

ITI: Saturday wasn’t Jordan Wynn’s best day at the office. What will he need to do to get the offense back in order?

SR: Jordan Wynn has played an awful lot like a sophomore this year. He’s put together some great games and struggled in others and that inconsistent play has really altered the way the offense succeeds week in and week out. Saturday, they couldn’t get much of anything going and I’m not so sure that was entirely Wynn’s fault. He didn’t play well and that was obvious to anyone that watched the game, but a lot of passes were dropped and that ultimately put the Utes in a hole early.

Wynn also was hindered by play calling, which set to establish a passing game early at the expense of the run — which makes sense, since TCU’s run defense is tops nationally.

This week though, I anticipate Utah won’t rely so much on Wynn’s arm. They’ve still got two good backs in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata and both should have a better time running against Notre Dame’s 79th-ranked rush defense. If they can establish a ground game early, which they weren’t able to do Saturday, expect Wynn to settle in a bit more and not force up as many bad throws.

ITI: The defense should be ready to tee off on a Notre Dame offense that’s missing its quarterback, running back, tight end, and starting slot receiver. How do you think Utah will try to defend the Irish?

SR: I really wouldn’t be surprised if Utah tested Notre Dame’s young quarterback early. The Irish had produced a pretty effective passing offense up to the injury of Dayne Crist and it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over with so much change under center. The fact the Irish are toward the bottom of the nation in running pretty much tells the story. If you stop their passing game, you stop their offense and probably win the game. So that’s the path I think the Utes will take. Especially since they rank 25th nationally in pass defense.

ITI: The nation isn’t used to seeing a Kyle Whittingham team get beaten like they did on Saturday. What does the Utah fanbase make of the loss? Is it a knock on Whittingham?

SR: The loss was surprising because, like you said, we’re not used to Whittingham getting his clock cleaned like that. But bad losses happen. I don’t think it’s a knock on Whittingham because he’s been on the other side of a blowout many, many times (Sugar Bowl against Alabama for starters). He’s won too many games and done so much for the program for fans to question his coaching.

ITI: Gut feeling on Saturday?

SR: My gut says Utah comes out and plays harder than we’ve probably seen this season. They’re not as bad as TCU made ’em look Saturday and I think they want to prove that to the nation. It was an embarrassing loss and that can’t be the lasting image of our program in 2010. They’ll be fired up and I suspect they’ll win. But they can’t enter this game expecting that Notre Dame is going to lie down and die. The Irish are fighting for bowl eligibility. They’re fighting for respect. They’re fighting to right the ship and a win over Utah would surely add some much needed spark to a listless program. They’re very capable of winning this game and as Utah proved last week, they’re not immune to bad play.

But ultimately, I have too much trust in Kyle Whittingham to believe they’ll overlook the Irish or enter too confident. They were humbled last Saturday and it will show in their performance this weekend.

*****

A special thanks to Sean for the in-depth answers. Check out Block U for more Utah coverage throughout the week.

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.