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The good, bad, and ugly: Utah

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What a difference a week makes.

After two of the more disheartening weeks in recent memory for Notre Dame football, the Irish put together a complete performance, dominating Utah physically on both the offensive and defensive fronts on their way to a resounding victory.

“I don’t think we ever had control on the line of scrimmage,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham conceded after the game.

For head coach Brian Kelly, the victory was the affirmation needed after two weeks of preaching toughness to the football team.

“This was a game where it had to be won up front,” Kelly said about his offensive and defensive linemen. “They knew that they were going to be central to the success today. This game was won up front.”

For the Irish, a victory renews talks of a post-season bowl berth that just last week looked potentially out of reach. But the Irish now head to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium for a chance to get win number six and regain some lost momentum, especially with linebacker Carlo Calabrese and wide receiver Theo Riddick potentially returning from injury this week.

Before we get to that, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 28-3 win against Utah.

THE GOOD

Whatever skeptics may say about Tulsa and Utah, it’s difficult to say that the last two Irish opponents didn’t have prolific offenses. Yet embattled defensive coordinator Bob Diaco put together two rock-solid game plans, giving up just one defensive touchdown in the last two games.

What’s interesting about Diaco’s coordination of the defensive unit is just how different it is from former coordinator Jon Tenuta’s hyper-blitzing scheme. Diaco stresses simplicity, and great enthusiasm and effort, evident in the 48 assisted tackles recorded on Saturday.

“We couldn’t be the kind of defense we were against Utah unless everybody took that into their own, doing there job,” Kelly said. “One-eleventh of the defense in a sense, and they all were gap conscious they were all doing their job.”

Kelly pointed out the impressive games by Sean Cwynar, Ethan Johnson, and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who opened up the middle of the field for Brian Smith and Manti Te’o to play two excellent games. After the game, Kyle Whittingham acknowledged the difficulty the Utes had running the football.

“If you can’t establish balance in your offense and run efficiently, it makes everything difficult,” Whittingham said. “Credit Notre Dame’s front seven. They’ve got a big, physical front seven. Manti Te’o’s a heck of a ballplayer. Those four down guys, three down guys do a nice job. The kid next to Manti (Brian Smith) is a physical kid as well. And they’ve got a very stout front seven on defense.”

For Irish fans, Whittingham’s words had to sound like a foreign language after watching the front seven of the defense be the achilles heel for just about every Charlie Weis team, and really most Irish teams since the Lou Holtz era. But Whittingham made it clear that the Irish defense was succeeding not by schematic decisions, but merely sound fundamental football.

“They were just playing sound, getting off blocks. The backers were filling holes,” Whittingham said. “The front does a nice job with their technique and staying square. Same things we saw on tape. We just weren’t productive today. They did a nice job.”

THE BAD

It’s tough to find any bad in Saturday’s convincing 28-3 victory, but those who are in the mood to nitpick will certainly question Kelly’s decision to go for it on 4th and 3 at the Irish 49-yard line on the opening drive of the game. While it ultimately didn’t matter, giving Utah excellent field position — which resulted in their only points of the afternoon — was another failed gamble by a head coach that’s crapped out quite a few times this year.

That said, if you’re looking for evidence that Kelly’s maybe more of a players coach than one might suspect, look no further than the confidence Kelly showed in his offensive line on that opening drive. While the gamble didn’t work, Kelly spent the entire week preaching on how the game would be won up front with a physical effort at the line of scrimmage. Given his first chance to prove how much confidence he had in his beleaguered unit, he went right back to the ground game instead of punting the ball away, better proof that he believed in his team than any pep talk could’ve been.While the play didn’t go the Irish’s way, the decision obviously worked on the team’s psyche.

THE UGLY

In the moments following the biggest victory of the season, defensive end Emeka Nwankwo took the time to tweet to his 756 followers “How u like them apples ND nation,” an obvious poke at the incredibly well-read website NDNation and its highly trafficked message board Rock’s House. Nwankwo’s tweet likely was a response to an incredibly vocal faction of posters that have already started to call for the head of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly.

Full disclosure: NDNation is a website that funnels a lot of traffic to the Inside the Irish blog, and it’d be terribly dangerous to group an entire membership — especially at a place with over 9,000 registered posters — as one collective voice. Yet the fact that in the celebratory hours that followed the Irish’s victory on Senior Day, a member of the graduating class thought to take a well-aimed swipe at a message board that purports to support his own Notre Dame team, well — that’s certainly saying something.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a groundswell of positive support for the Irish football team growing quietly among the widespread discontent. It’s been embodied by a website and Twitter feed that refers to itself as the “New ND Nation.” They’ve already caught the attention of several players, with Sean Cwynar, Ben Turk, Kyle Rudolph, Barry Gallup, Lo Wood, Tyler Stockton, Chris Stewart, Armando Allen, Duval Kamara, Brandon Newman, Carlo Calabrese, Ryan Kavanagh, Bennett Jackson, Tommy Rees, Kerry Neal, Braxston Cave, Jake Golic, Darrin Walls, Ian Williams, Trevor Robinson, Gary Gray, John Goodman, Mike Golic, Brian Smith, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Dayne Crist and following their Tweets, with former players like Jimmy Clausen, Sam Young and Golden Tate right there as well.

This isn’t an indictment on the website that boasts Notre Dame Magazine‘s endorsement as “the preferred social networking venue for Domers” or the Chicago Tribune‘s kudos calling NDNation the “most ardent, unflinching and at times uproariously overcaffeinated Irish fan website,” in all the land. But the acknowledgment that a senior football player feels the need to poke the proverbial bear, in this case, the most popular ND fan website on the internet, after pulling a shocking upset certainly points to an ugly truth and negative current that’s developed over the past 15 years of the Irish’s struggles.

(This is why they play the game.)

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)
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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)
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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.