Hassin

And in that corner… The Army Black Knights

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Looking at the 2010 schedule back in August, few people could point to the Army vs. Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium as anything more than the novelty of playing a football game in the House that George Built.

But that was before Army turned its program around under coach Rich Ellerson and the Irish limped into the Bronx one game shy of bowl eligibility and needing a victory against the Black Knights to clinch the .500 record necessary to get to the postseason. Making things even more interesting is that Army’s been playing better football than the Irish, already qualifying for their first bowl birth since 1996.

With too many questions and not enough answers, I turned to the Hudson Valley Times Herald-Record‘s award-winning Army football beat writer Sal Interdonato, who was kind enough to give me the scoop on the Black Knights, who should have Irish fans absolutely terrified. He’s been covering the day-to-day of Army football since 2007, and his blog is a must read this week for those trying to get a feel for what the Irish are facing this Saturday night, at 7 p.m. from Yankee Stadium.

I asked, Sal answered:

Inside the Irish: Put into context the turnaround that’s taken place under coach Rich Ellerson. Sure, Army is 6-4, but that’s a worst-case scenario after losing heart-breakers to Hawaii, Temple and Rutgers, three games that Army has to feel like they had. What’s the confidence level of the Knights as they head into Yankee Stadium?

Sal Interdonato: Army’s come a long way on offense this season. The Black Knights scored 18 touchdowns last season. They have more than doubled that with 38 scores in 2010. A huge weight was lifted off the shoulder of Army players when they became a bowl-eligibile team at Kent State last Saturday. Army can now play loose and the Black Knights still have a lot to play for and a lot to prove. They can clinch their first winning season since 1996 with a win over Notre Dame.

ITI: Everybody saw the absolute egg Notre Dame laid on defense against Navy. There are some obvious similarities between the Army and Navy offense. What do you think the game plan will be for Army on offense? Will they try to replicate the Midshipmen’s success?

SI: Army certainly has the fullback in Jared Hassin to test the heart of Notre Dame’s defense like Navy’s Alexander Teich did. However, Army’s offense is at its best when it spreads the ball out in the run with quarterback Trent Steelman and slotback Brian Cobbs. Army coach Rich Ellerson expects Notre Dame to play a different defense than it did against Navy. I wouldn’t be shocked if Army takes to the air more. Steelman is coming off the best passing game of his career.

ITI: It’s been a bit of an up and down year for the Army defense, but they’ll be facing an Irish offense that’s starting a true freshman at QB and missing a lot of weapons. What will Ellerson’s D need to do to stop the Irish offense, and particularly a guy like Michael Floyd?

SI: One of the big keys to this game is can Army get to and rattle Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees with pressure. Army sacked Rutgers freshman quarterback Chas Dodd eight times earlier this season and they did with blitzes from every angle. I expect Army to put the heat on Rees and it will need a big game from senior defensive end Josh McNary, its all-time sack leader. If Rees has a lot of time to find Floyd and the Irish’s receiving corps it could be a long day for Army because it has been sub-par against the deep ball all season.

ITI: Yankee Stadium is a little different stage than Michie Stadium and Notre Dame is a bigger name than most on the Army schedule. What does a game in primetime against Notre Dame mean to the Black Knights?

SI: It’s a chance for Army to show the nation it’s for real and it will be relevant in the college football landscape again. Army has a national following but a good showing here might bring more fans, who are a little skeptical after 14 straight losing seasons, on board. Army’s rise would be taken more to heart with a win over Notre Dame. It will show its closing on the level of its service-academy brothers Navy and Air Force, which is huge for recruiting.

ITI: What’s the formula for a Army win? What’s your gut feeling for Saturday night?

SI: Army’s had a simple formula for winning this season. Jump out and score touchdowns early and win the turnover battle. As long as Army takes care of the football. it can play with anyone on their schedule. I expect this to be a very physical game. If both of Army’s lines can hold up in the trenches. it will be very competitive. I see Notre Dame as maybe a touchdown favorite Saturday but I wouldn’t be surprised if Army pulls the “upset.”

For those that haven’t checked out Sal’s Army Football Blog, please do so here. Special thanks to Sal for taking time out of his busy schedule to give us the advanced scouting report.

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.