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IBG: Bright lights, big city edition

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Editor’s note: This post is coming to you 30,000 flight above the middle of America as this lowly writer makes his way to the Bronx for Saturday’s ball game. Armed with a digital camera and a (hopefully) All-Access field pass, I’ll do my best to go all tourist and take as many photos as possible so those of you that are at home and following the live-blog can be there with me.

This week’s Irish Blogger Gathering questions are courtesy of the boys at Rakes of Mallow, who try to make sense of the Utah game, the Irish bowl scenarios, the Irish quarterback situation, and these neutral site games.

Let’s get on with it…

1. Saturday’s result against Utah was a very pleasant surprise, but an unexpected one, to say the least. What was the biggest positive you took from the win over the Utes, and what concerns you most as the Irish head into their final two games of the regular season?

Well, I hate to be that guy, but I was feeling quietly optimistic about the game and woke up strangely confident about the game Saturday morning, the first time all season where I felt that way. Obviously, I didn’t see it coming quite that convincing, but the snowball effect sometimes works in the Irish’s favor as well.

The biggest surprise from the Utah game? Probably the stout Irish defense. I was really shocked that Notre Dame dominated the point of attack like they did and that Utah completely laid down in that game. I don’t know how Kyle Whittingham can purport to have a tough team when his quarterback looks like he’s scared, wears a mock-turtle neck and continually slides to avoid contact, even if it is two or three yards shy of a first down. I’ve seen plenty of gamers at quarterback the past few years, and at first glance, Jordan Wynn doesn’t look like one.

As for my concerns heading into the final two games of the season, they focus solely on stopping Army’s option attack, and then worrying about USC after that. The Irish absolutely cannot afford to lose this football game, but they also can’t go out and play tight like they did earlier in the season. Kelly mentioned the different vibe coming from Irish players, and I could see the weight removed from their shoulders as well.

2. The Irish will have to take a completely different approach against the Army option than they did against the Navy attack a few weeks ago. Who do you see playing the biggest role in slowing down the Black Knight attack? Who will be the big performer on offense?

I don’t pretend to know as much as college football coaches (actually, sometimes I do), but I would be shocked if Kelly and Diaco didn’t send blitzes straight up the middle, pounding the A-gaps with Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o. That’s how you take away a fullback, which just so happens to be Army’s best running weapon. I also expect to see Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta way more activated in the running game, with the Irish rolling either the field side or play side safety into the box and assigning him the pitch man.

Assignment football on the option should go old school, with outside linebackers taking quarterbacks, inside linebackers playing the fullback, and the safeties alley-ing at the pitch. Looking for a big performer? It’ll be the trio of safeties Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter, as well as outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith.

3. Should Notre Dame win one of their final two games, they’ll likely be going bowling. There are a lot of tie-ins that may or may not be fulfilled from other conferences that will likely end up deciding their postseason fate, but what bowl do you see the Irish playing in?

A few people who have spent far longer analyzing this than I have think the Irish will play in either San Francisco or Las Vegas, and sign me up for either location. I think the January 9th game in San Francisco would be especially great, because while the bowl game would take place way later than most games, it’d give the Irish the opportunity to use all of the additional bowl practices they earned, something that could help kick start this team into next season.

Obviously winning both games and ending at 7-5 would be the best case scenario for the Irish, and a good brand name and some decent momentum heading into the postseason would potentially give the Irish a chance at playing in the Champs Sports Bowl, likely against one of the top teams in the ACC, which would be quite a test for Kelly’s troops. Any way you crack it, a bowl game would be great.

4. This isn’t a question any of us thought would be an issue at the start of the season, but who do you see as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback against South Florida next year?

I’d be shocked if it wasn’t Dayne Crist, but that’s only if he makes it back in time to participate in spring practice. Dayne struggled more than most of us thought in Kelly’s system, but he was a first-time starter learning a brand new system, so I’m not sure what expectations were appropriate. Tim Hinton pointed out earlier in the week that sometimes it’s harder to relearn a new system rather than go in with a blank slate. He was talking about running backs. I could only imagine what it must be like for a quarterback like Crist to relearn everything while rehabbing a major knee injury.

5. We’re all very excited for Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, which is a nice turn towards some pretty exciting neutral site games (Miami at Soldier Field, Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium) after a rather lackluster start (Washington State in San Antonio). What are three neutral site games you’d like to see down the road?

Two minutes in the penalty box for not listing Notre Dame vs. Navy in Dublin, which is perhaps the coolest neutral site game I could think of if I had hours to brainstorm. That said, if I had to pick three more neutral site games, here’s where I’d go with it:

1) Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field
2) Notre Dame vs. Nebraska in Arrowhead Stadium
3) Notre Dame vs. Colorado in Mile High
or
Notre Dame vs. Ohio State in Toronto.
(Bring in Canada — They love Notre Dame!)

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.