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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Army

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NEW YORK — As the Irish started their jog for the Yankee’s dugout after the game, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo gave defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a very large bear hug. This was one of those jubilant celebratory embraces, the byproduct of both men’s work culminating in another absolutely dominant defensive performance and a 27-3 win for Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

It was Diaco’s defense that won the game for the Irish, stiffening after giving up a 17 play, 78-yard drive on Army’s opening drive that culminated in a field goal and a 3-0 lead for the Black Knights. But Diaco’s troops countered, playing inspired defense and answering any questions posed by the doubters who wondered if Diaco had the chops to stop an option attack that was similar to the one that carved up an Irish defense just 28 days ago.

While Diaco produced the scheme, it was Longo’s work that allowed the Irish to dominate the line of scrimmage and out-physical an undersized team that frankly should have been pushed around. This Irish defense, still missing missing two key cogs on the interior with nose tackle Ian Williams out and Carlo Calabrese incredibly limited, has given up only one touchdown in the last 13 quarters, none in the month of November, and came up with their own score for the first time since Robert Blanton ran back an interception against Purdue in 2008.  Here is the Irish defense that Brian Kelly promised Irish fans that Longo would deliver, a group that would physically win the battles and play better in November than they did in September, something Irish fans haven’t seen in a long time.

With six wins, the Irish have officially qualified for a post-season bowl game, and now head to Los Angeles for an intriguing finale against Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans. Before we turn the page to Southern Cal, let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 27-3 victory.

1. Tommy Rees is the perfect triggerman for Brian Kelly’s offense.

Before the game, Irish quarterbacks Nate Montana, Andrew Hendrix, and Tommy Rees took turns throwing patterns to the Irish receiving corp. Montana spun relaxed spirals that reminded you who his father was. Hendrix looked like the impressive athlete with the quick release that Irish fans drooled over during last season’s recruiting. And Tommy Rees looked like an 18-year-old kid slinging the ball around North Quad with his roommates.

But the pride of Dillon Hall is the perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s spread attack. Since taking over the reins of the offense, Rees has piloted the Irish offense in a way that Dayne Crist couldn’t, and it’s a testament to Rees’ preternatural football IQ, not his physical prowess.

Rees throws a wobbly football with not a particularly strong throwing arm, but he’s quick with his decisions, calm in the pocket, and most often very smart with his reads. Throw out Rees’ interception on the game’s opening drive, and the true freshman played a wonderfully efficient game. He bought time in the pocket, opening up the crossing routes needed to beat Army’s man coverage. He showed touch on deep throws to Tyler Eifert, moving the offense vertically. He even showed savvy when things went wrong, eating the ball on a low snap and taking the occasional negative play instead of compounding the error trying to do too much.

Rees has a week to prepare for the two-headed monster of Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, and skill and speed at defense that he hasn’t seen yet. But Rees seems truly like a freshman that won’t come unglued steering the Irish offense, even if you question if he’s old enough to legally drive it.

2. Bob Diaco has turned this defense around.

While his largest challenge will come next Saturday, it’s been nine quarters since Bob Diaco and the Irish have given up a touchdown. The last time that’s happened? The 1988 National Championship team. That’s a downright shocking statistic, and if you asked Irish fans if that was possible using personnel that remained largely unchanged from the S.S. Tenuta, they’ve have laughed at you.

But Diaco has turned this defense around stressing the simplicity of the message, and his defense has stopped thinking and started reacting.

After five first downs on their opening drive, Army was only able to get three more for the rest of the ballgame, with the Irish defense holding the Knights offense to less than 100 yards for the remaining three-plus quarters. The defense held Army fullback Jared Hassin to just 23 yards on eight carries and quarterback Trent Steelman to just 24 yards on 14 carries before knocking him out of the game. How dominant was the Irish’s performance stopping the run? Consider that the two longest plays on the ground for Army — a Steelman run of 16 yards and backup quarterback Max Jenkins’ 18-yard scamper — came on broken pass plays, with both quarterbacks forced to run away from a stout pass rush.

After going 1-8 the past two seasons in November, the Irish are 2-0 this month, playing their best football as the season comes to a close.

3. The Irish have guaranteed themselves that the season doesn’t end next Saturday.

It’s still far too difficult to determine where Notre Dame will be playing during bowl season, but the Irish have guaranteed that they’ll be playing somewhere, something that didn’t seem all that possible a few weeks ago when Irish fans wondered how Notre Dame would be able to win two of its final three football games.

(Consider that the Irish might also be facing USC without the services of quarterback Matt Barkley, who was carted off the field after suffering a high ankle sprain.)

Still, while a pre-New Years bowl game was hardly the goal, the Irish getting to the postseason guarantees something far more important: 15 more practices.

“As you continue to develop your program, those 15 practices are very important,” Kelly said after the game. “Now, if I brought that up in the locker room, my players don’t want to hear about 15 more practices. They want to hear about what’s the bowl destination. but as you continue to build and develop your program, those are important, but also getting to a bowl game and continuing to build off of the month of November.”

It’s not hard to see young talent developing before our very eyes as the season progresses and the Irish battle multiple injuries. Fifteen more practices — the equivalent of another spring season — will mean the world to the 2011 Fighting Irish.

4. Brian Kelly understands the importance of stability, depth and development.

Nobody should jump to conclusions after stirring victories over Utah and Army, but if Brian Kelly is going to succeed at Notre Dame, it’s because he understands that three critical facets of playing winning college football are stability, depth and development.

In a calendar year that’s seen incredible upheaval, consider the steady hand that Kelly has used to guide this program. While fans have questioned his gambling mentality and his refusal to change on Saturdays, Kelly and his staff have remained consistent.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said after the game. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

If stability is paramount, Kelly’s ability to develop depth is something that Irish fans should be very happy about. Consider Robby Toma. The proverbial Little Mac of the Irish roster, Toma made four catches for 63 yards, continuing to make big plays in place of injured slot receivers Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Here’s a low-star player, a recruiting afterthought, putting together big games for the Irish, when it’s usually the Irish getting less with more talent than just about every major program in college football.

5. Another neutral site game, another success for Notre Dame.

There are still those that think giving up a home game is stupidity defined, but if tonight’s game in Yankee Stadium proved anything, it’s that these neutral site games are a huge positive for the University of Notre Dame. With thousands of Irish fans invading Manhattan, Notre Dame’s game in Yankee Stadium took on the  same barnstorming feel that helped create the Irish brand to begin with. While ESPN decided to focus its attention on a game being played in one end zone at Wrigley Field, tonight’s event at Yankee Stadium was electric.

“A night like tonight reinforces our goal of continuously bringing memorable, meaningful events to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx throughout the years to come,” Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “We want to thank and commend Notre Dame and Army for their dedication and desire in bringing a historic night of football to Yankee Stadium. We can think of no two finer educational institutions to christen our new home with the great game of football. Their impact on the landscape of our nation — scholastically, athletically and through service — cannot be overstated enough.”

While tonight’s game didn’t amount to much on the football field, the atmosphere surrounding Yankee Stadium reminds everyone that Notre Dame is still the premium brand in college football, and the 50th meeting between Army and the Irish was one to remember.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.

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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.