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And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

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Can you believe this is it for the 2010 Irish football regular season? In many ways it feels like the Charlie Weis era is so far behind us with all that’s transpired, but it feels like Year One of the Brian Kelly era has just begun.

We’ll have one more game after this Saturday to discuss, but there are none more important than the date that’s been circled on the Irish calendar since Jimmy Clausen’s pass hit the grass at Notre Dame Stadium after Duval Kamara slipped on his out cut. With that, the Trojans withstood the Irish’s furious comeback led by Clausen and Golden Tate and Pete Carroll’s Trojans snuck out of South Bend with another win, seemingly on track for another Pac-10 championship.

When you consider all of that’s happened last October, so much has changed for both programs. While we were tempted to get into all that’s changed at Heritage Hall, it’s probably best we stick with the football. For the first time since Frank Leahy and Sam Berry met in 1941, both the Irish and the Trojans will have first year head coaches on their sidelines. While I’ve lived in the heart of Trojan territory for the past six years, I thought it wise to defer to an expert on what’s gone on with the Trojans in their first year under Lane Kiffin.

Enter Dan Weber, who covers the Trojan beat for USCFootball.com. Weber is a native of Northern Kentucky, a graduate of St. Xavier High school in Cincinnati and counts jobs as a sports information director at Northern Kentucky University and Xavier as well as writing gigs at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Riverside Press-Enterprise as lines on his impressive resume. Dan was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions for me in advance of Saturday night’s game between the Irish and the Trojans.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1. Assess the season so far. Seven wins, four losses, two really bad ones (Washington, Oregon State). Obviously, this season came under rather bizarre circumstances, but what do you make of the Trojans after 11 games of Lane Kiffin?

So far, some good, some not so for this USC team this season. Transition seasons are often difficult for no other reason than they’re transition seasons. The adjustment to a new staff is almost never easy. Whoever came in after Pete Carroll was going to face a challenge which Lane Kiffin has handled extremely well.

Discipline, academics, and morale for much of the season has been improved over last year despite all the hard knocks these kids have had to take that were absolutely no fault of their own. Losing two games on the last play could have knocked this team back for good but it didn’t. But that’s not to say there’s an excuse for the Washington loss. There’s not. That was an awful effort all the way around.

The Stanford loss is another question with USC being cheated by an incorrect clock operation at the end of the game that stole 30-35 seconds and left three seconds on the clock for Stanford to kick a game-winning field goal in a game USC outplayed the Cardinal. The Pac-10 assures us that secret measures have been taken since that game to prevent another similar occurrence.

No way to excuse USC’s third straight loss in Corvallis. After beating a ranked Arizona team on the road, USC wasn’t mentally ready at all for Oregon State and was embarrassed for the third time in two seasons by an opponent able to run the score up on a hapless Trojans team that pretty much didn’t attempt to compete.

What USC has done is not allow the fact that its opportunity to play for a bowl game and a Pac-10 title was taken away. Or the fact that the NCAA allowed upperclassmen to transfer without penalty at any time in an unprecedented ruling. The players have pretty much hung in there with the program and the new coach. It’s been inspiring what the seniors have done even though their careers haven’t turned out the way they thought they would.

2. What has surprised you the most about this year? With the talent returning, did you expect any facet of the team to perform better?

Obviously the defense has been a disappointment, especially the pass defense. Linebackers might have been expected to fall off as heart ailments knocked out two of the second year players and USC lost four players two years ago to starting spots as NFL rookie linebackers. You don’t replace numbers and talent like that.

And all four secondary starters also graduated so USC was starting anew there. And the lack of experience and difficulty in adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s schemes have been obvious as USC is 114th in NCAA pass defense this week allowing 272 yards a game.

The tackling and pursuit angles have suffered because USC hasn’t been able to tackle live in practice all season. Having just 51 or 52 scholarship players available for some games will do that to a team.

3. The Notre Dame/Southern Cal rivalry has been one of extremes, with long winning streaks for both teams dominating the past few decades. With Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis gone, do you expect things to even out?

Whether the rivalry evens out, it would seem, depends on Notre Dame, I’d imagine. Even the unprecedented sanctions, the two-year bowl ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons, a penalty of unprecedented severity and without any historical basis that the NCAA Committee on Infractions including Notre Dame deputy AD Missy Conboy inflicted on USC** probably won’t completely even things out unless the Irish improve.

**Editor’s Note: We expanded on this subject, but Dan thought it better to remove it from our Q&A. I agreed.

4. Are you impressed with the job Brian Kelly’s done, especially considering the injuries (starting QB, TE, 2 WRs, MLB, DT, FS) and off-the-field tragedies he’s had to deal with?

The way Notre Dame has bounced back the last two weeks is impressive. The Irish suffered some tough early losses as well as the off-the-field tragedies and seem like they still want to compete and that has to please fans of this series. No one wants to see either of these teams so far down that the rivalry is diminished. As a Cincinnati native who always paid attention to the program, I was well aware of the job Kelly did there and a strong believer in his ability to put together a winning program at Notre Dame.

5. Back to the game. It looks like Mitch Mustain has a chance to form a pretty compelling two-game legacy for the Trojans. What are the keys to a Trojan victory on Saturday? Can USC bounce back after last week’s demoralizing loss?
Mitch Mustain does have the opportunity to become a USC legend in two games for staying, and winning, the archrival games for USC when he easily could have left. And it could maybe only happen at USC since the Trojans are the only program in the country with two major and almost equal archrivals in Notre Dame and UCLA. No one else has two archrivals like that and gets to play them in back-to-back weeks. And if Mitch can get it together, and USC can, it’s there for him. I think USC can get its act together this week — but then I thought it could last week, as well. Shows how much I know.

6. Gut Feeling?

Gut feeling? I think they’ll bounce back. Notre Dame may not have quite as much talent as Oregon State but it’s close. So USC’s players have to know what could happen if they don’t show up ready to play.

*****

Read more of Dan’s coverage of the big game all week at USCFootball.com

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

***

John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy.