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Irish take momentum onto recruiting trail

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After an undefeated November, the Irish coaching staff hit the recruiting trail, and it isn’t hard to see the difference between spending the season’s final month building momentum versus the tailspin of the last two years. The commitments of Cam McDaniel and Everett Golson this week help illustrate how important stability at the top of a football program — and more importantly, winning football games — helps down the stretch in closing a recruiting class.

While Rich Rodriguez is fighting for his job and playing Josh Groban songs, Brian Kelly and his staff are canvasing the country, as the coaching staff have a recruiting class to finalize and a young roster to build upon.

(For those of you that think all 7-5 records are equal, the Michigan and Notre Dame situations show that to be quite untrue.)

While it’ll hardly be as comprehensive as some of the premium websites, here’s a look at where the coaches have been, who they might be targeting, and what’s left to accomplish.

THE COMMITMENTS:

Notre Dame currently has 18 verbal commitments for the 2011 recruiting class:

Josh Atkinson — DB
George Atkinson — WR
Kyle Brindza — K
Jalen Brown — DB
Brad Carrico — DE
Ben Councell — DE
Davaris Daniels — WR
Matthias Farley — DB/WR
Everett Golson — QB
Jarett Grace — LB
Conor Hanratty — OL
Eilar Hardy — DB
Matthew Hegarty — OL
Ben Koyack — TE
Cam McDaniel — RB
Anthony Rabasa — DE
Tony Springmann — DE
Stephon Tuitt — DE

As we’ve seen in the past with “commitments,” these are in no way binding, and Kelly and his staff have been out visiting all of their commitments this month as they come down the home stretch of the recruiting cycle.

Losing both Aaron Lynch and Clay Burton at defensive end certainly hurts the Irish, but they’ve done a very good job filling some holes on the depth chart there in this current class. The Irish’s lack of depth at safety was a huge issue this year as well, but all four safeties in the two-deep return and the Irish have a few guys that profile for the position and a few offers outstanding as well.

THE TARGETS

Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com reports that Brian Kelly spent much of the day yesterday visiting touted Iowa recruit Christian French and his family, offering the athlete the ability to come into Notre Dame as an offensive player and not an outside linebacker like many project French to be.

In addition to long-standing targets like French, the Irish continue to pursue New York’s Ishaq Williams, and recently had defensive coordinator Bob Diaco visit in advance of Williams’s official visit to campus next week. The Irish have a legitimate chance of landing Williams, something many thought was a long shot when the recruitment began.

The Irish are also still targeting running back Savon Huggins, who welcomed Diaco and running backs coach Tim Hinton into his home. Huggins has other official visits set up, but the Irish are a favorite here, and Huggins would be a great addition to a running back depth chart that loses two of its top performers in Armando Allen and Robert Hughes.

Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock swung by Anaheim to visit with defensive end target Troy Niklas, who has the Irish among his top three schools, with USC and Stanford also in the mix. Niklas is a 6-foot-7 athlete that also has a chance to be a tight end, but fits the developmental mode for a 3-4 defensive end in the Irish system. Servite high school and Orange county are traditional Trojan territories, but USC’s struggles and Stanford’s annual Jim Harbaugh departure questions give the Irish a shot at adding more depth along the edges of the defense.

Denbrock also headed to the Pacific Northwest to visit Oregon’s Brennan Scarlett, a top defensive end/outside linebacker prospect that compares favorably to current Irish defensive end (and Oregon native) Ethan Johnson. Scarlett has a national offer list, but he was in South Bend for the victory over Utah and adds another intriguing athlete and high-character kid to the fray.

WILDCARDS

One thing that seems different from the Kelly regime to the previous coaching staff under Charlie Weis is that the Irish seem to be in less “high-leverage” positions. Too often, the Irish put their eggs in the baskets of high profile athletes that changed their mind, leaving Notre Dame scrambling for other options. No doubt, defections hurt any recruiting class, but under Kelly and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, the Irish seem to have left themselves with plenty of options as signing day arrives, and now it’s a matter of filling up the remaining seats on the bus as more than enough passengers standing by, swinging the supply and demand power in the Irish’s favor.

The recruitment of Golson and McDaniel this week show just how nimble this recruiting staff is, and the addition of an early-entry national quarterback recruit like Golson this late in the game is pretty unparalleled for Notre Dame. Likewise, the Irish have a chance to add a few more wildcards to the fold before players ink their letters of intent.

Kansas native Shane Ray is a new target on the Irish board that has a lot of similarities to another outside linebacker that’s from the same area. It wasn’t long ago that Brian Smith walked away from a commitment to Missouri to come to Notre Dame, and Ray, who is coached by former Irish lineman Tim Grunhard and also committed to Mizzou, will be visiting South Bend this weekend.

When Randy Shannon was fired at Miami, the Irish dispatched Tony Alford to check on one-time target Anthony Chickillo, a high-motor defensive end whose father and grandfather played football for the Hurricanes. It’s likely that whatever coach is hired at Miami will have every shot to get Chickillo back in the fold, but with Alford on the scene, who knows what could happen.

With the Irish coaching staff’s connections to Ohio, don’t count them out on their pursuit of Doran Grant, a Buckeye target from Akron. Having just offered his teammate Cam McDaniel, Bennett Okotcha, currently a Wisconsin commit, could consider the Irish as well. Guys like Miles Shuler and the Stanford commit Amir Carlisle also stay in touch with the Irish, making the next few months an exciting time to follow the craziness that is college recruiting.

 

 

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.