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Tuesdays with BK: Sun Bowl edition

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Welcome back to the season’s final Tuesdays with BK, this time coming from El Paso, Texas. In front of a different crowd than usual, Brian Kelly discussed hot topics like Duval Kamara, the future of Michael Floyd, keys to defeating the Hurricanes, and carrying Sun Bowl momentum into 2011.

Our friends over at UND.com have video of the press conference here, but I’ll give you some of the greatest hits:

The news of Duval Kamara’s abscense from the Sun Bowl was explained by the fuzzy “personal reasons” yesterday, and when asked about it today, Brian Kelly didn’t have much to add, other than a little bit of displeasure in the entire situation.

“I’d like to stick him in a snow drift in New Jersey,” Kelly said, referencing the inclimate weather that hit Kamara’s hometown, before answering seriously.

“Personal reasons is the reason why he’s not here,” Kelly said before finalizing Kamara’s status for the game. “I would not know whether or not he shows up in El Paso or not.”

Personal reasons or not, it sounds like Kamara will end his career at Notre Dame in the head coach’s dog house, likely from a decision made over the three-day holiday break.

***

We’re going to dig into the decision Michael Floyd has to make later, but when Kelly was asked what it would mean if the Sun Bowl was Floyd’s last game in a Notre Dame uniform, he had a thoughtful response.

“These decisions that are made relative to whether they come back or not, I really don’t spend much time on it,” Kelly said. “I look at the present. And in the present, Michael Floyd is somebody that impacted our entire football team. And he impacted it by the way he worked every day in practice. He set a standard, from my perspective, of how you want champions to practice and prepare. Great work ethic, great with understanding what it takes to be a great player. If he does decide it’s in his best interests to move on to the NFL, whether I agree or not, is really immaterial, what he leaves is a standard I can point to moving forward: That’s how you prepare, that’s how you practice. Look at Michael Floyd.”

Floyd sits near the top of every receiving record in Notre Dame history and if he returns for his senior season he’ll likely be guaranteed his name doesn’t go anywhere for quite some time. That said, after sniffing around our mutual hometown and high school alma mater, I’ve got a feeling that Friday’s game might be MMF’s finale.

***

Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated played a game of fill-in-the-blanks with Kelly, where the head coach tried to relay the key to an Irish victory. Not surprisingly, it included slowing down Miami’s pass rush and protecting freshman quarterback Tommy Rees.

“Number one, we have to be able to protect Tommy,” Kelly said. “That’s absolutely critical. We can’t put this game in a situation where he has to go out as a freshman and decide the outcome. And then defensively, find a way to balance stopping the run with the ability to play the ball in the air down the field. They’re going to run the football, and they’re going to take shots with some skilled players. In other words, you can’t sell out against the run, or you’re going to get in 1-on-1 matchups that Miami can exploit. It’s balance on defense and don’t put Tommy Rees in a position where he has to make plays.”

Keeping Rees protected is the obvious priority, but stopping a Hurricane running attack that could help open up the play-action pass game is critical for the Irish defense. While most of the talk has been about Notre Dame’s strong defense in November, for the season, the Irish have done a pretty good job limiting the run. After a slow start out of the gates (thanks to a killer game by Denard Robinson), the Irish held defenses to a very respectable 3.6 yards a carry in the final nine games of the season, even including the debacle against Navy.

With Ian Williams back anchoring the nose and Darius Fleming coming on of late, the Irish should have a good chance to contain a Miami offense filled with talent, but lacking cohesion.

***

Beating Miami on Friday would give the Irish eight victories for the season, their first four-game winning streak since 2006, and an awful lot of momentum going into 2011. Kelly talked about what this bowl game means for the Irish heading into next season.

“Any time you take two weeks to practice, you’re always thinking about preparation for the opponent, but you also have an eye towards the future,” Kelly said. “It’s like anything else — you’re going to live in the present but you’re always going to have an eye towards the future. So this clearly, for both teams, there’s 2011 out there as well. We want to win the football game. So the most important thing is the right now. But in the evaluation process over the past couple weeks, you’re also looking at those guys that are going to impact your team in 2011. It’s very, very important to our players, our coaches, everybody associated.”

The Irish’s ceiling could hinge on the return of Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph to the offense, but you can be assured that expectations for 2011 — whether deserved or not — will be sky high for next year.

(At least by this guy…)

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.