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Pregame Twelve Pack: Sun Bowl edition

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We get teary-eyed just thinking that this could be the last of these monsters for nine months. But before we crack a cold one to celebrate (ice pack for my hands, that is), here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Miami at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

1. The Irish defense will have a chance to prove it truly is ‘B.I.A.’

At first, there were chuckles among fans when they heard the Irish defense took to barking ‘B.I.A’ — Best In America — when they frenetically ran around the practice field. What an optimistic goal, many thought, without ever considering it could actually become (even close) to true.

Maybe it wasn’t all that far from the truth it turns out. Sure, the Irish defense only clocks in as a Top 40(ish) defense, but Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out a few very impressive trends when you look at Notre Dame’s defense in the season’s final month.

Projected over an entire season ND’s November numbers would place it as the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense (93.3 yards per game), No. 6 in third-down defense (31.3 percent conversions), No. 2 in first downs allowed (12 per game), No. 2 in total defense (233.3 yards per game) and No. 1 in scoring defense (7.3 points a game).

And passing defense? The Irish haven’t allowed a 200-yard passing performance since Oct. 16 against Western Michigan and didn’t allow a passing TD after Halloween. The only rushing TD they’ve yielded since the Oct. 23 Navy meltdown came on a four-play, two-yard drive by USC.

Statistically speaking, Miami is the fifth best offense the Irish will face, behind Tulsa (#5), Michigan (#6), Stanford (#14), and USC (#27). If Diaco’s troops can hold strong, there might be some truth to the BIAs we hear come spring practice.

2. Regardless of the defense, the Irish need some offense out of Tommy Rees.

Any full blown quarterback controversy was effective cooled in the Coliseum, where Tommy Rees played like a true freshman in hostile territory, making some bad decisions with the football in the second half before driving the Irish down the field for a much-needed victory.

But if the Irish are going to win tomorrow, they’ll need Rees to limit the mistakes he made when the Trojans dropped seven men into coverage. Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talked about the post-USC Rees, and what the coaching staff did to prepare him for the Sun Bowl.

“He did struggle a little bit, some of that was due to the big arena we played in and the talented defense we went against,” Molnar said. “Really what we did at the beginning was just get Tommy’s confidence back, and went back to basics, did things he really felt comfortable with. And then we slowly but surely installed the game plan as the week went on. He’s had really a good 12 days of practice so far.”

Last week, head coach Brian Kelly admitted that the offense was “in flux” and simply doing anything it can to win football games. For the Irish to beat the Hurricanes, they’ll need Rees to do more than just limit turnovers.

“Tommy has to be part of the equation,” Kelly said. “We can’t go in there and say things like, well, he just has to distribute or he just has to manage the game. Tommy has to play well. and if we’re to win this football game, he has to use the experience he had as a starter and go play the game the way he’s capable of.”

3. With one quarterback injured, Hurricanes will ride Jacory Harris.

Miami interim head coach Jeff Stoutland had been playing coy with his choice at quarterback, repping both freshman Stephen Morris and junior Jacory Harris until Morris injured his ankle earlier in the week during practice in El Paso. While Morris’ ankle is “way better than we thought he would be,” according to Stoutland, he announced this afternoon that Harris will get the start.

According to Bob Diaco, the Irish won’t change their strategy depending on what quarterback plays, but if they’re looking for a blueprint on how to shutdown Harris, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave it to them last year. (Courtesy of EDSBS)

So what did they do? Play soft coverage and hope Harris made some mistakes? Revamp the offense to catch Miami’s speedy defense off guard? No. Foster and Beamer basically said f— it, we’re going after Miami. That early fumble by Jacory Harris that set up the Hokies’ first touchdown? Well they did what I said they wouldn’t be able to: Foster dialed up a hide-the-children, all-out, man-to-man blitz with no free safety with the cornerback, Dorian Porch, coming off the short side of the field. (Miami was in a three receiver set with a tight-end backside. Foster put two guys to this backside: one played the tight-end in man coverage and the other, Porch, just blitzed, and of course Harris never saw him.)

This sounds like a Jon Tenuta-approved recipe for defense, but Diaco’s been far more disciplined with his use of blitzers. Still, expect to see Robert Blanton, who has shown a great knack for coming off the edge, to hear his number called quite a few times.

4. The Irish secondary will have its opportunities to make plays.

Regardless of what quarterback starts, the Irish secondary should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. Now that we know it’s Harris, he’s shown a propensity to make some very bad decisions against good passing defenses, which Notre Dame certainly qualifies as.

In Harris’ three games against Top 30 passing defenses, he’s completed only 53 percent of his throws for 6.6 yards an attempt, throwing seven touchdowns, but eight interceptions.

On the season, the Irish are giving up only 6.2 yards an attempt, good for 19th in the country, only nine touchdown passes, which is 4th in the country, so if the Hurricanes throw the ball, Chuck Martin’s boys better be ready.

“We won’t do anything outside of our working system,” Diaco said when asked about taking advantage of interception-prone quarterbacks. “We’ll operate within our framework as far as how we call defense and how our players play structurally inside of it. As the game unfolds, then we’ll see where it goes.”

5. The Sun Bowl brings in two teams in opposite directions.

On paper, many see this match-up favoring the Hurricanes. But a look at the state of each program shows that these two teams are trending in very opposite directions.

The Irish are playing for their first four-game winning streak since the 2006 season that saw Notre Dame rip off eight straight wins. They’ve done it behind a resurgent rushing attack and elite defense.

Miami enters having lost three of their final five games, including ugly losses to Virginia and South Florida, the finale all but costing Randy Shannon his job. More uniquely, the Hurricanes will be playing a football game that their head coach won’t have anything to do with, as Al Golden is merely observing the Hurricanes while he gets started recruiting, the only lame-duck/new incumbant coaching situation of the bowl season.

6. The Brian Castello, king of the Red Hats, get another moment in the sun.

It turns out those triumphant final snaps walk-on quarterback Brian Castello took in the Irish’s final home win over Utah were only the beginning. Now he’s got a guest spot at the South Bend Tribune, running the “Red Hat Diaries.” (Not to be confused with the shoes…)

In his three different entries, Castello has talked about the opening night talent show, which featured an original piano score by freshman linebacker Danny Spond, the difficulties of picking properly at the Hyundai Gift Suite, where Castello scored a 22-inch flat screen, and going through weapons simulations at Fort Bliss, where Castello lit up 21 targets with a military assault weapon.

They’re entertaining reads and give you a great idea of what bowl week is actually like for players that both hit the field and roam the sidelines.

7. Darrin Walls, Notre Dame will miss you.

It’s the final start for cornerback Darrin Walls, who walks away from Notre Dame on a high note after a up-and-down career. Walls came to South Bend one of the top defensive back recruits in the country and went toe-to-toe with All-American Calvin Johnson as a true freshman. But Walls played unspectacular football on a miserable 2007 team, spent the 2008 season away from the team due to personal reasons and played just average in 2009, managing only one interception.

But Walls’ senior season has been a different story, and Bob Diaco had high praise for his graduating cornerback.

“Darrin is a benchmark for professionalism,” Diaco said. “He is someone you can point to on any given day to say this is how you come to work, this is how you come to meetings, this is how you look when you’re on campus, this is how you conduct your business. He’s clean cut, he looks good, he wears nice clothes. I don’t know whether he has the approach that any given day he might meet someone that can change his life, so he better be ready for it. But that’s how he operates and conducts his business. He’s going to be very successful in whatever he does.”

Walls is the only member of the secondary out of eligibility, but he’ll leave big shoes to fill both on and off the field.

8. Ian Williams, Notre Dame will miss you, too.

After injuring his knee against Navy, Ian Williams will be back on the field for the final game of his career against his home state Hurricanes, a school that didn’t think Williams was worthy of a scholarship offer.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” Williams said. “I’ll be glad to be back and the team is very excited. I’m 100 percent right now. I feel great.”

With Williams back in the fold, it gives the Irish an interesting dilemma — incorporating their best defensive lineman into a unit that’s played their best football without him. It doesn’t sound like a problem Bob Diaco seems to worried about.

“There’s no disruption of chemistry,” Diaco said. “The players know exactly where everyone fits all the time. That’s our core belief. That’s how we operate. We communicate clearly every day with the players as it relates to where they stand. The vision is clear, so there’s no backdoor, behind-the-scene conversation. As it relates to Ian, there’s no loss of chemistry. We’re excited he’s back. he’s got an opportunity to play in his last college game. He was able to grind it out and work hard to get himself back on position to be healthy enough to contribute.”

Williams comes back at a perfect time, as the Irish defense will be facing another stiff rushing offense, with Miami the seventh Top 30 rushing offense the Irish will face this year.

9. Notre Dame fans will get their first look at Seantrel Henderson.

Once the apple of every Notre Dame fans eye, the Irish will finally see gargantuan freshman right tackle Seantrel Henderson on the field.

While Henderson initially considered Notre Dame during the high-stakes recruiting process, many Irish fans thought they’d get their first look at the 6-8, 360-pound freshman against USC, where Henderson initially pledged his commitment. But after the NCAA hit USC with major sanctions, Henderson decided to take his talents to South Beach too, where he’s started nine games for the Hurricanes, even though he joined the team late in preseason drills.

Called Miami’s “Great Wall of China” by quarterback Jacory Harris, Henderson has spent the week talking with fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Michael Floyd, who counseled Henderson during the hectic recruiting process.

The Irish will send Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams and Darius Fleming against Henderson, who bookends with senior left tackle Orlando Franklin to form a formidable duo.

10. Both Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph have received their NFL grades.

And that’s about all we really know about that.

“There are so many different factors that go into making that decision,” Kelly said, as if he read the 1200 words I wrote about Floyd’s decision yesterday. “All I can tell you is, as the head football coach, I’d love to have them both back. We’ll be able to get clearer information as to what their status is in the next week or so.”

Last year, both Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate made the announcement that they’d be forgoing their senior season on December 7th, which was incredible early, considering the Irish weren’t playing in a bowl game. That early decision, coupled with the fact that neither went to the NFL Advisory Board, is a good example of not doing your homework, which is something that both Floyd and Rudolph hopefully are doing.

Floyd and Rudolph leaving early is one of the necessary evils that come along with recruiting elite prospects to your football program and I know most of us would take a multimillion dollar job offer after our junior year, especially if we were on track to still get our diplomas. That said, leaving early for a late second round contract isn’t the optimal use of early entry.

From the sounds of it, we’ll find out soon enough whether or not Rudolph or Floyd will be playing for the Irish in 2011.

11. The Irish offense will have Theo Riddick back at full strength.

If you’re looking for a quarterbacks best friend, Theo Riddick should qualify. And for the first time since Tommy Rees took the reins of the offense, he’ll have Riddick in the slot at full strength, who Brian Kelly plans to utilize.

“You’ll see a much more expanded role for him in this game,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t been part of our game plan for over two months. He’ll be an integral part of what we do.”

The Irish offense lost a huge component when Riddick went down with a severe ankle sprain against Western Michigan, and while the Irish bulked up their running game to counter his loss, Riddick’s return could also help the ground game, both by quick handoffs to the speedy slotman and by spreading the Miami defenses splits.

12. Robert Hughes, this Sun Bowl could be for you.

Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar gave an insight into why it took running back Robert Hughes so long to get consistent carries this year.

“As we went through spring ball and summer camp, he ran like he was a 172-pounder,” Molnar said, more than hinting at a problem that’s plagued the senior running back.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the light switch flipped on, as Hughes took his garbage time carries against Western Michigan and reminded both the fanbase and the coaching staff that the senior anvil was a weapon worth using down the stretch.

“I wanted to play,” Hughes said. “That was the tipping point.”

Coupled with the loss of starter Armando Allen, Hughes emerged as the ‘boom’ in the Irish offense, nowhere more evident than in the Irish’s game-winning drive against USC, where Hughes trucked his way through a Trojan defense that was gasping for air.

Kelly made it clear that both Hughes and Riddick will have “expanded roles” in the Sun Bowl, meaning that if the Irish are going to establish the running game needed to help Tommy Rees, they’ll do it behind the power running of Hughes, playing his final game in a Notre Dame uniform.

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.

***

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.