Michael Floyd 3

Floyd returns: How Brian Kelly brought back his star receiver

29 Comments

Apologies to Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but the Irish coaching staff landed their biggest recruit of the offseason with Michael Floyd’s return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a plan to have Floyd graduate next December, and a detailed focus on how he’ll be used in the second iteration of the head coach’s offense, Brian Kelly and his offensive coaching staff essentially re-recruited the 6-3, 227-pound junior from St. Paul in a closed door meeting yesterday, bringing back the most important member of the Irish roster for a season basically nobody saw coming.

“This was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life,” Floyd said.

Heading into the holiday break, many assumed Floyd had said goodbye to South Bend. Reports on the internet quoted his dislike for the city and weather (never mind that he’s from Minnesota), his lukewarm relationship with Kelly, and his family’s modest economic standing as reasons he’d all but decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft.

But Monday’s initial reports that Floyd was already set to announce his intent to leave misunderstood the key elements that went into Floyd’s decision to return for a fourth season in blue and gold.

“I’m returning to Notre Dame for three reasons: to earn my degree, return Notre Dame to the top and improve myself as a player,” Floyd released in a statement. “First, I promised my mom I would graduate from Notre Dame and I am 40 credit hours shy of attaining that goal. I chose to attend Notre Dame in part because I knew it was a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision. Graduating from Notre Dame will help me for the rest of my life. Second, I want to get Notre Dame back to a BCS game. I believe we are very close to returning the Irish to where we belong and I want to be part of something great. Lastly, I want to show everyone in the country that I’m the best wide receiver in college football in 2011. There are many things I need to improve, but I feel with the coaching I have at Notre Dame, I can become the best at my position in this game.”

The desire to graduate from Notre Dame can’t be understated. Both Floyd and his mother, Theresa Romero, put great value on getting a Notre Dame degree, and the Irish coaching staff put in detailed plan in place that would help Floyd earn the 40 credit hours needed. He’ll have the spring semester, a summer session, and next fall to meeting the university’s obligations before leaving school next December with a diploma to begin preparations for the 2012 NFL Draft.

But if Floyd’s decision came down to anything, it was the thawing of a relationship between the team’s star wide receiver and his head coach.

Barely a month after Kelly’s hiring at Notre Dame, his star wide receiver was caught up in an embarrassing underage drinking fiasco, after a fight on the University of Minnesota campus over Christmas break. From there, whether it was real or perceived, Floyd often felt he was the scapegoat for the previous regime’s inability to win games, a dangerous tactic to take with your offense’s most important player.

During Kelly’s first media day with the national press, he took a shot at a consensus preseason All-American.

“Michael Floyd… I thought Michael Floyd was over-hyped. I thought he was, at times, average,” Kelly said. “He ran down the field and they threw it up. He wasn’t a precision route runner. He wasn’t asked to be. He was a match-up guy. You never saw him in a position to run the dig or the drive or one-on-one where he had to beat press coverage on a slant on 4th and one. All those things that go to winning football games, I didn’t see that. Maybe it’s because they had Golden Tate and he did all that for them. So my evaluation of Mike was based upon the film I’ve had.”

(Looking back now, that statement reads almost like a tactical strike against Floyd. Preseason kudos? Undeserved. Physical abilities? So what. Anybody big and strong can go up and get the football. When the team needed to win last year, they didn’t call #3’s number, they looked to Golden Tate. Go ahead and look for yourself, the film doesn’t lie…)

If that statement was meant to be a message to his star wide receiver, Floyd apparently received it loud and clear, making it a personal mission to work harder than everyone throughout the spring and summer months. Even though Floyd was used to the special rules Charlie Weis had for him, Golden Tate, and Jimmy Clausen, and was confused why his head coach would take dead aim at a player that was responsible for carrying most of the offensive load, he grinded on, showing both his teammates and a new coaching staff what kind of player he truly is. In the days before the season started, it was clear that Kelly noticed.

“In my 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked,” Kelly said in August. “And I mean that. He has out-worked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has single-handedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play.”

From there, Kelly learned that while he might not have seen what made Floyd special on tape, his opponents did. Complacent to keep Floyd stationed in one place, he watched as Dayne Crist struggled to connect with his best receiver. Against Purdue, Floyd was only targeted seven times, with three completions going for less than 10 yards. Against Michigan, more than half the throws to Floyd went incomplete, and his five catches for 66 yards were inconceivable numbers against a ravaged secondary that Floyd lit up the year before in Ann Arbor. It took until Notre Dame’s decisive loss to Stanford for Floyd to break the 100-yard mark in a game, the longest stretch since his freshman year to reach that number.

But as the season evolved, both receiver and head coach understood what Floyd meant to the offense, and his 13 targets against USC were critical to the Irish beating the Trojans for the first time since Bob Davie coached Notre Dame. After his six catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns torched a talented secondary, it sounded as if Kelly knew keeping Floyd for another season would be difficult.

“We have a young man here at Notre Dame that has given everything to Notre Dame,” Kelly said of Floyd. “If he decides it’s in his best interests to come back next year, we’ll be very, very happy for him. But we want what’s best for Mike Floyd. Today he showed why he’s a championship football player.”

It turns out that both Floyd’s best and personal interests brought him back to Notre Dame. While reviews of his draft stock were mixed, the easy thing for Floyd to do would have been leaving for the NFL. Whether it was bottom of the first round money or third round money, it would’ve done enough to instantly change the life of both him and his mother.

“This was a tough decision because my dream has always been to play in the NFL, but I didn’t think that this was the best time to make that jump,” Floyd said. “Ultimately, I wanted to be at Notre Dame for my senior season because you never get college back.”

That senior season will likely see Floyd break just about every major receiving record in Notre Dame’s history books. He already sits atop the books in receiving touchdowns and yards per game, as well as holds a slew of freshman records from his 2008 season. With Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones, and Cierre Wood back, Floyd will also have diversified set of skill players that’ll help take the focus off the senior receiver as well as a quarterback (playing behind a veteran offensive line) that has likely played significant minutes.

What’s next for Floyd likely will be determined by the relationship that he and his head coach forge over the next nine months. Floyd returned to Notre Dame in many ways in spite of his relationship with his head coach, not because of it. Yesterday’s meeting, a candid session between Floyd and Kelly, could have been the breakthrough needed for both parties to leave the past behind and begin building a team that’s well positioned for a BCS run.

“We had a great meeting yesterday,” Floyd said in his statement explaining his return to school. “I felt (Kelly) was very truthful and candid in our conversation and I really appreciated that.”

Whatever was said behind those doors in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex resulted in Notre Dame’s most prolific wide receiver passing up the NFL for the chance to take a shot at some unfinished business.

If Notre Dame is going to take the leap from good to great next season (see Auburn’s jump from 8-5 to BCS Champions), they’ll need their head coach and star receiver to be on the same page. After a rocky start, Floyd’s unlikely return to Notre Dame is a sign that after wondering what might have been with stars like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph, the stars could finally be aligning above the Golden Dome.

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)
4 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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
22 Comments

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
11 Comments

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.