Brian Kelly - vs. Michigan

Ruffer, QBs, Riddick and Floyd: Kelly recaps Year One

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In between crisscrossing the country reeling in recruits, Brian Kelly returned to South Bend for an important recruiting weekend and the year-end 2010 Football Awards Show. He also took a few minutes to recap season one with the media. (If you’d like to see the entire thing, our friends at UND.com have you covered.)

As always, here are some highlights, with a few observations included.

I mentioned it yesterday, but Kelly put any speculation to rest and announced that David Ruffer is going on scholarship.

“What I can report today is that we are going to award David Ruffer a scholarship for next year,” Kelly said. “I can make that announcement today. I will meet with our other fifth-year seniors on Monday and we’ll have an announcement on Tuesday relative to the remaining players.”

Kelly said that every fifth-year candidate applied to return, meaning Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, Taylor Dever, Mike Ragone, Andrew Nuss, and Matt Romine all have the option of coming back to school. According to Irish Illustrated, he also said after the press conference that taking Nate Montana off scholarship isn’t on his list of potential roster moves to get under the 85 man roster maximum.

I’m going to assume Smith, Gray and Dever are all back as starters. I’ll also assume that the coaching staff will continue recruiting Troy Niklas and Savon Huggins. That means there are two roster spots for the combo of Ragone, Nuss, Romine, Niklas and Huggins.

Of course, if Kelly’s spoken with a veteran who hasn’t cracked the lineup and might want to transfer (i.e. a Deion Walker), that’s something he’ll know about and we won’t, especially if those players want to finish the semester and not fall behind academically.

We’ll find out more on Monday, but as I’ve said before, too many viable roster options is a good problem to have.

***

What a difference a spring makes. Last season, the coaching staff walked on egg shells as they gave Dayne Crist, six months off ACL surgery, virtually every rep in spring practice. This year, there’ll be six quarterbacks on the roster, with Crist reportedly ready to go.

“We think we’re going to be able to really do a lot more of those similar kinds of things and keep him involved and competing within our spring practice format,” Kelly said about Crist.

That said, there’s a very real problem of getting six quarterbacks reps and Kelly has spent a lot of time putting together a plan.

“I have formulated in my mind some real clear guidelines as to how we’re going to move forward there,” Kelly said. “Suffice to say, I’m pretty clear on the styles that we have and how to utilize those styles within our offense.

“We can’t work with six quarterbacks,” Kelly stated. “There will be some paring down. There will be some guys that understand if they’re not in that top four, they’re not going to be able to get reps at the position.”

That could mean position switches, that could mean roster moves, it could mean just about anything, but you’ve got to think the battle starts with Crist and Rees, includes Andrew Hendrix, and potentially Everett Golson, who enrolled early to get immediate work.

It’s amazing to think that after being thrust into a scholarship position because he was the No. 2 quarterback as a walk-on, Nate Montana could drop out of the top four quarterbacks but still be on scholarship.

***

When talking about position switches, Kelly tiptoed through some small moves before dropping a relatively large bomb on everyone.

“What our identity became, compared to what it was at the start of the season, you could make the case now that Theo Riddick should be a running back,” Kelly said. “Or an offensive lineman that played tackle should play guard. Or you’ve got three or four tight ends, how are you going to use them all? As I said, Year 2 for us is less about laying down a system of offense or defense or special teams and more about utilizing the players we have that can help us win football games.”

We can parse words and take guesses what offensive linemen might shift inside or out, but the news that Kelly would consider moving Riddick back to running back after successfully teaching him the Z-receiver position is pretty amazing. When pressed further, here’s what Kelly said.

“I think we’re going to have that conversation as a staff,” Kelly said. “I think we’re going to have to vet that out. I’m not ready to do that right now.”

It could be to get TJ Jones more playing time in the slot, or it could be to use Riddick in more of a Percy Harvin-like role, but it’s almost refreshing to know that the coaching staff isn’t afraid to move one of its best returning players if they think it’s going to help the team.

***

When asked about his star receiver coming back, Kelly was pretty adamant that he landed the number one recruit on his board.

“He’s the No. 1 signee, no question,” Kelly said. “If there’s a sixth star, he gets a sixth star. And it’s more than just what he does on the football field. He’s a workhorse. He sets the bar for how our guys work in the offseason and those are obviously big pieces.”

To give you a better idea of what type of kid Michael Floyd is, Kelly recounted the morning Floyd told him his decision.

“He informed me in the morning that he was coming back,” Kelly said. “Our conversation really from there was about how we wanted to release it. As you know, Mike is not a big press conference guy. Of course, we wanted to have a press conference, and we were even going to serve food. It was going to be a big event. He didn’t want to do that. We met, he said let me think about it, I’m going to sleep on it. He came back the next morning and informed me that he was coming back.”

***

If you’re looking for one paragraph to encapsulate what year one of the Kelly era looked like to the head coach himself, here’s the quote of record:

“The program, the first year, the first coat of paint is a phrase I use a lot,” Kelly said. “That’s the relationship that we build with our players in year one. It’s my philosophy coming about through the year, the message and how we expect our players to represent Notre Dame – all of those things took place in year one. Other than winning only eight football games, which is not enough to win in the first year, we accomplished a lot of the real foundation principles of a championship program. Our football team was better at the end of the year and will continue to progress as we move into year two.”

 

 

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.