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State of the Irish program

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(Color me in a patriotic mood after watching last night’s State of the Union and Republican Response…)

Brian Kelly had about a week on Barack Obama, giving his “State of the Program” speech last Friday, officially putting the 2010 season in the books, while turning his gaze forward to finalizing recruiting as well as preparing for the 2011 season.

With next week surely to be focused on the finalization of a Top 10 recruiting class (not to mention the best defensive end haul since Rivals started keeping tabs), I thought it appropriate to piggy back on the President’s address to the nation last night, and take stock in where the Irish football program is 13 months after Brian Kelly took it over.

OFFENSE

Many assumed the Irish offense would be the strong suit of the 2010 squad, even with the loss of two All-American caliber players in Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, not to mention both starting tackles and center Eric Olsen. Whether or not it was blind faith in Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator, Dayne Crist waiting in the wings, or returning front-line players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen, the fact that the Irish took a step back offensively seemed to surprise more people than it should have.

From a trend perspective, the Irish offense regressed in several key categories, not surprising considering the Irish offense in 2009 was one of the top units in the country, with a third-year starter at quarterback at the trigger. That said, it’s interesting to note that Kelly’s squad had more success running the football, gave up less sacks, and scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Statistically, the improvement was moderate, but it’s amazing to think that an offensive line replacing three starters and subbing Braxston Cave in for Dan Wenger, while running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, could have a better season rushing the football than an offensive with the 4th best passing efficiency in the country. While you can say that the high-tempo spread offense is less conducive to sacks than Weis’ pro-style attack, it’s hard to understand why the Irish offensive line, behind one of college football’s most veteran units, gave up 25 sacks last season, six more than the Irish did in 2010, who finished a respectable 34th in the nation while starting three first-time starters.

More incomprehensible is the (albeit slight) improvement in the red zone. The fact that Kelly’s squad, quarterbacked by Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, and missing Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate, could do better in the red zone scoring touchdowns defies logic. Whether it be better play-calling or just better execution, there’s no reason for Jimmy Clausen’s 2009 offense to struggle in the red zone more than the 2010 edition.

Looking to 2011, there’s every reason to believe that Kelly’s offense will take fairly large steps improving in nearly every facet. Year To do that, they’ll need a better effort on the front line from Ed Warinner’s troops running the ball, who will only replace Chris Stewart from an offensive line that improved as the season went along. They’ll also need to do better on 3rd downs, improving their conversion rate from the 38-percent clip they hit on last year. Kelly’s teams have never been great third down teams (neither have the last three Oregon teams), but if they want to play at the frenetic pace that Kelly desires, they’ll need to be able to keep drives moving. Most importantly, regardless of who wins the quarterback job, there’s a huge leap in production for quarterbacks in Year Two of a Brian Kelly system. Expect that trend to continue.

DEFENSE

The improvements the Irish defense made in Kelly’s first season are hard to understate. The Irish improved in virtually every major defensive statistic, outside of opponent completion percentage and red zone defense (though in the latter’s case the Irish were far stouter limiting opponents to field goals, finishing 7th in the country in red zone touchdown defense). The Irish were a Top 30 defense in six major categories in 2010, they were a Top 30 defense in only one in 2009.

While the alignment changed, there weren’t many personnel changes to the defense Bob Diaco coordinated. If anything, the Irish lost their most consistent performer when Kyle McCarthy graduated. Yet playing with virtually the same players, the Irish defense transformed itself in Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system, playing its best football down the home stretch, when past Notre Dame defenses fell apart. Stepping back from statistical analysis and just relying on the eyeball test, it’s shocking to consider that Notre Dame played USC and Miami, two of college football’s most athletic programs, and dominated both teams with their defense at the end of the year.

As we look to 2011, the Irish will need to replace Ian Williams from the center of their defense, something they did successfully after Williams went down with a knee injury versus Navy. At linebacker, they’ll need to find a new starter at ‘Dog,’ where both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduate. Smith also doubled as a replacement in the middle, where he stepped into Carlo Calabrese spots after injuries hampered the sophomore’s ability to play. In the secondary, the Irish will lose Darrin Walls at cornerback, but have Robert Blanton ready to slide back outside after spending much of the year playing at nickel back. All three major safety contributors, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter return, with Smith leading the secondary after a breakthrough season.

The Irish played winning defense not by doing any one thing dominantly, but by having no weak link. In 2009, the Irish had the toxic combination of the 112th ranked yards-per-completion passing defense and the 101st rated run defense, basically historic ineptitude on one-side of the football for ND. (To put it in perspective, it’s nearly a mirror-image of the 2007 Irish offense.) With players like Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o poised for breakthrough seasons, there’s every reason to believe that the 2011 Irish defense has the chance to be something very special.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David Ruffer’s season kicking field goals was record-setting, but surprisingly it wasn’t that much better than the 19 for 22 that Ruffer and Nick Tausch combined for in 2009. But as expected, Mike Elston’s special teams statically improved in 2010, with a few major exceptions.

One of the things John Goodman isn’t is Golden Tate. That’s the best way to describe the drop in punt returns from 2009 to 2010, where the Irish went from 19th in the country to 101st, averaging an abysmal 4.9 yards per return in the punt game. The Irish also struggled in the kick return game, ranking 74th in the nation and a half-yard shorter per return than the 2009 edition, something that had to befuddle Brian Kelly, especially with some of the talented players he had on the roster. But in many cases, Kelly was limited in the return game by a rash of injuries to skill guys primed to thrive in the return game. Armando Allen battled through injuries until he was shutdown, limiting his impact on the return game. Ditto for Theo Riddick, who could’ve brought some excitement bringing back kicks and punts if not for an ankle injury. Whether it’s Bennett Jackson or not, the Irish can expect to improve in 2011, at the very least having more options to choose from.

Even though Kelly will have Ruffer and Tausch on the roster next season, Notre Dame accepted Kyle Brindza in early enrollment, bringing another powerful leg to campus. While he’s mostly thought of as a kicker, he’ll immediately challenge Ben Turk at punter, a place where the Irish know they need to do better. While Turk’s 36.3 yard net average is an improvement over last year, he struggled getting air under the ball and was the beneficiary of quite a few nice rolls, bumping that average up quite a bit.

COACHING STAFF

When Kelly assembled his first staff at Notre Dame, he did it with coaches he had relationships with, something that was helpful from a familiarity perspective, but didn’t move anybody’s star-meter when judging the coaches coming to Notre Dame. Keeping Tony Alford on the staff and bringing back Mike Denbrock, Kelly made two strategic moves. Alford brought great continuity, while Denbrock gave Kelly a long-time confidante who could show him the ropes around South Bend while also bringing his ties to the West Coast.

Kelly’s decision to bring Bob Diaco in as his defensive coordinator while Chuck Martin, his successful successor at Grand Valley State coached the secondary, had people questioning the move, but 13 games later it looks like a success. Diaco, preaching principles and discipline, improved the defense, while Martin transformed a secondary while leading the charge as recruiting coordinator.

While both Martin and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s names swirled around some head coaching vacancies, no coach left Kelly’s inaugural staff, keeping a unit that worked very well together intact. More importantly, both Kerry Cooks’ transition to outside linebackers coach (after spending most of his career as a secondary coach) and Alford’s transition to wide receivers seemed to take, as neither unit suffered from first time position coaches.

We’ll know for sure next Wednesday, but the major concern with this unit was their recruiting prowess, something that will officially be alleviated when Notre Dame inks the most impressive defensive recruiting class of the modern era. Many already knew that Alford was dynamic on the recruiting trail, but Mike Elston, Bob Diaco, and Chuck Martin pulled some major talent, with guys like Kerry Cooks getting players out of Texas, a major priority for Kelly.

As the staff transitions into Year Two, expect more of the same — coordinators preaching the same principles, a staff completely in sync with their head coach, and player development that’s been a hallmark of Brian Kelly football teams.

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.