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Underachieving Irish seniors have their shot at redemption

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As he does every year around this time of year, Matt Hinton at his Dr. Saturday blog takes a comprehensive look at the “recruiting-industrial complex,” his way of supporting the “premium information” recruiting machine that drives a multi-million dollar industry and makes celebrities of teenage football players while turning grown up football fans like us into raving lunatics every December through February.

In the fifth installment of the series, Doc tackled the nation’s most underachieving teams, where a certain team wearing blue and gold not surprisingly topped the list.

Here’s Hinton’s rationale:

Individually, some of Charlie Weis’ most hyped signees turned out to be all they were cracked up to be, especially in the passing game. Golden boy quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his top target, Golden Tate, finished their careers as one of the most prolific pass-catch combos in the nation in 2009. Former five-star Kyle Rudolph will likely be the first tight end off the board in April’s NFL Draft. Another five-star coup, Michael Floyd, will be back next fall to break all of Tate’s school receiving records before going on to high draft status himself in 2012. There’s still time for the rest of the Weis holdovers to make their move in Year Two under Brian Kelly.

So far, though, the string of top-10 classes Weis inked from 2006-08 has amounted to an ongoing series of debacles, beginning with the 3-9 catastrophe of 2007. Since that season, the Irish have lost three of four to their longtime whipping boy, Navy; dropped multiple games in ongoing series with the likes of Boston College, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Stanford; and suffered embarrassing November defeats at the hands of recruiting non-factors Air Force, Syracuse, UConn and Tulsa in consecutive seasons. They still haven’t beaten a team that finished in the final polls since early 2006.

To its credit, the 2010 edition managed to close Kelly’s first season with back-to-back wins over a pair of fellow underachievers, USC and Miami, which is no small triumph after years of going out with a whimper. But it will take a genuine breakthrough in 2011 to avoid being back on this list next year.

Way back last November, we took a look at the vaunted 2006 recruiting class and where it all went wrong. Of the 28 man recruiting class, headliners like Demetrius Jones, Zach Frazer, Konrad Rueland, Matt Carufel Richard Jackson, Munir Prince, Jashaad Gaines and Will Yeatman transferred. Guys like Luke Schmidt and Bartley Webb had their careers cut short by injury.  (Add Dan Wenger to this group if he doesn’t win his appeal for a sixth year.) Morrice Richardson, George West and Kallen Wade never fulfilled the promise recruitniks had for them. But even with all the misses and bad luck, the great recruiting class of 2006 failed because there wasn’t a single starting-caliber front seven player in the group. (John Ryan was the best of the class.)

The class Weis assembled in 2007 is down to six remaining Irish football players, with Taylor Dever, Gary Gray, Andrew Nuss, Mike Ragone and Harrison Smith all officially applying for a fifth year of eligibility. While Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate shipped off after three seasons, it’s interesting that the best member of this recruiting class is also one of its lowest rated, Senior Bowl stalwart Ian Williams, who may be playing his way into a 2nd round pick.

If the Irish are going to be a BCS caliber team, they’ll do it behind the recruiting class of 2008, slated to be seniors next season. While Hinton seemed willing to deem the ’08 class underachievers, you could argue that the verdict should be rendered after next season.

Headlined by quarterback Dayne Crist, wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph, the 2008 recruiting class is pretty incredible in its depth and star-power. With Rudolph moving on to the NFL, the only other defection from this class is tight end Joseph Fauria, now playing for UCLA. That’s 21 roster spots filled by seniors on next season’s roster, with 13 of them still having a final season of eligibility available if they’re brought back for a fifth season.

Michael Floyd’s return is obviously the big news for this class, but if you’re looking for one member of the class that’ll likely determine the fate of this group it’s Dayne Crist. We might forget it now, but Crist was rated the second best pro-style quarterback in the nation that year, behind only Blain Gabbert and ahead of guys like Andrew Luck and Landry Jones.  Crist’s apprenticeship behind Jimmy Clausen cost him snaps (and saved him a year of eligibility), but his first year as a starter was marred by a system change and two knee injuries.

Crist isn’t the only highly rated player in the class of ’08 waiting to make the leap from serviceable to great. Ethan Johnson was rated the 32nd best player in the country, Trevor Robinson the 37th. Jonas Gray, stuck behind guys like Armando Allen and Robert Hughes clocked in at No. 72, Darius Fleming right behind him at No. 89. Everyone of those guys, minus Gray, has cracked the starting lineup at Notre Dame, but for the Irish to be a BCS team, they’ll need to start making impacts, something we saw from Johnson and Fleming as last season progressed.

Before we spend tomorrow focusing on the next group of recruits that’ll build a base for Notre Dame’s future, it makes sense to look back at the classes that were responsible for the past few years of Irish mediocrity. Fortunately for next year’s group of seniors, they still have an opportunity to determine their fate.

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.