Dayne Crist and Louis Nix

Irish redshirts ready themselves for competition

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More than a few people were surprised when Brian Kelly announced early during his first spring practices that freshman Zack Martin was working with the first-team offensive line at left tackle. At the time, Martin was a little known commodity, so far off the radar that even the official roster had his name spelled wrong — swapping in a ‘h’ for the ‘k’ at the end of his first name.

But that’s what happens with freshman that stay off the field during their first season on campus. They’re largely forgotten, relegated to a season on the practice squad and a year physically and mentally preparing for life in college athletics.

After spending their freshman seasons watching, nine Irish football players will prepare to take their first meaningful snaps as they reinsert themselves into the depth chart. Quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa will fight to be among the four signal-callers getting reps during spring ball. Running back Cameron Roberson will walk into a depth-chart shy Robert Hughes and Armando Allen and look to build on an impressive freshman season where his work on the scout team earned him postseason honors as offensive scout team player of the year. Alex Welch, seeing another Elder High School graduate, Kyle Rudolph, leave for the NFL after three seasons, now finds himself square in the middle of a positional battle that’s headlined by Tyler Eifert and fifth-year player Mike Ragone. Christian Lombard, one of Notre Dame’s first commitments to the 2010 recruiting class, will head into battle for an open guard position vacated by Chris Stewart.

On the defensive side of the ball, Bruce Heggie, who spent last season adding considerable bulk to his already impressive frame enters the depth chart at defensive end. Justin Utupo, who started the trend of the Irish nabbing the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year, likely enters an outside linebacker competition that’s lost Brian Smith and Kerry Neal from the fold. Kendall Moore, who drew rave reviews for his play at inside linebacker on the scout team, now enters the battle to play opposite Manti Te’o. And Louis Nix, after seeing his weight balloon above 350 pounds, now takes his massive physique to the interior of the defensive line, where he’ll try to fill the void left by senior Ian Williams.

Earlier in the week, ESPN’s Bruce Feldman took a look nationally at the most anticipated redshirt freshmen in the land, and ranked Nix No. 7 in the country, quite the compliment for a nose tackle that had many recruitniks salivating last year. Here’s what he had to say about Nix, who committed to the Irish and assistant coach Tony Alford while Notre Dame was without a head coach.

7. Louis Nix, NT, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

We’ve heard all about how much Notre Dame has upgraded the edges of its 3-4 defense with the newcomers it just signed to its 2011 class. But the next question is: How about that middle? The Irish have been desperate for some big, dynamic bodies in the interior of their defensive line for a while now, and Nix may become the kind of big-time tackle they’ve been missing.

With reliable Ian Williams graduated, there is plenty of room for somebody to step in. The question now is whether Nix, who had to get in much better shape after signing last year as a freshman, ready to consistently bring the kind of effort defensive coordinator Bobby Diaco will demand? The buzz surrounding Nix from inside the program has been pretty good, but only time will tell.

While Nix is the only freshman getting national hype, it’ll be very interesting to see where guys like Roberson and Moore end up in the depth chart, as they both impressed the coaching staff all year with their performances on the scout team. The same can be said for a quarterback like Hendrix, who has wowed the coaching staff with his measureables, but just hasn’t played a lot of football in the spread. Early last season, Kelly openly considered taking the redshirt off Alex Welch and getting him into the lineup and while he didn’t do that, Welch will probably leap-frog a guy like Ragone as a pass-catcher, though how often he plays in two tight end sets will depend on how well he’s able to block at the point of attack. After Martin’s ascension into the starting lineup after a redshirt season, it should surprise no one if Lombard makes a run at the guard position that’s open.

With a little over a month to go before spring practice kicks off, a storyline to keep your eye on is which of these nine end up making a leap like Martin did into the headlines. If it turns out anywhere near as successful as it did for Zack, then Kelly and his coaching staff will be very happy.

 

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.