Jarron Jones

Junior Day helps Irish make impression

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For those following the ins-and-outs of recruiting, the big picture, one-sentence recap of this past weekend’s Junior Day at Notre Dame is this: Nobody committed to the Irish.

That said, if we’ve learned anything during this era of recruiting, an early verbal commitment means just about nothing, and the Brian Kelly led Irish coaching staff doesn’t hold an unrealistic value on the word of a high school junior. (Plus, early commitments are boring!)

With the Midwest battling another winter storm, Kelly and company welcomed around 30 recruits to campus for their first official Junior Day. Just about every one of them that was interviewed by one of the recruiting websites had something nice to say about a) the academics b) the tradition and c) the upgraded facilities at Notre Dame. All things you’d expect from high school juniors taking their first visit to South Bend.

Here are a few interesting tidbits gathered from some of the not-so-stock quotes:

* If you’re wondering whether Notre Dame is in good shape with offensive lineman Dan Voltz after the visit, the answer is yes.

“I already want to go back,” Voltz told IrishSportsDaily.com. “I am going to go back two or three times this spring and summer… It’s going to be really hard to do better than that.”

Voltz has got to be a high-priority for the Irish and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, who is responsible for the Chicagoland area for the Irish.

* We mentioned Michael Moore as a potential defensive end and at 6-4, 255-pounds, you’d certainly think he’s got the potential to grow into a prototype 3-4 defensive end. But that’s not what the coaching staff sees when they look at the junior from Maryland’s tape.

According to IrishIllustrated.com, the coaching staff sees Moore at Darius Fleming’s ‘Cat’ linebacker position.

“They said I was real athletic to play it,” Moore told Irish Illustrated. “They said I was strong enough to play it because at that position they want a real strong guy that’s athletic enough. That really sticks out. It was just a real good thing to see where they’d like to see me play and a real good opportunity to see how I can choose schools and see a position.”

Moore’s an intriguing player and after bringing in Ishaq Williams in the current recruiting class, you begin to understand that a guy like Darius Fleming, who checks in at 6-2, 247-pounds, is undersized for the job he’s doing.

* A few more offers went out to junior prospects, but none larger (both in offer and prospect stature) than defensive lineman Jarron Jones of Rochester, New York.

BlueandGold.com reports that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco offered Jones, who already has Florida State, Penn State and Michigan among his 16 offers.

“Yes, he offered me today,” Jones told BlueandGold.com. “I’m really interested in Notre Dame. They like me at defensive end.”

At 6-6 or 6-7, and around 290-pounds, Jones has an absolutely massive frame, and he has pretty elite athleticism for a guy his size. Diaco’s a great guy to have recruiting Jones, and he’ll likely end up a national recruit as well.

* By way of Bob Wieneke at the South Bend Tribune, the original recruiting guru, Tom Lemming of CBS College Sports, says that the Irish have already made 100 verbal offers to juniors.

“I think it’s great,” Lemming said. “They should have 100, and they do.”

If you’re wondering if that number is higher than it has been in the past, it is. Using unofficial data from Rivals.com, here are the number of scholarships the Irish have offered since they started tracking stats like this:

2002 – 73
2003 – 55
2004 – 67
2005 – 65
2006 – 59
2007 – 64
2008 – 57
2009 – 77
2010 – 102
2011 – 124

It’s highly likely that Rivals has gotten better at tracking offers as the recruiting industry continues to evolve, but this is pretty convincing evidence that Kelly and company simply identify and offer more recruits, something that’s clearly a strategic decision, and likely comes from spending a career’s worth of time in the collegiate ranks.

Obviously, Charlie Weis was a great recruiter, but combining his penchant for minimal offers and his hard-line on the term commitment, it’s no wonder that when the Irish lost a top-caliber commitment late in the recruiting cycle, the Irish were stuck trying to make up ground with kids they only offered late in the game.

As we saw first-hand this recruiting season, Kelly isn’t afraid of pushing right up to the 85-man roster limit, chasing top prospects all the way until Signing Day, one philosophy change that’s already benefited the Irish during their recruitment of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

(Tip of the cap to the band formerly known as Blue-Gray Sky for the Rivals data.)

 

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.