Jim Tressel

The battle for the Midwest

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With this week’s news exposing Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel as not quite the virtuous character his sweatervest and pious nature portend, this is a remarkably turbulent time for the powers of Midwestern college football.

Consider the state of the Big Ten conference. After firing Lloyd Carr for failing to keep Michigan up-to-speed with their archrivals in Columbus, the Wolverines bottomed out their program with three years of Rich Rodriguez, a failed attempt at wooing Jim Harbaugh, and settled for hiring Brady Hoke, he of a sub .500 head coaching record.

Ohio State, now short their head coach for at least two games (and if the NCAA has anything to say about it, likely longer) will open the season without senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games, last season’s preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. They’ll also miss four other contributors, with DeVier Posey, Dan Herron, left tackle Mike Adams, and Solomon Thomas sitting out that stretch, too.

Sure, the Buckeyes will only have one conference opponent to beat among those five foes (though playing down in Miami won’t be easy), but the secondary effect of Tressel and the Buckeyes wearing the scarlet letter could be worth watching. The stench coming from a Midwestern power that relies significantly on recruits culled from within its geographical corridor could bring some upheaval to the status quo.

And that’s where these next few years get interesting. Joe Paterno can’t coach forever, and Tom Bradley’s pursuit of other head coaching jobs likely means there’ll be transition in Happy Valley soon. As Nebraska enters the fray, and programs like Wisconsin and Michigan State continue to rise, the Big Ten could be looking at a significant shake up in their ranks.

For the first time in nearly two decades, you can easily argue that Notre Dame is the most stable of the (perceived) elite programs in the Midwest, and with both Michigan and Ohio State on far shakier ground than they’ve ever been, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have an opening that they’re uniquely qualified to jump through.

Just about every coach on Kelly’s staff has roots in either the state of Ohio or Michigan. Whether it was on Kelly’s staff at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati, this staff has relationships at the high schools where students primarily look at the Buckeyes and Michigan as the top program on the proverbial heap.

If you’re looking closely, the move is already happening. Of the 85-odd scholarships the Irish have offered, there are reportedly 12 offers out to Ohio natives. According to IrishSportsDaily.com, here’s who the Irish have offered from the state of Ohio:

Maty Mauk, QB — Kenton, Ohio
Will Mahone, RB — Austintown, Ohio
Warren Ball, RB — Columbus, Ohio (an Ohio State commit)
Dwayne Stanford, WR — Cincinnati, Ohio
Corey Smith, WR — Akron, Ohio
Taylor Decker, OL — Vandalia, Ohio (an Irish commit)
Tom Strobel, DE — Mentor, Ohio
Greg McMullen, DE — Akron, Ohio
Adolphus Washington, DE — Cincinnati, Ohio
Sevon Pittman, DE — Canton, Ohio
Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB — Centerville, Ohio
Jarrod Wilson, FS — Akron, Ohio

These scholarships were obviously offered well before the Irish caught wind of any controversy in Columbus, but there’s no better time for Notre Dame to target the state, which appears to be incredibly talented this year and Ohio State already low on available scholarships.

All this isn’t to say that the Irish will have free reign across the Midwest. While Rich Rodriguez looked south for speed during his time in Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke has recommitted to the program’s roots, bringing with him a defensive coordinator that knows the area, and the Irish, well. Former Baltimore Ravens, Florida Gators, and Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison returns to Ann Arbor where he’s already worked as a coordinator and Mattison is well known for his recruiting exploits, often labeled as a negative recruiter against the Irish when he worked under Urban Meyer in Gainesville. He’ll likely have to change his tune, now that Notre Dame has completely upgraded its facilities since Mattison coached in South Bend, and with the Irish already showing they’re willing and able to combat negative tactics, evident when you consider Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will be in Irish uniforms next season.

Obviously, any story talking about recruiting and program momentum can only truly be judged once the games start being played. So while the Irish happily possess the type of hope and progress that comes with rattling off four straight victories to close the 2010 season, they’re still building off a five-loss year with a head coach entering his second season. But, if trends turn into results and Kelly and company build on a promising season and recruiting class, the dynamics of the college football food-chain might be shifting.

And for the first time in a long time, Notre Dame is in position to do some damage.

 

 

 

 

 

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.