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Pregame six pack: Your guide to the Blue-Gold game

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As thousands of Irish fans descend on South Bend for the 82nd annual Blue-Gold game (and the first televised nationally — 2:00 p.m. ET on Versus — likely featuring yours truly), here are six tidbits, quick hits, fun facts or leftovers to get you ready for a Saturday of football.

1.Blue-Gold success isn’t necessarily an indicator of regular season performance.

If you’re looking for an idea of what to expect from the Blue-Gold game, it makes sense to look back at last year’s intrasquad game. Let’s take a look at what we learned from last year’s game and see if it translated to regular season success.

For every breakout performance like the one Cierre Wood had, there was a huge day by a guy like Nate Montana or walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. After Montana’s 18 for 30 day, which included three touchdown passes, who’d have thought that it’d be Tommy Rees battling for the No. 1 quarterback job and Montana off in Missoula.

Steve Filer was a monster for the Gold team on defense, notching 12 tackles (2 TFL) while playing with much of the starting defense. That didn’t help Filer crack the starting rotation, relegated to another year on special teams for a third straight season. Meanwhile, starting opposite Filer, Darius Fleming didn’t register a tackle on the official score sheet.

There are going to be players that break-out during this year’s Blue-Gold game (as long as the weather lets them), but before we assume that means big production next year, let’s keep our expectations in check.

2. Let’s hope Mom and Dad brought their cameras, because some unknown running backs are going to be making some plays.

With Cameron Roberson out with a torn ACL, Jonas Gray limited and Cierre Wood already a proven commodity, get ready to see some guys totting the football that you’ve never seen. As we just mentioned, walk-on Patrick Coughlin turned some heads with some hard-running in the second half of last year’s Blue-Gold game, but if you want to win a prop-bet or two with your friends, keep your eyes on Derry Herlihy. The graduating senior from Houston, Texas came back to support the team after injuries wiped out an already thin depth chart, and he’s got all the makings of a 20 carry back as the game winds down in the second half.

Herlihy isn’t just a tackling dummy, he’s actually spent time on two Irish rosters, moonlighting on the Notre Dame club rugby team as it returned to the Division I ranks.

“Rugby’s a man’s game,” Herlihy said back in November. “It definitely toughened me up a bit. Hitting someone with pads on is a piece of cake after you do it without any pads.”

(We’ll see if he’s saying that after Saturday…)

Rounding out the walk-on depth chart will be Tyler Plantz, a sophomore from Frankfort, Illinois, who should also spent quite some time picking grass out of his helmet.

With Cam McDaniel coming back in the fall, and George Atkinson getting a look at tailback as well, this might be the last chance for a walk-on running back to make a name for himself. It may not help the Irish come the regular season, but it sure would be a great photo to show the grandkids.

3. It’s a recruiting extravaganza for the Irish coaching staff this weekend.

With the Irish stuck on two committed recruits, expect that number to climb in the coming days. Even though the weather won’t cooperate, the coaching staff will be balancing the Blue-Gold game with a slew of important recruits.

According to IrishSportsDaily.com, the Irish will be welcoming incoming freshman Jalen Brown, Davaris Daniels, Jarrett Grace, Conor Hanratty, Eilar Hardy, Chase Hounshell, Ben Koyack, Nick Martin, and Tony Springmann to campus.

As for the 2012 class, both commitments Tee Shepard and Taylor Decker plan to be on hand, as well as over a dozen more high-profile recruits, including speedster Ronald Darby, quarterback Maty Mauk, defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, and wide receiver Amara Darboh.

4. It’s the final day to end a position battle on the right foot.

Regardless of whether you’re neck and neck for a position like Danny Spond and Prince Shembo or a presumed starter like Carlo Calabrese, Saturday’s Blue-Gold game is the last chance to put a good rep on tape for the long off-season.

Calabrese spent a lot of time listening to his name being uttered by both head coach Brian Kelly and his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, two things that never feel good. It’s clear that the coaching staff, even though they’ve called Calabrese the starter opposite Manti Te’o, think the rising junior has a ways to go before he matures into the player that they need.

Some players need to take advantage of the spring game and use it as proof that the coaching staff found what they were looking for. Last year, Steve Filer’s 12 tackles weren’t enough to hold off Kerry Neal and Brian Smith at outside linebacker. And this year, while Spond and Shembo have slid in front of the senior linebacker, head coach Brian Kelly thinks he’s found the proper way to utilize the athleticism and pass-rushing skills of the Chicago native.

“Steve Filer has had a great spring for us,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think we found his niche.”

5. Irish fans, get ready for your first look at the Freshman Five.

It’s been so long since we’ve seen Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams making plays in San Antonio at the Army All-American Bowl, some Irish fans might need to pinch themselves when they finally see two of the best defensive recruits in the nation wearing the gold helmet of the Fighting Irish this Saturday.

With one offensive line sliding it’s way through the game, Lynch should have all he can handle when he’s matched up with Zack Martin or senior Taylor Dever and it’ll give the coaching staff a good idea of how ready Lynch is to compete come next fall. Even though Bob Diaco will keep things pretty vanilla on defense, expect to see Ishaq Williams engage in the pass rush as well.

One member of the green brigade is Brad Carrico, the Irish’s first commitment in the 2011 class, who has already shifted from defensive end to offensive line. Carrico’s massive frame (which is lighter after a nutrition regimen and time with strength coach Paul Longo) and quick feet make him a quick study at offensive line. Saturday we’ll see how he does with live ammo.

After hearing about Kyle Brindza’s prodigious kicking leg, Irish fans half expect him to kick the ball out of the back of the endzone on kickoffs. Brindza will likely get a few chances as well as an opportunity to battle for placekicking and punting jobs. For all the hoopla other recruits received, Brindza’s story might be the best, with the PARADE All-American enduring seven surgeries on his right foot by the age of 12 to repair a club foot that doctors thought might keep him out of sports completely.

No freshman will have a bigger spotlight on them than Everett Golson, who will likely take the lion’s share of QB reps as he squares off against Andrew Hendrix. (More on that now…)

6. Enjoy the four-headed quarterbacking monster while it lasts.

History tells us that while having four solid quarterbacks that could potentially win games is nice, it’s also incredibly fleeting. While Brian Kelly and his coaching staff might not be saying it, Saturday’s game could be incredibly important deciding the future of Notre Dame’s depth chart at the position.

Kelly has already stated that Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees aren’t likely to take many snaps, but they should spend a few series with the offense, plays that’ll be important for both Crist and Rees to show comfort and excel directing the Irish offense.

But the battle between Hendrix and Golson might be worth watching even closer, because if Golson pulls ahead of Hendrix exiting spring ball, the Irish coaching staff might be in danger of losing their No. 4 quarterback, a guy who’s probably the most talented QB on the roster.

There are plenty of ways this thing could play out, including some that see Crist taking off and playing in a system that better fits his game. Setting fictional scenarios aside, there aren’t too many examples where all four quarterbacks continue biding their time and waiting their turn, especially with the Irish courting blue-chipper Maty Mauk and top national QB Gunner Kiel, who has the Irish near the top of a very prestigious list.

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy.