NFL Ready? Irish players still aren’t there

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With the heart of the NFL draft set for Saturday, a handful of Irish prospects waited to hear their names called. But as rounds four through seven slid by, no Irish players were drafted after the Vikings selected Kyle Rudolph in the second round on Friday. Seven rounds, and only one player from Notre Dame selected. If you’re looking for schools that had a better weekend than the Irish, you don’t have to look far.

In a weird twist of fate, it was Brian Kelly on set with the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, Charles Davis and Mike Mayock, watching as Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, Armando Allen and a handful of other Irish seniors failed to entice an NFL team to take a chance on them.

For as at home as Kelly seemed on TV, talking about player development and a path to the NFL (definitely not a small-timey performance by BK), it was clear that the marketplace had spoken on Notre Dame’s job of producing football players — mostly under head coaches Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie — and the results aren’t pretty.

Under Weis, known as an elite recruiter, the Irish had only six players drafted from 2009 to 2011, ranking them 40th in college football, well behind programs like TCU, Utah, Pitt, Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati team, UConn, South Florida, and Rutgers. It’s been almost 20 years since the Irish have had a Top 15 player, when Bryant Young went seventh in the 1994 NFL Draft. (Only Renaldo Wynn, Luke Petitgout, Jeff Faine, and Brady Quinn have been first-round draft picks since Lou Holtz left Notre Dame.)

Here are the recruits signed by Charlie Weis that heard their name called during the NFL Draft.

2009 — David Bruton, 4th Round – Denver Broncos (Three-star recruit)
2010 — Jimmy Clausen, 2nd Round – Carolina Panthers (Five-star recruit)
2010 — Golden Tate, 2nd Round – Seattle Seahawks (Four-star recruit)
2010 — Sam Young, 6th Round – Dallas Cowboys (Five-star recruit)
2010 — Eric Olsen, 6th Round – Denver Broncos (Four-star recruit)
2011 — Kyle Rudolph, 2nd Round – Minnesota Vikings (Five-star recruit)

There’s plenty of ways to analyze that output, but none stack up all that favorably for Weis, the Irish, or their ability to develop and produce NFL-ready players, which goes a long way in explaining why the Irish haven’t played as good of football as their fanbase would expect.

For a coach that recruited players into an NFL system and comes from a lineage filled with Canton-level coaches, there’s no good way to understand Weis’ inability to produce players with the talent he allegedly brought to campus, except to blame his ability to identify and develop high school athletes into excellent college football players.

In 2005, working with a class started by Tyrone Willingham, Weis was able to cobble together a recruiting class 15 strong, rated 40th in the country by Rivals. It produced David Bruton. In 2006, Weis’ monster class of 28 was rated 8th best in the country, but only yielded 6th rounders Sam Young and Eric Olsen. The 2007 class, again ranked 8th in the country, was a little more star-heavy, and produced the best output of the Weis era, with Clausen and Tate going in round two, and Gary Gray looking like he’ll have the chance to get selected next year. The 2008 class has already produced Rudolph, will see Michael Floyd get drafted, and likely see an NFL team take a shot on guys like Dayne Crist, Darius Fleming, and potentially a guy like Kapron Lewis-Moore or Ethan Johnson. (We’ll have the Manti Te’o, Cierre Wood, and Zack Martin conversation later.)

If we want to play the “let’s look back at the recruiting rankings” and draw conclusions, Matt Hinton at the very excellent Dr. Saturday blog does just that. At first glance, the hit-rate that Rivals produced is indeed pretty impressive. But if you’re looking to dig a little bit deeper and maybe even get to the problem of why the Irish (let’s just keep this to the Charlie Weis era) have struggled, consider the process in which Weis assembled a roster.

Of the guys that were drafted out of Charlie Weis’ Irish program, half of them had all but punched their ticket before they got to the program, with Clausen, Young and Rudolph all five-star recruits. Rudolph and Clausen left the program after three seasons, getting the absolute least development from Irish coaching as possible, while a guy like Sam Young — starting every game of his Irish career — never managed to develop into more than just a bottom of the draft type of player, something he probably was when he first stepped foot on campus in 2006. Golden Tate, another three-year player in the Irish football program, ascended quickly, going from a freshman season with only six catches to a 18 touchdown, Biletnikoff Award winning junior year. But Tate’s development as a football player was far from complete, struggling in his first season in the NFL, failing to have more than four catches in a game or a single touchdown, all while being held off the stat-sheet or out of uniform for five games.  Topping off the problems of the Weis era, only Bruton came from the defensive side of the ball.

As Brian Kelly sat on the NFL Network’s set during Saturday’s draft festivities, he had an illuminating conversation with Mike Mayock, Rich Eisen and Charles Davis about developing NFL-caliber players and winning college football games. Quite simply, it isn’t Kelly’s job to develop NFL players, and he was unapologetic about the fact that the spread offense might not be the best precursor to success in the NFL for quarterbacks. But there’s also a reason that Kelly has had a hand in more players drafted at his two previous coaching stops (Central Michigan and Cincinnati) than Notre Dame has since 2007. It’s his ability to target and develop players for success.

There are far too many reasons why Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, and Armando Allen didn’t get drafted, and blaming coaching transition, poor player development, or underachievement only get you so far. There are also plenty of good reasons why players like Chinedum Ndukwe and Sergio Brown, guys that slipped to the bottom of the NFL Draft or signed via free agency, now have great careers in the NFL.

It’s obviously too soon to grade Kelly’s ability to produce NFL ready talent at Notre Dame, but his ability to look outside the star system and target physical attributes is a good look inside his process of finding good football players. For Irish fans looking for a reassuring trend, consider that Notre Dame, with a roster missing Kyle Rudolph, Theo Riddick, Dayne Crist and Ian Williams finished 8-5 with a schedule rated 22nd by Jeff Sagarin. Meanwhile North Carolina finished 8-5 with the 29th rated schedule. The big difference? The Tar Heels had nine players drafted, the Irish had one.

The role of scrappy over-achiever is certainly uncharted territory, but after the last 15 years, it’s one that Irish fans should certainly embrace. Succeeding during NFL Draft weekend? Let’s just call that a nice little bonus.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield