Brian Kelly - vs. Michigan

2011 could be the year… Now with stats to back you up

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I’m a few days late linking to Bill Connelly’s season preview of the Fighting Irish, but I can always blame the research needed to simply understand what Connelly is actually talking about for the delay.

Connelly is part of the wonderful team at FootballOutsiders.com, taking “innovative statistics and intelligent analysis,” two things that always trump the standard blow-harding that comes along with this time of year when people try and project who’s going to be good and who isn’t in the upcoming season.

I’ve done my best to ignore the fact that Notre Dame is a “consensus” preseason No. 12, if only because Notre Dame’s inclusion in preseason magazines and rankings rarely ever comes true. But when somebody actually takes the time to show WHY the Irish have the potential to be a very special football team, well — that deserves a second look.

Do yourself a favor and read Connelly’s entire preview. But here are a few tidbits I found incredibly interesting:

* Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees: It’s easy to look at the team’s record under Crist and the Irish’s record after Rees took over and to come to the conclusion that Rees played better. Even if you compare their stats, which are pretty similar, you’d think a spotless W/L record would give Rees the lead heading into fall camp.

But Connelly breaks down the numbers and shows that the Irish offense was actually better with Crist at the helm — with the Irish offense averaging 30.3 Adj. PPG with Crist and 26.7 Adj. PPG with Rees.

Both hovered around the national average of 27.1, but taking opponent into account, the offense performed slightly better with Crist at the wheel. (This despite the fact that running back Cierre Wood began to thrive late in the season as well, further aiding Rees.)  The Irish very much won games with defense over their final third of the season, and while Rees didn’t get in the way, Crist was the slightly more well-rounded option in terms of yards per pass, touchdowns-to-interceptions, and run threat (he’s not exactly Tony Rice, but he had 165 pre-sack rushing yards). I assume the starting job will be Crist’s when all is said and done, though Rees and evidently Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix all still have a chance to sway the coaches.

While you wouldn’t have known it by watching the Blue-Gold game, I heard nothing but good things about Crist’s work during spring practice. Brian Kelly is going to stay mum about it for obvious reasons, but I suspect it’ll be Crist leading the Irish come September 3 against USF.

* Look out for the Irish defense. While some people still want to think differently, Bob Diaco did an outstanding job with the Irish defense. Even more impressive though, was Chuck Martin’s work with the secondary. Guiding a secondary that needed to forget a really ugly statistical season, Martin and Diaco helped the unit perform a 180, even more incredible when you consider they lost a starter in the season opener and played with only two healthy scholarship safeties for most of the season. Still, Diaco probably won’t be fully embraced until he shows he can stop the Navy option, but after that dreadful day, the defense was transformed.

The only time they gave up more than 14.3 Adj. Points in the last five games was against Miami in the Sun Bowl, and in that game they took a 30-3 lead before the Hurricanes got rolling. Theirs was potentially the best defense in the country after their humbling loss to Navy on October 23, and it is the primary basis for what will be some pretty strong College Football Almanac 2011 projections. Which is odd considering defense hasn’t been the strongest feature for Kelly’s teams in the past. So consider this a huge nod in the direction of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose 3-4 alignment evidently fits the personnel very well.

Rarely do you see a position coach do such a good job with his unit and lose responsibility, but that’s what happened to Martin, who gave the cornerback coaching duties to Kerry Cooks. But don’t worry about Martin, he’ll have his hands full as recruiting coordinator and will likely have even more say in the weekly packages installed this season.

* Irish will improve at blitzing. One final note that caught my eye — Connelly makes mention of the defense saying, “Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense almost had the statisticaly profile of a 4-2-5 — not great in attacking situations, but reacting, swarming, and preventing big plays…”

What’s interesting is that the Irish actually did slide into a 4-2-5 when they went to four down linemen, something I imagine they’ll do much more this season, with guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams capable of bringing heat on the pass rush.

For as well as the defense played last season, I’m guessing the Irish want to be more effective when blitzing the passer. With the move of Prince Shembo to an outside linebacker spot opposite Darius Fleming, the Irish have two guys with elite pass rush ability standing on the edges of the defense, giving Diaco the ability to confuse a defense far better than he could last year, when Kerry Neal and Brian Smith weren’t great pass rush options.

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.

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.”