Aaron Lynch Blue Gold

Projecting the freshmen

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With a tip of the cap to Frank over at UHND.com and as we get ready to embark on another fun offseason exercise of projecting the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, I wanted to follow up on his series that’s been going on here, here, here and here.

In what likely will be something we can look back on and chuckle, I’ll attempt to pick my rookies that’ll likely make the biggest impact on the 2011 season. And just because Frank came up with the idea and I obviously need to advance his original thought, I’ll get crazy and rank the 23 incoming freshman in order of their impact on the season.

Because this isn’t picking teams in gym class, I’m going to avoid ranking these guys from 1-to-23, but you’ll see where I’m going with this one rather quickly.

Without further ado, here’s a quick projection of what we can expect from the Irish rookies. (With the very large asterisk signifying my right to change my opinion, groupings, and thought process whenever I want to.)

Group One: See you at Training Table

This group can basically be lumped together, as I don’t expect any of them to use a year of eligibility. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t become big-time players (ask Harrison Smith what redshirting did for him), it just means that these guys will likely spend the season on the scout team.

Brad Carrico, OL — The debut commitment of the 2011 signing class and an early-enrollee will likely see incredible physical gains during his year watching, learning and eating.
Nick Martin, OL — With his older brother holding down the blind side, Martin can follow the family plan by redshirting a season then hopefully stepping into the starting lineup.
Conor Hanratty, OL — Terry’s son will definitely benefit from Paul Longo’s weight room and a few extra meals at training table.
Tony Springmann, DE — He’s got the size to potentially be a mammoth individual, I just don’t see Springmann breaking into the two-deep at defensive end yet.
Matt Hegarty, OL — He might be highly touted, but Hegarty will likely spend his freshman season facing off against the Irish’s No. 1 defense — pretty good practice.

Group Two: Don’t hold your breath, but intrigue awaits

Whether it’s a stacked depth chart or some needed development, there’s a good chance we won’t hear any of these names, but they could just as easily turn into a Kona Schwenke-like player, coming out of nowhere to make a difference. At the very least, they might be special teams candidates and earn a letter.

Chase Hounshell, OL/DL — Something about this kid strikes me as fierce, and his ability to cross-train on either side of the ball has me thinking he might work his way onto the field.
Anthony Rabasa, OLB — Rabasa might not grab the eyeballs like some recruits, but this kid played elite football in an elite league, a good recipe for early success.
Troy Niklas, OL/DL — Call it West Coast bias, but there’s something about this lanky Orange County product that’s intriguing right out of the gate.
Jarrett Grace, LB — He’s walking into a crowded depth chart, but Grace has an All-American ceiling, something I won’t say about many recruits.

Group Three: So you’re saying there’s a chance…

In honor of Lloyd Christmas, Group Three either fills a need for the Irish or is good enough to have the coaching staff find a role for them. Sure, they might not turn into freshman All-Americans, but expect to hear Tom Hammond or Mike Mayock gushing over one of these guys relatively soon.

Ben Koyack, TE — The Irish have a great depth chart in front of him, but Koyack’s the real deal with the ball in his hands. If he puts in the time this summer gaining some good weight, he’ll have every chance to add some weaponry to the tight end position.
Josh Atkinson, DB — He’s got nice height, good speed, and great bloodlines, I just don’t know how ready Josh is to contribute on a very good defense with an excellent (but thin) secondary.
Kyle Brindza, K/P — That rocket that’s replaced Brindza’s leg hopefully will give the Irish a jolt, both in the kickoff game and in punting.
Jalen Brown, DB — It’s hard to know what someone brings until they’re on campus, but Brown’s got the speed to contribute early on in special teams.

Group Four: Expect to hear these names

They might not turn into instant stars, but expect to hear from this group in the same way you heard from Prince Shembo. Brian Kelly will find a way to get the player, and his talents, onto the field.

Eilar Hardy, DB — The safety depth still isn’t great, and Hardy could add some athleticism to the mix.
Matthias Farley, WR/DB — Raw athlete was singled out by Brian Kelly for being the potential sleeper of the freshman class. He’s 6-foot-4 and 200-pounds. His spot might be the red zone.
Ben Councell, OLB — With both Shembo and Danny Spond impressing, Councell might not have much of a role in the two-deep, but the lanky linebacker could be a terror on special teams.
Ishaq Williams, OLB — Call me crazy, but Williams might not see the field all that much this year. Sitting behind Darius Fleming and potentially a guy like Steve Filer, Williams could really learn a lot of football, even if it’s from the bench.
Everett Golson, QB — I think Golson will beat out Andrew Hendrix for the three-spot, but I don’t know if Dayne Crist (or Tommy Rees) will let him make much of a difference. Golson brings some much needed athleticism to the position and a nice change of pace.
Cam McDaniel, RB — If anything, McDaniel might walk onto campus as the best punt returner on the roster. (Something the Irish are clearly in need of getting fixed.)

Best Bets for Breakout

My failed attempt at an alliteration does give us a few great candidates for major immediate impact. If these guys deliver on what recruitniks drooled over, then Irish fans are going to be very happy with this group dominates as soon as early September.

Davaris Daniels, WR — His athleticism seems to jump off the screen when you watch him, but his lack of experience at wide receiver might hurt. That said, if he’s a quick learner, expect a trio of Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick starting things out with guys like John Goodman, Deion Walker and Davaris Daniels breathing down their necks.
George Atkinson, RB/WR — Atkinson played in the Army All-American game as a safety. He’ll likely tote the football at Notre Dame, or pass catches depending on what the offense needs. His versatility could mean a lot to the Irish offense.
Stephon Tuitt, DE — We didn’t get a chance to see him this spring, but the man is the size of a redwood tree. If Tuitt comes into camp in shape, he’ll be playing quite a bit of football.
Aaron Lynch, DE — Come on, did you think it’d be anyone else? Lynch’s transcendent performance in the Blue-Gold spring game has people thinking the Irish have their first true pass rushing threat since Justin Tuck.

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.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.