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2011 vs. 2006: Avoiding the pitfalls of great expectations

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It’s human nature to want to paint with a wide brush. You cover more ground, get your point across quicker, and it’s far more enjoyable to slap a roller across a wall than deal with the tiny corner of trim that you need to cover with blue tape and wrench your back to get just right.

But when it comes to Notre Dame football, it seems most outside the influence of the Golden Dome are happy to roll away, convinced that a wide swath of color will be enough to get people nodding in agreement.

The always excellent Spencer Hall wrote about the true horror of “Notre Dame and Possible Competence.” It’s an excellent read, and as usual will make you chuckle mightily in between the flashbacks that make you grab a pillow and burrow your head.

Here’s a quick snippet to help you get Spencer/Orson’s flavor, while also getting a pretty firm grasp on the angle Hall is taking:

We realize an entire generation of football fans have grown up to maturity (or at least as close as you’ll ever get to maturity) without Notre Dame being “good.” They have seen spikes, sure. Tyrone Willingham, a degenerative nerve disease and coach, took Notre Dame to ten wins in 2002.  Charlie Weis, who later went on to work as offensive coordinator for an obscure team in Central America, led the Irish to a 10-2 record in 2006. That season ended with an exhibition against Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl. Remember the time Charlie Weis tried to out-Les Miles Les Miles? Oh, Charlie.

To squirt the lemon directly in Irish fans’ eyes, he links to ten minutes of LSU running the Irish off the field, a game that made Jamarcus Russell about $40 million more than he deserved.

But that’s not the point of this column. Rather, it’s two-fold: To acknowledge the very weird fascination with people’s willingness to call the Post-Holtz era not just the Dark Ages of Irish football, but to categorize it as abject failure from the day of Bob Davie’s hiring. If you didn’t know any better, the lights have been off since Boston College beat the Irish in late November of 1993.

Of course, it hasn’t been all bad. And it was just five short years ago that Notre Dame was in a position to make a title run, finding a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated and having one of its lead columnists attempt to dispel some myths as he defended the Irish’s No. 1 preseason ranking.

With the Irish sitting at 10-1 after rebounding from a difficult loss to Michigan, those prognositcators didn’t look all that bad. But ugly losses to USC and LSU gave Irish fans a long offseason to think about two brow-beatings, and revisionist history probably makes that Irish team look even worse than in actually was.

As we look at the lofty expectations that are being heaped on the Irish, it makes sense to look back at that 2006 team, and the pitfalls that tripped them up, and see if there could be similar obstacles in the way of this Notre Dame squad.

First off: Take a gander at the SI cover and you’ll have your first clue. No — not the fact that Justin Bieber completely ripped off Brady Quinn’s look, but the fact that Travis Thomas is on the cover. When you’re depending on a converted running back to start at outside linebacker, especially one that’s about 210 pounds, you know that your defense is awfully thin.

While it’s easy to see now, the Irish couldn’t compete in the front seven. Sure, the Irish had BCS level guys like Victor Abiamiri (who might have thrived with a redshirt freshman season) and Trevor Laws (who did), but they also relied on a 270-pound defensive tackle like Derek Landri and defensive ends like Chris Frome and Ronald Talley. At linebacker, Maurice Crum led the team in tackles with Joe Brockington, mostly only a special teams presence, starting nine games for the Irish. Two of the Irish’s top three tacklers were safeties, with Tommy Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe filling up the stat sheet, not necessarily good things.

The Irish got the production it wanted out of its running game, with Darius Walker gaining 1267 yards on five-yards a carry. But Brady Quinn missed the presence of Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano, and his yards per attempt went down a steep 1.5 yards per throw as his average yardage went from 326 to 263 per Saturday, with defenses taking away the deep strike that put Jeff Samardzija on the map. It’s an under-discussed topic, but the Irish offense that was so shockingly dangerous through the air in 2005 was largely kept in check when defenses adapted to Weis and his tendencies.

As we turn the focus to 2011, the Irish might actually be most worried about their offense keeping up with the defense, a shocking proposition and something most pundits didn’t think possible at Notre Dame. It’s also interesting to consider that the Irish just went through the growing pains of losing their co-leading receiver like the 2006 team did, when the Irish struggled to adapt to life without Golden Tate last year with Michael Floyd constantly seeing coverages rolled his way.

If you’re looking for a place that the Irish need to pick up the slack offensively, it’s in running the football. There’s no proven depth behind Cierre Wood, but there’s every reason to believe Jonas Gray can be an effective BCS caliber running back, and the offensive line should continue to gel this season.

We’re still over 70 days away from the opening of the 2011 season, far too many to get whipped into a froth just yet. But if Brian Kelly’s offense can make strides in Year Two, and the defense continues to play dominant football, and —

I’ll pump the brakes before this thing gets out of control. We all know how that one goes…

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.

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.