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Expectations all hinge on the man behind center

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It’s getting difficult to ignore the trajectory this offseason is taking. Quite simply, Year Two of the Brian Kelly era has expectations. Great expectations. Eric Hansen expectations. Even Mark May expectations.

Because it’s July, it’s that time of year where we spend most of our time analyzing the past in hopes of predicting the future. As many do over holiday weekends, I spent my time watching from the sidelines and monitoring a few highly spirited debates about debut seasons of Notre Dame head coaches. It’s too soon to forget that Kelly’s debut season was worse than Charlie Weis’ 2005 campaign. But it was also less successful than Ty Willingham’s and only one victory better than Bob Davie’s. (Looking back at that 1997 season, it’s almost a microcosm of the Davie era, and should be Exhibit A on why it’s so hard to be a first-time head coach at Notre Dame.)

Still, for those looking back at eras of recent Irish past, it’s pretty easy to sense the separation between Kelly’s first season and those that came before him. In Eric Hansen’s recent article about the evolution of Brian Kelly (a must read), Lou Holtz pointed to the development of his 1986 team, a parallel that’s been drawn by many as they watched the 2010 Irish develop.

“There were so many things about his first year that reminded me of my first year at Notre Dame,” Holtz said of his 5-6 Irish in 1986. “By the end of the season, we could play with anybody in the country. So could Brian’s team.

“I just think that the program has never looked more hopeful than it does at the present time.”

Holtz’s 1986 squad finished with an uninspired 5-6 record, but lost five of those six games by a total of 14 points. Helping the narrative even more, that season planted the seeds to an eight-win 1987 season, and the undefeated national championship campaign in 1988.

Charlie Weis didn’t leave behind the team that Gerry Faust did. It also bears mentioning that Year Two of the Charlie Weis era had the Irish on the cover of major publications as a legit national title contender, and a ten-year contract that wasn’t universally hailed as being stupid yet.

Weis’ failures at Notre Dame can be pointed, quite fairly, to the defensive side of the football. To his detriment, he failed to develop a defensive identity similar to the one that made his offensive football teams impressive. Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta — Weis too often thought philosophy and identity could be easily interchanged, and the result was a defensive football team that was mediocre both developmentally and physically, a damning blend for a team that had championship aspirations.

Still, for those that happily kick dirt on the grave of Weis, I’d direct you here for the first and foremost reason Weis failed to put together a defense. Maurice Crum. Terrail Lambert. That’s it. That’s all that Notre Dame got defensively out of the 2004 recruiting class. Add in Darius Walker, and a great Blue-Gold game from Junior Jabbie and that’s really all the Irish got from Ty Willingham’s final recruiting class, putting a sizable hole in a program that left Weis little room for growing pains and a razor-thin margin for error.

But that’s ancient history for an Irish football program at an inflection point. Put together a season like many suspect is in the future and the Irish could make a true leap back into national contention, and potentially stake its claim as the preeminent northern prestige football program, with Ohio State in disarray and Michigan a year behind in its reclamation efforts.

So where could it all go wrong? Keeping the focus off a schedule that opens with four very losable games, the Irish need to find stability at quarterback — a position where Brian Kelly brings four guys into fall camp with a chance to win jobs.

Sure, Kelly met with Urban Meyer to discuss his implementation of the two-quarterback system that featured senior Chris Leak and freshman battering ram Tim Tebow, a combination that powered the Gators to a national championship. But remember, Charlie Weis met with Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia staff to discuss the spread offense in life after Brady Quinn, a system that Weis employed for half-a-Saturday with quarterback Demetrius Jones before imploding his 2007 blueprint.

There’s twenty years of evidence that Brian Kelly understands his offensive system, and I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely agree with the strategy Kelly is implementing. More importantly, Kelly has a defense that should be improved from last year’s unit — a group that finished the season embodying its maxim B.I.A (Best In America), not aspiring to it.

We’ll spend the rest of the week looking at the position groupings that’ll have to power the Irish through a tough four-game opening stretch. But if there’s one place where the fate of the 2011 season lies, it’s on the shoulders of the quarterback behind center for the Irish.

The fact that the Irish could be running four different guys out there shouldn’t just be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators as they prepare for the best Notre Dame team in the last five years. It should also be a hair-puller for Irish fans, who’ll likely have to wait until early September to see if Kelly’s plan will work.

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.”