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Counting down the Irish: Analyzing the top five

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This is the sixth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, 15-11, 10-6, and 5-1.

The list is out. And thanks to our team of panelists, here’s the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster as they head into 2011 camp. Again, we reserve the right to be completely wrong.

If you’ve got complaints, direct them here:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

2011 IRISH RANKINGS

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)
10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.)
9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.)
8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.)
7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.)
6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.)
5. Gary Gray (CB, Sr.)
4. Zack Martin (LT, Jr.)
3. Harrison Smith (S, Sr.)
2. Manti Te’o (ILB, Jr.)
1. Michael Floyd (WR, Sr.)

Only two points separated Michael Floyd (147) from Manti Te’o (145). After that, there was a significant drop-off to Harrison Smith, and Zack Martin, Gary Gray, and Darius Fleming were separated by a collective three voting points. If you’re looking for the guys that the group found really polarizing, the widest variances were Trevor Robinson (Matt had him rated 3rd, DMQ had him unranked), Dayne Crist (Matt had him rated 4th, DMQ had him unranked), and obviously David Ruffer (DMQ put him at No. 1, while Matt had him at 21.)

After looking over the list, I posed some questions to the group. Here are some of their answers, one set only in haiku form. (Ed. Note: Frank was traveling and unable to participate. I didn’t want you guys to think I thought his answers stunk.)

ANALYSIS

Gary Gray really elevated his play under Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks. While Robert Blanton and Gray will anchor the cornerback spots, in 2012 it’ll be an almost entirely new secondary. What young cornerbacks do you see stepping up?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think Lo Wood will be a serviceable backup, in that he will play better than most believe he will. After that, I think three freshman will fight hard with Bennett Jackson and try to see some time. If Eilar Hardy doesn’t start out at safety he should be pushing hard for playing time. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson will also be in the mix. Ideally, all of these players would get experience in 2011, although it might not be feasible.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’m a huge Eliar Hardy fan. He pledged to Notre Dame early in last year’s cycle and got lost in the shuffle thanks to the roller coaster recruitments of Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but this kid is a stud with the versatility to play corner or safety. The lack of depth will mean he’ll be thrown into the fire right away and those reps will go a long way in getting him the necessary experience for when he’s locking down one side of the field in 2012.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
There’s no substitute
For a sure-tacklin’ fifth-year
Well, maybe Darby

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Um… pass?  It’s not that I don’t think someone will step up, it’s just that I don’t like the prospects. Or, really, I don’t like the waiting. Gray and Blanton already play at a very high level. It’ll be a damned miracle if whatever comes next isn’t a serious downgrade for at least a season.

Zack Martin came out of nowhere to anchor the offensive line. Who is the lineman that comes out of nowhere in 2011?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think it has to be Chris Watt just because he hasn’t seen a lot of playing time but he played really well last year when he did. Likely to be anchored next to another great linemen in Zack Martin at left tackle, Watt should really thrive in his first full season as a starter.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— Well the easiest and clearest candidate to me is Andrew Nuss. No, he’s not new, but at the end of spring he was listed ahead of Chris Watt at the guard spot opposite Trevor Robinson which was a huge eyebrow raiser. It’s not as if Watt had  a poor spring–by most accounts he actually had a very good one–Nuss just played that well.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Ten was Martin’s year
Almost all back for ‘leven
Heggie twenty-twelve?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — [Insert joke here about offensive linemen sneaking around on tip-toes. ] Despite the loss of Chris Stewart, 2011 should really serve as an “establishment year” for the OL. Everyone on the line knows their job and should know it well, within Kelly’s system. I think there’s less opportunity for surprise this year.  That said, I missed the questions about Trevor Robinson last week, so let me say this: I sure hope he comes back to being the Trevor Robinson we knew and loved before last year. Either he was completely confused in 2010 or/and he had one hell of a nagging injury. Trust me on this: go look back at games where ND had a successful running game, marvel at how little Robinson participated in that success.

Harrison Smith has seen his reputation elevate significantly in one calendar year. Let’s say the Irish season ended with Ronald Johnson catching the long pass against Smith and Harrison didn’t have a career day against Miami. Would he be the third best player on the roster?

Eric @OneFootDown —Highly doubtful, although we’d probably be talking about Harrison as a very solid safety coming into 2011 which, when you think about it, is still a significant jump in performance from his rather awful sophomore season.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— I’m not a fan of this sort of hypothetical simply because there’s no reason to put a negative spin on situations. What if Southern Cal would’ve converted all those opportunities when Tommy Rees turned it over in Irish territory? What if Manti Te’o’s knee injury against Miami would’ve been serious? What if Harrison was actually playing receiver for the Canes like Jacory Harris thought he was?

Would Smith be considered the third best player on the roster with these stipulations? Probably not. But Johnson did drop that pass and he did have that career day against The U. Those two instances didn’t define Smith in my eyes; what defined him and landed him his high ranking was the fact that he bounced back after a Clifford Jefferson-esque disaster of a 2009 campaign and became the defensive leader many pegged him to be.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
With a RoJo catch
And a warmer El Paso
We’d be ’bout Motta

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — No, but that’s what happened, and so he is. Maybe in some alternate universe Harrison Smith is a 3rd string DB at Vanderbilt, I’m richer than Bill Gates, and Notre Dame has a reputation as a party school, but that’s just not the case.  Harrison’s rise may have been slightly less meteoric if, say, Miami’s passing game weren’t reminiscent of playing catch with my 8 month old, but even before that moment (and even before the Souther Cal game), Harrison was already making big strides. His play improved steadily as the season went on, and even if you took away his 13 credited tackles in the final 2 games of the season, he’d rank among the top 3 tacklers on the squad.

We’ve all seen Manti Te’o’s athleticism on display. We’ve all seen him miss a few tackles. What’s a realistic projection for his junior season?

Eric @OneFootDown —The realistic projection is for Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. He will have a very good set of linemen in front of him, he’s very experienced for a true junior, and his defensive coordinator was one heck of a linebacker in college. What’s more, the linebackers and specifically the middle linebackers are a key focal point in this 3-4 defense and Te’o has all the ability in the world to be the best at his position in the nation.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Te’o’s on the way to superstardom. Right now, he’s the best Notre Dame linebacker since Courtney Watson and by the end of the year you’ll be able to mention him in the same breathe as Stonebreaker, Bolcar, and Lynch. He’s that good.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
The sky, the heavens
The moon, the stars, Ray Lewis
Not to oversell

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— I wont project, but I do hope for wisdom. And Te’o’s certainly talked a good game when it comes to appreciating the need for wisdom. More than a few times last year he saw the opportunity for the big hit, wiffed, and gave up a big play (or, at least, big enough to suffer another set of downs for the opposition). I hope Te’o’s gained the wisdom to see more opportunities in big plays, rather than big hits, and applies all that natural ability to excellent technique in 2011. If he does, there may not be a lot of tackles left for the rest of the Irish.

Obviously, Michael Floyd’s inclusion on this list means we’re all confident he’ll be playing for the Irish this season. Assuming he gets through this year without any off-the-field incidents, what should Michael Floyd’s legacy at Notre Dame be?

Eric @OneFootDown — With another productive season I think Floyd will be in the discussion for the best receiver in school history. We’ll always talk about his injuries and the fact that he played with Clausen and in pass happy offenses, but if he keeps ups the same productivity we’ve seen in the past it will be tough to argue with four years of more or less dominance when he’s on the field. If Floyd has a couple more games where he plays outstanding in big wins, his case will be even stronger.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — That’s tough because it’s so dependent on what happens this year. Through three years I’d call it one of the biggest teases in ND history. He’s never made it through an entire year getting hurt and missing time–which makes his career statistics even more mind-boggling. The entire receiving record book is going to be rewritten if he can stay on the field for even just a handful of games. Floyd is capable of delivering a year for the ages in a pass happy offense in 2011. If that happens his legacy will be that he was the most prolific and probably the greatest receiver in ND history. If not, then the way I’ll think of him down the road is “man, what could have been.”

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Lest we all forget
Moppin’ floors to catchin’ scores
He’s come a long way

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— Understated. Assuming, just for a moment, as much as it pains me, that the Irish wont win the BCS Championship this season, then Floyd’s legacy will be that of opportunity missed. He wasn’t part of the 2007 campaign, but, despite being one of the most gifted athletes in all of college football, he has been part of some rather underwhelming efforts. Statistics are impressive, but wins are glorious, and while his overall compilation may prove that he’s got all the talent in the world, he’s not achieved much glory.

MY THOUGHTS

In retrospect, I’d really have liked to ask what cornerbacking duo in recent Irish history has athleticism that rivals the Gray/Blanton partnership, but one of the biggest questions moving forward — and a question that very well could define the Kelly era — is how well did they identify, develop, and recruit in the secondary. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are in their final years. After that… it’s pretty scary for depth, and 2011 is going to be a massively important year for a lot of young defenders in the secondary. If you’re wondering why Kerry Cooks shifted back to work with cornerbacks, this is probably the biggest reason.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but this Irish team has a chance to really run the ball with conviction. If it does, it’ll be because Zack Martin makes another large leap forward, and the unit will be a much more physically developed unit. Trevor Robinson will play better. Braxston Cave will play better. Taylor Dever will play better. While there isn’t room for him in the lineup yet, one guy I’m surprised nobody mentioned was Christian Lombard. I’ve heard that he was so impressive throughout the season that it made the decision to let Matt Romine go much easier.

Harrison Smith’s 2010 season was watching a breakthrough happen in thirteen week increments. He was a much better player at the end of the season than he was at the beginning, and the Ronald Johnson drop was almost something Smith had earned after taking such flack for so long. For those that think Smith is overrated, Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com had a great interview with Mike Mayock, who called Smith one of the most underrated football players in the country.

I want Manti Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. I can’t argue that he isn’t one of the most talented, but I want him putting up monster statistics, something Luke Kuechly does at Boston College. (No I’m not discounting 133 tackles. I just think Te’o has the ability to do more.) Walking into his junior season, I think Te’o can do more than just amaze with his athleticism, he needs to be the tackling machine that Bob Diaco’s defense allows him to be, and that means cutting down on his misses. To use a baseball analogy, right now Te’o is a devastating power hitter. Call him Ryan Howard. He needs to become a devastatingly complete hitter, more like Albert Pujols.

Trying to project Michael Floyd’s legacy before 2011 is more than difficult, it’s almost impossible. If Kelly’s offense turns into the vertically attacking scheme he used in Cincinnati, look out. If Floyd can stay healthy for a full 13 games, start rewriting the record books in stone. Of course, all of that is depending on the internal struggles Floyd has faced in the last six months. For those that feel like No. 3 got star treatment because of his lofty status on the football team, nobody will convince you otherwise. But Floyd has taken his lumps with humility, he’s seen his name erased from the team’s roster, from the media guides, even from the team’s website. He spent four months away from his teammates and coaches, and only was allowed to participate in unofficial team workouts because no coaching staff in the NCAA can dictate who can and cannot participate in those workouts. If the path to recovery leads to Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, I expect Irish fans to rally around their best player. What will cement his legacy is how he behaves from this day forward. (His behavior in the NFL will matter just as much.) He may have lost all the goodwill he gained when he made the difficult decision to return for his degree. But if the Irish win more than ten games this year, Floyd’s story will be one of redemption.

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

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 Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

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.