Denard Robinson Manti Te'o

Opponent Preview: Michigan

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This is the second of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. The first installment was on South Florida.

The Overview:

When Michigan failed to woo favorite son Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor after waiting far too long to let go of Rich Rodriguez, athletic director Dave Brandon reached out to San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, selling the former Michigan assistant’s work as a rebuilder to the Wolverine faithful that bristled at bringing in a coach with a record hovering just below .500.

But Hoke has struck the right chord with those that love the maize and blue, harkening on the days of yesteryear where the Wolverines were known for their smash-mouth football and blue-collar roots, all while scoffing at the idea of rebuilding at his first Big Ten media day. “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”

While a hot start recruiting has got Michigan fans at a fevered pitch, Hoke’s true test will come when he takes to the field with a team that struggled to stop anyone under Rich Rodriguez, even when a high octane offense powered by Denard Robinson. Hoke has brought in two coaching veterans, Al Borges with him from San Diego and Greg Mattison back from the NFL, to try and install systems that erase the memory of the Rodriguez era. How quickly those changes can take hold on a roster talented but thin will be the running theme of Brady Hoke’s first season.

Last time against the Irish:

In a game that featured three Irish interceptions, three Irish quarterbacks, and a heroic effort by Denard Robinson, the Wolverines withstood a second half comeback by the Irish to beat Notre Dame 28-24. After jumping out of the gates with a picture perfect opening drive, the Irish lost Dayne Crist to blurred vision, and were stuck in neutral on offense for the rest of the first half, save a 37 yard completion in the final seconds of the half. With a first and goal from inside the Michigan five and only three seconds left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly gambled for the first time as an Irish head coach. His bet backfired, with Nate Montana airmailing his throw into the seats, and the Irish walked into halftime down 21-7, getting nothing from the scoring opportunity.

With Crist back in command after halftime, the Irish scored ten third quarter points to bring the game within a score and with under four minutes to go, Crist hit Kyle Rudolph for a thrilling 95 yard touchdown pass. With the Irish defense needing to get one more stop and escape with a win, they couldn’t do it. Robinson ran and threw the Wolverines down the field on a 12 play drive that ended with a two yard quarterback keeper for the game’s winning touchdown with just under thirty seconds remaining. For the second year in a row, the Irish gave up a game-winning touchdown to a Michigan quarterback.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan as the third toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5.
4.
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

After being named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, Denard Robinson is capable of challenging a defense maybe better than any other player in college football. Robinson threw for over 2,500 yards last season while running for an additional 1,702, carrying the ball 256 times, an incredible amount of wear and tear on a quarterback that’s barely six-feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds.

While Borges’ pro-style system will keep Robinson in the pocket more than in the past, he’ll likely still be the Wolverine’s most dangerous offensive player. The top three runners on the Michigan roster return and there’s depth along the offensive line as well, led by David Molk. In the passing game, Robinson won’t have Darryl Stonum, who is redshirting this season after the second DUI arrest of his college career, but will have Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway returning.

If Hoke’s squad is successful, it’ll be because he and Greg Mattison turn around a defense that returns eight starters. The strength of that unit is along the defensive line, where seniors Mike Martin and Ryan van Bergen lead the front four. The Wolverines will have to replace Jonas Mouton, but they welcome back Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and converted wide receiver Cam Gordon hopes to infuse some athleticism into the linebacking corps.

The real key to the Michigan defense will be solidfying the secondary, a unit that was 112th nationally in 2010. The return of Troy Woolfolk will help, and J.T. Floyd can only play better this season. Anchoring the secondary is Jordan Kovacs, who made 116 tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing. There’s still not a lot of depth here, but at least there’s some experience returning.

How the Irish will win:

Watching this match-up last September, it was clear that Notre Dame’s Achilles heel came back to bite them as soon as Dayne Crist was injured at the end of the first drive. Without Crist, the Irish offense was lost. That doesn’t make up for the dreadful work the Irish did against Denard Robinson in the first half, but even with everything that went wrong, the Irish just needed to stop the Wolverines one last time to pull out a tremendous comeback victory.

As the team’s enter 2011, it feels like the teams are in opposite places. It’s Michigan that’s starting anew, learning new systems and transitioning styles on the fly. With the Irish winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, they’re able to keep Robinson at bay while limiting the Michigan offense’s ability to make big plays through the air.

Also unlike last season, Brian Kelly will get Michael Floyd involved early and often. After being nearly unstoppable against the Wolverines as a sophomore, the Irish failed to get Floyd involved in the game, as the Irish’s best offensive player only touched the ball five times, with two receptions and the bulk of his yards coming on the game’s final drive.

With a crowd that’ll be electric, Notre Dame will do their best to grab the momentum early, and after two years of coming up short, the Irish should have a relative easy time dispatching a Michigan team a year behind the Irish in their renaissance and far less talented. Don’t be surprised if the Irish keep their foot on the gas, taking advantage of a national spotlight to make a statement.

How the Irish will lose:

For all that Rich Rodriguez didn’t do in Ann Arbor, he still beat two Irish teams that were probably better on paper in soul-crushing fashion. In Al Borges and Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke is bringing in two coordinators that’ll take the finesse out of Michigan’s team, while still allowing the athletes they have to make plays. In front of a jacked-up crowd, Michigan will get a few big plays from Robinson early and mix a capable running and passing attack, keeping the Irish off balance and unable to get to Robinson without bringing pressure.

Behind an exotic mix of pressures from Mattison, the Irish offense is kept off balance, with the running game struggling to get on track and the Irish passing attack failing to find any secondary targets after Michigan decides to take away Michael Floyd. In a victory that’ll likely have Desmond Howard, in town for both ESPN’s Game Day and university honors, crowing, Brady Hoke will upset the Irish for his first “signature win.”

Gut Feeling:

I have a hard time seeing the Irish losing this game, even though they’ve managed to do it each of the last two seasons. While Michigan’s offense has some dangerous weapons, I just don’t think the Wolverines will be far enough along to beat Notre Dame, even if it is the first time under the lights in the Big House.

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy.