Theo Riddick

Answering camp’s questions


With training camp over, the Irish now turn their preparation to South Florida, with Skip Holtz‘s troops readying for their first visit to South Bend.

As Brian Kelly met with the media yesterday, he took a shot at answering all but one of the big questions left unanswered before the No. 16 Irish begin the year. Let’s take a look at a few of the major questions entering camp and see how they’ve shaken out.

Who’s going to help fix the Irish return game?

All signs point to wide receiver Theo Riddick. Emphatically.

“Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick,” Kelly said when asked about the punt and kickoff returners. “Wherever you kick the ball he has to be around it. Kickoff return, it’s him and Bennett Jackson right now. Punts, it will be Theo.”

This is far from a surprise, but it has quelled any of the murmurs about guys like Michael Floyd, Cam McDaniel, and wildcards like Everett Golson. If Riddick is truly the Irish’s best player in open space, it’s only logical to have him making plays on both punts and kicks.

Who’s going to win the starting linebacker job next to Manti Te’o?

It looks like a crowded battle for the Will linebacker has been paired down to two players, with juniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox leading the way.

“It’s a very good competition there,” Kelly said. “Fox and Calabrese are battling it out and I’d say we’ll probably have a decision on that pretty soon. Both of those guys are going to play considerable football for us.”

I expect Calabrese to be the guy that gets named starter next Tuesday, but if you’re trying to venture a guess on how each guy will be used, it’ll likely be Fox spending more time in the passing game against spread teams while Calabrese is the hammerhead that’ll be used to blow up rushing attacks.

Fox’s ascension really just means that Kelly will have the ability to keep his middle linebackers fresh… at least the guy that’s playing next to Manti Te’o, who doesn’t plan on leaving the field.

What freshman is going to come out of the blue to seize early playing time?

That’s got to be Troy Niklas, who has wowed coaches and his fellow teammates with a physicality and athleticism that is hard to teach.

“He is extremely athletic,” Kelly said of Niklas. “He will be on all of our kick teams.”

Expect Niklas to be joined on kick teams by Ishaq Williams, which could be quite an imposing sight for opponents to see when two six-foot-six 250-pound freshman galloping down the field in coverage.

Whether tight end Jake Golic‘s injury made a difference or not, freshman tight end Ben Koyack sounds like he’ll spend this season on the field as opposed to saving a year of eligibility. The Oil City, Pennsylvania native is another stout youngster, and at six-foot-five, 253-pounds he’ll have the physicality needed to hold his own.

“Emerging would be the word I would use more than anything,” Kelly said of Koyack. “He’ll play this year.”

Will Andrew Nuss or Chris Watt win the starting left guard job?

It’s the only position on the offensive line available with Chris Stewart graduating, and both Nuss, a fifth-year senior, and Watt, a talented junior are running neck and neck for the job. Who’ll end up starting against South Florida?

“It depends what day you ask me,” Kelly said about the battle. “I would say right now we’re probably not ready to decide on that. We had some things today that we need to evaluated. Both those guys, I have a lot of trust and confidence in both of them, but I’m not ready to say who that starter will be.”

Again, who number one is probably isn’t all that big of a deal as both guys are going to play considerable football.

Who’s going to be the starting quarterback?

That answer is coming Tuesday. And from the sounds of it, both quarterbacks did a great job stating their case.

“We wanted to see everything from grounding the ball in a clock situation to throwing it away and not taking a sack knowing that you’ve got another down,” Kelly said. “We really had to rehearse most of those game situations because both of them are so statistically even. We were doing a production chart for both of them last night. The deeper we dug on numbers, the cloudier it became. I’ve been doing this a long time and sometimes, it’s easy as you look at the numbers and know who the number one and number two quarterbacks are. We are going to get into some subjective things as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame

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)

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)

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)

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.”