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Opponent preview: Pittsburgh

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This is the fourth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. you can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

It was an offseason to forget for Pitt fans. After six seasons coaching at his alma mater, Dave Wannstedt was dismissed before the Panthers’ bowl game by athletic director Steve Pederson, even though Wannstedt just completed one of the  program’s most successful three-year stretches in school history. (Pederson also dismissed Frank Solich at Nebraska after a nine-win season.) Pederson tapped Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood as Wannstedt’s replacement in a controversial hire. Just two short weeks later, Haywood was arrested on domestic charges, an incident that cost him his new job. Given a second shot to make the same hire, Pederson looked to Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, who will bring a completely new style to the Steel City.

With fourteen starters returning, Graham will have more talent at his disposal than he had when he shocked the Irish last October. But without standouts Jaball Sheard and Greg Romeus on defense and Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis on offense, the Panthers success will be determined by how quickly they adapt to a very new way of doing things, with Graham completely changing the culture of a program in need of putting 2010 in the rear-view mirror.

Last time against the Irish:

The Irish jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead against Wannstedt’s Panthers, but needed kicker David Ruffer and a stingy defense to hold on to win 23-17 against a Pitt squad that shot itself in the foot with special teams blunders.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

With Kyle Rudolph trying to battle through a nagging hamstring injury and Taylor Dever out at right tackle, the Irish used an up-tempo offense in the first half to limit Pitt’s pass rush, one of the biggest concerns going into the afternoon. Dayne Crist threw for 242 yards (and had almost 100 more taken off the board by penalties) and Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd each had seven catches.

The win took the Irish to 3-3 on the season, leaving people to believe Notre Dame was ready to make a run as they reached the “easy” stretch of their schedule with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a bye week.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Pittsburgh as the fifth toughest opponent on the schedule.

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

The Match-up:

It will be a brave new world for Pitt on offense, needing to replace their best player, Jonathan Baldwin, after he left early and went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Tino Sunseri returns at quarterback, and he’ll be tasked with turning the three-yards and a cloud of dust offense Wannstedt employed into the hyper-speed spread attack that Graham is bringing with him. While that’ll surely mean better numbers for the passing game, Graham’s Tulsa squads were also some of the best in the country at running the football, which means good things for Ray Graham, who averaged a gawdy 6.2 yards per carry last season in a supporting role to Dion Lewis. Pitt also brings in Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown to the backfield.

The Panthers have experience on the offensive line, but they’ll need to replace Jason Pinkston. At receiver, there’s Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler — three guys who might have their production buoyed immediately if Sunseri is a quick study.

Graham’s defense will shift to a three-man front, a move better timed than most with Sheard and Romeus gone. Pitt has depth up front with guys like Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, with Alecxih getting 7.5 sacks last season. The rotation can actually go six deep. But the biggest beneficiary to the change will likely be Brandon Lindsey, one of the best defensive players in the country. Lindsey had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles-for-loss last season, and will play a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role, giving him more opportunities to wreak havoc on offenses.

The secondary needs to replace two starters, but returns a deep roster at cornerback and All-Big East safety Jarred Holley. Sophomore Jason Hendricks will get the first shot at the bandit position, a hybrid safety spot that’ll have Hendricks all over the field. K’Waun Williams is a talented cornerback, and the sophomore could be ready to make a big leap this season.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish won ugly last year, committing six penalties and getting outgained by the Panthers, but dominating on special teams and playing good red zone defense. How many times did the Irish win under Charlie Weis when they were outgained by more than 50 yards? Only three times, and twice, the opposition imploded with turnovers.

With a noon kickoff at Heinz Field, Pitt fans will lack the venom of a prime-time start. While the battle at the line of scrimmage should be hotly contested, the Irish have the edge on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame can take advantage of Pitt’s lack of depth for the systems they’ve installed.

With the Irish upping the tempo on offense and understanding both the personnel at Pitt and the scheme Graham runs, the Irish shouldn’t have much of a problem winning during a transitional year at Pitt.

How the Irish will lose:

Graham has already shown Irish fans that he knows how to pull a rabbit out his hat, and with his offense installed, the Panthers could have the best rushing offense the Irish face all season, the perfect recipe for keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field and the tempo dictated.

With Brandon Lindsey and an assortment of Panthers coming off the line of scrimmage, the Panthers will force a few early turnovers, taking advantage of a stellar defensive front and a great centerfield safety in Jarred Holley. A Pitt victory would put Graham’s squad on the national map early, and make ESPN analyst Mark May very happy.

Gut Feeling:

While he wasn’t the Pitt administration’s first choice, Graham looks like the right man for the job. He’s shaken up a program that seemed to plateau under Wannstedt, and infused excitement in a fan base that was getting disinterested. In a Big East that’s a bit wayward, Graham is a good reason for Pitt fans to be excited about the future. Unfortunately, I think the learning curve is too steep this season, and the Irish sprint by the Panthers, a team that’s a work in progress.

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.”