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Irish Blogger Gathering: Game week is finally here

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Buckle up, everybody. For those of you that have taken the last nine months off, welcome back. For those of you that have been here daily with me throughout our annual football drought, expect the pace of play to kick up considerably this week. (Refresh and reload the page a lot, we’re going to be pounding out quite a bit of content getting ready for game one as I head to South Bend late Thursday.)

Brian Kelly is set to speak with the media tomorrow at noon, so we’ll have some fresh quotes to parse through and some interesting details that will surely follow. We’ll kick off this Monday with our (hopefully) weekly participation in the Irish Blogger Gathering, captained by the esteemed Subway Domer, and this week the questions are supplied by Frank over at UHND.com.

I’ll do my best to answer some season preview questions that should get some of the seasonal fans up to speed as Notre Dame prepares to kickoff a season with very high expectations.

The big news of last week was Dayne Crist winning the starting QB spot.  Are you happy with the outcome and how comfortable are you with Crist as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season?

I’ve been saying for months that Dayne Crist will be the starting quarterback and I’m incredibly comfortable with the decision for a number of reasons. I’ll give you three.

1. Crist will be a lot better this season. Sure, his accuracy will give you a few head-scratching moments and he’s not a perfect fit for the quick trigger passing game, but I expect Crist’s production to take a huge step forward this year. Last year, to protect an offense that was very much learning the ropes, Kelly relied on a horizontal passing game. This year, expect the offense to move vertically a lot better. That plays well to Crist’s strengths, and this year the quarterback will actually know what he’s doing instead of learning on the fly.

2. Crist is a lot better fit for this offense than you might expect. Pay no attention to the two major knee surgeries, Dayne is actually a pretty mobile and athletic guy. It may feel like decades ago, but Crist was a pretty active runner in high school and last season the offense actually started to open up when Crist was able to keep the ball and run. With depth behind him no longer an issue, don’t expect Kelly or offensive coordinator Charley Molnar to avoid keeping the ball in Dayne’s hands, which will add another dimension to a running game expecting to take a leap forward.

3. Crist winning the job helps program stability. The last time the Irish had four scholarship quarterbacks battling for a starting job, Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer were both gone by week two of the 2007 season, the product of handing the job to freshman Jimmy Clausen and a head coach learning how to handle a depth chart filled with high-profile recruits for the first time.

Watching Kelly handle his four-headed quarterback competition was a perfect example of a seasoned coach understanding the college game. Everybody got a fair shot, everybody was complimented, and everybody stayed. Crist won the job in the end, and if it really was as close of a competition as BK and company made it out to be, then it was a no-brainer to choose the veteran, if only because it doesn’t tip the apple cart.

I still think it’s doubtful that we end up seeing Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees, Crist and Everett Golson all end their career playing for Notre Dame, but the fact that nobody transferred away yet is a victory for coaching diplomacy and important for building a strong program.

A lot of people say you see the biggest improvement between year 1 and 2 after a coaching change.  What area do you hope to see the biggest improvement in 2011?

Total offense. The Irish finished squarely in the middle of the pack last year at 61st, the worst year Kelly has had on that side of the ball since his early days at Central Michigan. I think the staff is quietly optimistic that this team is going to be able to play maybe not at Oregon’s pace, but at least at the speed of Kelly’s Cincinnati squad that ran the regular season table. With experience back, a good offensive line and solidified quarterback play, expect a big jump in year two.

I know you didn’t ask for two areas, but I also expect the Irish to do much better at getting after the quarterback. In Brian Kelly’s three seasons at Cincinnati, the Bearcats were in the top ten nationally in sacks each year, a pretty astounding stat considering the Irish came in at 55th last season. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stockpiled some dangerous weaponry on defense and having situational guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams, along with Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo coming off the edge means the Irish should take a giant leap forward in sacks.

I think we’ve all covered this year’s highly touted freshman class quite a bit this off-season already so instead, who do you see as this year’s Corey Mays?  Mays played primarly special teams for 3 seasons before a breakout season as a 5th year senior in 2005.  Who on the Irish roster can pull off a similar performance this season?

Is this the annual Steve Filer breakout watch question? Because if it is, Filer fits the profile down to the hometown. Last week, Bob Diaco had an interesting quote when discussing defensive starters. He was talking about 50/50 players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, but he also let it slip that he considers Steve Filer a defensive starter, too. At what position? I think we’ll get our first hint this week, as Kelly also made it clear that it was going to be the coaching staff’s job to find a way to get Filer and his athleticism onto the field for more than just special teams.

Looking at things realistically, where Filer plays will be the hardest thing to figure out. You’re not going to take Fleming off the field on passing downs. It doesn’t make sense to take out Shembo, either. If the Irish slide to a four man front, they’ll likely do it to get Aaron Lynch on the field with a hand in the dirt, and move Ethan Johnson inside to rush. Does that mean Filer lines up next to Manti Te’o on the inside, wreaking havoc on the interior of an offensive line? Who knows, but it’ll be interesting to see what Diaco cooks up, especially seeing that he works all practice with Filer and the linebackers and knows what he can do.

Theo Riddick is a player I’ve been touting all off-season and think the is ready to become a big name in college football.  What player on Notre Dame’s roster who hasn’t yet broken out are you expecting to put up big numbers in 2011?

Good call on Riddick. Just because I don’t want to say the same thing, I’ll flip to the defensive side of the ball and say Ethan Johnson. He’s done a lot at Notre Dame, but hasn’t truly broken out, and just listening to him this preseason you hear a different player and see a guy that’s physically ready to play the part of a 300-pound athletic college defensive end.

Notre Dame plays a legit opponent in South Florida unlike a lot of teams around the country.  How do you see this game playing out and does it help or hurt Notre Dame that they play a BCS conference opponent this weekend while Michigan plays Western Michigan?

I’ll get to this in way more detail this week, but South Florida is a good football team with a coach that’s very good at motivating his football team. If the Irish can keep B.J. Daniels under wraps and force him to turn the ball over a few times, Notre Dame should be able to win this football game easily. But the Bulls have some serious speed and athleticism on defense, and I expect to see Cierre Wood, Riddick and possibly George Atkinson touching the ball on the ground in some very interesting misdirection/counter elements, with the coaching staff hoping to use the Bulls speed against them.

As for starting with a non-cupcake? Don’t expect that to change, and Kelly has already talked about changing the way he prepares his team for a season that needs to be full go from day one. Would you rather open up with Western Michigan? Probably. But it’s not going to happen and there’s no reason to get worked up about it.

Stealing this one from my IBG pre-season questions from last year – who is the Notre Dame player the Irish can least afford to lose this season?  For the sake of getting some different response, you can’t use Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o here.

That’s got to be Harrison Smith. He’s the captain of both the team and the defense and with him, the Irish have an anchor in their secondary that’s among the best athletes in the country. Without him, the Irish will be playing Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, two guys that were learning on the fly and will force Chuck Martin and Diaco to play a far more conservative scheme.

Even if you included Floyd and Te’o, I’d argue Smith is just as important as those two.

Obligatory pre-season prediction question:

  • Notre Dame’s final record: If the Irish get through September, they’ll win 10 games… maybe more.
  • Notre Dame’s bowl game and opponent: I’ll repeat last year’s pipe dream: ND vs. Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl
  • Final ranking for Notre Dame: Top Ten would be a great success. (Yes, I’m avoiding this question, too.)
  • Best opposing offensive and defensive player ND will face in ’11: Andrew Luck and Jerel Worthy
  • Best opposing coach ND will face: Troy Calhoun.
  • Notre Dame game you won’t miss for anything: Tie — Michigan & USC.
  • Notre Dame game you could watch on DVR: That’d be tough for the live blog.
  • National Champion: No Clue.
  • Heisman Trophy Winner: Andrew Luck.

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.