Dayne Crist

Eleven for ’11: Keys for the Fighting Irish

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Everybody knows Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith. While those three will likely have a large hand in determining Notre Dame’s fate, the Irish’s three All-American candidates can only do so much for a roster that’s finally at a full allotment of 85 scholarship players.

As the No. 16 Irish get ready to kick off the 2011 season against South Florida at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC), let’s take a look at the eleven players and coaches that’ll need to exceed expectations if Notre Dame is going to make it to the BCS, a goal Brian Kelly and the Irish haven’t shied away from.

1. Theo Riddick, WR/KR: Kelly raised a lot of eyebrows last season when he called Riddick one of his most explosive playmakers. It took a while for the converted running back to prove Kelly right, and unfortunately an ankle injury against Western Michigan derailed him, just as he was beginning to hit his stride.

It seems like Kelly’s doubling down on his junior wideout, going all in with Riddick as his return specialist, with Theo handling kicks and punts. He might be the spark special teams coach Mike Elston has been missing from his return units, with the Irish’s only explosive return coming when Armando Allen returned a punt 38 yards against Purdue.

Riddick put up respectable stats during his sophomore season, a year he spent learning how to be a receiver on the fly. With defenses keying on Michael Floyd, Riddick needs to take advantage of the open-field mismatches he’ll receive and make defenses pay.

2. Ben Turk, Punter: Don’t laugh. If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need to get a better season out of Turk, who has been maddeningly inconsistent in his two seasons punting for the Irish. Armed with a big leg, Turk’s struggled to take his practice stroke to the field. If those habits continue, expect to see freshman Kyle Brindza doing the punting.

Flipping the field on punts is one of those hidden statistics that make a huge difference in close football games but rarely show up in the box score. After two seasons of averaging just more than 38 yards per kick, Turk has to take his work to the next level, which will help the Irish in close games.

3. Prince Shembo, OLB: The Irish coaching staff has had nothing but good things to say about Shembo this season, and he’s created significant distance between himself and the rest of the ‘Dog’ linebackers. While many expected a platoon with fellow sophomore Danny Spond, it seems Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco think Shembo is too good of a player to take off the field.

Anyone who’s looked at the stat sheet or watched highlights from last season knows Shembo can get after the passer. But for a guy that played defensive end in high school and was a designated pass-rusher as a freshman, the switch to the field-side linebacker is no small transition.

If the Irish defense is going to be as stout as some think it can be, Shembo is going to need to be a much more versatile player. That means being able to rush the passer, cover a slot receiver, and play well in open space. We know Shembo can chase down a quarterback. He’ll need to do a lot more this season.

4. Ed Warinner, Offensive line coach & run-game coordinator: Warinner added another title to his business card, possibly as a thank you for pulling his name from consideration when the Nebraska offensive coordinator position opened up. A year after doing really impressive work with first year starters Zack Martin, Braxston Cave and Taylor Dever, Kelly offloaded the running game to Warinner, letting offensive coordinator Charley Molnar concentrate strictly on quarterbacks and the passing attack.

After losing both Armando Allen and Robert Hughes from the backfield, Warinner will be tasked with keeping the momentum from the season’s final four games, where the Irish committed to running the ball far more often — and effectively — with Tommy Rees at the helm. With four of five starters back, and both Chris Watt and Andrew Nuss already having plenty of experience, it’s Warinner’s duties to get this offensive line to play dominating football. That’s something the Irish haven’t seen since the late Joe Moore was coaching in the trenches.

5. Louis Nix, DT: For a guy that’s yet to play a down of football, Nix sure comes with some oversized expectations. It could be because the jumbo defensive tackle showed up on campus at 368 pounds, more than 40 pounds heavier than he is today. Nix deserves all the credit in the world for getting himself into shape; now he’ll have to earn the praise he’s garnered by fans and coaches alike by taking that hard work to the field.

We know what to expect from senior Sean Cwynar, who was a disruptive presence on the interior of the defensive line when Ian Williams got hurt. But if the Irish want to have a formidable front three, they’ll need Nix, a guy that hasn’t played a snap of football since his senior season in high school, to be the run stuffing monster befitting of the cult status he’s achieved.

6. John Goodman, WR: Brian Kelly has tried to deliver subtle hint countless times to Goodman, but the Fort Wayne native rumored to have some of the best speed in the receiving corps has yet to have the lightbulb go on. Last season, Goodman worked his way into the receiver rotation but was also tasked with returning punts, and whether or not it was his fault, he was a fair catch machine.

At risk of losing his spot in the receiver rotation, Kelly spent last week delivering one more message to the athletic senior, and it sounds like it hit home. Goodman will rotate between outside receiver positions, and if he and quarterback Dayne Crist are able to recapture some of the magic they had way back against Washington State in 2009, the Irish passing game will finally have another big athletic receiver to target.

7. Jamoris Slaughter, Safety: The Irish had a healthy Slaughter for less than a half of football last year. A high ankle sprain lingered for almost the entire season, robbing the Irish of a guy they thought could’ve been their best cover safety going into the season. While Slaughter’s injury allowed Zeke Motta to jump in, having Slaughter healthy and ready from day one gives the Irish secondary more versatility in coverage and another great athlete that’s showed coverage skills and a knack for making big hits.

As the season opens, Slaughter and Motta will be looked upon to play fundamentally sound football. Not getting beat long is good enough with a front-seven like this and a safety like Smith next to them. But as the senior from Georgia builds confidence, there’s every reason to think that Slaughter can play better than good enough. If he does, the Irish might have two ball hawks roaming over the top of cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton.

8. Aaron Lynch, DE: Lynch had Irish fans pining for the one that got away when he dominated at the US Army All-American game after his senior season of high school. Then, when the Florida native shocked the recruiting world when he decommitted from Florida State and enrolled early at Notre Dame, he had Irish fans salivating when he dominated the Blue-Gold game this spring.

While there’s been a ton of hyperbole lobbed Lynch’s way by fans, the coaching staff has downplayed the freshman’s ability to contribute immediately. But make no mistake, the coaching staff knows what they have in Lynch, the Irish’s best pass-rusher from the day he stepped on campus. Gifted with the size and physicality needed to play immediately, if Lynch can be put in enough positions to succeed, the sky is the limit.

9. Bob Diaco, Defensive coordinator: For all the great things Diaco did in his first season as the leader of the Irish defense, he’ll need to solve a Navy option game that almost got him run out of town. Armed with a game plan lacking a second option, the Irish looked even worst against Navy’s option attack than it did under Charlie Weis. Diaco will not only face Navy this season (albeit without quarterback Ricky Dobbs), he’ll have to face an Air Force option offense that was the second best rushing attack in college football.

But let’s set aside the mandatory prerequisite of stopping the option. Diaco has a war chest of weapons unlike any Irish defense in recent memory. It’ll be up to him to find the right combination for personnel, and become more effective with blitzes and getting after the quarterback.

10. Darius Fleming, OLB: The time is now for Fleming, long one of Notre Dame’s best athletes on defense, but only barely scraping the surface of what many believe he can become. Last season, the Chicago native managed to lead the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, all while learning on the job and playing uncomfortably in a system that caused Fleming to think way too much.

With a base knowledge that finally matches his physical skillset, it’s time for Fleming to take the leap from quality college football player to breakout Irish sackmaster. Playing at 6-4, 255 pounds during his final season in South Bend, Justin Tuck exploded for 13.5 sacks before heading to the NFL. Fleming might not be able to grow two inches this season, but Diaco’s system is built to give the ‘Cat’ linebacker chances to get the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and Fleming seems ready to rise to the occasion.

11. Dayne Crist, QB: It’s a cliche, but the Irish will go wherever Crist can lead them. If the senior quarterback can stay healthy and match his on-field exploits with his off-the-field intangibles, get ready for a season to remember. But Crist’s challenges remain the same as they were last year — playing in a system that doesn’t truly fit his abilities, he still struggles with the short and intermediate accuracy that’s needed to drive Kelly’s offense.

Lots of quarterbacks struggle in their first year on the job. Add in a new system complete with different footwork, a major knee injury to recover from, and an offense that was missing a Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver, and Crist’s up-and-down junior season was understandable.

But with a full year absorbing Kelly’s offense, it’ll be up to Crist to shake off another major knee injury and take a huge step forward. Winning the starting job from Tommy Rees was only the first step. The Irish need Crist to be the triggerman to an offense that’s both efficient through the air and on the ground. If he can do that, Irish fans should be very excited.

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. 

 

 

Smith’s surgeon speaks optimistically about nerve issue

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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For the first time since suffering the injury against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith pulled back the curtain on one of the most talked about knees (and nerves) in all of football. USAToday’s Tom Pelissero spent a day with Smith—and spoke with his surgeon, Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor Dan Cooper, about the progress Smith has been making, less than four months removed from the life-altering injury.

Cooper, a veteran of 30-plus years and one of the world’s top specialists in the repair of complex knee injuries, sounded optimistic in his assessment of Smith’s injury. He also addressed the dreaded “foot-drop,” with Smith using an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) to assist moving his left foot as the nerve slowly returns.

This from USA Today:

A checkup by NFL teams last weekend in Indianapolis showed Smith remains unable to raise his left foot or swing it out to the side because of an issue with his peroneal nerve. But the “foot-drop” isn’t a surprise at this stage, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, who is “optimistic that his knee itself will be stable and a good knee and he’ll get all his strength back. And I also think he has a very good chance of getting his nerve recovery back.”

That’s because the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” like more severe injuries, Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. There’s normally a one-month lag time before the nerve regrows at all, and once it begins, the rate is only about 1 inch per month.

“He’s had time for his nerve to regrow 2 inches, and the area of where his nerve was injured is 6 inches above the muscle that it innervates,” said Cooper, who’s also the Dallas Cowboys’ head team physician. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months. Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all (that) wind up being totally normal.”

Smith expressed optimism to Pelissero—as he has to everyone he’s come in contact with. He’s also continued to work out diligently, back up to 240 pounds and squatting and leg pressing like an All-American linebacker, not a man roughly 3.5 months post surgery. Smith also performed 24 reps on the bench press during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Perhaps more promising, Smith also says he’s making progress with the nerve, feeling tingles down his leg and moving closer to the foot.

“I feel different sensations every day,” Smith told Pelissero. “But it’s a thing where it’s patience, so you don’t try to hype yourself up too much.”