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Pregame Six Pack: Running with the Bulls

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Are you talked out yet? Between Charlie Brown, Eleven for ’11, USF previews, and a nice little sprinkling of recruiting news, it’s been a busy week. As we finally complete our crawl to Friday, the pregame heat has been turned up. Literally. It feels like someone left the oven open in the Midwest, and as thousands descend upon South Bend, they’ll be greeted by 97 degree heat and a humidity that begs you to buy a few extra dry t-shirts at the Bookstore.

With that in mind, we’ve trimmed our pregame sampling to a six pack, if only to keep everyone from getting dehydrated. As always, here are six fun facts, tidbit, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the No. 16 Fighting Irish prepare to play Skip Holtz’s South Florida Bulls.

1. Bring on the freshman.

Not that it wasn’t inevitable, but the game time forecast means the Irish will need to get more players involved from the get go, meaning everybody should keep their eyes on the roster and watch intently as their favorite freshman hit the field for the first time.

“We’ve got to be really good at substitution,” Brian Kelly said. “Some of these young guys have got to play early. When it’s a lot hotter the Tuitts and the Lynches and Troy Niklases and the Atkinsons and the McDaniels, all those kids, you’re probably going to start seeing them in the first dozen plays. Maybe sooner. When the weather’s like that, those young guys that have to gain experience, you’re not going to wait too long to see them in the game.”

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a short crib-sheet on the newcomers you’ll likely see.

No. 4 – George Atkinson, RB: Expect a package that’ll let Atkinson get the ball in space. He’s undersized, but can fly.
No. 27 – Kyle Brindza, K: Rocket-legged freshman will handle kickoffs.
No. 16 – Davaris Daniels, WR: Raw but athletic, Kelly might be underselling Daniels in hopes he’ll fly under the radar.
No. 5 – Everett Golson, QB: Wouldn’t surprise me if Golson has a series of his own on Saturday running spread option package.
No. 18 – Ben Koyack, TE: The fact that Koyack’s pushed his way into a deep TE rotation shows you how good he could be.
No. 19 – Aaron Lynch, DE: Expect to see No. 19 on the first third down of the year, pining his ears back an getting after B.J. Daniels.
No. 33 – Cam McDaniel, RB: He’ll likely surprise many with his versatile skillset and big play ability.
No. 58 – Troy Niklas, OLB: The prototype from Brian Kelly’s recruiting model. Big, versatile athlete is a freak of nature.
No. 7 – Stephon Tuitt, DE: If you’re wondering who Tuitt is, just look for the biggest guy on the football field.
No. 1 – Ishaq Williams, OLB: Might be the wildcard of the class. Immensely athletic player could be a specialty item.

2. The stars have aligned for Manti Te’o. That might not be a good thing for USF. 

I’ve been derelict in my duties this offseason, and I haven’t filed as many stories on Te’o as I probably should have. That’s not to say that I take the Irish’s preseason All-American for granted.

How long has it been since the Irish have had an All-American linebacker? Anthony Denman garnered second-team AP honors in 2000, Demetrius DuBose received mention in 1991, but not since Michael Stonebreaker in 1990 has a Notre Dame linebacker been a first-team All-American, with Stonebreaker, Chris Zorich and Raghib Ismail all being named consensus All-American’s in 1990. How long ago was that? Ottilia Te’o was pregnant at the time, months away from giving birth to Manti in January of 1991.

Eric Hansen has a long profile of Te’o in today’s South Bend Tribune, an article he wrote for the excellent Irish Sports Report preview magazine. In it, Te’o singles out the tide change in the Irish resurgence at the end of last season.

And that strength — from the church, from Toma, from family — that percolated most of Te’o’s first season and a half at ND became a constant toward the end of last season, when the Irish went on their season-ending 4-0 run.

“In the practices leading up to the Utah game, the players took over,” Te’o explained. “The coaches didn’t have to be the energy. The coaches didn’t have to be the guys getting the team going.

“I told (defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco. ‘Let me try and run this. Let me get us into the right defense. Let me try to motivate these guys.’ And quickly, the team periods become more physical.

“From there, guys were getting into each other. Guys were talking crap to each other. Guys were hitting each other. Then the offense starting getting into it, and it became this huge competition thing. When we walked into the Utah game, we had a whole new swagger. We knew nobody was going to beat us.”

If you’re looking for an interesting match-up, keep an eye on Te’o vs. USF running back Darrell Scott, a 243-pound bowling ball that’s got five-star pedigree. With B.J. Daniels‘ speed and athleticism putting pressure on the edges of the defense, Te’o will likely be tasked with stopping Scott. That’s roughly 500 pounds of force colliding.

3. Both South Florida and Brian Kelly understand what Michael Floyd is capable of doing.

If you’re wondering if South Florida knew about Michael Floyd, it’s pretty clear they’ve watched some tape.

“He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen since Braylon Edwards,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said earlier this week. “He may be better than Braylon.”

The assignment of covering Floyd will probably be given to Quenton Washington, a 5-10 redshirt senior cornerback that was just named one of the team’s captains. The Bulls also have some good size in their secondary with safety JaQuez Jenkins, who at 6-2 has the height to go up and get the ball as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Snyder bracket Floyd with over-the-top coverage from Jenkins, with hopes of taking the jump ball out of play.

That said, if you’re looking for a storyline that most won’t be following, keep an eye out for how Kelly decides to use his star wide receiver this year. In last year’s opening game, Dayne Crist only targeted Floyd seven times, with Floyd catching five passes for a rather pedestrian 82 yards. Against Michigan, a team he’s torched in the past, Floyd only caught five balls, with two coming in that fleeting final drive. Contrast that with the USC game, when Tommy Rees targeted Floyd 13 times, completing all but two throws. To Floyd, Rees was 11 for 13. When targeting the rest of the team, he was 9 for 19 for 60 yards and three interceptions.

With a big game, Floyd could pass Jeff Samardzija in receptions and Golden Tate in career yardage, putting his name atop two more Notre Dame receiving records. Now that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar know what Floyd is capable of, they’ll find more ways to get him the football.

4. Expect the first 100 yard game of the Brian Kelly era to happen on Saturday.

If Brian Kelly knew he’d fail to get a 100 yard rusher in his first season, he’d have likely sent Armando Allen through a hole one more time against Purdue or let Cierre Wood have a few carries in that final drive against Western Michigan. He didn’t, so Wood’s 94 yard day against the Broncos stands as a season high, a number that’ll likely be improved upon Saturday.

The Irish ran the ball for 4.0 yards a carry last season, their best rushing average since 2003. That said, it’s not a number they’re satisfied with. As I mentioned earlier, one big reason that’ll improve is Ed Warinner. The last time Warinner was a run game coordinator he led Illinois to the Big Ten rushing title, finishing 10th in the nation while averaging 188 yards per game.

It’s clear that Cierre Wood is the featured back in the Irish offense. But how carries get distributed between Wood, senior Jonas Gray, and freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson will be interesting. (I also expect to see Theo Riddick get a handoff or two.)

5. It’s finally time to see if the Irish defense is as good as we think it is.

While a late season renaissance has many thinking this Irish defense could be one of the better units in the country, we’ll likely get our first clue tomorrow afternoon. (That said, don’t get too excited with a one-game sample size. The Irish opened up 2009 with a shutout victory against Nevada.) If you’re looking for a reason the Irish should thrive, look no further than the defensive front seven.

After a starting trio of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, and Ethan Johnson, expect to see Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke and Hafis Williams rolling through.

At linebacker, Darius Fleming, Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo will start, but we already know we’ll see plenty of Carlo Calabrese, and it’ll be interesting to see how Bob Diaco works in Steve Filer, Danny Spond, and freshmen Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas. Expect quite a few exotic personnel packages, most designed to confuse and fluster B.J. Daniels.

On the back line, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray will start at field and boundary cornerbacks. Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter will start at safety, with Zeke Motta rolling in. Blanton’s playmaking ability behind the line of scrimmage necessitates a few different looks for the Irish defense after a season of playing mostly vanilla coverages. It’ll also be interest to see how much time Dan McCarthy and Bennett Jackson get, two talented athletes that haven’t seen much time on the field.

Last year, the Irish were focused on “mastering their musts.” After passing their prerequisites, it’s time to move up to honors level courses.

6. If the Irish can force turnovers from B.J. Daniels, the game should fall Notre Dame’s way.

It isn’t hard to pick out the trend in USF’s 2010 season. When the Bulls lost, it was because B.J. Daniels turned the ball over.

Florida 38, USF 14 — Daniels goes a woeful 5 for 20 with four interceptions
Syracuse 13, USF 9 — Daniels is 9 for 23 with two interceptions
West Virginia 20, USF 6 — Daniels completes 20 of 30, but throws three interceptions
Pitt 17, USF 10 — Daniels is 15 for 29 with no touchdowns and one interception.

In victory, here were Daniels’ stats:

USF 59, Stony Brook 14 — 15 for 22, 2 TDs
USF 24, Western Kentucky 12 — 7 for 11, 0 TDs 1 INT
USF 31, Florida Atlantic 3 — 14 for 19, 1 TD
USF 38, Cincinnati 30 — 13 for 16, 2 TD
USF 28, Rutgers 27 — 10 for 17, 2 TD 1 INT
USF 24, Louisville 21 — 11 for 19, 1 TD
USF 23, Miami 20 — 4 for 12, 0 TD, 0 INT

Only against Western Kentucky did the Bulls win when Daniels threw more interceptions than touchdowns. If the Irish can create pressure in the pocket and confuse Daniels, they should be in good shape to force some turnovers.

In case you’re wondering, Brian Kelly is 30-1 since 2006 when his team wins the turnover battle.

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.