South Florida v Notre Dame

Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down Tommy’s throws

15 Comments

Brian Kelly named Tommy Rees the starting quarterback for Saturday against Michigan. It was a decision that made plenty of sense from a production point of view — Rees went 24 of 34 for 296 yards in the second half, when everyone in the stadium knew Rees would be passing to catch up, in conditions hardly optimal.

After looking at every throw a few dozen times, not every decision Rees made was the right one, but the sophomore was able to turn the Irish offense into a high octane attack against a good defense, something the Irish haven’t seen in the Brian Kelly era.

“Our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got a pretty good resume, 4-0 as a starter, and he’s come off the bench twice and has played well under those circumstance.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the throws Rees made to impress the coaching staff — all 34 of them:

TOMMY REES’ PASSING PLAYS

Throw 1: 1st and 10 at USF 49

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 7 yards.

A high percentage play. With the corners off and Floyd by himself on the short-side of the field, Rees throws a quick hitch for a nice gain. Nice play call to get Rees warmed up and an easy completion.

Throw 2: 1st and 10 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 4 yards.

Another high percentage throw, but potentially a missed opportunity for Rees, who had Theo Riddick flashing open from the slot on the field side. With five wide, the Irish might have caught USF in a missed coverage and Rees didn’t see Riddick. Again, a nice throw and modest completion to Floyd, but I’m sure in the film room the coaching staff will let Tommy know he missed an open read.

Throw 3: 2nd and 6 at USF 30

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 5 yards.

All three receivers on the field side ran slants, and Rees chose TJ Jones on the outside to go to. The ball sailed high on him a bit, but Jones went up and made a very nice catch. Nothing wrong with the read, but Rees’ accuracy wasn’t all that great. Still, three throws and three completions, all done at a pace faster than the Irish moved with Crist in the first half.

Throw 4: 1st and 10 at USF 20

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

With trips to Rees right, he hits Floyd, the inside receiver with a quick bubble screen. Sprung by a nice block by Theo Riddick, Floyd accelerates around the corner for a big gainer, taking the Irish to the USF five yard line.

Throw 5: 1st and Goal at USF 5

Rees pass intended for TJ Jones intercepted by Michael Lanaris, returned for no gain.

A tough play for a number of reasons. Obviously, Jones never gets his head around to look for the ball, a huge no-no. (As Brian Kelly’s reaction made evident.) With Floyd and Eifert split tight to the right and Riddick and Jones split tight to the left, Riddick pulled the defensive backs on the far side of the field to the corner of the end zone, while Eifert occupied the end zone on the right side.

In what was essentially a two man route, Rees jumped his first option, Jones, throwing to him on the crossing route before he was able to get his head around to the ball. Jones had a step on his defender, but was never looking for the ball, which caromed from Jones’ helmet into the arms of Lanaris, keeping the Irish out of the end zone.

If you watch the replay enough times, you’ll certainly see how well constructed the play is, with Floyd clearing behind Jones and breaking wide open just after the ball is out of Rees’ hands. Just a horrible outcome that probably won’t ever happen again, but did so at the absolute worst time for the Irish.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A well-designed screen set up for Riddick, but Taylor Dever struggles to keep his man out of Rees’ face, and the defensive end knocks the pass down. Looked like there was some room to operate if the pass were completed.

Throw 7: 2nd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd

Another throw where Rees might have locked on Floyd too early. He sailed the throw out of bounds, a miscommunication with Floyd, who pulled up with the defensive back in man coverage. Again, it’s hard to say without knowing the play call, but Riddick seemed to be open on a skinny post from the opposite slot.

Throw 8: 3rd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 37 yards

A really impressive throw into a tight window. With Eifert detached on the right side of the line, Rees has a narrow window to fit the throw in, and he does it. Eifert splits two linebackers and breaks into the secondary for a really big gain. If you’re looking for a throw that Brian Kelly would term “decisive,” this is one of them.

Throw 9: 1st and 10 at USF 29

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 5 yards.

Tommy does a good job buying time in the pocket, and with nobody open downfield, Rees dumps the ball off to a crossing Cierre Wood, who needs to break just one tackle before he’s into the secondary for a potentially big play. A good example of Rees’ subtle mobility, and nice work to make something out of nothing, putting the Irish in a second and short instead of a 2nd and long.

Throw 10: 2nd and 5 at USF 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Perfect throw. With Rees seeing Floyd in one-on-one coverage, he hits No. 3 in stride with a perfect strike and let’s Floyd do the rest. Presnap, USF made the decision easy for Rees, with the corner up in man coverage on Floyd and the safety creeping up before the play. NBC announcer Mike Mayock makes a nice observation about Floyd’s spot on the field, staying on the short side and forcing USF to decide whether they want to play him one-on-one or roll a safety to the shorter side of the field, leaving the rest of the field unprotected.

The Bulls coaching staff left Floyd alone, and Notre Dame made them pay.

Throw 11: 1st and 10 at ND 33

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 27 yards.

Another perfect throw. Great route by Riddick, who puts a stutter move on the linebacker before getting over the top of him vertically, and Rees puts the ball in the hole before the safeties converge. This throw was open multiple times for Riddick, and he had a few big drops on it. Don’t be surprised if the Irish continue to try and take advantage of this pattern against the Wolverines. Again, another decisive decision and a big league throw by Rees.

Throw 12: 2nd and 4 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

The same play that went for five yards to Jones early goes to Floyd, who makes a defender miss and turns it into a big gainer. As the outside receiver in the three wide to the left formation, Floyd makes a good play on a ball delivered accurately by Rees, another difference between the shorter completion to Jones.

Throw 13: 2nd and 5 at USF 14

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

A slip screen that didn’t quite work, Rees gets the ball quickly to Jones, but both Chris Watt and Braxston Cave miss their blocks on the screen pass. Jones is tackled for a short gain instead of breaking free for a potentially big gainer.

Throw 14: 3rd and 4 at USF 13

Rees pass incomplete to Cierre Wood.

Well defended by the Bulls. Neither Floyd nor Eifert came open after their shallow crossing routes and Theo Riddick was well covered on the deep cross. Rees essentially throws the ball away over Cierre Wood’s head, settling for what looked like an automatic chip shot for kicked David Ruffer.

Getting nothing out of this drive was a huge blow for the Irish.

Throw 15: 1st and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A critical drop by Riddick, who could’ve easily had a 20 yard gain if he’d have held on to the perfectly thrown ball by Rees on the deep crossing pattern. It was a tough evening for Riddick, who came up looking for someone to blame, but ultimately knew that drop was on him.

Throw 16: 2nd and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 6 yards.

A quick hitch to Floyd that Rees hit on time. An important throw to get out of 3rd and long. The cornerback started off, then crept up on Floyd only to push back off presnap. An easy completion against a defensive back that’s protecting against the deep ball as well.

Throw 17: 3rd and 4 at ND 30

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 5 yards.

With Robby Toma in the slot for Riddick, TJ Jones runs a slant on the top side of the field that was open, but Rees takes Floyd on the short hitch, who spins for the first down. A five yard play when you need four. Can’t fault him for that decision, to a receiver who was probably his primary option.

Throw 18: 1st and 10 at ND 35

Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones

If you’re looking for the difference between Rees and Dayne Crist, you might have your answer here. On a designed roll out, Rees doesn’t get enough on the deep smash route to Jones and the ball skips short. A long throw, but one Rees should have hit. Also — the same throw that Crist waited on and then went to Eifert on the square out, who was covered by then.

Almost a perfect example of the two quarterbacks on Saturday. With Rees, if he misses it’s because of a physical problem. With Crist, it was because he took too long to identify the read, and the defense had time to get back into position.

Throw 19: 1st and 10 at ND 39

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 22 yards.

A nice throw over the corner and in front of the safety and an even better catch by Floyd. A big-league deep ball by Rees, who sees Floyd beat the corner and then get wide enough to find a hole in the two-deep zone. Another throw that if not made early is a really dangerous decision.

Throw 20: 1st and 10 at USF 39

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 7 yards.

With Riddick running off the safety, TJ Jones wide running a curl, Eifert is open at seven yards, and Rees delivers the ball for an easy completion.

Throw 21: 2nd and 3 at USF 32

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards.

On the wide side of the field, Floyd’s got a linebacker trying to bump him. He gets inside of him anyway, and runs a slant into the middle of the field for 11 more yards.

Throw 22: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Looked like a max protect route, with the tight end staying in. Rees was going to take his shot to Floyd and when it looked like he was covered, he may or may not have thrown that ball semi-away. A play that felt a lot like a Jimmy Clausen-Charlie Weis play call, a “go out and get it” throw to Floyd.

Throw 23: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 15 yards.

A similar route combination to some others we’ve seen, only this time Rees wasn’t on the roll out. Jones was open early and open late, and Rees worked his way to Jones, who turned a small gain into a nice one.

Throw 24: 1st and Goal at USF 6.

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 5 yards.

A nice route, a nice throw and a really nice tackle by the USF safety, with LeJiste really laying the wood. Sets up second and goal from inside the one yard line, where Cierre Wood eventually jams it home.

Throw 24a: Two-point conversion attempt

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

With Floyd matched up one-on-one on the short side of the field, Rees went to Floyd on the jump ball – fade route, but threw the ball too wide, forcing Floyd out of bounds on a throw he couldn’t hold onto either. It’s a zero-margin for error route, and probably a play-call that’s a little risky after they had moved the ball half the distance to the goal line. Any chance of the Irish winning was cut in half with Notre Dame not converting there, and I’m sure Kelly would want that play call over again, especially after he had to burn a timeout when Rees didn’t get the play off in time before the penalty.

Throw 25: 2nd and 6 at ND 13

Rees pass intercepted by Jerrell Young at ND 30. (Intended for Michael Floyd)

A bad decision by Rees, who might have had a tough throw available with Tyler Eifert on the wheel route on the outside. With Rees flushed from the pocket, that probably eliminated that option, but Tommy would’ve been wise to take the check down to Cierre Wood, but instead tried to fit a ball into double coverage while on the run.

The decision reminds me of one of Charlie Weis’ old rules: never throw the ball on the run across your body. You can’t call this throw the nail in the coffin, but it was another one of those plays that made the comeback even harder to pull off, especially deflating that it came right after a long rain delay.

Throw 26: 2nd and 13 at ND 2

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 23 yards.

With Floyd bracketed on the top side of the field, Rees fits another ball in-between the corner and the safety, with TJ Jones holding on with an amazing catch and taking another big hit. At this point, Rees needed to take any shot he could, and credit Jones for making a really nice catch and taking a big-time hit.

Throw 27: 1st and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

With not much there on any of his options, Rees tries to squeeze a throw in short to Eifert, but the ball is knocked away. A good incompletion, with the clock stopping instead of continuing to run on a five yard gain.

Throw 28: 2nd and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

Jones was again slow to get his head around on this crossing route, but to Rees’ credit, he waits until Jones makes eye contact and dumps the ball off to him. From there, Jones was good to get out of bounds.

Throw 29: 3rd and 9 at ND 26

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 12 yards.

Great job by Rees buying time in the pocket, and nice job by Eifert, sinking into a hole in the zone defense. He’s able to make his way across the first down marker and pick up a first down likely conceded by the Bulls soft cover defense.

Throw 30: 1st and 10 at ND 38

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 8 yards.

With coverage solid down the seams, Rees waits for Wood to come open from the backfield and hits him underneath for another small gain that stops the clock.

Throw 31: 2nd and 2 at USF 36

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 18 yards.

Another rifle shot by Rees, putting this ball in a perfect place — just about the linebacker and just beneath the over-the-top safety. With the Bulls in a deep zone, this is a tough throw, but Rees takes the chance and puts the ball on the mark.

Throw 32: 1st and 10 at USF 36

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

A ball that Riddick absolutely needs to catch. Theo was bursting up the seam and Tommy puts it on him perfectly. The Irish hope they get those kind of shots this Saturday, as they’re confident that Riddick will make more of those plays than he misses.

Throw 33: 2nd and 5 at USF 31

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 15 yards. (Roughing the passer accepted.)

With the Bulls in deep cover, Rees takes advantage of the match-up Eifert has on the linebacker and waits for the deep in route to develop. Tommy takes a big hit late, adding another 15 yards to the gain. An impressive throw staying in the pocket showing patience as the linebacker vacates the middle of the field.

Throw 34: 1st and Goal at USF 8

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 8 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

We’ve seen this play before. Three wide, two inside guys run slants clearing the middle and Rees puts a perfect throw on Floyd. A tough play to defend when you’ve got a 6-3, 225-pound All-American like Floyd on the edge.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s Rees’ receiver by receiver numbers:

Michael Floyd: 10 of 13 for 117 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT
TJ Jones: 5 of 7 for 45 yards, 1 INT
Theo Riddick: 2 of 5 for 32 yards
Tyler Eifert: 5 of 6 for 89 yards
Cierre Wood: 2 of 3 for 13 yards

Here’s a breakdown of where Rees went with the ball, a distribution chart that I don’t think many Irish fans will have a problem with.

Floyd targets: 38%
Jones targets: 20%
Riddick targets: 15%
Eifert targets: 18%
Wood targets: 9%

Even if Rees forced the ball to Floyd, as you can tell by the numbers, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. With a guy like Floyd, even against a secondary that has good talent and depth, he made them pay in a variety of ways, part of what makes No. 3 such a diverse weapon.

Rees also averaged 8.7 yards a throw, 2.5 yards per throw better than Crist. Rees’ half of football has him 30th in yards-per-throw, while Crist’s half has him at 65th. Even more telling, Rees’ numbers, even including the two interceptions, has him 37th in the country in QB rating. Crist’s first half numbers have him ranked 100th.

With the Irish offense having to work almost exclusively through the air as they played catch-up, the Irish have a chance to use their robust rushing attack — Cierre Wood went for over 100 yards on five yards a carry — against a Michigan defense that was the fifth worst team against the run in the country, giving up a gaudy 7.3 yards a carry to Western Michigan.

Again, you can argue that Brian Kelly gave Crist the hook too early. But after seeing the way the Irish responded to the change at quarterback, Kelly knew he needed to get the offense playing at a level that’d help support a defense ready to face a stiffer challenge with Denard Robinson ready for Saturday.

With a season on the brink and no margin for error, Kelly had the confidence to make a bold change. We’ll see if that switch was a mistake this weekend. If you look at the tape and the numbers, it sure doesn’t look like one.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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)
7 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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
22 Comments

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.