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IBG: Turning the page to Michigan

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As an 18-year-old freshman, I had no idea just what my first big-time college football game would be like. Sure, I had sat in a half-empty Metrodome once or twice, watching the hometown Gophers take one on the chin to a team like Houston or Purdue, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolute pandemonium that took over that Saturday morning in early September, when the 4th floor of Stanford Hall erupted at 7 a.m. and the day ended celebrating in the Stonehenge fountain across from LaFortune.

That the Irish’s victory over the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines was my first game was almost unfair for a kid that’d never stepped foot in Notre Dame Stadium before. It would never get better than that first day.

There are things I’ve learned in the years since that first time. Most of it having to do with just how contentious the ND-UM rivalry is. Irish fans and Wolverines fans don’t seem to like each other much, and sure take delight in the other program’s misfortunes. As a kid that swapped freely between a Michigan hat and a Notre Dame lid, that kind of polygamy would be shocking to see now.

Neither program is where they want to be, but Saturday night’s game still takes center stage in the college football world. And after seeing the Irish lay an incredibly smelly egg last week, and the Wolverines look anything but dominant against cupcake Western Michigan, there’s a lot to be discovered in prime-time Saturday night. (Discover it together, with the return of an old-fashioned live-blog!)

As we’ll try to do every week, we’re joining the Irish Blogger Gathering and (almost) answering all the questions posed to us. This time, they come from the feisty fellows over at Her Loyal Sons, who do their best to not let their disdain for the Wolverines get too in the way of their questions.

HLS asked, I did my best to answer:

Well that really sucked. Please describe how you feel about the loss using lyrics from a pop diva’s song. Bonus points for video or pictures. (Something good has to come out of last week.)

There’s a lot of things I’m competent at, but quoting current pop diva lyrics isn’t one of them. That said, you’ve got to think that Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I did it again,” fits pretty perfectly for Irish fans.

Tough not to like Brit in that red spacesuit…

While we all want to move on, last week’s game can teach us many things about the ’11 Irish. After seeing what Week One brought us, do you find yourself more confident, less confident or still confused as hell about Notre Dame’s chances against Michigan?

I think you definitely have to feel less confident about what we thought the Irish would be, but I don’t think anybody should jump to conclusions until very late Saturday night, when we see how the Irish come out of Ann Arbor. If Notre Dame walks away with a win, then we can take a look at a two-game sample size and still hope to learn more against Michigan State.

As for this weekend, this match-up usually strikes fear into the heart of Irish fans, and for good reason. On paper, Notre Dame should’ve won the last two games, and still found themselves losing in absolutely painstaking ways both years. Having watched the mini-game the Wolverines played against Western Michigan, regardless of how vanilla they played, there wasn’t anything that impressive about the performance, and it’s clear the defense is still very much a work in progress.

Let’s say Notre Dame only turned the ball over three times last week, and won the football game by ten points. I’d expect the line to be about a touchdown. The fact that it’s 3.5 points, even though the Irish lost last week and Michigan is playing in front of the best homefield advantage they can historically create, that goes to tell you what wiseguys think about these teams.

That said, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen. Nothing would surprise me.

Other than quarterback, which position group pleasantly surprised you this past week? Which disappointed? What player absolutely must see more time in Week 2?

You’ve got to be happy with what you saw out of the nose tackle position, with Louis Nix being as good as advertised and Sean Cwynar chipping in four tackles. I’d also add the offensive line, which looked pretty impressive, save a few tough plays for Taylor Dever and Braxston Cave. Disappointing? I guess you’ve got to target the secondary. Both Gary Gray and Harrison Smith had multiple major penalties, and they weren’t able to get an interception from B.J. Daniels, a guy who gave turnovers away last year like lollipops. I want to add Special Teams into the big disappointment column as well. Ruffer misses a chip shot, Turk once again flubs punts after hitting beauties in warmups and some shoddy punt coverage… a really terrible day for Mike Elston’s troops.

As for someone that better see more playing time, I’d love to see what Cierre Wood can do when he’s not taken out of the gameplan after halftime.

Tommy Rees will lead the Irish offense this week. Do you agree with Brian Kelly’s call? Either way, what part of Crist’s game will the Irish O miss the most, if any?

After saying all offseason that Crist was going to win the starting job, it feels a little weird to go back and support Tommy Rees after one mediocre half by Dayne. That said, I’m 100 percent in favor of the switch, even if it’s giving Crist a pretty raw deal. Maybe we thought BK was paying Rees lip-service when he said that the QB race was as close as it was, but Dayne’s microprocessor just doesn’t move as quickly as Tommy’s — and in this offense, that’s what matters. If you weren’t sure of it before last Saturday, you should be now.

That Kelly was able to pull the plug on the Crist era quickly shouldn’t be that surprising. Whether it be injury or preference, Brian Kelly has used a lot of quarterbacks in his day. Will the Irish miss anything Dayne can do? Probably, as his physical skillset is pretty impressive. But Crist has always been a square peg from a round hole in this offense, and the senior leader’s development has been stunted by an unfavorable depth chart and some difficult injuries, all to go along with some accuracy issues, a fatal flaw in a Brian Kelly offense.

What’s the key to beating the Wolverines this week. Just one thing. Not two. One.

Easiest question I’ve heard all year: Containing Denard Robinson.

Make your over-under picks:

O/U on Michael Floyd’s receiving total for this coming weekend: 154 — Over. Rees is going to have the ball going to Floyd early and often.

O/U on Robinson’s rushing total: 100 — Over. But barely.

O/U on ND’s number of turnovers: 2 — Under. I see ball security being something far more important this week, and while Michigan did a nice job of getting a few turnovers last week, I think Rees is going to do a good job against Greg Mattison’s blitzing defense.

O/U on number of times Kelly is caught “purple monstering” (read: yelling) on camera: 2 — Believe it or not, I think BK knows he probably went a little overboard with his hysterics last weekend, and I think it was a confluence of events that led to the geyser he blew on Jones. If you’re looking for a reason for Kelly to remain cool, it’s that he’s on the road. He’ll need to keep everybody under control, and a calm demeanor might be what the doctor ordered. So under.

Michigan: Just another Opponent, Enemy, or Rival? Explain.

I think it’s more enemy than rival. Brady Hoke has two clocks ticking in his lockerroom. One for the big game against Ohio State, the other for the in-state battle against the Spartans. The Irish and the Wolverines are more Hatfields and McCoys than traditional rivals.

It’s one of those bizarre hatreds between two schools that are probably far more similar to each other than they’d like to acknowledge, but still have just enough apart that they’ll never come close to conceding anything.

In other words, just one more reason why college football is great.

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.