Harrison Smith Michigan

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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After a while, it begins to defy explanation.

That is the story of Michigan’s incredible 35-31 comeback victory versus Notre Dame. In front of a record 114,804 screaming fans, the Irish did everything they could to spring Denard Robinson‘s heroics, and Michigan’s quarterback happily obliged, throwing two touchdown passes in the final 1:12 of the game, including the winning  toss to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left, bringing the Wolverines back from the brink after Tommy Rees drove the Irish to a potential game-winning touchdown just 28 seconds earlier.

In a series marked by recent heroics by Michigan, Brady Hoke‘s troops pulled a rabbit out of their hat so incredible that even the last two editions of this game would bow in deference. While the Irish controlled the game for over 59 minutes, they were never able to put the Wolverines away, and thanks to five more Notre Dame turnovers, including three lost fumbles, the Irish kept Michigan hanging around.

Twenty-eight fourth quarter points helped the Wolverines pull out of a game they had been statistically dominated in, but like last week — or the previous two years in this series — Michigan had all the answers when they counted the most.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 35-31 defeat to Michigan.

Notre Dame’s secondary is broken.

There is far too much talent playing in the back four of Notre Dame’s secondary to have a game like this. Gary Gray, who during the preseason could have been an All-American candidate, looked dismal, getting lost in coverage and beat on under thrown ball by Robinson throughout the night.

If the Irish’s game plan was to commit another defender to Robinson and leave Gray, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith to cover, it certainly backfired, as Michigan’s touchdown passes exposed defensive backs that continually failed to look back for footballs that were underthrown and there for the taking.

For three quarters, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges did Bob Diaco‘s job, keeping Robinson back to pass and having him try and beat the Irish from the pocket. When that stopped working, the Wolverines begrudgingly took advantage of their star player, who created offense when the play broke down and he gave his receivers 50/50 match-ups.

That the Irish lost because of breakdowns in a veteran unit that was one of Notre Dame’s most promising is an absolute shock. But the cornerbacks have taken a huge step back in Year Two of the Kelly regime and it’s hard not to look at blown coverage and bad ball skills as the number one culprit for the loss.

A running game is only as good as its short yardage unit

When the Irish ran out Steve Filer, Carlo Calabrese and Ethan Johnson on the first drive of the season opener against USF, many assumed it was an exotic package for the Irish in goal-line situations. It turns out it was Brian Kelly self-diagnosing a glaring deficiency for the Irish run game, which was terrific throughout the night, but stalled out when it was needed most.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray both had great evenings, with Wood carrying for 134 yards and a touchdown and Gray chipping in 66 yards on only six carries. But when the Irish offensive line needed to pick up a critical first down in the second half they just couldn’t do it.

In the second half, here’s the Irish running game in third and short:

At the Michigan 41 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.
At the Irish 18 on 3rd and 3, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 3.
At the Irish 29 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.

You can bark about the spread offense or bemoan the lack of power running in Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and run game coordinator Ed Warinner‘s zone blocking system. But when it comes down to it, the Irish knew they were a team without a capable lead blocker, and after Calabrese and Filer failed to do their job in week one, Kelly tried to get it done with just his offensive line, and failed when it mattered most.

Stats are for losers.

The Irish are well on their way to becoming paper champions. Racking up 513 yards of total offense, a quick look at the box score shows a game Notre Dame dominated. But first downs and rushing yards only tell a portion of the story, and Michigan’s 4th quarter rally erased any feather in the cap of the Irish coaching staff, who did a great job limiting Robinson until the game’s final minutes.

Once again, the Irish turned the ball over an egregious five times. Up 14 points and marching in the second quarter, Tommy Rees locked on to Michael Floyd and threw a bad interception to Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs. Two players later, Gray was beat long for a Junior Hemingway touchdown. The next drive, with the Irish in the red zone and marching, Rees threw a worst interception, trying to force a ball to Floyd that had no business of being thrown. The second interception didn’t kill the Irish, but Notre Dame has made a habit of taking points off the board early in games, a very costly habit.

In the second half, it only got worse. Wood fumbled off the back of freshman tight end Ben Koyack, turning the ball over deep in Michigan territory. But the back-breaking turnover came when Rees looked to the corner of the end zone from the two-yard line, throwing for a game-sealing touchdown, only leaving the ball behind him on the turf. Michigan recovered inside its own ten yard line, keeping the game within three points and alive in the game.

As we dissect this game throughout the week, we’ll once again point to a lot of good things the Irish did in a losing effort. For the most part, stats will support those arguments. But in the end, stats are for losers. The only one that mattered had Michigan winning 35-31.

The (bad) luck of the Irish.

Maybe we had the wrong Peanuts character. The Irish aren’t Charlie Brown, they’re Pig Pen. And that’s not a cloud of dust, that’s a rain cloud. In a game where the Irish looked like they were on pace for an easy victory, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Murphy very well could be an Irish fan, but his law is rule of the land.

Want to see a team that’s snakebit? Check out the Irish games that ended within four points:

2011: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 – L
2011: USF 23, Notre Dame 20 – L
2010: Notre Dame 20, USC 16 – W
2010: Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27 – L
2010: Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31 – L
2010: Michigan 34, Notre Dame 24 – L
2009: UConn 33, Notre Dame 30 – L
2009: Navy 23, Notre Dame 21 – L

If you excuse Ronald Johnson‘s drop last November, you have to go back to Brian Smith‘s interception of Dave Shinskie with 98 seconds against Boston College in 2009 to find a close football game that the Irish won. Brian Kelly said last week that you can’t start winning before you stop losing, but expecting bad things to happen has permeated the entire culture of Notre Dame.

Whether it’s panicked fans in a live-blog with the Irish leading by two touchdowns or veteran defenders getting lost in four-deep coverage with less than 30 seconds remaining, doubt continues to creep into the Irish psyche at the most unfortunate of times. It’s spelled disaster recently, and it won’t stop until Notre Dame can start winning games at the end.

It’s a season on the brink.

In an 0-2 hole, the Irish need to find answers quickly or this season will be up in smoke quickly. We saw last year that this coaching staff won’t change their message when they reach adversity, but Kelly and his staff will look very closely at their philosophical tenants to make sure they’re doing everything they can to make sure the Irish stop beating themselves.

There’s no rational explanation for good players like Gary Gray making very bad plays. For those that look to blame coaching, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks can’t go out there and cover themselves. It’s ultimately on a group of players that have seen plenty of dark times to fight through this to the light.

“We’re not good enough,” Kelly said after the game. “When we’re better as a football team, we’ll start winning.”

All the proof Notre Dame needs that they aren’t very good sits in the Win-Loss ledger. The offense is high-powered, the defense can play stout, but all the Irish are right now is a dangerous football team. Right now, they’re doing themselves more harm than good.

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.