Robert Blanton

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.