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.”

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.