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ND vs. MSU: Final questions for Joe Rexrode

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There’s no day like today for the Irish. Win, and they’re one small step closer to digging themselves out of a serious hole. With a loss, well — Notre Dame is 0-3 and looking for some serious answers.

Even though the Irish are a five point favorite, the Spartans have won 10 of the last 14 and six of the last seven in Notre Dame Stadium. With the 1966 championship team in town trying to wake up some echoes, let’s get one more look at the Spartans from someone that follows them on a day-to-day basis.

Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal was kind enough to answer some find questions before today’s 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on NBC.

Inside the Irish: As someone who actually watched the wins over Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic, what do you make of the Spartans? They’ve made their way to No. 15 in the polls, but is that a product of last year’s record or was the on-field performances that impressive?

Joe Rexrode: The Spartans were quite unimpressive in the first week and then much better in the second week, especially on defense. It came against a bad Florida Atlantic offense, yes, but one first down and 48 yards allowed indicate a focused performance against anyone. MSU started the season at No. 17, I think based on last season’s performance and the return of some top players such as Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker, Jerel Worthy and B.J. Cunningham.

ITI: Everybody saw the Notre Dame’s collapse in the Big House last weekend. What do the Spartans make of the Irish defense, a group that has played 7 quarters of good football and one really bad one?

JR: Cousins said he considers it the defense he saw in the first three quarters at Michigan. MSU offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, asked about those coverage busts, pointed out that this week the Irish won’t have to account for the running of Denard Robinson, which should help them. I think Michigan State respects the Notre Dame defense. The last half of last season was not a fluke.

ITI: We know the Spartans have some talent at running back, but the numbers haven’t been all that impressive yet. Can they get enough out of their rebuilt offensive line against an Irish defensive front that’s much better than the two the Spartans have seen?

JR: Great question and one of the keys to this game, in my opinion. Michigan State is overflowing with talented backs, starting with Edwin Baker and continuing to Le’Veon Bell (who ran for 114 yards on 17 carries vs. the Irish a year ago). The question is the line. The Spartans are more talented and athletic up there than a year ago, but far less experienced. This matchup will go a long way in determining Saturday’s outcome.

ITI: Did you hear that Notre Dame has 1,000 yards of offense but 10 turnovers? The Spartans had a historic defensive effort last Saturday against cupcake Florida Atlantic, but faces an Irish offense that’s better than the one that put up almost 400 yards in the air last year. MSU lost some important players. What’s the key to slowing ND down?

JR: Yeah, Notre Dame obviously can move the ball but has to clean up the mistakes. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said this will be the best passing attack his defense sees all season, and that was true last year as well. One area in which the Spartans are stronger this season is pass rush, watch for sophomore end Will Gholston. But the Irish do a great job of protecting. The key for Michigan State is to get stops in the red zone, Notre Dame will definitely throw for big yards and move the ball between the 20s.

ITI: Mark Dantonio acknowledged the saltiness of this rivalry. Notre Dame clearly isn’t Michigan, but was is it about this match-up that gets the Spartans so fired up?

JR: I’ve always kind of considered this a “friendly” rivalry, and that goes back to the early 20th century when Notre Dame really helped Michigan State build its program and get into the Big Ten. Both teams hate Michigan, so they have that in common. But personally, I just think there’s an iciness between Dantonio and Brian Kelly. Kelly made some disparaging remarks about the program he inherited at Cincinnati (he inherited it from Dantonio) when he got there, and I don’t think that sat well with Dantonio. As far as MSU’s motivation for this game — hey, doesn’t everyone get up to play Notre Dame?

ITI: Everybody’s noticed that Notre Dame is a pretty significant favorite. Is Vegas off? In a rivalry that’s tilted the Spartans way lately, what does Michigan State have to do to win?

JR: I don’t think it’s wacky to make Notre Dame the favorite in this game. Despite the fact that MSU has won six of the past seven in South Bend, this is a home game, it’s clearly a talented Notre Dame team, and it’s a must-win situation. I would have expected Notre Dame by a point or two. To win, Michigan State must run the ball — the Spartans don’t need 203 yards like they got last year in this game, but they need 150 or so — win decisively in the kicking game and get some stops in the red zone against that potent offense.

***

You can read more from Joe at the Lansing State Journal, both in his columns and on his blogs. Follow him on Twitter at @LSJGreenWhite

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.