Kelly and Blanton

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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In a series of games that have seen close wins by both Michigan State and Notre Dame, the Irish finally were able to pull off an impressive victory — something that’s been few and far between these past 15 years. After dominating the Spartans in every phase of the game, it’s finally time to find the good, bad and ugly of a football game that still ultimately ends up in the good column.

With the Irish dominating the run game, relentlessly chasing Kirk Cousins in the pocket and creating a big play on special teams, Notre Dame found the winning recipe on Saturday, even while struggling to shrug off some of the mistakes that have plagued the team in these first three games.

As the season passes the quarter turn, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans.

THE GOOD:

The Irish rush defense. After trying to play assignment perfect defense for the first two weeks of the season, the Irish went back to just trying to dominate a segment of the opposition, turning the Spartans one-dimensional with an aggressive attacking scheme at the line of scrimmage. The result was a Michigan State running game stuck in neutral and Cousins forced to chuck the ball 53 times, a recipe for disaster with an offensive line like the Spartans.

After looking at the game tape, Brian Kelly continues to see the impressive work he’s getting from newcomer Louis Nix, who has elevated his game with Sean Cwynar limited with a hand injury that forces him to cast resembling a club on his hand.

The play of Nix and defense ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, gives the Irish a nearly 1,000 pound three-man front that has the ability to wreak havoc. Kelly talked about what stood out on film after watching the tape of the defense’s work.

“We got really good play at the nose. I think when you talk about Nix and getting Cwynar back, that position was really strong for us on Saturday,” Kelly said. “I think we always talk about it, but both of our defensive ends were able to take on some big tackles at Michigan State. Ethan and Kap played very well against the run. Troy Niklas who came in as a true freshman kept the ball inside of them.”

The Irish gave up some plays in the passing game, but after two straight games of reading and reacting, it seemed like Bob Diaco and the Irish coaching staff wanted to dictate terms to the offense, and the results were encouraging.

THE BAD:

The Irish punt teams might be historically bad. With a nice day punting, Ben Turk moved up to 104th in the country in punting average. His rugby punts in particular might be something to build off when getting Turk’s confidence back in order. Still, Turk’s punts have consistently put the Irish on the wrong side of the field far too often.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish are the 111th ranked punt return team, and that doesn’t take into account the damage Theo Riddick and John Goodman‘s muffed punts did with potentially game-changing turnovers. Notre Dame is averaging less than one yard a return (0.70 to be exact), and it’s been a comedy of errors just getting Irish returners to master simple concepts like catching the ball or calling for a fair catch.

The sure-handed Goodman is allowed to have brain farts like he did against Michigan — not fair-catching a punt he should have, calling for one when he had 20 yards of grass in front of him on another, and running backwards and laterally on a third, if he at least catches the ball. With a crucial fourth quarter punt going through his wickets on Saturday, he’s not proving that he can’t be trusted to do that. Kelly has already turned to freshman George Atkinson on kickoff returns. It’s only a matter of time before he gives Cam McDaniel his shot on punts.

Turk’s short punts have also been low, helping to push the Irish into the 112th ranked team in covering punt returns, with Notre Dame yielding an astronomical 27.5 yards a return. Mike Elston‘s troops were a top 25 unit last year, so this is bound to get better, but the combination of shoddy coverage and mediocre kicking points out two units in dire need of improvement.

THE UGLY:

With amateurism under attack in places like Auburn, Columbus, Eugene, Los Angeles and Miami, the NCAA has taken great pains to up enforcement and compliance as schools work to keep illicit money out of the pockets of student athletes. Yet at the same time, the presidents and athletic directors making sure scholarship athletes aren’t taking advantage of the system are hellbent on doing the exact same thing, throwing tradition and affiliations to the wind and blowing up conferences at the first glimpse of a new television contract.

On a Saturday filled with intriguing match-ups, there’s something terribly wrong with the leadership in collegiate athletics when the wheeling-and-dealing off the field is stealing headlines from the players on it. When a top-five match-up between Oklahoma and Florida State is page two news behind Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving the Big East for the ACC and its television riches, there’s something very wrong with a system that’s buckling down on players’ indiscretions while the grownups are imploding the history of the game for a quick buck.

As Brian Kelly commented about his team’s long awaited first victory, he also needed to field questions about the Irish’s cherished independent status, now thrown back into flux as pieces begin to shift that could change collegiate athletics’ landscape forever. Those changes could potentially push Notre Dame into a conference in football, with four super-conferences possibly on the horizon.

Being tasked with winning football games, keeping track of 85 players, and running a clean program should be enough for college football coaches. They shouldn’t have to keep an eye on their bosses as they blow up the status quo in search of more money.

Path to the Draft: Nick Martin

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a six-yard touchdown run by C.J. Prosise against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Part four of the series. See earlier work on Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith. 

 

NICK MARTIN
No. 50 overall to the Houston Texans

While it feels like Nick Martin’s path to Notre Dame was destiny, it’s worth pointing out that it took until his recruitment’s final weeks to even get him to commit to the Irish. Even with brother Zack fresh off an impressive redshirt freshman season as a starting left tackle, Nick was a solid commit to Kentucky, where the Martin brothers’ father Keith played his college football in the 1980s.

But as Notre Dame’s coaching staff saw the early returns on their inherited left tackle they also saw something worth gambling on with brother Nick. And while it took a while to make an official offer, it didn’t take long to realize it was a very good idea.

So five years and four seasons of captaincy later (not to mention a mantel full of lineman of the year trophies), the Martin brothers leave Notre Dame with a special legacy in place. If you saw that challenge coming at the beginning of the Brian Kelly era, head out and buy a lottery ticket.

A late offer and addition by the Irish coaching staff, Martin flew below the radar in a 2011 recruiting class that was heralded by analysts, but had just as many hits and misses. But on Signing Day, even if fellow classmates Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch were the headliners and fellow lineman Matt Hegarty came in with more pedigree, head coach Brian Kelly saw the traits and demeanor that played out in Martin’s five seasons in South Bend.

“The common theme here with the offensive linemen is their ability to move,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He’s got really good athletic ability, and he finishes off blocks. He’s got a demeanor again. That offensive line demeanor for us is the way they play the game. And he plays it very, very well.”

Kelly sprinkled a few other lineman buzz words when describing Martin’s play—brawler and athleticism noted—while also throwing in the prerequisite, “his brother’s not bad, either.” And while Kelly was wrong in one regard, Nick didn’t end up playing tackle as projected, the slide inside to center now appears to be the template Kelly and Harry Hiestand have followed on their way to developing interior offensive linemen.

Martin’s ascent followed a traditional path. A redshirt season. Limited time as a sophomore, serving as a backup tackle and special teams contributor in 2012.

But after needing to replace Braxston Cave at center heading into 2013, the move of Martin to center helped bring the look of the line into focus, with his size, strength and athleticism helping trigger the running game. Martin starting the first 11 games of the season at center before suffering a knee injury.

That knee injury wreaked havoc with Martin’s lower-body strength for all of 2014. A hand injury forced him to move from center to guard, versatility that paid dividends as he displayed multi-position ability but also a tremendous amount of toughness playing at less than 100 percent.

Martin’s return to center was a logical decision for the coaching staff. So much so that they understood why Matt Hegarty would transfer as a graduate instead of stick around and back-up Martin or compete for playing time with Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer. With the two-time captain’s strength back for his final season, even battling a high ankle sprain, Martin played like one of the country’s best centers, the second off the board in the draft behind Alabama’s Ryan Kelly.

That body of work—not to mention the pedigree Martin brings with an All-Pro brother already an anchor in the league—weighed into the decision by the Houston Texans to trade a sixth-round pick to move up a few slots and select Martin.

“I think you know from my history, I put stock in careers, I put stock in leadership, I put stock in a lot of those things and Nick certainly has those,” Texans GM Rick Smith said. “He’s got pedigree, he has an NFL pedigree, so he’s been around it.

“We just really feel like he adds to our offensive line group. He’s a guy that can come right in, he’s a plug-and-play guy, he’ll compete right away we think, so we’re happy to get him.”

Smith quipped that it pained him as a Purdue guy to spend the team’s first two draft picks on Notre Dame players. But as the Texans try to get their offense up to speed with other Super Bowl contenders, they’ll lean on two former Irish stars to make it happen.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.

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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.