Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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What a difference a week makes. Irish fans didn’t quite know what to make of last weekend’s game: an annual rivalry, a game the Irish usually don’t fare well in, and Las Vegas somehow favoring Notre Dame by almost a touchdown even though they were the team with an 0-2 record and Michigan State was undefeated and ranked No. 15 in the country.

Well the wise guys in Sin City are once again making a heavy move for the Irish, with the line opening with ND favored by 3.5 point only to double in hours. The Irish are a touchdown favorite against a Pitt team that’s a fourth quarter collapse away from being undefeated. Once again, there are still plenty of Irish fans waiting to jump back on the Notre Dame bandwagon. After years of being the worst bet in town, the Irish are now Vegas’ darling.

As we do every week, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Pittsburgh at 12:00 p.m. ET. (Join us for our live blog!)

1. For those complaining about Tommy Rees’ turnovers, you’re forgetting how football works.

There’s been a lot of bellyaching over sophomore Tommy Rees‘ rash of turnovers this season. His hometown newspaper, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch has a nice feature on the new leading man at Notre Dame, and it looks at the “Good Tommy, Bad Tommy” phenomenon.

“He plays a good role. We don’t expect Tommy to be vocal guy,” said Floyd, predicted by many to be a 2012 first-round draft choice. “I put that on my hands to do that job. We just want to make sure Tommy gets the ball and does the right things and eliminates mistakes.”

Rees detractors — and there are many amongst Irish fans – -will reframe the debate around Floyd’s last comment. Consider this — in 10 quarters of play this season, Rees has turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two lost fumbles).

This burgeoning demon reared its ugly head in the first quarter against the Spartans when Rees fumbled and threw an interception on back-to-back drives. The “oh, here we go again” chorus inside Notre Dame stadium was as loud as the pre-game one for “God Bless America.”

But that’s life with a young quarterback. When Brian Kelly pulled the quick hook on Dayne Crist‘s season, he did so knowing that Rees would make youthful mistakes, but that the good would out-weigh the bad.

For those ready to get rid of Rees, let’s take a quick look back at Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, two quarterbacks that turned out to be some of the better players in Notre Dame history. We’ll compare all three’s first seven starts, and then their sophomore numbers:

Brady Quinn:

First Seven Starts: 121 of 258 (47%) 5 TD, 11 INT, 86.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 3-4
Sophomore Season: 191 of 353 (54%) 17 TD, 10 INT, 125.9 QB Rating. W/L Record: 6-6

Jimmy Clausen:

First Seven Starts: 99 of 175 (56%) 4 TD, 5 INT, 93.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-6
Sophomore Season: 268 of 440 (61%) 25 TD, 17 INT, 132.5 QB Rating. W/L Record: 7-6

Tommy Rees*:

First Seven Starts: 139 of 220 (63%) 16 TD, 10 INT, 138.7 QB Rating. W/L Record: 5-2
Sophomore Season: 69 of 99 (70%) 6 TD, 5 INT, 145.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-1

*Stats include the Tulsa game as a start.

It’s pretty easy to see by just about every measure you can think of, Rees is off to a much better pace than the two other guys that have rewritten the Notre Dame passing record books. As you can tell by Tommy’s sophomore season, his efficiency is so impressive in spite of his interceptions, mostly powered by a near 70 percent completion percentage. Nobody wants to see interceptions and fumbles. It’s just what you get when you go with an inexperienced quarterback. What separates Rees is what he does when he’s not turning it over.

2. Paging Darius Fleming, Darius Fleming, the Irish defense requests your help.

With a season at Cat linebacker under his belt, everybody thought senior linebacker Darius Fleming was primed for a big final season at Notre Dame. That included his head coach:

“He’ll be one of the more explosive players in the country this year,” Kelly said. “He’s just comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot,’ now he flows to that spot. It’s a big difference.”

That explosion hasn’t showed up yet, with Fleming struggling to produce with dual-threat quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Denard Robinson neutralizing one of the Irish’s best pass rushing threats.

After two games, Kelly wasn’t ready to praise Fleming’s productivity. But after his best Saturday of the year, Kelly is hopeful his senior linebacker is ready to elevate his game.

“He had his best game of the year,” Kelly said. “Last week I was asked about him. I think my comments were ‘Good, not great.’ We have a high bar for him. He played great. He played his best game of the year. One time is an accident I told him. Twice, you know you’re trending in the right direction. Hopefully we see it again.”

In many ways, Fleming’s poor play hurts both linebacker positions because it’s also keeping Prince Shembo away from the Cat linebacker position, somewhere he’s a better fit for because of his natural pass rush ability. (Now, Shembo spends most snaps standing half-way in the slot of the field side.) Fleming struggled to get out of the gates last year as well but rallied. Let’s see if Darius does so against a Pitt offensive line that’s dreadful against pass rushes.

3. Aaron Lynch might just be getting started.

You’ve got to love Aaron Lynch. The freshman defensive end showed his age when he mistakenly answered a question about Pittsburgh’s suspect pass blocking honestly.

Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated has more:

When Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch met with the media this Wednesday, he was asked about a Pitt offense that ranked 114th in sacks allowed per game (4.0). Most notably, FCS opponent Maine had recorded seven against the Panthers in its 35-29 defeat on Sept. 10.

When asked about those figures, Lynch responded honestly and directly.

“I’m not down on Maine or anything, but I know Notre Dame’s pass rush defense with all the guys we have is more dominant … it makes us happy to know that another team got seven, so that just builds us up to like we’re going to get 10 or 12,” Lynch said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Oops, a classic rookie mistake. Several feet away, Notre Dame’s director of football media operations, Brian Hardin, cringed and shook his head. The proper and politically correct response would have been, “We have great respect for Pitt and we know they have a great offensive line.”

Ten or twelve sacks would be a miracle afternoon for the Irish. But after analyzing Lynch’s effort last Saturday, maybe a historic performance isn’t that far away.

Early in the week, we took a closer look at Lynch’s impressive Saturday, an afternoon where one sack could’ve just as easily been three or four if it weren’t for veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ quick trigger. I mentioned that Lynch’s six quarterback hurries were better than the entire Irish defense in every game but Utah last year. Lynch’s six quarterback hurries would also have been good for a season-high last year, besting Fleming, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who each had five QB hurries to tie for the team lead in all of 2010.

4. With Irish punt returns, expect the unexpected. Especially this Saturday.

Don’t worry, the Irish won’t plan on muffing another punt on Saturday, with Theo Riddick and John Goodman already coughing up the football at really inopportune times. With four guys in the running to return punts — Riddick, Goodman, Robby Toma and Harrison Smith — Kelly’s also taking into consideration some of the tweaks the Panthers run in their standard punt return game.

“They’ll be times when we don’t have a punt returner in punting situations on the field because they leave the quarterback on the field so we’ve got to be prepared for that,” Kelly said. “We’ve had Harrison Smith back there in case we obviously get into a situation where we believe they’re going to punt for sure. It’s rather deceptive in a sense that they take the quarterback and only move him back a couple of yards so you really can’t tell if they’re running an offensive play. So we’ll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when the quarterback is still on the field.”

For those of you that have been asking for a way to just keep a return man away from the ball, Tulsa’s tricky scheme might just be the answer to your prayers.

5. The battle on Saturday might not just be on the football field. It might make its way up to the pressbox, too.

Along with long-time Big East member Syracuse, Pitt shocked the college sports world with the announcement that the two teams would be leaving the Big East and joining the ACC, setting off another flurry of madness that had the college football world on nuclear alert until Larry Scott and the Pac-12 told the rest of the country to stand down.

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noticed that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — as he was last year — was right in the middle of things. Only this time, Swarbrick voiced his displeasure over Pitt chancellor Mark Dordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson‘s decision to abandon the Big East to USA Today.

Here’s what Swarbrick said:

“I don’t understand it. How do you vote as a collegiate president on something that has the potential to provide some benefit for your institution and the conference you’re affiliated with but has a very negative consequence for a host of other members of the academy, as presidents like to call it? I’d like to know how much of these discussions are: What’s right? What is the best thing for the larger enterprise, and how many other schools would be adversely impacted?” Swarbrick went on to criticize Nordenberg for taking a leadership position in fighting to keep the Big East together and “with no notice to anybody, abandoning it. That’s hard to understand in the context of an industry in which collegiality and integrity are supposed to be such key parts.”

Cook doesn’t seem to like Swarbrick’s comments. More from the Pittsburgh columnist:

It’s pretty hard to get too upset with Marinatto. His conference was left for dead as a football league with the Pitt and Syracuse defections. Of course, he’s going to be bitter. Beyond that, blaming someone else is a lot easier than looking in the mirror and seeing a weak leader staring back, a weak leader who showed no signs of being able to keep the Big East together. Michael Tranghese and Dave Gavitt — great Big East commissioners before him — he is not.

But offensive and preposterous don’t even begin to describe Swarbrick’s remarks. How dare he criticize any other university’s leadership for looking after its school’s best interests? He and his Notre Dame bosses aren’t the least bit interested in any “larger enterprise.” They care only about Notre Dame’s bottom line. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. Any of us in their position would do the same thing. But it does make Swarbrick a hypocrite. I repeat: How dare he?

The Big East has been good to Notre Dame. It has given it a home for its men’s and women’s basketball teams and its Olympic sports teams while allowing it to keep its independent status in football. That’s enabled Notre Dame to retain all of its television money from its NBC contract instead of dividing it evenly with conference partners. Remember, the Notre Dame leaders are stone cold, bottom-line people. Clearly, they don’t like to share.

If Notre Dame officials cared about the Big East, they could have saved it by joining as a football member. If that had happened, there’s no doubt the Big East would be a heavyweight in the college game. Pitt and Syracuse wouldn’t have left. Other schools — maybe, just maybe, even Penn State — would be fighting to join. That’s the clout that Notre Dame has.

It’s clear that Swarbrick might have kicked a hornet’s nest or two in the Steel City, but both sides of this argument have some validity. Swarbrick and about a million other rational people are wondering if university chancellors and leaders are really as greedy as they seem, willing to tip over decades of tradition and put college sports into upheaval just to chase more money for their school, all while leaving decades-long partners in a lurch. Cook and other Big East supporters have long bristled at the Irish’s arrangement with the Big East, a seemingly one-sided partnership that gives Irish sports a home while still keeping football independent. It’s true that Swarbrick’s likely making his point loud and clear because he’s against the kind of upheaval that’ll force the Irish to give up their football independence and pick a conference for all sports.

That said, Notre Dame — even without football — has done plenty to help the Big East. To say any differently would be ignoring a lot of truths.

6. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… No! Not a Jumbotron!

Relax Irish fans, Brian Kelly really doesn’t have a vote. But for all those traditionalists out there, the time is coming sooner than you’d like to believe. And if it were up to the head coach, a Jumbotron will be coming to Notre Dame Stadium.

Brian Hamilton explains:

“I think it enhances obviously the game experience more than anything else,” Kelly said during his weekly radio show Thursday night. “I’m not afraid to say it’s a great addition because it creates a great atmosphere in the stadium.

“As well as (promoting) your brand — I thought one of the nice things Michigan did was that the scoreboard did not have any advertising. It just had their brand on there. So, yeah, count me in favor of that. But as I’ve said many times before, they’re not going to be polling me as to whether we get a Jumbotron or not.”

Genuine or not, Kelly insisted this was merely a commentary on the times and not a hand-tipping.

“I don’t have any inside information on this, but I would be surprised if we didn’t have a Jumbotron at some time in Notre Dame Stadium,” Kelly said. “Everybody is watching TV, you’ve got superconferences and all kinds of things going. If you’re going to stay in this arena, I’m sure things will change. It’s just going to take some time.”

After the Irish’s game in Yankee Stadium last season and seeing the new video boards in Michigan Stadium, there’s a ton of support inside the Notre Dame athletic department for a Jumbotron, something that’d truly enhance the stadium experience and go a long way toward keeping the home fans engaged and enthusiastic.

There will always be those “old school” fans that hate the idea, but nobody is asking to use the video screen like USC does at the Coliseum, screeching out commercials and advertisements at decibel levels nearly inhumane. With the Irish’s digital assets looking better and better as the years go by (take a look at UND.com’s new videos if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it only makes more sense to join the 21st century by installing a tastefully done video screen (and some field turf).

Nobody wants to adorn Touchdown Jesus in Ed Hardy, they just want to make Saturday afternoon a better experience. If that gets fans up from sitting on their hands, even the biggest curmudgeons in ND Nation shouldn’t have a problem with that.

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.