Jonas Gray Pitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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A second viewing of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory doesn’t add new perspective to Saturday’s win. The maddening inconsistencies that have plagued this football team still exist, rearing their ugly heads when you’d least expect it. Two turnovers, a missed field goal, and too many penalties all combine to give you a squad that has understandably driven Irish fans nuts.

At one moment, Notre Dame looks like a BCS-level team, capable of moving the ball by air or ground in big chunks, shut down quarterbacks and running backs with an impressive group of defensive players. At others, the offense is a turnover machine, the special teams are horrendous, and the secondary needs a trip back to Football 101, where covering receivers and looking for the football aren’t mutually exclusive exercises.

But that’s life at 2-2. And after two head-scratching losses, the Irish’s two least impressive offensive outputs are wins that Notre Dame absolutely had to have. Like it or not, that’s progress. And while it certainly hasn’t been pretty, Brian Kelly‘s job isn’t to win games with style points, it’s to win games. With a proven track record of getting his teams to improve throughout the year  — seen last year with the Irish’s November to remember — there’s every reason to believe that this team will work through the troubles that ail them.

A winning streak is a winning streak, and the Irish’s win in Pittsburgh was a must have. Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory.

GOOD

After struggling in short yardage situations, the Irish offensive line came up huge. In a game where the Irish needed to dominate the line of scrimmage, Ed Warinner‘s guys up front did some serious work in the trenches, winning every short-yardage battle they were presented with.

The Irish were 8 for 8 in third or fourth and short (three yards or less):

1st Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 3 — Rees hits Michael Floyd for 5 yards (Defensive holding call accepted).

2nd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Rees hits Tyler Eifert for 6 yards.

3rd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Jonas Gray runs for 4 yards.
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees runs for 1 yard.

4th Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 3 yards
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees sneaks for 1 yard.

While Irish fans watching on TV weren’t as confident, Kelly paid his offensive lineman the ultimate compliment when he trusted them to end the game on Tommy Rees‘ sneak. Interior linemen Braxston CaveChris Watt and Trevor Robinson came through, even if they only made it by half a football.

A few other things to file under the good category:

*Jonas Gray‘s burst around the corner, and confidence in the open field. I can’t say enough about the 79-yard touchdown, and after a tough first carry where Gray made a poor read on a well set-up run play, Gray turned the game on its head with his game-breaking touchdown.

* Punter Ben Turk also had his best ballgame of the season, putting three punts inside the Pitt 20 and launching another ball 47 yards. It’s hard to get too excited about a 37.2 yard punting average, but Turk did his job, and for the first time didn’t mis-kick any of his punts.

* While he didn’t break it for a touchdown, George Atkinson had another nice day returning kickoffs. His 36-yard return helped the Irish start with good field position in the second quarter.

* Repeating yesterday’s thoughts, Darius Fleming played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

THE BAD

If you’re wondering what life looks like after Michael Floyd, it might not be all that pretty. With Pitt putting two men on Floyd, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of a defense that came into the game ranked 119th against the pass. Credit the defensive game plan put together by Todd Graham and his coaching staff, but if the Irish are going to keep winning football games, they’re going to need to get more out of Theo Riddick and TJ Jones.

Riddick had a quiet six catches yesterday and Jones was held to three catches for 31 yards. Whether it means giving Robby Toma more snaps or forcing the ball into Riddick earlier to get him involved, the Irish need to get production from somebody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert. It was a disheartening step back for the Irish offense, especially against a group that had shown serious coverage lapses when they were tested.

More importantly, the Irish have to decide what kind of offense they want to be. With Rees at the helm, they aren’t able to run zone read plays where the quarterback is a running option. But that doesn’t mean they need to be a read and react offense that assesses what the defense gives and counter-punches. The Irish have already shown that while that works in spurts, it also puts way too much pressure on a young quarterback, and taking what the defense gives you only works when you don’t have a penchant for throwing interceptions.

The Irish have one of their most potent rushing attacks in nearly a decade. They also have a wide receiving corps that goes as many as five or six deep. That sets up perfectly for a push-the-pace offense that dictates terms to the defense, not the other way around. The Irish aren’t going to be an explosive offense if they play horizontal football, dinking and dunking their way down the field. And while Rees can’t beat you with a QB keeper, he throws a great ball up the seam, showing more than enough arm strength and timing to eat up chunks of field vertically.

THE UGLY

This football team still makes too many head-scratching mistakes. This week’s culprits were on special teams, where the Irish nearly cost themselves a football game with a roughing the punter penalty on sophomore Austin Collinsworth, giving Pitt a much needed first down on the Panthers’ only touchdown drive of the afternoon.

Kicking from their own end zone, Collinsworth tried to make a big play with a punt block up the middle, but dove straight into the legs of punter Matt Yoklic, who sold the refs on a 15-yard personal foul call. Whether you disagree with the refs call or not (Collinsworth barely touched the punter), the Irish haven’t shown themselves capable of making game-changing plays that require sound execution, and Mike Elston‘s unit would’ve been better served setting up for an easy return, especially considering Pitt’s mediocre kickers. Collinsworth is one of the Irish’s best special teamers, but coming right up the middle he made the cardinal sin of diving straight at the kicker and instead of the Irish starting with the ball at midfield, Tino Sunseri drove his team for their only score.

While the punt return game continues to be mediocre with John Goodman handling returns, the Irish field goal unit missed its second kick in three attempts, this one pushed wide right by David Ruffer after long-snapper Jordan Cowart‘s snap came back as a knuckleball. Cowart’s only job is to snap, and he’s been erratic this season on both punts and kicks, a real area of concern for the Irish, who need more certainty from all their special teams units.

***

Possibly the best part of this column is that the Irish come up with a win in the ugly category. The Irish were able to win a football game without playing anywhere near their best. It’s certainly not the kind of thing people were expecting four games into the season, but after starting 0-2, the Irish simply need to keep picking up Ws, regardless of how maddening it can be.

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.

***

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.