Michael Floyd 3

Pregame Six Pack: Air Force

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With the Irish in an early 0-2 hole this season, most Notre Dame fans assumed the Irish would right the ship. But history didn’t necessarily share that rosy outlook.  Seven Irish teams have stumbled out of the gates in their opening two games. Only two of the teams have come back to have winning seasons, with one coming in 1896 when the Irish rallied to a 4-3 record.

Yet Notre Dame’s Saturday date with 3-1 Air Force, set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, gives the Irish a chance to get back “on schedule” heading into the bye week. Sure, 4-2 wasn’t the start optimistic Irish fans were looking for in the six-game gauntlet the Irish had to face to open the season, but four-straight wins gives the Irish momentum heading into a much needed bye week before a certain team from Southern California comes to visit. But before any attention is turned to that October 22nd showdown, Brian Kelly‘s squad needs to take care of business for the fourth week in a row.

The match-ups looks ugly on paper. Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage, with its starting five of Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever out-weighing the Air Force defensive front by an average of sixty pounds a man. Almost just as incredibly, the Irish starting defensive line outweighs the Air Force offensive line by 35 pounds.

Of course, Air Force will never be a paper champion and the Irish have shown that being a prohibitive favorite doesn’t mean anything if you’re prone to making big mistakes. And the multiplicity of Air Force’s offense, a unit that stretches the Irish defense more than any other team on the schedule, makes Saturday afternoon’s game a riveting chess match.

But before we get to the game, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Air Force at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

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1. Air Force’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s rush defense: Something’s got to give.

Pop quiz: Of the top twenty defenses in the country against the run, there’s only one team that’s yet to play a Non-AQ or FCS opponent: Notre Dame.

That’s what makes the Irish rush defense all the more impressive. It’s also what makes the showdown between Air Force’s run game, putting up 364 yards a game and ranked 3rd in the country, so absolutely intriguing.

The catalyst for it all is senior running back Asher Clark. The All-Mountain West running back has averaged 5.7 yards a carry the last two seasons, but has taken his game to the next level this year, averaging 9.3 yards per carry this year on 41 carries.

We’ve already charted it out, but the guys at One Foot Down did some nice work off of my breakdown. Irish opponents are running for just 36.5% of their average rushing yards. If Air Force only runs for 132 yards on Saturday, expect the Irish to win pretty convincingly.

2. “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.”

Saturday afternoon will be a special one for Don and Kim Niklas. They’ll watch their son Austin, a junior linebacker for Air Force battle their son Troy, a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. With the brothers competing against each other for one of the first times in their lives, it’s not surprising that Austin is getting tactical.

“I’ve been trying to call him, but he hasn’t been calling me back,” Troy said.

The two brothers certainly are contrasts in styles. Lightly recruited out of Orange Country powerhouse Servite High, Austin took a late recruiting visit to Air Force and committed just before signing day. Troy was the Los Angeles Times’ defensive lineman of the year, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete had his choice of schools around the country before pulling the trigger for the Irish.

While Troy certainly traveled the more heralded path to college, it’s pretty clear that he’s continued to look up to his brother, even if that’s physically impossible for a guy now four inches taller.

“Every time I see him, I remember how proud I am to be his little brother,” Niklas said. “I know he busts his butt every day. I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force and for choosing to serve our country. Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day – it is the Air Force Academy and it’s not easy to play football and have a large course-load.”

(If you don’t know the quote, shame on you.)

3. Expect to see a change of pace quarterback get into the football game.

Brian Kelly gave a good scoop to his radio show listeners on Thursday night when answering a now weekly question about his still unused quarterbacks sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.

“We’re going to employ a special package with somebody, but I’m not going to tell you who,” Kelly said. “It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix. We’re going to let you come to the game Saturday and see for yourself.”

If the Irish do finally turn to one of their dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see a dose of running from either Hendrix or Golson. And after spending spring, summer and fall camp with the two quarterbacks, Kelly has tailored his game plan to finally allow one of them to see the field.

“They have some outstanding skill-sets but they don’t have the whole offense down,” Kelly said. “So what we’ve decided to do is not give them the whole thing. We’ve really tried to segment out some things that they can handle because when you put them in you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”

If you’re taking odds on who the quarterback’s going to be, Kelly may have already given that answer away.

At the radio show, Kelly declined to mention what quarterback was spending time playing Tim Jefferson this week, citing the fact that the quarterback who did that spent all his time with the scout team and didn’t work with the No. 1 offense, making him unlikely to see the field. But earlier in the week, Kelly mentioned that Everett Golson was turning heads playing Jefferson against the number one defense.

Unless Kelly’s really coy, expect to get your first dose of Andrew Hendrix on Saturday.

4. The special teams needle points strongly in Air Force’s direction.

If there’s a facet of the football game where the Irish are dangerously out-matched, it’s in special teams. The Falcons third-segment might be one of the strongest in the nation and should stretch the Irish in an area where they’ve struggled to do just about anything right.

Looking for reasons to worry? Notre Dame has struggled kicking field goals and Air Force has already blocked three kicks this year. Air Force is averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and the Irish are a woeful 117th defending them. Add to that wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka already has two 100-yard kickoff returns to his name, and Kelly needs his whole coaching staff to pick up the slack.

“I think we all know on the other end which players have to play better,” Kelly said. “But we have to coach better too. This is not just on Mike Elston. He can’t run that whole group by himself. He’s got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it and they have to coach better, and we have to get more out of our guys.”

From a personnel standpoint, both Elston and Kelly hinted that changes are coming. The Irish will be looking to add better speed and talent to help spring a punt return and also have been looking for alternatives in their anemic punt return game.

“We’ve got a couple other people lined up along with John Goodman,” Kelly said. “There’s a good chance you’ll see a couple of different guys out there for punt return.”

5. A week after Ricardo Allen took his shot, Anthony Wright is up to challenge Michael Floyd. 

Troy Calhoun’s too smart of a coach to announce it, but expect senior cornerback Anthony Wright to follow Michael Floyd around the field this Saturday. While it didn’t work for Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, Wright feels like he’s game.

“He’s a great player,” Wright told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “But I’m a great player, too.”

At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Wright doesn’t profile well in his quest to cover Floyd, who presents another match-up nightmare for Air Force. But it’s hard to find anybody that can physically match-up with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd, a guy that absolutely had his way in both the passing and running game last Saturday against one of Purdue’s most talented players.

“If I’m matched up against him, I’m going to try to be the best corner in the country on Saturday, against arguably the best receiver in the country,” Wright said.

How Air Force tries to take Floyd away could be the early story of the game. When tasked with getting Floyd involved in the game plan early, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees look early and often for Floyd, using the senior receiver in different ways and finding him on the second play of the game for a long touchdown reception.

Floyd’s not the only guy capable of catching passes for the Irish, who also have mismatches in guys like Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. It’s just up to them to keep pace with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver.

6. The Irish’s ability to play a two-gap defense is a thing of beauty.

With Louis Nix in the middle, and defensive ends like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson (who is a game-time decision on Saturday after taking off his walking boot), the Irish are capable of playing a true two-gap defense, something that Troy Calhoun really admired.

“What’s hard to find and see in college football in this day and age are bodies big enough against these offensive lines to stand up and play two-gap defensive football and yet they do it,” Calhoun said of the Irish defense. “I think by and large, when you look at the NFL and you look at college football, there are so few teams that truly try to play at least 30 snaps a game in two-gap defense. I think more people are inclined to line a guy up and say I have this gap, in between the guard and the tackle or the center and the guard,and I’m going to nest in there and I’m going to find a way to generate penetration, I’m not going to get cut off, I’m not going to get reach. It’s amazing what they do with the two gap scheme, not only with their defensive ends but their outside linebackers. It goes back to having talented players, and they’re briefed and they’re prepared.”

Of course, just because the Irish can play a two-gap front doesn’t mean they’ll do it against Air Force. The amount of responsibility that falls on young players like sophomores Nix and Prince Shembo and freshmen Troy Niklas, Ishaq WilliamsStephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch might make holding the point of attack while reading the offense difficult.

Kelly has already mentioned that Johnson is shifting inside on the defensive line, making you think a guy like Darius Fleming might line up opposite Lewis-Moore in a four man front. If the Irish do, they’ll need to make sure the Irish play sound option principles while keeping their defensive backs ready for the play-action passing game, something Jefferson has been incredibly efficient with.

Don’t think for one minute that the Air Force coaching staff hasn’t seen the tape of Gary Gray struggling to get his head around in single coverage. Expect a deep shot early on Gray, and it’ll be up to the senior corner who has been in good position throughout his struggles, to adapt his technique and look back for the football.

 

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.

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.