Jonas Gray Air Force

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33

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On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in South Bend, the Irish offense sprinted out to an early lead and never looked back, scoring 59 points — 42 of them in the first half alone — as Notre Dame rolled to a 59-33 win over the Air Force Academy. On a Saturday where sunshine and blue skies provided a perfect setting for football, Brian Kelly‘s offensive juggernaut did its best to one-up the weather, no small feat in early October.

Just how impressive were the Irish offensively in the first half? Consider these six touchdown drives:

  • Eight plays for 81 yards in 2:47 on their first drive. Michael Floyd with the touchdown catch.
  • Nine plays for 59 yards in 3:33 on their second drive. Tyler Eifert with the touchdown catch.
  • Four plays for 51 yards in 1:41 on their third drive. Robby Toma with the touchdown catch.
  • Five plays for 38 yards in 2:02 on their fourth drive. Jonas Gray with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 44 yards in 2:21 on their fifth drive. Cierre Wood with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 7 yards in 1:06 on their sixth drive. Theo Riddick with the touchdown catch.

That’s six first half drives and six touchdowns, each capped off by six different players.

“We’ve got very good diversity within our offense,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re hard to defend right now.”

Hard to defend might be an understatement, as the Irish racked up 59 points, the most points scored by an Irish team since Lou Holtz‘s 62-0 blasting of Rutgers in his final game in Notre Dame Stadium.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 59-33 victory over Air Force.

1. The Irish have put together a devastating rushing attack.

With Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray giving the Irish their best one-two combination since Ryan Grant and Julius Jones, Notre Dame has balance on offense like they haven’t had in a very long time. The Irish racked up 266 rushing yards, continuing a string of impressive games. The Irish have run for 735 yards over the last three wins, their most in a three-game span since 2003. And the best thing about it? It was quarterback Andrew Hendrix that led the team in rushing, with 111 yards.

The Irish ran for a gaudy 9.2 yards per carry, numbers that would have been even better if the Irish didn’t run for just seven yards on their final seven carries of the afternoon. Take those runs out and the Irish ran for 259 yards on 22 carries, roughly 12 yards a carry. To put it into context, Julius Jones ran for 262 yards on 24 carries in his record-setting performance against Pitt in 2003. The Irish didn’t need to put the weight on one man’s back, and with Wood and Gray carrying the load, and Hendrix adding a zone-read wrinkle into the mix, the Irish’s offense — led by some incredible work up front by Ed Warinner‘s troops — did some devastating work.

“The pieces are starting to come together for us,” Kelly said of the offensive balance. “We’re getting there. It starts really with the running game and the ability to run the football.”

2. Andrew Hendrix adds a new dimension to the offense. And he makes Tommy Rees better.

Kelly hinted at it earlier this week, and sophomore Andrew Hendrix’s debut at quarterback was about as impressive as you could ask for. Hendrix was perfect throwing the football, operated from six different formations while running the ball with conviction, only stopping himself when he ran out of gas at the one-yard line on a 78-yard scamper.

Used as a change of pace quarterback while mixing in with Tommy Rees, Hendrix gave the Irish offense another running look while also keeping defenses honest with some efficient passing. It’s all part of a plan installed to evolve the offensive gameplan and use Hendrix’s skillset to make Rees even better.

“Andrew does not have all of the grasp on the offense that he needs,” Kelly said. “But he certainly is somebody that can go in the game and do good things.

“A lot of this has been crafted towards how do we make Tommy Rees a better quarterback, instead of Andrew Hendrix just being out there. Now there’s so much versatility in which you have to defend.”

Kelly made it clear that Dayne Crist is still the No. 2 quarterback for the Irish. But after five games of wondering whether or not the Irish would use a change of pace quarterback, they rolled out the blueprint for how they want to use Hendrix, and he executed perfectly.

3. With a near perfect day, the maturation of Tommy Rees continues.

After struggling to keep the ball in the offense’s hands, Rees continues a run of really impressive play. The sophomore quarterback completed 23 of 32 passes for 261 yards, throwing four touchdowns to four different receivers in the first half — joining Brady Quinn as the only other Irish quarterback to ever throw for four scores in the game’s first thirty minutes.

“He’s growing as he goes here,” Kelly said of his sophomore quarterback. “I keep reminding you guys and hopefully you’ll start listening to me. He’s 8-1 as a starter and he continues to grow and develop and we are seeing that maturity.”

For a second straight game, Rees wasn’t sacked. And with time in the pocket, he showed his ability to be the perfect distributor for Kelly’s passing offense, finding seven different receivers and moving the Irish close to flawlessly throughout the afternoon.

The Irish converted 8 of 11 third downs, a devastating stat for Air Force, and identified just about all of Air Force’s exotic attempts to bring pressure. More importantly, he took care of the football — forcing only one or two balls into tight windows and making proper reads when he had one-on-one opportunities.

Rees has done plenty to show that he’s a capable pilot for the Irish’s offensive attack, but nothing more important than eliminating mistakes when the Irish had chances to put points on the board, and being more efficient in the scoring zone.

“I think a lot of it was on me not finishing drives,” Rees said after the game. “I really took it upon myself, just to make sure we are limiting mistakes. We have been so good between the 20s, so for us to go out two weeks in a row and capitalize on opportunities is a good feeling.”

With USC on the horizon, Rees will now have two weeks to prepare for a defense that forced the then freshman into the worst game of his Irish career.

4. The Irish offense gave the USC coaching staff plenty to talk about.

If you’re wondering why it seemed like Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar all but emptied the playbook against Air Force, it might be because they’ve got a special opponent coming up in two Saturdays. With the Trojans off this Saturday, Lane Kiffin and company had all afternoon to watch Notre Dame run all over the field, establishing various weapons and give a leaky Trojan defense even more to think about.

While he didn’t get the opportunity to return one, we saw Michael Floyd back to receive punts. After not running the ball with Theo Riddick all season, we saw Riddick pick up a nice gain on a reverse, and lead the team with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Empty set formations with five wide? Option pass plays? Kelly showed a variety of new looks, which stumped Air Force’s defense, but also added a few more hours to the next Trojan film session.

As the Irish reach the halfway point of the season, it’s clear they’ll head into a prime-time affair with USC armed with an offense that has multiple ways to hurt you and a second quarterback that will provide plenty of problems for defensive coordinators.

“I really couldn’t tell you,” Kelly responded when asked if Hendrix’s big game means more snaps in the weeks to come. “All I know is you’re going to have to defend him because he’s pretty good.”

Precisely why Kelly waited to reveal him this week.

5. There are still plenty of questions about Notre Dame’s ability to stop the option.

Now to the not-so-pretty part. The Irish really struggled defending Air Force’s offense. The Falcons came into Saturday with the No. 12 offense in the country, averaging just over 513 yards a game. They actually improved on that number, putting up 565 yards to the Irish’s 560, and ran the ball for a staggering 363 yards, nearly identical to their average total on the season.

Without Ethan Johnson, the Irish were forced to use a lot of Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, and the duo combined for six tackles, with Lynch contributing just one assisted tackle on the afternoon, while also getting flagged for a major penalty and a major screw-up, jumping offside on a 4th down field goal attempt that gave the Falcons a first down and a touchdown on the ensuing play.

Bob Diaco‘s game plan consisted of moving Jamoris Slaughter down into the box, replacing Prince Shembo in the base defense. The move worked, and Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform. He made a highlight reel interception and forced a fumble on the first defensive play of the game, supplying just what the Irish needed with two huge turnovers in a game where turnover margin was the most important stat of the day.

Yet the Irish also got gashed by both the option and the zone read, with Asher Clark running for 102 yards on just 11 carries, and the Falcons averaging 6.1 yards a carry on 60 runs. Harrison Smith led the Irish with 12 tackles, but struggled to come up and play support on the option pitch, missing a number of tackles. Manti Te’o was the lone bright spot in the option game, playing under control, making 2.5 tackles-for-loss to go along with his ten stops and one pass breakup.

Sure, Air Force racked up a ton of yardage in the games final minutes when the score was long out of hand. But Air Force converted a ridiculous five of five on fourth-down gambles and Tim Jefferson looked good completing several big passes for first downs. The Falcons present a challenge even Navy can’t replicate, but Diaco’s troops haven’t shown the ability to stop an option attack consistently. While the gamble with Slaughter was a good one, keeping Prince Shembo on the sideline, limiting Sean Cwynar’s snaps and using freshman Chase Hounshell for the first time after burning Kona Schwenke’s eligibility just a week ago are decisions that some people might question.

But with the Irish moving to 4-2 and riding a four-game winning streak into an off-week, the Irish’s impressive drubbing of Air Force showed one thing quite clearly: The most effective defense against a great option attack is a good offense.

The Irish showed that in spades.

 

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.