Toma Eifert Air Force

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Air Force

9 Comments

The offensive fireworks ruled the day yesterday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium, with both teams moving the football, but the Irish doing so with incredible efficiency in a 59-33 victory. Notre Dame’s 560 yards were the most for the Irish since they beat Washington State in San Antonio in 2009, and continues a promising trend forward for a unit that is hitting its stride at the right time.

The Irish have now gone over 500 yards in four of their six games. To put that into perspective, the 2009 Irish, led by Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, only went for 500 yards in four games the entire season, when they finished 8th in the country in total offense.

Of course, it wasn’t all gumdrops and lollipops for Notre Dame, who also gave up their most yards from scrimmage on the year. Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly in the Irish’s dominant 59-33 victory.

THE GOOD

In a game like this, we’ll go with bullet-points:

* Tommy Rees — Two straight games, he’s played turnover free football. Yesterday, he played mistake free football. Distributing the ball to nearly all of the Irish weapons, he’s continued maturing while winning football games.

* Andrew Hendrix — Add another legitimate weapon to the Irish’s offensive arsenal. Against a hobbled and undermanned Air Force defense, Hendrix got his first game experience, much needed before Southern Cal comes to town.

* Michael Floyd — Add another highlight to a career filled with them. Floyd’s 34-yard touchdown catch down the sideline opened the game with a bang, and even if his foot might have been out of bounds, it was a thing of beauty.

* Theo Riddick — Forced into the game plan early, Riddick responded with his best game of the season.

* Cierre Wood & Jonas Gray — Both running backs are embracing their roles as a two-headed monster. Gray’s averaging a ridiculous 8.4 yards a carry. Wood is averaging 108 yards a game.

* Tyler Eifert — He’s becoming Rees’ weapon of choice on third downs.

* The offensive line — This is the Irish’s best unit in over a decade. We’ll see just how good they are next week when they face a Southern Cal front that they should be able to push around.

* Jamoris Slaughter — The Irish’s defensive player of the game. Two huge plays creating turnovers shaped the football game.

* Stephon Tuitt — The freshman has showed a versatility that’s been a welcome surprise.

* Manti Te’o — Hobbled by a tweaked ankle, Te’o still played a dominant game from his linebacker position.

THE BAD

The Irish didn’t show the dominance many had hoped defensively, and they gave up a ton of yards on the edge of the defense. Harrison Smith struggled coming up the alley on the outside pitch, and too often Air Force got around the corner and picked up big yards.

While some may be skeptical of Brian Kelly and company’s game plan, their goal against the option attack was keeping points off the board, not necessarily limiting yardage.

“Option football is about keeping the points down, and that mentality is what we talked about, any time we now enter a week where we are preparing against option, yards have nothing to do with the outcome,” Kelly said. “It’s keeping the points down. And quite frankly if we don’t jump off‑side on fourth and one and if we don’t give up a fake punt, we are even lower in the points. So we were really pleased with keeping the points down.”

The Irish seemed content to play a three-man front for a ton of the game, with Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt getting the majority of the snaps in favor of Sean Cwynar. Darius Fleming played another good game, but the Irish passing defense wasn’t able to take advantage of a few 50-50 throws Tim Jefferson made, and the Irish gave up too many late down conversions.

THE UGLY

It’s pretty tough to call anything in a dominant victory like this ugly, but the Irish reserves on defense looked pretty silly getting run up and down the field against Air Force’s option in mop-up time. Of course, it’s almost expected when guys are seeing their first live action, and doing it against a scheme that’s tough to defend.

“People were asking about the touchdowns that we gave up late, that wasn’t our second unit out there. We had already played our second unit. They were part of our first unit,” Kelly explained. “We played guys that got no work against the option because they were our third. So we got a lot of guys in there, a lot of film on a lot of different guys to evaluate and that’s always a good thing.”

Of the guys that needed to see the field, the secondary was a place to really keep an eye on. Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, and Austin Collinsworth saw the field quite a bit, and they’ll need to develop as that trio will see the field a ton in the future.

“It’s great teaching material for Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth,” Kelly said. “Those guys are going to have to play for us next year. When you get an opportunity to put them in the game, it just gives you a great opportunity as a coach to teach and build off, because as I said, they are going to be in the front line for us next year.”

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
4 Comments

Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
2 Comments

In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
3 Comments

With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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)
11 Comments

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.