Floyd Navy

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14

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With a tip of the cap to Mark Twain, perhaps the reports of Notre Dame’s internal revolt were greatly exaggerated. With much of the last 36 hours dedicated to rumors of a potential implosion inside the Irish locker room, the squad united quickly, putting together their most complete performance of the year as they demolished Navy 56-14 on Saturday afternoon.

“You saw a team that played together,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I told our team that’s the best collection of plays relative to all 11 players playing together.”

A week after Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for only nine carries, the Irish ran for a staggering seven touchdowns on Saturday afternoon, with Gray running for three and Wood rushing for two.

After losing the past two years to Navy, the Irish put up an astounding 56 points against the Midshipmen while holding them to only 229 yards of total offense. It was the most points for the Irish against Navy since 1994 and the 42 point win was the largest margin of victory since 1987.

Thanks to a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, the Irish righted a ship that seemed to be teetering this week. Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s dominant 56-14 victory over Navy.

After an embarrassing Saturday, the Irish just needed to get back on the field.

Nobody inside the Notre Dame football program felt good about last weekend’s performance against USC. After spending a week beating themselves up, they took out their frustrations on Navy.

“They whipped our butts today,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Irish’ 42 point victory. “Not going to make any excuses. That’s my 14th team playing Notre Dame, and that’s the most full butt-whipping. Coach Kelly did a great job getting his guys ready, bouncing back after the USC game. They cam prepared and focused and they got after us in all three phases. They got after us offensively, defensively and special teams. Just a total butt whipping.”

We’ll find out what this afternoon’s performance means, but if it’s any indication, a difficult week of practice and some harsh realities simply put this football team in a bad mood and very eager to prove some doubters wrong.

From the opening series of the game, it was clear the Irish brought incredible intensity to the field, and after stopping a 12-play Navy drive to start the game, the Irish opened the flood gates, jumping to a quick 14 point lead and never looking back.

“Today was a great example of the kind of football — everybody together, everybody playing hard for each other — that’s what we expect,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to just do it for four weeks. We want to do it for eight, ten, 12.”

Bob Diaco has officially exorcised his Navy demons. 

It might get lost amidst the off the field soap opera, but Bob Diaco dialed up the most impressive game plan of his career, shutting down a Navy offense that undressed the young defensive coordinator last year.

Without starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Diaco spent the majority of the game in a four-man front, putting Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming at end, with Stephon Tuitt, Sean Cwynar, and Louis Nix anchoring the inside.

The front four was key to shutting down a Navy running attack that averaged 325 yards a game and 5.7 yards a carry. The Irish held the Midshipmen to just 196 yards on the ground, and only 3.9 yards a carry on 50 attempts.

“We couldn’t move the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “They stopped us. We couldn’t move the ball which compounded things for our defense because they kept coming on the field and we couldn’t get any conversions.”

Like he did against Air Force, Jamoris Slaughter slid down to outside linebacker, joined by Dan Fox on the other side. While Te’o’s play was excellent, the trio of Tuitt, Nix and Cwynar was really impressive.

“Our front was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our two inside guys didn’t give much. You’re not going to talk a lot about them, Tuitt and Cwynar, they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played really well.”

While Aaron Lynch stole most of the preseason publicity, Tuitt has quietly emerged as one of the Irish’s most versatile defensive weapons. His seven tackles from the inside of the defensive line were incredibly impressive, and the freshman has quickly adding another difference-maker to a front seven in need of someone ready to step up.

After taking a lot of heat after last season’s loss, Diaco deserves a ton of credit — showing some great versatility with his defensive structure, and quieting the critics that blasted him last year. The Irish shut down Navy like no other team has done this year, the only team to keep the Midshipmen below 300 yards.

“I think we can put that to rest, about our ability to defend a very, very good football team,” Kelly said.

A week after disappointing, the Irish’s two star players came to play.

It didn’t take long to notice Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o. A week after quiet performances by the Irish’s two star players, both leaders stepped up with dominating performances.

Floyd led Irish receivers with six catches for 121 yards, including a 56 yard touchdown catch on a deep post thrown perfectly by Tommy Rees. He also contributed another score, running a tightrope up the sideline on a quick pass deemed a lateral for a second touchdown. It took just one play to realize that Floyd would present big problems for Navy, with the senior wide receiver beating two tacklers on the first play from scrimmage for 25 easy yards.

“The guy was unbelievable,” Niumatalolo said. “The kid is a complete player. The guy played well. What he did wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him, but we couldn’t get it done.”

On the other side of the ball, Te’o played one of the most complete games of his career. He led the Irish with 13 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, and his nearly error-free performance anchored everything Diaco’s unit did to stop Navy.

“We could not block Manti,” Niumatalolo said. “We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him, but the kid played phenomenal.”

The best way for veteran to lead his team is on the football field. Saturday afternoon, the Irish leaned on their two most important veterans and got everything they needed.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are officially 1A and 1B.

Brian Kelly didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was Jonas Gray that started in the backfield against Navy, not Cierre Wood. Gray embraced the role, setting the offensive tone with bruising runs of nine, eleven, and six yards, before charging into the endzone on a four-yard run. Four carries, 30 yards, and a touchdown for Gray on the tone-setting drive, numbers that actually hurt his season average.

“He was what we wanted him to be when we talked about how important he was to us when we started the year,” Kelly said of Gray. “He ran physical. He’s got burst, he’s got speed. He breaks tackles. He’s a valuable player, as well as Cierre Wood. Him getting off to a good start — he sets a physical presence for us.”

While neither back busted a long run, Gray and Wood put up almost identical numbers with the duo combining for 23 carries for 135 yards and five rushing touchdowns. More importantly, Gray’s emergence has helped keep Wood fresh, with both backs feeding off each other.

A solid running game is a recipe for red zone success, and Saturday’s seven for seven performance inside the Navy red zone was made possible by a stout running game.

“I think we probably ran the ball a little bit more effectively in those situations,” Kelly said of his teams performance inside the Navy 20. “We put more emphasis on the run game in that area, and i think that is a direction we want to keep moving.”

A week after forgetting about the ground game, everybody in the stadium was reminded that the Irish have a potent rushing attack, something that’ll serve the Irish well as they move into November football.

Brian Kelly has his finger on the pulse of this team better than anybody else.

Brian Kelly wasn’t in the mood to rehash what was said on Friday when he and his football team discussed his controversial comments from Thursday.

“I can tell you that as a family, we all have good days and bad days,” Kelly said after the game. “And you work through that as a family. And we had to work through some things this week. But in the end, like all families, if there’s a disagreement, if there’s any kind of need to communicate, it needs to get done and we did that. We communicated with each other as a team and as a family, and you saw it today. You saw a team that played together.”

While Kelly was mum about what happened behind closed doors, offensive tackle Zack Martin gave a succinct summary of Friday’s events.

“Coach Kelly apologized to us. We took his apology and we were fine with it,” Marin told the Chicago Tribune‘s Brian Hamilton. “He’s our leader.”

It certainly doesn’t pay for a head coach to differentiate between his guys and the previous regimes’ players, the only dicey thing Kelly said in my opinion. But Kelly — one of college football’s most media savvy head coaches — didn’t become stupid over night. Anything he said on Thursday was said for a reason, and it looks to have paid off, as the Irish went out and blew out a Navy team that’s turned one of college football’s most one-sided rivalries on its head in recent years.

While you may not agree with his tactics, Kelly inherited a senior class that was one of the most heralded recruiting groups in the country, yet has played below .500 football up until this point of their career. After replacing a coach that had different rules for different players, Kelly would much rather play bad cop and let a group of assistants he knows and trusts keep the team together, than except mediocrity when pressure is at its highest.

Nowhere in Brian Kelly’s job description does it say he needs to be a players’ coach. After watching his team play undisciplined and lackadaisical football for seven games, Kelly decided to use the media to send a message to the leadership of his football team. The press obliged and the veterans took the bait. Using one of the oldest tricks in the book, Kelly galvanized his team as they head into November.

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.