Jonas Gray Michael Floyd

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 16, Boston College 14

79 Comments

Senior Day will always be bittersweet. But Saturday’s home finale was also cruel, with the Irish’s 16-14 victory over Boston College overshadowed by the loss of senior running back Jonas Gray. Gray — one of the great surprises of the 2011 season, coming from nowhere to becoming the Irish’s most dangerous rusher — was tackled low along the Irish sideline in the second half and suffered what’s believed to be a season-ending knee injury.

“It’s so disappointing that we lost such a great kid,” head coach Brian Kelly said from the field after the game. “The game of football sometimes is cruel.”

On a Saturday where the Irish hoped to win with style, they struggled to win at all, reminded throughout the game that while Boston College may have been 24-point underdogs, they’ll never come to Notre Dame Stadium and simply roll over.

But with fresh memories of Senior Day collapses against UConn and Syracuse, the Irish battled for a victory, their eight in nine games, as Notre Dame continues its undefeated stretch of November football under Kelly after going winless in Charlie Weis’ final two seasons.

“I just like the way our guys understand how to win games in November,” Kelly said.

That confidence certainly wasn’t shared by an anxious stadium that broke out in boos, and an ND faithful that all but sounded the alarm bells as the game drew closer. Those hoping to watch the Irish coast into Palo Alto next weekend on a roll will be afforded no such comfort.

Still, the Irish took home their final game in Notre Dame Stadium, by a margin that was all too close for everyone but the guys on the field and their proud head coach. Let’s find out what else we learned in Saturday’s 16-14 Irish victory.

***

When they’ll need it most, the Irish likely just lost the power in their power running game.

While he seemed resigned to the fact walking off the field, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to concede the loss of Jonas Gray for the season. When pressed on Alex Flanagan‘s report that Gray suffered a torn ACL, Kelly said there’s no certainty until the doctors take a closer look.

“I was just in the training room with our doctors. They want to get an MRI and get a good look at that,” Kelly said.

After watching the replay of the tackle, there’s every reason to think that Gray, the heart of the Irish power running game, is lost for the year. The senior, who was joined in an emotional embrace on the field before the game with his coach and then his mother, addressed the team in the locker room after the game.

“He talked to the team after. He’s a great young man,” Kelly said. “It’s emotional when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to play your last game or not. It’s still uncertain until we get more medical information, but there’s a lot of emotions in that locker room.”

Last year, it was Robert Hughes who picked up the slack and provided the punch to the running game in November after Armando Allen went down. Without Gray, the Irish don’t have a physical option at tailback, with freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDanniel the only scholarship ball cariers behind Cierre Wood.

If this is it for Gray, he’s certainly done the miraculous in his senior season, and regardless of the extent of his knee injury, earned his way into an NFL training camp next year. His 26-yard touchdown run continued an impressive season and the senior became a touchdown machine, averaging a touchdown run every 9.5 carries this season, the third best ratio in the country this season.

***

Want to keep the Irish offense under wraps? Dominate the field position battle.

It wasn’t as if the Irish offense played terribly, putting up 417 yards of total offense on a windblown day that wreaked havoc all across the college football world on Saturday. But the Irish were constantly buried by the excellence of Boston College senior punter Ryan Quigley, who punted an astonishing nine times on Saturday (a season-high), with six being downed inside the Irish 20.

The Irish started with the ball inside their own 20 six times. On all six series, they punted the football. Combine that with a severe wind that limited the Irish’s ability to throw the ball and you’ve found a decent recipe for keeping points off the borad.

“The field position obviously was difficult to manage,” Kelly said. “The weather elements out there were difficult. It was very blustery. So we had to manage. We knew what kind of game this was going to end up being, and it certainly turned out this way.”

After struggling for the first half of the year, Ben Turk seemed at home in a punting battle, out-dueling Quigley on length as he averaged 44.0 yards a punt on a season-high eight attempts. Of course, the next step in Turk’s evolution will be distance control, as the junior kicked three touchbacks, two on critical pooch punts when the Irish needed a chance to down the football.

Sure, it made for an ugly day to some fans. But Kelly showed he’s willing to win football games by any means necessary.

***

The Irish defense rose to the occasion.

There was more than a little grumbling when Kelly eschewed a 4th and 1 attempt for a Turk punt early in the fourth quarter. But with the Irish clinging to a six-point lead, Kelly leaned on his defense to help him win the football game.

“What played into it mostly was that our defense was playing really really well and had been playing on a couple of short fields,” Kelly said. “I felt like we owed them the opportunity to play with a better field position situation.”

The defense rewarded the head coach, holding the Eagles to a three-and-out, before Quigley punted the ball back to the Irish. Then the offense rewarded Kelly by putting together their only scoring drive of the second half, a nine-play, 55-yard series that was capped by a clutch David Ruffer field goal. (Lining up on the same hash-mark and just three yards farther away from the critical field goal he missed against USF, Ruffer drilled this one down the middle.)

Boston College’s offense has been anemic all year, but the Irish still held the Eagles to just 250 total yards, limiting the Eagles running game to just 3.2 yards a carry while harassing Chase Rettig all afternoon. On a day when the Irish leaned on the unit to hold strong, they did just that, minus the two touchdown drives they yielded.

“I think two drives, you know, we got into two third down situations that they converted on the first score and the last score.  We got into some dime where they ran the ball and had a couple of plays.  But if you look at it, we kicked the ball out of play, started on the 40, got a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and that put them in a good position.”

Putting Bob Diaco‘s defense in a bad position is certainly nothing new. And with what seems like half the Irish defense in sick bay heading into the game — Stephon Tuitt missed the game from illness, Robert Blanton sat out two days this week with the flu, and Harrison Smith spent last night in the infirmary on an IV — the Irish did what they had to do, hold a struggling Eagles offense when the offense couldn’t get on track.

***

The Irish offense misses Braxston Cave.

True, the Irish are undefeated since Mike Golic stepped in for his good friend Braxston Cave at center. But if you’re looking for proof that the Irish offense misses their stalwart center, take a look at the Irish’s efficiency at the line of scrimmage since Cave left the lineup.

With Cave anchoring the line, the offense went sackless in the passing game throughout October and limited the negative plays, keeping opposing defenses out of the backfield.

Here’s a quick tally of opponents’ tackles-for-loss (with the score in parenthesis) since October 1st:

Purdue (38-10 — W): 4 TFLs — 7.2 YPC
Air Force (59-33 — W): 5 TFLs — 5.7 YPC
USC (17-31 — L): 1 TFL — 4.6 YPC
Navy (56-14 — W): 2 TFL — 5.2 YPC
Wake Forest (24-17 — W): 2 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Maryland (45-21 — W): 10 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Boston College (16-14 — W): 4 TFLs — 4.1 YPC

In the games Golic has taken snaps at center, the Irish have had three of their least efficient running games of the year, while allowing 14 tackles in the backfield, including three sacks against Maryland.

More importantly, the Irish consistently lost first down against the Eagles, a crippling offensive dilemma when you add it to bad field position.

Notre Dame had 34 first downs on the afternoon, running the ball 20 times and throwing it 14. But the tale of the offense’s struggles can be told on their second down opportunities. Only three times did the Irish have a second and short. They had six second and mediums and more troubling, an astonishing 16 second and longs.

Losing first down certainly isn’t on Golic’s head, but the Irish are going to need to get back to the drawing board before the regular season finale against Stanford.

***

With heavy hearts and emotions everywhere, there’s nothing wrong with a win.

Selective memory doesn’t just plague Notre Dame fans, but it bears mentioning that Notre Dame was a statistically dominant team in their two opening losses this year, and look where that got them. So for all those that spent more time complaining about what the Irish didn’t do on Senior Day than what they actually did do, take a second and enjoy a hard fought victory against one of the school’s most hated rivals.

“Give credit to Boston College now, they played well today,” Kelly said after the game. “Coming in 3-7, this was their bowl game and they played hard.”

There will be plenty of time to bemoan the things that went wrong, but there’s a pleasant evolution to this football team, finding ways to win tight games after only finding ways to lose in the season’s opening two weeks.

On a blustery day, questions arose about Tommy Rees‘ accuracy and decision making, with the sophomore forcing a few throws into coverage and struggling to find open men against an Eagles defense content to drop into coverage. But Kelly would hear none of it, unwilling to critique his quarterback on a difficult day to throw the football.

“We won again,” Kelly responded. “I think he’s 12-2 as a starter. That’s pretty good. I don’t know if you guys know that, 12-2, that’s pretty good as a starter.”

True, Rees missed a wide open Michael Floyd a step long as the senior streaked wide open down the sideline for a sure touchdown. Yet the Irish were able to overcome the emotions of the day, even with players clearly shook up on the sidelines after Gray’s injury, proving a lot about this team’s fortitude.

“Winning is hard in college football. You watch across the landscape there’s only a couple teams undefeated one team, maybe two. It’s hard to win.”

After starting the season 0-2, history wasn’t in the Irish’s corner. Since 1900 the Irish have done it five times, with the 1978 team the only one to rally to a winning record. Now the Irish head into Palo Alto looking to win their ninth game of the regular season, progress by any measure of the word and impressive when you consider the hole the team put itself in.

On a dreary November day with his fan base grumbling after an ugly win, the head coach was rightfully content.

“In November, it’s hard to win unless you’ve got a great mental outlook, and our guys do,” Kelly said. “That’s satisfying as a football coach.”

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)
Leave a comment

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)
6 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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
22 Comments

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.