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All hands on deck for Stanford

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At this time of year, no football team is entirely healthy. (Just ask the guys in Palo Alto.) But as the Irish head into their final — and most important — game of the year, let’s take a look at the positional depth chart and see just how well the Irish are hanging on.

Brian Kelly called this Saturday a “one-game season,” and his Tuesday press conference this afternoon will give us a better idea of where the Irish stand from a health perspective. But let’s run down the position grouping and see how well the Irish have kept things together.

QUARTERBACK

Tommy Rees, Soph.
Dayne Crist, Sr.
Andrew Hendrix, Soph.
Everett Golson, Fr.
Matthew Mulvey, Sr.

Everybody’s healthy for the Irish, though you have to wonder if the knee injury Tommy Rees suffered against USC is still limiting his mobility. (His mobility was never a strong suit, but he’s still wearing a knee brace.) Behind Rees, Crist seems ready for action, and I fully expect to see a package with Andrew Hendrix on Saturday as well. There’s a better chance you’ll see Mulvey than Golson, as the freshman has saved a year of eligibility this fall.

RUNNING BACK

Cierre Wood, Jr.
Jonas Gray, Sr.
George Atkinson, Fr.
Cam McDaniel, Fr.
Theo Riddick, Jr.

The Irish depth chart took a big hit with Jonas Gray going down on Saturday. The Irish will miss his power, explosiveness, and ability to get in the end zone on Saturday. Bryan Driskell of IrishSportsDaily.com wrote a nice piece on the Irish’s running attack without Jonas and he points to several reasons to be optimistic.

Of course, we’ll probably find out more today on the status of Theo Riddick joining the running back depth chart for Saturday. The first step in that process will be making sure he’s healthy enough to play, especially on a rain-ravaged playing surface that makes the grass at Notre Dame Stadium look like Augusta National.

If Riddick is unable to go, expect to see a ton of Cierre Wood. The junior is coming off his least prolific game of the season against Boston College, but will need to carry the workload. Looking for more optimism? In the five games Wood has carried the ball over 20 times, he’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

As for Atkinson and McDaniel, it’ll be interesting if they’ll be used truly as the “next man in,” or if the offensive game plan will be tailored to their strong suits. I don’t know if there’s any reason to think Atkinson has the comfort, vision, or size to successfully run the ball between the tackles, but we’ll find out on Saturday.

WIDE RECEIVER

Michael Floyd, Sr.
TJ Jones, Soph.
Theo Riddick, Jr.
Robby Toma, Jr.
John Goodman, Sr.

As we just mentioned, this group may or may not be missing Riddick, either because of injury or because of a shift to running back. Either way, it’s going to depend on utilizing Michael Floyd both in the short possession game, and also springing him vertically. We’ve hit on it multiple times, but Rees is going to need to have an accurate day down field to take advantage of a Stanford defense that’s banged up.

Robby Toma has shown himself a capable fill-in at slot and a quick friend of the quarterback, but if the Irish passing game is going to get on track, they’ll need some consistency out of TJ Jones, who looked better on Saturday, logging the most catches he’s had in a game since Purdue.

TIGHT END

Tyler Eifert, Jr.
Mike Ragone, Sr.
Alex Welch, Soph.
Ben Koyack, Fr.
Jake Golic, Jr.

A week after making eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, Tyler Eifert had one of his quieter games of the year, making only two catches against Boston College. The Mackey Award finalist is one of the best tight ends in the country, and against a team that utilizes its tight ends proficiently, the Irish will need to target Eifert consistently on Saturday night.

Obviously the loss of Mike Ragone isn’t a new one, but his in-line blocking is severely missed. Sophomore Alex Welch and freshman Ben Koyack are doing admirable jobs and the future looks bright even if Eifert decides to look at the NFL after this season.

It hasn’t been publicly talked about by Kelly, but it sounds like Jake Golic has a serious back injury. The news comes via an IrishIllustrated.com interview with blue-chip recruit Tyler McNamara, who explained where the Irish sit at the position.

“It all depends on if Eifert leaves for the draft this year, which is very possible, and then (Jake) Golic has a back injury, a real severe one, so if those two don’t play they don’t have too much tight end depth,” McNamara said. “If Eifert comes back playing early isn’t an option, but if he elects to go in the draft then it’s a pretty distinct possibility.”

Losing Eifert would be a big loss to the Irish, but they have solid depth behind him and are obviously planning for the future.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Zack Martin, Jr.
Chris Watt, Jr.
Braxston Cave, Sr.
Trevor Robinson, Sr.
Taylor Dever, Sr.
Mike Golic, Sr.
Andrew Nuss, Sr.
Christian Lombard, Soph.

The offensive line had done a very good job of staying healthy until Cave went down against Wake Forest, pushing little used Mike Golic into the lineup at center. Golic has filled in admirably, but the offensive line hasn’t played to the level that it did in October, when it didn’t allow a sack and put together several impressive rushing performances.

Against Stanford, the focus should be on the Irish front five, who will absolutely need to win the line of scrimmage and get the Irish in favorable down and distances if they’re going to have a chance at beating the Cardinal.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sr.
Sean Cwynar, Sr.
Louis Nix, Soph.
Ethan Johnson, Sr.
Aaron Lynch, Fr.
Stephon Tuitt, Fr.
Hafis Williams, Sr.
Kona Schwenke, Soph.
Brandon Newman, Sr.

The most impressive thing about the performance of Mike Elston’s defensive line is just how good they’ve played with how many injuries they’ve suffered. There have been lines through names like Cwynar, Johnson, and potentially Tuitt, but the front line hasn’t missed a beat thanks to great play by youngsters Nix, Lynch and Tuitt.

We’ll likely find out more on the status of Tuitt this afternoon when Kelly gives the press a health update.

LINEBACKER

Darius Fleming, Sr.
Dan Fox, Jr.
Manti Te’o, Jr.
Prince Shembo, Soph.
Steve Filer, Sr.
Carlo Calabrese, Jr.
Kendall Moore, Soph.
Danny Spond, Soph.
Troy Niklas, Fr.
Ishaq Williams, Fr.

The loss of Steve Filer robbed the Irish of a potential pass-rush specialist, but for the most part the Irish linebackers are intact. If the Irish have a weakness in the linebacking corps, it’s at the drop linebacker position, where the Irish will be tested this week with Stanford possessing a strong running game, but an even stronger quarterback that’ll test the Irish linebackers in their drops and put Prince Shembo in a position where he’ll need to quickly identify run or pass, often times in play-action.

The Irish have gotten steady but uneven play from the combination of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese opposite Manti Te’o, and Darius Fleming hasn’t put together the kind of numbers people had hoped for this season. That said, this group is getting better at this time of year, aided by the ascent of Troy Niklas.

SECONDARY

Robert Blanton
Jamoris Slaughter
Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Zeke Motta
Lo Wood
Austin Collinsworth
Bennett Jackson
Dan McCarthy

After getting bitten by injury last season, the Irish secondary has stayed relatively healthy this year, allowing Jamoris Slaughter to play like the difference-maker the coaching staff thought they had last year. Robert Blanton and Gary Gray both have had their moments of weakness this year (with Gray’s a bit more visible), but both corners will likely be asked to match-up one-on-one with a wide receiving corps that lacks game-breakers, especially after injuries have taken their toll on the Cardinal depth chart.

If you’re looking for someone that’s made their move up the charts, look at Austin Collinsworth. The sophomore was a dynamic special teams player last year, but has found his way into the nickel and dime package, giving the Irish another safety that’s capable of playing in coverage, allowing Jamoris Slaughter to slide down into the drop linebacker spot to make plays close to the line of scrimmage.

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)
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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)
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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.