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Pregame Six Pack: Stanford edition

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With turkey and leftovers stuffed into refrigerators everywhere, the rest of the weekend can be dedicated to what’s important (and no, it’s not Black Friday sales): Football. As the final regular season Saturday of the year approaches, Notre Dame has the chance to prove that they’re a different team than the one that opened the season stubbing their toe twice.

As the Irish journey to Palo Alto, Brian Kelly‘s squad will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team they’ve played in Kelly’s two years in South Bend. After getting beaten convincingly by the Cardinal last year, Kelly welcomes another chance at measuring his team against one of the nation’s best.

“They were a physical, good‑looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably,” Kelly said this week. “I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.”

We will see tomorrow night. With the regular season closing, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s prime-time affair with No. 4 Stanford.

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1. Andrew Luck’s next touchdown pass will pull him equal with a legend.

It may already feel like it, but believe it or not, Andrew Luck doesn’t have a bust in Canton, Ohio yet. But the senior quarterback, all but certain to be playing his last game at Stanford Stadium, needs just one touchdown pass to pull even with the gold standard of Stanford football: John Elway.

Luck current has 76 touchdown passes, needing just one more to pull even with Elway at 77, and just one more on the season to pull even with his single-season record of 32, set last year. In the senior quarterback’s three years of starting he’s already put his stamp all over the Cardinal record books, trailing only Elway and school-leader Steve Stenstrom in career passing yards, while likely pulling ahead of Stenstrom as the school leader in total offense on Saturday as well. Luck also holds the school marks for completion percentage and passing efficiency.

More impressively, Stanford is 30-6 with Luck as its starting quarterback. That’s far and away the most wins by any quarterback in school history, well ahead of Stenstrom (24) and some guy named Jim Plunkett (22).

Even though all of America knows it now, the Irish have always realized how dangerous Stanford’s senior quarterback is.

“Before he was really a household name, we could all tell he was that good,” Harrison Smith said. “He’s gotten even better. He’s got it all. He can throw the ball like nobody we’ve seen.”

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2. The spotlight is back on Cierre Wood… Right where he wants it.

After carrying the load from the backfield at the beginning of the year, Cierre Wood takes back the featured running back role after a knee injury to Jonas Gray cut short his senior season. And the junior from Oxnard, California is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Irish get a big win in Palo Alto.

“If they need me to carry the ball 50 times that’s what I’ll do,” Wood said. “If they need me to carry it 10 times that’s what I’ll do. As long as we get the W that’s what I’m more concerned about.”

The number of carries Wood gets will likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, as the Irish will lean heavily on the back that started the season as a clear-cut starter, but since ceded a little more than half of the carries to Gray.

Running backs coach Tim Hinton was impressed with the way Wood handled the situation and is confident he’ll be ready to pick up any slack now that he’s the lead back once again.

“You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce,” Hinton said.

With freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only depth behind him, Wood knows all eyes will be on him as the Irish prepare to battle the No. 6 rush defense in the country.

“Wherever my teammates need me, that’s where I’ll be.”

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3. Irish eyes need to be in the right place against an explosive Stanford offense.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might be the only person to compare the offense Andrew Luck pilots to those run by service academies. But the Broyles Award nominated Diaco has a good point, and Stanford’s offense will challenge the discipline of Irish defenders more than any offense the Irish have faced this year.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a discipline challenge,” Diaco said. “It’s a different offense, but not that much different than Navy or Air Force, where they’re running it, running it, running it, but they’re really producing a bunch of chunk yardage plays with passes off their runs.”

The Irish linebackers will be tested more than any time they have been this year, forced to play downhill to help stop a Cardinal running attack that’s among the best in the country. That job is made much harder with Luck’s proficiency in the play-action passing game, one of the biggest challenges linebackers face.

“They are an explosive offense that has a tough, rugged, run-the-ball first mentality,” Diaco said. “Probably the best o-line we’ve faced, with for sure the best group of tight ends we’ve faced, and a pack of running backs that are as good as any group that we’ve had so far. So the proof is in the pudding as it relates to the whole team.”

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4. George Atkinson has a chance to add to an already impressive freshman season.

George Atkinson has already had an impressive freshman season, making an immediate impact in special teams with two kickoff return touchdowns, tying the school record that’s shared by Irish legends like Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, and Allen Rossum. But on Saturday night, Atkinson will have a chance to make an impact just a few miles from his hometown, and potentially do so in the backfield as well, as he and fellow freshman Cam McDaniel will be forced into action at running back.

Tim Hinton knows it’s not ideal, but expects both Atkinson and McDaniel to be ready.

“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. They’re freshman. You look around the country and there are some freshman that are obviously playing.  The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps that some of those other freshman were getting because we were trying to get our two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.”

So far, neither Atkinson nor McDaniel has shown the ability help the run game, with the duo combining for just 12 carries and 36 yards, with Atkinson chipping in two short touchdowns. But Cierre Wood knows that it’ll be his job to pay it forward, helping the youngsters get up to speed for Saturday night.

“I’ll just do what the veterans when I was coming up did for me,” Wood said. “Help them learn the basics first, then everything else will take care of itself on the field.”

It’s apparent for anyone that’s watched Atkinson this year that the freshman has game-breaking speed and an explosiveness that would be great in the open field. But he’s raw at running back, a slight player that probably would’ve come into Notre Dame as a wide receiver if the depth chart wasn’t as thin as it is. Yet the Irish could help their cause if they find a way to get the ball to the talented freshman in space, giving him the opportunity to show off his speed and the athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field.

Playing in front of plenty of family and friends, not to mention a national television audience, Atkinson has the chance to put his career on a really impressive trajectory if he can come up big against Stanford.

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5. It’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Stanford.

There’s no use holding onto all those wonderful tricks and gadgets the Irish have likely worked on all year. It’s time to use a few of them against Stanford, hopefully catching the Cardinal off guard with one or two unexpected wrinkles.

Consider this a quick wishlist of things Irish fans hope to see on Saturday night:

Special Teams:

It’s time to see what Kelly and Mike Elston have up their sleeves in terms of a fake punt. Last year the Irish were successful pulling it off, and it’d be great to see if the Irish can steal a possession away from the Cardinal if the timing is right. Even better, keep Michael Floyd back returning punts all evening, even if it’s in punt safe mode. Better yet, try setting up some blocking for him.

Defense:

Just because Brian Kelly doesn’t think he can trick Andrew Luck doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. After all, Luck has a limited group of receivers right now and injuries to wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo means he’ll be working well down the depth chart at some key positions. For as good as Luck is, he’s thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and threw two against the Irish last year.

It’ll be a blow to the Irish defense if Stephon Tuitt can’t play on Saturday, but it’d be surprising if the Irish get much out of the talented freshman that’s been severely ill with an undisclosed illness. Either way, Saturday night is a great opportunity for Aaron Lynch to make some noise, especially against an offensive line that’s one of the best in the nation. (At the very least, Lynch should try and draw some holding flags.)

Offense:

It’s time to bring back Andrew Hendrix in a package or two. When he was used, it was always in the middle of a series as a complement to Tommy Rees and the running game, and that’s the perfect way to use him Saturday night. If Theo Riddick is healthy, the Irish could get him on a jet sweep, or better yet — use that as a way to get Atkinson some carries in space. Even thought the hook-and-lateral didn’t work against Luke Kuchely, putting it on tape the week before Stanford was a purposeful move. If the Irish can get Cierre Wood around the edge, they’d be wise to try using that quick pitch / lateral that has been so successful over the past two years, but hasn’t been used in weeks.

Regardless of how highly ranked Stanford is, the Irish need to take their shots down field with Floyd. Feeding the ball to Floyd quickly in the possession receiving game is fine, but they need to run the top off the Stanford defense, and athletically, the Cardinal don’t have anyone Floyd’s equal, and the secondary is missing standout safety Delano Howell. Floyd is just seven catches away from Golden Tate’s single-season record of 93. Expect him to break that sometime in the third quarter. In one of the premiere games for tight ends in the country, it’d be good for Tyler Eifert to go cement his place as the Mackey Award winner on Saturday night.

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6. Another game, another set of alternate uniforms. But don’t worry Irish fans, these ones are on Stanford.

In a trend that’s likely leading to an ulcer for some football traditionalists out there, when the Irish battle the Cardinal on Saturday, they won’t be facing a team wearing their traditional white pants, cardinal jerseys and white helmets, but a squad that looks like a group of red storm troopers, with black matte helmets punctuating an all-red look.

The Cardinal are joining the Nike Pro Combat revolution, wearing an alternate uniform that’s a whole lotta red, which according to Nike’s marketing machine is a “metaphor for the pulse of life and the heart that pumps the relentless engine that is Stanford Pride.”

Stanford joins Oregon, Georgia, Boise State, Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State as team’s that have gone with the “Pro Combat” look, and of course, Shaw has no problem embracing it.

“I think they’re great,” Shaw said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a recruiting world that we live in.”

For an early look at what the Cardinal will be wearing when Andrew Luck takes his Senior Day photos, you can see every detail — right down to the Nike gloves with an “S” on the palms — here.

 

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.

 

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.