Notre Dame v Stanford

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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We’ve got a month to spend talking about what comes next for the Irish, but let’s talk about what just happened first. With the Irish given one last chance to perform on a big stage, they turned into wallflowers, tripping over their feet when they finally got their chance to tango with a Stanford team likely going to their second BCS bowl in as many years.

Notre Dame’s 28-14 loss to the Cardinal could have been uglier. It also could’ve been a far more interesting game if the Irish just took advantage of some opportunities, which makes Saturday night’s loss a microcosm of one of the more bizarre Irish seasons in recent memory. But after twelve games, you are what you are. And this football team’s inconsistencies and inability to limit mistakes doomed this team from day one against USF and continued on to the season’s finale in Palo Alto.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Cardinal’s 28-14 victory over the Irish.

THE GOOD

* Michael Floyd. The senior wide receiver took down one last record for good measure, with eight catches on Saturday night, giving him 95 on the season, a single-season record snatched away from former teammate Golden Tate.

The past two seasons, Floyd has been saddled with severe instability at the quarterback position, and a rather large bulls-eye on him thanks to opposing defensive coordinators identifying the Irish’s one game-breaking threat. It hasn’t stopped Floyd, who has been robbed of some of his downfield big play opportunities, but instead become a super-charged possession receiver, complementing the Irish running game on quick throws that allow the 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior inflict pain on defensive backs.

Against Stanford, Floyd put together another terrific game, but also showed just how complete of a player he is by chasing down a Cardinal defender who made an interception and blasting him to the turf. Great effort and wonderfully physical football in what had to be another frustrating night. The Irish have one game left with the school’s best wide receiver ever. He will be severely missed.

* Tyler Eifert also moved his way into the Irish record books, with his 14-yard grab in the third quarter moving him ahead of Ken MacAfee for the school record for catches in one season by a tight end. Eifert’s 55 grabs turned him into Notre Dame’s second option in the passing game, and he also became only the fifth tight end at Notre Dame to eclipse 1,000 yards in a career.

Eifert looks to have the inside track for the Mackey Award, given to the top tight end in college football. Whether that means he’ll forgo his senior year and try the NFL hasn’t been decided, but unlike Kyle Rudolph last year, Eifert still could lift his stock by returning for another season and becoming a more complete player.

* Second half defense. It was a tale of two halves for the Irish defense, victimized by both air and ground in the game’s first 30 minutes, only to respond impressively in the second half. Sure it was too little, too late. But in a game that could’ve gotten ugly, Bob Diaco’s troops turned things around quickly.

Even with Coby Fleener’s 55-yard touchdown catch, the Irish held Luck and the Cardinal offense to just six first downs in the second half. After giving up 6.3 yards a carry in the first half, the Irish cut that in more than half, giving up just 3.1 yards a carry after the break. Take out Fleener’s 55-yard score, and the Irish gave up just 87 yards on 30 plays. That’s impressive work, even if you can’t just forget a long TD pass.

* The Youth Movement on Defense. It’s a shame the Irish lost Stephon Tuitt to a serious illness down the stretch because the group of freshmen – Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Louis Nix — have already shown themselves to be quite a trio. With Kapron Lewis-Moore set to return next year and Sean Cwynar all but certain to be there as well, the Irish should take a huge step forward along the defensive front, when in the past the loss of two veterans would have been crushing.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the statistical breakdown of the two groupings:

NIX/LYNCH/TUITT
18 Starts
97 Tackles
12 TFL
5.5 Sacks
4 PBUs
15 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble

ETHAN/KLM/CWYNAR
17 Starts
67 Tackles
5 TFL
1.5 Sacks
3 PBUs
6 QB Hurries
1 Forced Fumble

Add guys like Troy Niklas, Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams to the picture and there’s reason to believe that the Irish front seven will be even better next year, even having to replace standouts like Johnson and Darius Fleming.

(Credit Funk Doctor Spock for the breakdown.)

* Andrew Hendrix. Only the Notre Dame faithful would be ready to proclaim a quarterback that went 11 for 24 with an interception (and what could have been two more) as the answer to their prayers, but the sophomore quarterback certainly looked the part Saturday night after coming off the bench in relief of Tommy Rees.

When tasked with running a bigger chunk of the offense, Hendrix seemed to thrive, gaining a bit of rhythm in the passing game and playing the role of battering ram as a runner. His third quarter touchdown drive was a thing of beauty, and might be the closest thing the Irish have seen to vintage Brian Kelly offense since the coach has been here. Take away the sack yardage loss, and Hendrix basically averaged five yards a carry — and the option to keep the ball seemed to open up some things for Cierre Wood.

Throwing with touch will be an evolutionary process, but Hendrix doesn’t lack for arm strength, rifling just about every throw all around the yard, showing off another skill that has Irish fan’s salivating.

At the very least, Hendrix has given the Irish’s next opponent a huge headache — with a strong-armed running quarterback now captured on tape as opposed to merely being a change-up, wildcat threat. He’s also jump-started one of the most interesting quarterbacking battles we’ll see in quite some time, with Rees, Hendrix and Everett Golson all ready to take dead aim at the 2012 job.

* Nice job Dan Fox. On a muddy field, the junior linebacker looked rock solid in coverage.

* Louis Nix played a great ball game with a heavy heart after his father had a heart attack earlier in the week. He is going to be something next season.

* Quite an athletic pass breakup by Harrison Smith. That’s covering a lot of ground against one of the best college quarterbacks since Peyton Manning.

THE BAD

* Notre Dame’s opening drive. After getting a three and out from the Cardinal, the Irish offense absolutely crumbled, giving back any momentum they might have had even before they took a snap. Two false starts backing the Irish up to a 1st and 20 was only the beginning as Tommy Rees was drilled on his first throw and forced from the game, before Hendrix finished the drive and Ben Turk punted. Just a terrible start to the game for the offense.

* The offensive line play. Losing Braxston Cave has continued to haunt the Irish offensive line, and Stanford exposed the middle of the defense early and often. The five sacks against the Cardinal were more than the Irish gave up with Cave in the lineup all season. Cierre Wood was unable to get on track either, averaging only 3.4 yards a carry. It’s hard to pin all of this on Mike Golic’s insertion into the puzzle, but against good defensive fronts (USC and Stanford) the Irish couldn’t run the ball. It’s been a big step forward by Ed Warinner’s troops, but Saturday wasn’t their finest moment.

* The first half offense. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Missed field goal. Punt. Interception. Halftime. How’s that for the worst sequence of football the Irish had all season, when they absolutely needed it most. Tommy Rees deserved the quick hook after fumbling away the best drive the Irish had and then failing to capitalize on a 1st and 10 from just outside the Stanford ten yard-line. But the first half wasn’t all on Rees as the Irish offensive line struggled to match the intensity of the Cardinal front seven and Rees was still battling the ill effects of a crushing tackle.

* Performance Anxiety. With a chance to make a statement in a marquee game, the Irish flopped. That’s another football game where the Irish came out in the opening rounds of a heavyweight battle and got knocked to the canvas early. Against teams like Stanford and USC, you can’t spot opponents points and after sluggish starts by the offense, that’s exactly what the Irish did. Brian Kelly knows that can’t keep happening, and it’s likely why a quarterback like Hendrix — able to exploit the defense’s adrenaline by keeping the ball on a zone-read — might be a better answer once he gets bridled.

* You’ve gotta make that kick, David Ruffer.

* The punt return game. There’s no true explanation for it. I expect some of the bowl preparation, and a lot of time in spring practice being dedicated to fixing this unit. What a lost opportunity.

THE UGLY

* Stanford’s Nike Pro Combat uniforms. Did the Cardinal really think Senior Day was the right time to breakout those terrible new uniforms? What an unfortunate keepsake for all those families having to explain what exactly their kids were wearing in that final home game. More importantly, when Stanford goes to frame Andrew Luck’s record-breaking touchdown pass, they’ll have to immortalize him looking like a Kool-Aid soaked storm trooper. Next year, break those out during the Big Game. Twenty-five Kodak moments with thank you.

* Stanford’s Turf. The only thing uglier than those uniforms was the grass. What a lousy playing surface and an embarrassing situation for the school.

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

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

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

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

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