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Quarterback plans signal next year can wait

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Beating Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl is a big deal for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. His decision to keep Tommy Rees the starting quarterback proves that. In a bowl game that most fans see as equal parts rivalry and exhibition game, the Kelly regime needs a victory to keep the football program moving in the right direction.

There’s plenty of time for the Irish to figure out who’s going to be starting behind center when the Irish take on Navy in Dublin next September, not to mention how to split up reps next spring during one of the more interesting spring practices of recent memory. So forgive Kelly and his staff if they aren’t engaged in the daily debate amongst Irish fans about who should play quarterback not just against the Seminoles but into the future.

“It will be a topic that gets debated and I understand that — it’s the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Kelly said.

But that debate needs to wait until after the season is over, and that’s the main reason why Kelly is sticking with Rees behind center instead of promising sophomore Andrew Hendrix. The Irish need a win. And after twelve games and a season filled with highs and lows, Kelly still believes Rees is his best bet to beat the Seminoles and keep momentum going into the final days of recruiting.

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Back to back 8-5 seasons isn’t what anyone had in mind — Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick included. But a victory against Florida State, a team that had even higher preseason expectations than the Irish, will be enough progress to keep recruits interested in the Irish as the staff heads down the home stretch in a two-year quest to land the skill portion of the first phase of rebuilding this program.

There’s little doubt that Stanford revealed another blueprint for limiting Rees’ production in Kelly’s offense. He was a stationary target in the pocket. His inability to run neutralized the ground game, while his less than accurate deep ball allowed the defense to shrink the top of the field as well. But given a month to rebound from his worst game of the season last year — a 20-16 victory over USC — Rees came out firing against Miami in the Sun Bowl, hitting Michael Floyd over the top of a talented Hurricanes secondary for 35 yards on the game’s opening drive and again for a 34 yard touchdown strike on the second drive. For the Irish to win with a young quarterback that had just given the ball away multiple times against USC, they needed to be efficient with their shots and protect the football. Rees did exactly that after a month of coaching and game planning. Naysayers will argue that Rees put those numbers up against a Hurricanes team in free-fall. That may be true, but it was also the No. 3 passing defense in the country. You can say a lot of things about Tommy Rees, but he’s certainly resilient. After a month to recover after his worst game of the season, he’ll likely be ready to come out firing.

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Dayne Crist‘s announced transfer could actually be seen as a stabilizing factor in a quarterbacking situation that seemed precarious. If the Irish season went according to plan and Crist made it through the first half of South Florida, the 2012 depth chart could be anyone’s guess. Would Hendrix stick around — likely still third or fourth on a depth chart that may or may not include another talented freshman recruit? Could Kelly keep four scholarship quarterbacks happy for a second season in a row? Some people will knowledge of the program thought Crist’s transfer would come before this season, seeing him as a square peg in Kelly’s round hole offense. Rees’ ability to think quickly and distribute in the spread offense make him a step forward, but he’s still one evolutionary step behind guys like Hendrix and Everett Golson. With Rees, Kelly has a known commodity — a guy that can clearly win football games, but has also struggled through some ugly growing pains as the Irish program moves forward according to Kelly’s blueprint.

Of course, prepping for the season’s final game won’t stop people from looking ahead. Spring practices, summer workouts, a 2012 schedule that looks the part of a meat-grinder, all point to an offense that needs to make a big step forward, and do so without Mike Floyd. Is Hendrix the best fit moving forward? What about Golson, a guy that this coaching staff is incredibly high on? What will Gunner Kiel do to the mix if he signs on the dotted line? More questions than answers, and all of them need to wait until after December 29th.

“I didn’t want any debate within our program,” Kelly said. “I wanted our guys to know, here’s our starter, here’s where we’re going.”

We might forget sometimes, but a coach never forgets that long term planning can wait. Especially when there are games left on the schedule, the only objective valuation of a head coach’s performance. For Kelly, a ninth win means progress, even if it’s only incremental. A loss throws a bundle of negativity, not to mention a lost year of forward momentum, on an offseason that’s already going to be filled with questions.

When given the option, Kelly went with what he knows best — and that’s Rees at quarterback. But as most smart coaches do, he did so with a caveat.

“I think you all know that Andrew Hendrix can do some things that can help our football team and we need to see him as well,” Kelly said.

That’s true. Now and in the future.

 

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

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.