Manti Te'o junior

With Te’o’s return, 2012 front seven looks solid

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Manti Te’o‘s return means a lot of things to the Irish. Off the field, Notre Dame will have one of the nation’s premiere student-athletes representing their university. An All-American on and off the field, Te’o will be the unquestioned face of the program heading into a season that’ll have the Irish on center stage.

The decision to come back took many people by surprise, especially with news leaking late Sunday night after an awards banquet in Newport Beach for the Lott IMPACT Award. But Te’o had a chance to discuss the pros and cons of leaving and staying with his family, and in the end the junior couldn’t turn down playing his senior season in South Bend. Te’o discussed some of the reasons that went into coming back for his senior season during an official interview with UND.com.

“This was a tough decision, and I found myself praying about it often,” Te’o said. “Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame. The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don’t think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year.

“Graduating from Notre Dame is really important to me. Many people encouraged me to go to the NFL because I could always earn my diploma later in life. If I did that, though, I would not have the chance for the same experiences that are ahead of me in my senior year, and I would not have finished at Notre Dame with the guys I started with and care so much about. When I weighed all the factors that went into this decision, it just felt right to stay at Notre Dame.”

Off the field, there’s nothing I could write about Te’o that hasn’t already been said. As Brian Kelly appropriately said, “This is not only a great day for the University of Notre Dame and our football team, it is also a great day for college football.”

But before we get carried away with the ambassador that Te’o is, let’s talk about what his return means to a unit that is shaping up to be one of the most dynamic front sevens in recent Irish memory.

Put simply, with Te’o back, the Irish have the engine that’ll power this defense. Losing Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming won’t be easy for the Irish coaching staff to stomach, but the Irish couldn’t be in better shape to deal with their departures.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the anticipated depth chart:

2012 Projected Defensive Front Seven

DE
Kapron Lewis-Moore, Grad Student
Stephon Tuitt, Soph.
Aaron Lynch, Soph.
Chase Hounshell, Soph.
Kona Schwenke, Jr.
Jaron Jones, Fr.

Notes: There’s really an embarrassment of riches at defensive end for the Irish, even before you consider a guy like Jones, who’ll likely push for playing time. With Lewis-Moore and Tuitt, the Irish have two bruising 3-4 run-stuffing defensive ends. With Lynch, the Irish have a pass rusher who should see his production increase exponentially. At the very least the Irish can go three deep with impact players, with guys like Hounshell ready to push into the rotation as well.

DT
Sean Cwynar, Grad Student
Louis Nix, Jr.
Tony Springmann, Soph.
Sheldon Day, Fr.

Notes: You’ve got to expect Cwynar back, especially when you look at the depth chart logically. He’s a perfect complement to Nix, who should be ready to take his game to the next level after an impressive first-year campaign. The staff is high on Springmann who offers another mammoth body in the middle, and I’m excited to see what Day can do when he gets to campus. In years past, Day would be the signature recruit that has Irish fans salivating. This year? He’s just another guy.

OLB
Prince Shembo, Jr.
Danny Spond, Jr.
Troy Niklas, Soph.
Ishaq Williams, Soph.
Ben Councell, Soph.
Anthony Rabasa, Soph.
Romeo Okwara, Fr.

Notes: There’s less depth here than you’d think. In all likelihood, Shembo will take over for Fleming at the Cat linebacker position, or at least will compete for the job with Williams, who spelled Fleming this season as a raw but impressive freshman. You’ve got to think that Niklas will get the first chance to start at the Dog backer, with Spond potentially running out of time to make a difference as a position player. If there’s a guy that’s a wildcard, it’s Councell, who saved a year of eligibility, but profiled as a perfect field-side linebacker. The Irish aren’t done recruiting this position either.

ILB
Manti Te’o, Sr.
Dan Fox, Sr.
Carlo Calabrese, Sr.
Kendall Moore, Jr.
Justin Utupo, Jr.
Jarrett Grace, Soph.

Notes: Without Te’o, this group feels filled with question marks. With Te’o, it feels filled with depth. Instead of wondering if Kendall Moore can take Te’o’s place, now the question is how do the Irish find snaps for the talented rising junior. With Fox and Calabrese both returning, the Irish have three interior linebackers that know the ins and outs of Bob Diaco’s system, depth at a position that’s plagued Notre Dame for nearly a decade.

The recipe for protecting a painfully young secondary is an impressive front seven. With Te’o in the middle of the group, expect Bob Diaco and his front seven to protect the back-end of the defense.

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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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.