Deontay Greenberry Head

It’s panic season in recruiting

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For a small, but fanatical subset of college football fans, this is the most stressful time of year. Forget autumn Saturdays — where sixty minutes determine who wins and who loses. This is way more serious. Two years of work — evaluating, wooing, relationship-building — all coming down the stretch, as coaches try and convince 17- and 18-year old kids that their college is the best one for them. Yep, it’s panic season for hard core college football fans. And with the Irish involved in some of the most heavily recruited players in the country, it’s time to buckle up and hold on tight.

Over the weekend, Deontay Greenberry led his Washington Union team to a state championship, adding to his California-record setting receiving numbers while making an interception on defensive and recovering an onside kick to will his Fresno high school to victory. That alone should garner headlines, as the likely California state player of the year all but put on a cape and rescued Lois Lane this weekend. But the internet wasn’t abuzz with his performance, but his decision, along with his cousin blue-chip cornerback Tee Shepard, to visit USC while they were down in Carson for the game.

That Greenberry and Shepard would step foot onto USC’s campus alone isn’t surprising — both have said they planned on visiting all along. That it would happen this late in the game, and just before a recruiting dead period, has Irish fans shaking in their boots. Greenberry told Rivals.com this weekend that no matter what, he and his cousin were going to college together. And with Shepard early enrolling at the college of his choice, we’ll likely know in a matter of days where the talented duo ends up.

Keeping Notre Dame fans (and coaches) sane are the quotes that accompany Greenberry’s acknowledgement of the package deal:

“Tee said he is really interested in them so my boy wants me to go out there and check them out so that’s what I’m going to do,” Greenberry said.

“They want me. I’m going to keep it open. Right now I’m solid to Notre Dame so that’s where I’m at right now. Right now I’m 100 percent solid to Notre Dame.”

Greenberry, who had a touchdown catch, a fumble recovery and an interception in Washington Union’s victory, has said throughout his recruitment that he wanted to leave California for college but the Trojans – and many other teams – have continued to recruit him.

He said he’ll definitely listen to what USC offers on the visit.

“Like I said at the beginning of my recruitment, I wanted to leave the state so that’s where my mind is still,” Greenberry said.

“It’s not just Notre Dame. I just want to get away from home and experience some new things.”

Since the visit, news has been scarce, but that hasn’t stopped fans from worrying. For those with a doomsday attitude, the timing is horrendous for the Irish. Entering a quiet period, Lane Kiffin and the USC staff essentially had the last word with Shepard, who would have the chance to enroll at Southern Cal on Wednesday for the early signing period. For skeptics, they’ll point to Shepard using the official visit for a free flight to watch his cousin (and what should have been his teammates if not for a transfer hiccup) play and get a visit that’s long been on their list of places out of the way.

Greenberry might be the most important recruit on the Irish board, especially with Michael Floyd departing. On paper, there’s no question that the fit at Notre Dame is better for him, with a depth chart wide open compared to Robert Woods and Marquise Lee. The same can be said for Shepard, who will watch Gary Gray and Robert Blanton play their last games at cornerback next week and the depth chart behind them unsettled.

Irish coaches had a chance to speak with Shepard and Greenberry last night and feel in good shape with both. Of course, they’re used to this kind of thing, working in an industry where your performance is directly tied to trusting the word of 18-year-olds. But the rest of us, we’re just along for the ride. If that means having your hair turn grey because Ronald Darby plans on visiting Clemson or Urban Meyer is taking a run at Taylor Decker, get used to it, because this coaching staff has.

Unlike previous regimes, there is no protocol with verbal commitments or looking at other schools. This staff will continue to recruit who they want, whether it’s Nebraska commitment Jordan Westerkamp or all-everything recruits like Nelson Agholor. They’ll win some and they’ll lose some, but it’s been a practice that’s been more than kind to Brian Kelly and his staff. Last year, it landed guys like Everett Golson, who was committed to North Carolina, Aaron Lynch, who was set to enroll at Florida State, and Stephon Tuitt, who had switched his commitment to Georgia Tech just days before Signing Day. A guy like Troy Niklas wasn’t a sure thing until his fax arrived in South Bend that snowy Wednesday morning.

It’s that time of year — panic season for a college football fan. Two years of following recruits, high schoolers many of us have only seen in YouTube highlight reels or with stars attached to their name, all coming to a boil in that first week in February. For the Irish coaching staff, they’ve decided to roll the dice with a ton of high profile players. It’s a strategy that paid off last year, and one that’ll likely determine the fate of this year’s recruiting class.

That’s the price of admission when you’re trying to build a BCS program, and it’s a strategy recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, and the entire coaching staff, have embraced. But for those fans watching nervously in sideline, take note. As they say in the movies, if you’re scared — buy a dog. With high stakes recruiting, if you’re scared — follow Northwestern.

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.