Gunner Kiel

With Kiel to LSU, Irish should mull their QB options

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Don’t blame Gunner Kiel for turning his recruitment into a soap opera. He was merely a bystander as dozens of college football programs battled for one of the country’s most heralded quarterbacking prospects.

With fans from Notre Dame and Vanderbilt holding their breath, Kiel decided to pick the hat that belonged to, well — The Hat. At LSU, Les Miles welcomes a quarterback that will walk into one of the nation’s premiere football programs, and also into a depth chart that’s actually far more inviting than what would have lied in front of him in South Bend.

The Irish’s pursuit of Kiel was one of dogged determination. The Indiana product supposedly grew up a fan of Notre Dame, cooled on the Irish early in recruiting when he committed to Indiana, then circled back as the football season heated up. The Irish always seemed to be a good fit for Kiel personality wise, but Notre Dame never offered enough for Kiel to pull the trigger and commit, a sign that there was likely something keeping him from joining the 2012 recruiting class.

In all likelihood, it was the trio of Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, quarterbacks with two, three and four years of eligibility remaining respectively. It doesn’t take much of a rooting interest to notice the Irish depth chart behind center is a crowded one, and even the transfer of Dayne Crist does nothing to open a pathway for Kiel to quickly ascend to the starting role. We’ll likely only be able to speculate that the depth chart was a factor, but either way — the Irish’s No. 1 quarterbacking target is off the board for 2012.

Let’s take a look at what’s left for options moving forward.

Go get Devin Fuller.

The romance might have the tenure, but once Devin Fuller came onto Irish fans’ radars, it’s been hot and heavy ever since. The dual-threat quarterback is one of the nation’s top athletes, and is a pretty great fallback plan after missing out on Kiel. (Whether it’s sour grapes or not, a ton of Irish fans immediately aimed their sights at Fuller over Kiel, even before Gunner made his decision.)

Fuller was open about his love for the Irish, and he was waiting to see what happened with Kiel before deciding to take an official visit to Notre Dame. Now that Kiel has moved on, the Irish will push to get Fuller to campus as soon as possible, hoping to make up for lost time in the recruiting process.

On film, Fuller looks like a more explosive runner than Everett Golson, but lacking the throwing touch and polish of the Irish freshman. Fuller wants to play quarterback in college, and the Irish will give him that opportunity.

Go get somebody else’s quarterback.

Last year, the Irish came out of the blue to snag Golson out from under Butch Davis and North Carolina’s nose. Could the Irish be planning to do the same thing right now? We likely won’t know until after the 3rd of January, when the coaching staff will go full speed into recruiting, making a final push to secure a full allotment of recruits.

Rounding up the usual suspects, you’d expect the Irish to kick the tires on guys that you’ve heard about in the past. That includes recruits like Maty Mauk, now committed to Missouri, potentially Chad Kelly of Buffalo, now committed to Clemson, and a guy like Washington commit Cyler Miles, who Tony Alford was recruiting out of Denver. Maybe the coaches even take a Hail Mary on Jameis Winston, who’ll be getting a good look at the Irish when they take on Florida State, where he’s currently committed. (Winston is also a big-time baseball prospect, so ask Nebraska fans how the Bubba Starling experience has been so far.)

Realistically, another name is going to pop up on the board fairly quickly, with an even higher chance it’ll be one that I didn’t guess. But we’ll know how the Irish really feel about the three men battling for the starting job next year with how the Irish handle the final month of the season.

Go get cracking on 2013 quarterbacks.

I won’t pretend to tell you I’ve watched Matt Alviti play — a Chicagoland junior quarterback that the Irish targeted early. But if there’s nobody available on the Irish board, expect Brian Kelly and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin to be working hard on 2013 quarterbacks.

In many ways, this could be the preferred situation. It’ll give a little space for a young quarterback to believe he’ll be able to both learn the offense and make an early claim on a starting job. Still, there’s a danger whenever you leave a position open in a recruiting class, and the success rate of multiple quarterbacks in a single class is never very good.

Losing Kiel hurts in the short term, if only because a five-star quarterback would help build momentum amongst the skill players still on the Irish board. But only time will tell if Kiel is truly the one that got away, or another five-star recruit that fails to live up to the hype.

 

 

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.