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Faced with adversity, Kelly turns offense over to Martin

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For the first two years of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, Charley Molnar was the offensive coordinator. That much, just about everybody knows. What we don’t know, is what kind of say Molnar had in actually, well — coordinating the offense.

As it tends to happen, many are speculating about Molnar’s departure from Notre Dame for the head coaching position at UMass. Logic dictates that just about any lifetime assistant coach would jump for the opportunity to run his own program, and after a career traversing the college football world, Molnar certainly fits the mold of a guy ready for his shot. Of course, rumblings coming from around the dome also could have you believe that Molnar was out of South Bend whether it was with a new job or not, something Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com wrote earlier this week.

As Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated notes, second year shake-ups are nothing new for Irish coaching staffs. Charlie Weis dropped Rick Minter for Corwin Brown. Bob Davie dropped Jim Colletto for Kevin Rogers. And Lou Holtz had the biggest turnover of any recent Irish coach, with outside linebackers coach Barry Alvarez taking over coordinator duties for Foge Fazio, Chuck Heater brought in to run the secondary, and Joe Yonto moved out at offensive line to bring in Joe Moore. So before Irish fans believe that the sky is falling, consider that Kelly knows what he has on his staff better than anyone, and promoting from within is one of the reasons there’s a statue of Barry Alvarez in Madison, and the path to the Rose Bowl know goes through Camp Randall.

That’s not to assume that Chuck Martin is the second coming of Alvarez, but the fact that Kelly turned to Martin after pledging to fix the offense after a disheartening loss to Florida State carries some weight. If you spend any time around the coaching staff, it won’t take you long to notice Martin, who carries himself like a second head coach and has the chops to prove it. When Martin joined the staff after leaving Grand Valley, those who knew him were surprised that he came without being tagged a coordinator, instead coaching the secondary and coordinating the team’s recruiting efforts. Two seasons later, Martin is getting that chance, moving to the offensive side of the ball and advancing his coaching resume at the same time.

Of course, what Martin’s tenure as offensive coordinator means still remains to be seen. As Molnar also did, Martin will coach quarterbacks, working day to day with a new position group after working with the secondary for his first two seasons. Almost immediately, we’ve seen Martin’s fingerprints on recruiting, with the Irish chasing quarterback Devin Fuller, an elite five-star athlete that’s been promised a chance to work at quarterback after previously being offered as a defensive back. (How good of an athlete is Fuller? Consider this Irish Sports Daily report that has him already working with the first unit wide receivers at the Army All-American bowl, after playing wideout for the first time in his life upon arriving in San Antonio.) Martin has also been instrumental in reaffirming the commitments of recruits Will Mahone and Taylor Decker, after both Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner, two coaches instrumental in their respective recruitment, joined Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff.

Looking back at Martin’s recent Grand Valley team’s, you get an idea of how he likes to power an offense. Continuing with the system Kelly put in place, Martin evolved his spread attack into one that moved mostly by ground, with his last four teams running the ball at least sixty percent of the time.

2006: 538 runs, 355 passes (60.2%/39.8%)
2007: 541 runs, 329 passes (62.2%/37.8%)
2008: 464 runs, 280 passes (62.4%/37.6%)
2009: 599 runs, 397 passes (60%/40%)

To put that into context, here’s the run/pass splits for the Irish over the past two seasons.

2010: 414 runs, 481 passes (46.3%/53.7%)
2011: 433 runs, 473 passes (47.8%/52.2%)

Of course, the first question every Irish fan should be asking is what quarterback will be taking snaps next year, and what role  the quarterback will play in the running game. Recruiting a guy like Fuller gives you an idea that Martin likes to run the quarterback as well, and a deeper look at the numbers confirms that. Here’s a breakdown of quarterback carries from the four-year span at Grand Valley we just looked at.

2006: 538 carries: 139 from QBs (25.8%)
2007: 541 carries: 117 from QBs (21.6%)
2008: 464 carries: 50 from QBs (10.7%)
2009: 599 carries: 66 from QBs (11.0%)

Adding more context to those numbers, Martin’s offense evolved as his quarterback changed. In 2006, Cullen Finnerty was the starter, throwing for 41 touchdown passes while also running 132 times for 8 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards a carry as the team’s second leading ball carrier for a team that averaged 35.5 points a game. In 2007, Brad Iciek took over the quarterbacking position, and while he did run the ball, he was spelled by Central Florida transfer Marquel Neasman, who worked in primarily as a running quarterback. The quarterbacks still ran the ball over 20 percent of the time for an offense that averaged 7.1 yards a play and put up 38.2 points a game.

Digging deeper, a quick look at Brian Kelly’s last two teams at Cincinnati shows similarities to Martin when he’s playing a mobile quarterback. Obviously, Kelly wasn’t responsible for the depth chart he inherited, and didn’t have a running quarterback until Andrew Hendrix emerged late this season. Here’s a look at the percentage of quarterback rushes as a percentage of overall carries, including the leading QB ball carrier (minimum 10 carries).

2008: 347 rushing, 100 from QBs (28.8%) – Collaros 6.0 ypc
2009: 444 rushing, 111 from QBs (25.0%) – Collaros 4.8 ypc
2010: 414 rushes, 73 rushes (17.6%) – Crist 1.4 ypc
2011: 433 rushes, 61 rushes (14.1%) – Hendrix 6.5 ypc

Kelly and Martin have two quarterbacks on campus, Hendrix and rising sophomore Everett Golson, that’ll immediately solve the quarterback running game problem. Of course, one of those two will need to win the starting job before we can see if the Irish will break out a rushing attack, though you’d have to expect it with no clear No. 1 wide receiver behind tight end Tyler Eifert, and Tommy Rees seeming to stagnate down the stretch.

Maybe more important than just about any schematic change to the offense is having Martin’s confidence and moxie on the offensive side of the ball. Martin’s edge, quick humor, and style are polar opposites of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. With both coaches on the defensive side of the ball, you had two very different styles of teaching the same thing, while Diaco’s heightened intensity and earnestness the opposite side of the dial from where Martin lives. Perhaps Martin’s fearlessness, his ability to motivate and coach hard (without turning purple and upping the decibels) will be good for an offense that needs a little swagger after getting mighty vanilla as the season played out. Martin’s confidence — both in his abilities and his players — will be a godsend for a unit that didn’t hold up its end of the bargain down the stretch.

Two summers ago, I spent time with Kelly’s coaching staff, and got an up-close look at how the staff interacted. Still in the infancy of their time together, it was clear there was a corp group of guys that formed a quick bond. It’s amazing that the three coaches that seemed the most detached, are the first three coaches out the door. Charley Molnar had worked for Kelly since 2006, but you got the feeling he didn’t fit completely with the rest of the group. The same can be said for Tim Hinton, who Kelly inherited from Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, and Ed Warinner, who was a stranger to everyone, coming over from Kansas after pursuing a job on Kelly’s staff. It didn’t take long to identify Martin as a leader among the assistant coaches, even if his title didn’t say it after ascending to the D-I level.

Of course, none of that matters until we see what the offense looks like this coming spring, and learn more about how much input Martin will have in a system where the head coach will likely continue to call the plays. But facing his first bit of macro-level adversity, Kelly turned to Martin to help right the ship. How it works out, only time will tell. But the decision means quite a bit.

 

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

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.