Nelson Agholor

Irish head down recruiting home stretch

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Next Wednesday, thousands of college football fans around the country will wake up with it feeling like Christmas morning. That’s because after over a year of building relationships with high school prospects, fax machines across the country will get their annual workout as Letters-of-Intent roll into football offices, with Notre Dame expecting to receive fourteen letters (Sheldon Day, Gunner Kiel and Tee Shepard are already enrolled), with the potential to add another handful of elite players that could turn this class into one of the best in the country.

Next Wednesday, we’ll have a chance to roll out the players who have inked with the Irish. Until then, let’s take a look at the players still up for grabs.

With Gunner Kiel leaving LSU at the altar, the Irish managed to pull arguably the nation’s best quarterback into the fold at the eleventh hour, another amazing recruiting victory by Brian Kelly, who personally recruited Kiel for much of the process.

That said, if the Irish are going to move the needle at Signing Day, it’ll be because they added to their recruiting class with a last minute commitment from some of the most highly touted targets left on their board:

Nelson Agholor, WR: If there’s a big fish left on the offensive board, it’s Agholor. Unfortunately for the Irish, if they don’t end up reeling him in, they’ll likely still see him every season, as it’s looking more and more like Agholor could be heading to Southern California to play for the Trojans.

Agholor reminds me a bit of George Farmer, another all-everything recruit that ended up at USC, and bounced between running back and wide receiver this past season. Rivals.com has him in the top three at his position, among the top 20 players in the country, and he fits the academic profile of a Notre Dame student perfectly.

What he’d bring to ND: Teamed with Greenberry, Agholor would give the Irish the most celebrated recruiting class at the position in the country. (It can’t hurt that the Irish have been the landing spot for high profile transfers from both USC and Florida State, two finalists for Agholor’s services.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Notre Dame was able to get the first official visit for Neal, one of the Southwest’s premiere playmakers, who waited until after winning the Arizona state championship to take any official visits. The Irish are in good shape, but will likely battle through Signing Day for Neal, who plans on taking his time making a decision.

Expect Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes to be the team to beat, with Neal having family in Ohio and getting the Meyer sales pitch that he’ll play the role of Percy Harvin. (That said, don’t count out Rich Rodriguez, now for the hometown Arizona Wildcats.)

What he’d bring to ND: It’s almost ridiculous to imagine the Irish landing both Neal and Agholor, giving the Irish three of the top players in the country at their position. Neal would immediately be the Irish’s most dangerous athlete in the slot, and his recruiting tape is about as impressive as it gets.

Arik Armstead, DL: What happens with Armstead (not to mention his brother Armond) is anyone’s guess. The mammoth prospect did the smart thing and passed up early enrollment, with just too many variables still in play. Already graduated, but not set to attend any school until summer, Armstead will likely attract visitors from every corner of the country, but Notre Dame will be there until the very end. As a two-sport athlete, Armstead will play basketball and football in college, and while talent evaluators can’t decide whether he’d be better on the offensive or defensive line, he’s the kind of prospect the Irish would just welcome in the door and figure out where to put later.

What he’d bring to ND: If Armstead ends up in South Bend, that’s another recruiting class where Notre Dame cherry-picks one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, after struggling to get anyone since what feels like the Holtz era. Armstead likely brings his brother Armond, who needs medical clearance for an undisclosed ailment, but is an NFL caliber defensive end with one year of eligibility remaining.

Ken Ekanem, LB: After loading up at the linebacker position, the Irish only have Romeo Okwara committed at the outside linebacker spot in the 2012 recruiting class. One name that might still jump on board is Virginia’s Ken Ekanem, a middle linebacker that tore his ACL during the state playoffs. The injury forced Ekanem to delay his official visit, finally set for this weekend. The Irish will likely battle Virginia Tech for Ekanem’s signature, and it still remains to be seen if they’re at a place where they’ll accept his commitment.

What he’d bring to ND: With Manti Te’o returning for his senior season, Ekanem would be a luxury item, and likely one that’d come to ND if the Irish miss on other targets that fill greater needs. Either way, Ekanem will likely spend 2012 getting healthy, especially with depth in the middle plentiful.

Ronald Darby, CB: Notre Dame long counted Darby among its most high profile commitments. But after staying true to his commitment for much of the process, Darby opened things up after the Under Armor All-American game, while still keeping the Irish in play along with Clemson, Florida State, and Auburn. Darby is among the fastest players in the country and Brian Kelly will be in his household to try and get Darby back in the fold.

What he’d bring to ND: If Darby ends up at Notre Dame, he’ll team with Tee Shepard to be the most impressive cornerbacking duo in the country (in terms of recruiting rankings). With both Gary Gray and Robert Blanton gone, Darby would step onto campus an immediate candidate for playing time and could make an instant impact on special teams as well.

Brian Poole, CB: The Irish haven’t given up on Poole, a commit to the Florida Gators who has built a strong relationship with Tony Alford. Poole is in that same stratosphere with Darby and Shepard, one of the best players in Florida and a guy that could also immediately challenge for playing time in South Bend. He’s reaffirmed his commitment to the Gators every time he’s been asked about it the media, but don’t expect the Irish to go down without a fight.

What he’d bring to ND: Another elite cornerback that’d immediately make a mark in the depth chart. If the Irish were somehow able to sign Darby, Shepard, and Poole, Irish fans should be dancing in the street.

Anthony Standifer, CB: Far from a backup plan, Standifer was long committed to Michigan before mutually parting ways with the Wolverines and opening back up his recruitment. The Illinois native was on campus last weekend, and it sounds like only a foreign language requirement (something he could pick up this spring) is in between the Irish and this 6-foot-1 cover cornerback.

What he’d bring to ND: Standifer might not come with the prestige of the guys we just listed, but he’s far from a program body and has offers from Pitt, Iowa, and Wisconsin — nothing to sneeze at. Standifer would give the Irish another versatile athlete at cornerback, helping solidify a spot with a lot of balls in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.