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Front four reveals multiple options


The days of calling Notre Dame a 3-4 defense are over. In fact, you’d have been wrong if you called the Irish a predominantly 3-4 defense last year. While opposing coaches looked to use the Irish’s odd-man front as recruiting ammunition to keep edge rushers from joining Bob Diaco‘s defense in South Bend, the reality — both last season, and likely moving forward — is that the Irish defense will spend more time with four down linemen than three.

Thanks to some impressive work led by friend of the blog and former Blue-Gray Sky contributor Pat Mitsch, a breakdown of every regular season defensive snap is a pretty illuminating look at just how the Irish defensive line operated. The Irish defense played 819 snaps on the regular season. Of those snaps, 453 of them had the Irish in a four-down alignment, or roughly 55 percent of the time.

Digging into those numbers a little bit deeper, a pattern emerges for the Irish defense. First, after a more than disappointing debut against the option in 2010, the Irish defense has kept options teams in check, mainly playing a four-man front. Against Navy, the Irish defense played 63 snaps, but all but one of them was played with four down linemen.

(More interesting, considering how dominant the Irish were in beating up the Midshipmen 56-14, Harrison Smith still played 60 snaps. That goes a long way towards telling you just how important Smith was to keeping the defense aligned.)

Continuing the Irish’s solid play against Air Force, Notre Dame played 84 percent of their snaps in a four-down set, likely only playing more base defense as the Irish developed their second and third string defense in a fourth quarter that saw the Falcons score 17 points.

The key swing player in all of this was Darius Fleming. In a three-man front, Fleming was basically never seen with his hand on the ground. But in four-man fronts, Fleming took the leading amount of snaps at both defensive end positions (48% and 35%), showing a diversity that’ll likely come in handy if he’s to continue playing on Sundays. If you’re looking for Fleming’s replacement as that swing player, it’ll likely be Prince Shembo, who spent the third-most time at both defensive end positions with four-down linemen, ahead of guys like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, who both played more inside at tackle in a front-four.

The fact that the Irish defense played so well in 2011 without big seasons from Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore gives you an idea of just how talented this young defensive front will be moving forward. Johnson, who was limited with an ankle injury, only played 39 percent of snaps this season. Lewis-Moore, who was lost with a season-ending knee injury, played only 46 percent of snaps, after playing 75 percent of the snaps until his injury.

If you had to speak in generalities, it looks like the Irish prefer to take on traditional pro-style offenses with a three-man front while playing mobile quarterbacks or spread teams with a front-four. Games against Michigan State, Purdue, USC, and Maryland saw the Irish predominantly play three-down linemen. Against teams with mobile quarterbacks (USF, Michigan, Air Force, Navy and Wake Forest), the Irish played heavier with a front-four.

Either way, the Irish got strong play from Mike Elston’s unit along the defensive line, made even more impressive by the fact that major contributors like Lynch (53%), Louis Nix (47%), and Tuitt (34% even while missing three games), all took the first snaps of their college careers in 2011. With the Irish needing to replace four of their top five snap-takers on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll be up to the front line to carry the weight next season. Regardless of how many down linemen are playing.

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

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.

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)

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.