Tate Nichols

Local linemen could be recipe for recruiting success

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Losing a recruit like Taylor Decker would usually be cause for alarm. Over the last decade, the Irish have struggled to keep proper inventory along the offensive line, and the loss of a six-foot-eight, 300-pound left tackle prospect, three-star recruit or not, would’ve set off more than a few Irish fans. After all, it was misses like Decker that brought seasons like 2007, when a green offensive line turned a high-powered Irish offense into an inept unit that had linemen that looked more fit for roller derby that football.

A slow rise from the abyss followed that rock bottom season, and by the start of the Brian Kelly era, the Irish were playing solid football along the offensive line. Just as important, they were developing a proper depth chart, with veterans like Andrew Nuss and Mike Golic supplying depth instead of not-quite-ready freshman. As the Irish step into 2012 needing to replace seniors Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, they’ll look to guys like Tate Nichols and Christian Lombard, players with experience in the program and years in a college weight room.

That’s not to say that the Irish can rest on their laurels. After only landing two linemen in the class of 2012, Notre Dame will look to land a sizable group in their next recruiting haul. While the Irish reached to Las Vegas and Charlotte to reel in Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell, Notre Dame will have the opportunity to stay close to home when filling this year’s class with talented offensive linemen.

A quick scan through Notre Dame’s offers and a look at the national rankings for offensive linemen show a talent rich pool in the Midwest. Headlining that group is Michigan’s Steve Elmer, the Irish’s first commitment to the class of 2013. Possibly enrolling for spring semester, Elmer is one of the finest tackles in the country and has the athleticism to run the 100m dash for his high school. Two other relatively local targets that the Irish are already hot after are Chicagoland prospects Kyle Bosch and Ethan Pocic. Both players are already collecting elite offers and the Irish have already been in to visit both and have plans to get both either on or back to campus soon. With Illinois going through a coaching transition with Tim Beckman replacing Ron Zook, Notre Dame should be out in front of the state school in an area where Irish ties are already deep.

Add in players that are already sporting Irish offers like Peoria’s Logan Tuley-Tillman and Indianapolis’ Timothy Gardner, along with regional recruits like Northern Kentucky’s Hunter Bivin and Western Pennsylvania’s Patrick Kugler, and you’re beginning to see a strong base of players that the Irish are chasing, with distances from campus all a reasonable car ride, not usually the case for a school that’s reached wide for its roster.

Whether Notre Dame is chasing players closer to home because that’s how talent evaluation or because they missed on national players like Zack Banner and Arik Armstead is a valid question. While it’s certainly early in the evaluation process for recruiting services, just about every player listed has already been identified as one of the top 250 players in the country by one website or another, meaning the geographical odds might have simply shaken out in Notre Dame’s favor.

If that’s the case, it’s great news for new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who had plenty of success with both the Chicago Bears and the Fighting Illini. With offensive coordinator Chuck Martin still covering Chicago for the Irish, and Tony Alford now coordinating the Irish recruiting effort, there’s plenty of advantages to chasing players close to campus. Namely, the Irish can get multiple visits to campus from a prospect, not just take their one shot with a guy like Banner. That geography helped with a highly touted recruit like Gunner Kiel, who made multiple spontaneous visits to South Bend without the need of booking flights and coordinating family travel.

The Irish will likely look to sign four offensive linemen in a class that could approach 20 players. After going coast to coast to find them the past few years, Notre Dame will merely need to protect its own backyard to put this class together. Success isn’t guaranteed, but a home field advantage can’t hurt.

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.

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.”