South Florida v Notre Dame

After blue-chip recruitment, Fleming flying under NFL radar

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It’ll be interesting to follow Darius Fleming‘s career after leaving South Bend. The graduating Irish linebacker, who came to Notre Dame with sky-high expectations, heads to Indianapolis with far less fanfare. After being one of the top recruits in the country, Fleming will need a solid evaluation season to even end up drafted.

Many assumed Fleming’s career would take a welcome boost from Brian Kelly’s tenure as the Irish head coach. After bouncing between linebacker and undersized defensive end, Fleming seemed the perfect fit at the Cat linebacker position, where his ability to rush the passer and athleticism to play in space would be perfectly utilized. Comparisons to Cincinnati’s Connor Barwin, a combo DE/OLB that excelled when Kelly came to the Bearcats had Irish fans thinking the light-switch would simply flip when Fleming was put into Bob Diaco’s system.

Taking a quick look at Barwin’s combine numbers, Fleming held his own with the former second-round draft pick. Barwin has a size advantage on Fleming, notching in at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds compared to Fleming’s 6-foot-2, 245, and held his own with speed, nudged by less than one-tenth of a second with an official 4.72 sprint in the 40. (Though Barwin did clock an incredible 4.47 forty at his pro day.) Fleming easily bested Barwin in the strength department, but wasn’t near as explosive in the jumping drills.

Of course, Barwin also put together staggering stats in his collegiate career, something Fleming wasn’t able to do. In many ways, Fleming is the personification of arrested player development, flip-flopping early in his career and then struggling to learn on the fly a third defense when Kelly and company came to town. There were dominant flashes were Fleming played like an All-American, but there were also games were No. 45 might as well have been anonymous.

Success at Notre Dame hasn’t necessarily been a good predictor for NFL stability. A professional career like the one David Givens forged after a good, but not great Irish career might be considered a long shot, but watching players like David Bruton and Sergio Brown succeed should have Fleming feeling confident that if he receives a shot, he’ll be able to make the most of it. Like Bruton and Brown, Fleming has the athleticism to play at the next level. He’ll need to show that in drill work and pro days, something both Fleming and his team understand.

‘‘It’s up to Darius to wow ’em in the interview, wow ’em in the film work and chalkboard, shoot for top 10s in all the categories for the combine, and then at the Pro Day kill his skill work,” Fleming’s trainer Elias Karras told the Chicago Sun Times. “That’s where we really see movement, the skill work.’’

Interestingly enough, the lack of continuity that likely plagued his collegiate development might actually become an asset moving forward. Fleming cutting his weight to 245 pounds should have him prepared to gain some positional flexibility at linebacker, potentially allowing him to work from the middle, while his athleticism and speed should make him a valuable special teams contributor.

Either way, after entering Notre Dame will sky-high expectations, perhaps flying under the radar might do Fleming some good.

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.”