Ty Isaac

Junior Day focuses on four top prospects

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The Irish recruiting class of 2013 hasn’t exactly jumped out of the gates. With blue-chip offensive tackle Steve Elmer committed since September, the Irish haven’t added anybody yet to a recruiting class that’ll likely build to around 20 recruits when it’s all said and done. While the early success Michigan and Ohio State have had hasn’t likely been lost on Brian Kelly and his coaching staff, there’s a slightly different approach being taken this year by the Irish, who hosted their first junior day this weekend.

Instead of bringing in large group of prospects, the Irish staff focused their attention on four recruits near the top of their board. That list included running back Ty Isaac, the Midwest’s top running back and linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the best players in the country and another talented player from Fort Wayne. Also joining were defensive end / tight end Jacob Matuska from Columbus, Ohio and North Carolina wide receiver Keeon Johnson, a big-bodied outside receiver from a state the Irish have had a lot of success in.

With reports rolling in after the weekend, the Irish made positive strides with all four players, although none pulled the trigger on a commitment (something nobody truly expected anyway). Here’s some reaction from the players pulled from around the interwebs:

TY ISAAC – Running Back

There might not be a more important offensive recruit than Isaac, who is being recruited by Chuck Martin and has just began building a relationship with new running backs coach Tony Alford. It’s hard to match Isaac’s offer sheet, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ player of the year spent the weekend getting some questions answered on his role in an evolving Irish offense. Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com got some interesting insights from Isaac after his trip to South Bend.

“They said they’re only taking one running back in my class,” Isaac told Sapp. “I don’t feel any pressure about the situation, though. I want to get out and see all the schools I’m interested in. Notre Dame is a good place, but I’m not going to put the pressure on myself to worry about if the one spot is taken.”

One of the biggest things the Irish needed to do this weekend was let Isaac know his role in the offense, with the spread not necessarily the top choice for an I-back that’s put up record-setting numbers after carrying for 2,600 yards and scoring 51 touchdowns while leading his high school to a state championship. It seems like that was accomplished with Martin, Alford and Kelly spending significant time breaking down film and continuing to build their relationship.

“Coach Martin has told me about some of the things he wants to do. He showed me how they would use me,” Isaac told Sapp. “Coach Alford talked about what he’ll be doing as a position coach and the relationship he has with the players. A way I can look at the situation with Coach Alford having both running backs and slot receivers is a way to get some extra touches working both positions, and that’s a plus for Notre Dame.”

The battle for Isaac will likely continue until Signing Day, with coaches like Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke, and Lane Kiffin also taking dead aim at the talented Joliet product. But from the sounds of it, the Irish will be in this race until the end.

JAYLON SMITH – Linebacker

The recruiting weekend got off to an inauspicious start when All-American tight end Tyler Eifert publicly tweeted that he was looking forward to hanging with fellow Fort Wayne native Smith this weekend. As noted by the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton, the public mention might have run afoul with NCAA rules, though it’s far from a major issue and Eifert’s tweet was deleted, ending any issue and pulling him within 2,348 secondary recruiting violations of many college head coaches.

While the Twitter update won’t be coming anytime soon, Smith did have a chance to spend time with Eifert and also was partnered with another one of the Irish’s big fish, All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Like Te’o was four years ago, Smith is likely the top target for the Irish at linebacker, where Smith could fit in at multiple positions, with his size and athleticism and pass rush skills.

You’d almost expect Smith to be ready to commit to Ohio State with his brother already playing for Urban Meyer, but from the sound of it, Smith is legitimately looking to spread his wings and make his own mark. That might be very good news for the Irish, who have done quite well in their early pursuit of the explosive athlete.

“The thing with Notre Dame is that all the people there are really genuine, and you can tell it’s a special place,” Smith told IrishSportsDaily.com. “The players have a special bond with each other and I thought that was really cool. I got to hang out with Manti and Tyler Eifert. Both of them are great guys, Manti and I connected. I could see myself playing next to him. He’s a very humble person and we definitely formed a bond.”

If you’re looking for good news, it’s that Smith is looking to make it back to South Bend for the Blue-Gold game, set for April 21.

KEEON JOHNSON – Wide receiver

Johnson is an interesting target and another product of the Irish’s excellent network in the Carolinas. At six-foot-three, 200-pounds, Johnson is the type of big-bodied wide receiver that the Irish are looking to add to their depth chart, and Notre Dame is one of the first non-regional offers Johnson has gathered.

The offer must have held some weight because the Johnson family took an 11-hour drive to South Bend to hear what the Irish coaching staff had to say and came away mighty impressed. Along with the usual niceties that come along with seeing the Notre Dame campus for the first time, Johnson talked about where he’d fit into the Irish scheme.

“We talked about the scheme and I would be the X or the W, but the outside receiver basically playing the backside of the offense in one-on-one situations,” Johnson told Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com. “The position is for a long, tall receiver, and they said I’d be perfect at that spot for them. I’ve played that position most of my high school career anyway, so it would be a good fit.”

While Johnson doesn’t grade out yet on many national recruiting websites, it’s hard not to compare him to the under-the-radar Chris Brown when thinking of Johnson. As a recruit that’s planning to enroll early, it was a really important step for the Irish to get Johnson on campus early, and potentially get a return trip before an official visit that’ll happen during the football season.

JACOB MATUSKA – Defensive End

If you’re looking for the prototype “big skill” player that Kelly mentioned targeting in this recruiting class, Matuska represents one of the early targets. At six-foot-five, and 250 pounds, Matuska is another big body that’s been looked at as both a tight end and defensive end, with the Irish slotting him to work with Mike Elston on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish offered Matuska a scholarship a few weeks ago and they’ve hardly been the only big-name program chasing after the Columbus native. While the hometown Buckeyes have yet to offer, Matuska has picked up offers from Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma recently. After his weekend visit to South Bend, it’s clear that the Irish staff know where they see him fitting into the defensive system.

Christian McCollum of Irish Sports Daily caught up with Matuska’s father, who spoke candidly about his son’s two-way options.

“Coach talked about, ‘Could he play tight end? Yes,’ but they see his best position for Notre Dame at defensive end,” the elder Matuska told IrishSportsDaily.com. “Notre Dame has a need and they’re looking for a position. That’s where they see him. We appreciate that, we respect that and we’re honored and happy that they would think about him and consider him for that position.”

It appears that the Irish coaching staff is already preparing for the eventuality of losing both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. If both talented rising sophomores take the leaps in their game the coaching staff hopes, that could be sooner than later, which explains the focus on players of Matuska’s profile. From various reports, it seems like Matuska could be one of the first to make their decision.

“We’ll get a chance to talk about it and put it all in perspective. It is a very big decision, obviously that’s an understatement,” Jim Matuska told ISD. “We don’t have a timetable, but I think we have what we need at this point. I would think it would be sooner than later if he can be confident of his decision. That could come very soon.”

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.

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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.