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Weekend notes: Shembo, Hiestand, Heuerman, and more

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Brian Kelly met with the media after practice today, with the biggest piece of news being an injury to linebacker Prince Shembo. Spotted wearing a boot on his left foot, Kelly didn’t seem overly concerned about a slight case of turf toe, which will keep him off the field for a handful of days.

An injury to any of the outside linebackers on the roster would put the Irish in a precarious situation, but right now it lets Ishaq Williams get a taste of the starting job. Williams has been an interesting test case this spring, with both Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco mentioning the changes in Williams’ energy level during practice.

“He’s getting there. He’s getting there. The light is starting to go on,” Kelly said. “There were a couple of instances today where there were some one-on-one match-ups between Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams… Pretty exciting stuff. He’s getting there. He’s got to do it consistently, but we know what he’s capable of when it all starts to come together.”

You can see the exchange in UND.com’s video (embedded right below here), and the smile that comes to Kelly’s face shows you just how impressive both Williams and Niklas are as athletes.

There’s no reason to think Shembo’s injury is a serious one, but it sounds like Justin Utupo would be a guy that could potentially flex out to the ‘cat’ linebacker position, as it wouldn’t make any sense to shift Niklas back to defense after spending the spring and offseason transitioning.

Here’s the Kelly’s entire exchange with the press from earlier.

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The early returns on new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand are excellent. While the early returns on every new assistant coach are usually good, Hiestand has immediately shown himself an impressive recruiter and someone the players have latched onto from the get-go.

As someone that was extremely excited about the Ed Warinner hire when it happened, I expected the loss of Warinner to Ohio State be something that hurt the Irish offense. But from snooping around people close to the program, and just listening to some of the players and their reactions to Hiestand, it’s clear that the fit is a good one and the transition has been ultimately positive — almost addition by subtraction according to some.

Pete Sampson at IrishIllustrated.com has a great article showing just how much allegiance Hiestand’s players show him, with former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz visiting South Bend this week to spend time on the field with the Irish offensive line.

Chris Watt walked into the film room and stumbled across a legend.

Deep inside the Gug watching videos of Notre Dame’s offensive line was former Chicago Bear Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowl center. For a Chicagoland senior who grew up driving to Bears training camps, the introduction offered a shot of star power and insight into Harry Hiestand.

“I was definitely surprised,” Watt said. “How much he really wants to come back and help (Hiestand) and cares about him says a lot.”

Kreutz attended Notre Dame’s practice Wednesday morning and stayed after to work with the line on technique. In the afternoon the 13-year NFL star planned to watch tape with Hiestand, breaking down a group Notre Dame’s new line coach has drilled for just five practices.

Kreutz and Hiestand spent five years together with the Bears, which included a Super Bowl run in 2006. He attended a spring practice at Tennessee last year when Hiestand worked in Knoxville, driving more than eight hours to get there.

We’ll ultimately know how well Hiestand does with this line after watching it work next fall, but if Kreutz is any indication, Hiestand’s players stay tremendously loyal to him.

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After a week where the Irish recruiting class made staggering in-roads, Notre Dame is entertaining one of the nation’s top tight ends, with Naples, Florida’s Mike Heuerman on campus this weekend. The line for Heuerman’s signature is pretty distinguished, and if the Irish are going to win out, they’ll need to beat schools like LSU, Miami, Florida State, and Ohio State, where Heuerman’s brother Jeff plays tight end for for Urban Meyer.

That said, the Irish sales pitch is pretty impressive, with Jake Brown getting a great quote from Heuerman on new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin‘s sales pitch.

“I was on the phone with Coach Martin,” Heuerman told Brown. “He was telling me, ‘When you’re here to watch practice this is our every day practice. When you see what we’re doing with the tight ends you’ll definitely be stunned and almost blown away and you’ve got to understand we’re not doing this Thursday and Friday because Mike Heuerman will be in town. This is what we do every single practice and this is what we plan on doing in the games.’”

If you listened to Kelly’s presser from above, it’s pretty clear the Irish are going to be playing two tight ends a lot of the time, with Eifert likely detached from the line and a physical mismatch with a cornerback. While Eifert is listed as a TE, he might as well be a jumbo-WR, and the battle to play the traditional tight end position is a three-man race between Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas, and Alex Welch, with Jake Golic also in the mix.

The switch of Niklas to the offensive side of the ball was a head-scratcher for some — especially when they turned down an elite TE recruit in Taylor McNamara. But when you consider they needed someone physically ready to be an in-line blocker first and a pass catcher second, it explains why you go to someone as physically impressive as Niklas, who is essentially an slightly undersized, more athletic left tackle.

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Finally, Notre Dame welcomed five walk-ons to the football program this spring. I’ve already spotted a few of these guys in the UND videos, but here are the official roster listings:

  • No. 67: Kevin Carr, DE | 6-7, 325 | junior (Nashville, Tenn./Montgomery Bell Academy)
  • No. 17: Charlie Fiessinger, QB | 6-1, 185 | sophomore (Mason, Ohio/Moeller)
  • No. 63: Grant Patton, DE | 6-6, 256 | senior (Louisville, Ky./Saint Xavier)
  • No. 94: Dominic Romeo, DE | 6-6, 245 | junior (Turlock, Calif./Pitman)
  • No. 84: Andre Smith, WR | 6-2, 190 | sophomore (Davie, Fla./North Broward Prep)

One walk-on that’s also making some noise in camp is Minnesotan Connor Little, who is in the rotation at the ‘dog’ linebacker with Ben Councell and Danny Spond. Little, a six-foot-three, 225-pound freshman was a recruited walk-on from Hill-Murray High School in St. Paul, and had some opportunities to play Ivy League football before choosing Notre Dame.

 

 

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.”