Atkinson Jackson track

Other spring headlines (and Lynch Practices!)

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Rest easy, Irish fans. Aaron Lynch practiced with the Irish today. If everything we could possibly talk about wasn’t discussed here or here, well — feel free to fill the comments here or take to the message-boards with your thoughts.

We’re moving on to other interesting topics.

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George Atkinson spent Easter weekend in Palo Alto, close to his Northern California home and also competing in the  Stanford Invitational track meet. Atkinson won his heat in the 100m dash, qualifying for the finals with a 10.61 sprint. He finished sixth in the final heat, clocking a 10.69. Atkinson also participated in the 200m dash, clocking a 21.53 run, eight in a field of almost 50 sprinters.

Of course, none of the other sprinters in Palo Alto are 6-1, 210 pound running backs in the middle of spring football practice. Atkinson’s elite speed, not to mention his impressive size and ability to play in space, will be a very intriguing piece of the Irish offense next fall, especially with the depth at the tailback position allowing him to play from the slot and move around the field.

Head coach Brian Kelly has made it known that he sees Atkinson as a running back first, and while he doesn’t have an elite set of hands, there will be plenty of opportunities to get the ball out in space and make plays, not to mention create some favorable match-ups when the Irish can potentially put Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Amir Carlisle and Atkinson on the field at once.

Sure, it’d be great if there weren’t a ton of unanswered questions at the outside receiving positions. But Atkinson — who has the size to line up outside — might be too good of an athlete to keep off the field, playing out of position or not.

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Just when John Goodman was working his way back into the good graces of ND Nation, he spoke with Blue & Gold’s Wes Morgan about the quarterbacking battle. Even though no Irish fan wants to hear it, Goodman said Tommy Rees was leading the way in a four-man race.

“Coach is still working really hard with each one of them,” Goodman told Morgan. “One day one guy will start and another day another guy will start… Each one of them are doing really well. I think that Tommy is doing the best out of all of them, but that’s just my opinion. In the end it’s going to be the guy that runs the offense the best and also has the best timing with receivers and running backs.”

Any analytical approach to defending Rees falls on deaf ears. But while it pains a ton of Irish fans to hear it,  it’s no surprise that a quarterback that’s started 16 games over the past two seasons would be having the best spring camp among a redshirt freshman, an early enrollee, and a guy that got his first sniff of playing in the offensive system in the regular season finale. Dialing things back to the basics with new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin will only accentuate the advantage Rees has, as his core competency was never the issue. (Rees did walk in as a freshman in garbage time against Navy and march the Irish down the field after Dayne Crist struggled to do anything against the Midshipmen.)

Two years ago, when Rees was a rising sophomore battling incumbent (but injured) starter, the battle went well into the summer and fall camp before Kelly named Crist the starter. If any of the other quarterbacks are going to make a move, it’ll likely be during summer work, when there isn’t a clock governing study hours, and the team does its voluntary work together.

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Much has been made about a reported fight between Aaron Lynch and right tackle Tate Nichols that occurred during practice before Easter break. Nichols and Lynch have seen a lot of each other this spring, going one-on-one countless times in drills and positional work, not to mention during scrimmages and team time. At 6-foot-8, 320 pounds, Nichols is a massive guy, a road-grader type that’s impressed coaches with his power and feet. Working under Harry Hiestand, who has lit a collective fire under his offensive line, it’s no surprise that Lynch, who practices like he plays, would mix like oil and water with the guy assigned to blocking him, who is also battling for a starting job.

While nobody wants it to happen, fights occur during practice. They’re also forgotten, as players and coaches move on. It’s certainly news-worthy information that an incident occurred. But it’s a pretty big stretch to think an in-practice fight would be enough to get someone to walk away from the football program. Again, nobody wants to see things come to blows, but when a near decade-long search for “nasty” football players has been at the top of Irish fans wish-lists, these kind of things happen.

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A minor knee injury to linebacker Dan Fox will give linebackers Kendall Moore and Jarrett Grace a chance to see more of the field, as they’ll likely work in with Carlo Calabrese at the position opposite Manti Te’o. Grace was the first player to be dubbed a “werewolf” by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (so that has to be a good thing), and has been really impressive this spring after almost working his way onto the field last season through a packed depth chart.

While Moore might have been the biggest loser when it came to Te’o returning for his senior season, he’s too good of an athlete and playmaker to keep off the field, and Fox’s injury should give Moore a chance to end spring with some momentum. The Irish will focus on recruiting insider linebackers, but there’s some intriguing depth that will give the Irish a chance to find a Corey Mays type player, someone who spent most of his career on special teams before earning his shot to start, before heading to the NFL.

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.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.