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Pregame Six Pack: Blue & Gold (and a certain Irish victory)

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It may count the same as the other fourteen practices allotted by NCAA rules during the spring, but there will be plenty of eyeballs on the last official workout of the school year for the Irish. With a national broadcast on NBC Sports Network kicking off at 1:30 p.m. ET, a spring spent mostly working away from the eyes of media will be opened up for all to see in high definition, tightening the microscope on a Notre Dame football program that’s had a roller-coaster spring.

From position changes to unexpected departures, a quarterback battle that’ll likely last deep into August, and a wide receiving corps in desperate need of reinforcements, plenty has happened since the Irish ended the 2011 season with a disappointing loss to Florida State.

To get you up to speed, the pregame six pack will give you six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings, as we prepare for a football game where the Irish are certain to win.

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While the focus should stay on the players on the field, the most intriguing football player on campus is still Aaron Lynch.

Brian Kelly isn’t in the business of talking people into staying. In his first days as coach at Notre Dame, he wished wide receiver Shaq Evans well, unwilling to re-recruit a talented player to a team where he wasn’t committed to playing. While mystery still surrounds cornerback Tee Shepard‘s departure, Kelly didn’t blink when Shepard went home to Fresno, looking more and more a lock to never set foot on campus again after being one of the Irish’s most steadfast (and important) recruits.

A week ago, Kelly addressed the media without flinching, announcing that rising star defensive end Aaron Lynch “has quit the football team.” While he remains on campus finishing the semester before deciding where to take his prodigious talents, it appears that Kelly is fine with living the credo “next man in.” But that doesn’t mean his family is.

Thursday evening, Alice Lynch, Aaron’s mother and an active presence on Twitter, took to the popular social networking website to seek the help of former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck. “Please go to Zahm Hall and tell my son Aaron what a bad decision he is making by leaving ND. Thank you.”

The message spread like wildfire across the web, and certainly confirmed the suspicions of many that the younger Lynch is making a unilateral decision, one that wasn’t run by his mother, teammates, or coaches. That Lynch’s mother would reach out of Notre Dame’s best NFL player, a defensive end that battled culture shock in South Bend to become one of the best ambassadors of the university playing professional football, shows both the power of social media, and the lengths Lynch’s mother is willing to go to talk sense into her son.

Former Irish player Spencer Boyd took to Twitter today to announce Lynch would be joining Skip Holtz‘s South Florida team this summer, and there were other reports that Lynch would be visiting Tampa for a visit this weekend. But the fact Lynch’s mother would reach out to Tuck, who is serving as an honorary captain this Saturday, gives you the feeling that the final chapter in Lynch’s Notre Dame career may not have been written in ink.

***

With the depth chart at wide receiver dwindling, it’s time for Daniel Smith and Davaris Daniels to step up.

As the Irish enter the first year of life after Michael Floyd, they’ll walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a depth chart more than a little short. With incoming freshman Justin Ferguson and Chris Brown not coming to campus until summer, even at full strength, it was tough to field a complete depth chart at the outside receiver positions.

Add to that some untimely injuries this spring, and the lack of receivers was a big reason Kelly decided against a traditional scrimmage that split the roster in half. With fifth-year senior John Goodman suffering a minor ankle injury that’ll likely keep him out of the spring game and Luke Massa suffering an ACL injury that’ll likely keep him sidelined into next season, the Irish are down to four scholarship players at the outside receiver positions — a number that just isn’t enough in a spread offense.

But the shortage should benefit two players that were persons of interest this spring: rising junior Daniel Smith and soon-to-be sophomore Davaris Daniels. Both have been under close watch by Kelly, and both seem to have performed up to task.

After bearing the brunt of some candid comments by Kelly, Daniels — who has already been pronounced one of the most dynamic athletes on the roster by the head coach — turned in a steady week of practice and has the staff feeling like he’ll be ready to go come fall.

“This last week, DaVaris Daniels really stepped up his play and became a guy that we can feel comfortable now saying that he’s going to help us win games next year,” Kelly said. “That’s a really important thing.”

After battling a difficult depth chart and some injury woes in his first two years in the program, Smith, a South Bend native that’s yet to make much of a difference on the field, made it through spring practice unscathed and ready to use his 6-foot-4 frame for some good.

“Daniel is important to us,” Kelly said this week. “We need him to come up and be a consistent player for us, and it’s been about injuries for him. He’s got the injury bug and it looks like he’s kicked it because he made every spring practice and he hadn’t been able to do that in his previous time here. So a really positive step for Daniel Smith this spring.”

TJ Jones returns the most snaps at the receiver position, and we’ll see if he can make a leap as an upperclassman after battling through a challenging season off the field last season. We’ll also see walk-on Andre Smith getting some reps, as the North Broward Prep, Florida prospect has done some nice things this spring.

***

While Kelly’s declared the playbook open, don’t expect to see all the new wrinkles.

Talking with coaches the past two years, the Blue-Gold game was one of the least efficient practices of the season. In Brian Kelly’s first year, the offense ran about as vanilla as it could possibly go, with Irish fans dazzled at a quick pace, and more than fine with seeing the same three running plays. On defense, Bob Diaco made sure his unit didn’t run a single alignment that they’d use during the season.

Last season, Kelly and company were happy to get out of the workout unscathed, with defensive starters pulled quickly, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees both protected and pulled quickly, and the second half given to Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, not to mention the breakout performance of Aaron Lynch.

With four quarterbacks that need to see live bullets, and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin running the show, Kelly has reversed course on what he’s trying to get out of the spring’s final workout.

“We’re going to show,” Kelly said. “Everybody has film on us. So we’re going to run our offense and our defense, and our quarterbacks are live, all four quarterbacks are live. They need to be live, they need to be part of it.”

Making his quarterbacks live is a luxury the Irish didn’t have in Kelly’s last two spring games, both featuring Crist rehabilitating a major knee injury. And while each quarterback will be treated like any other ball carrier, don’t truly expect to see all the new wrinkles come out, especially with Martin and Kelly completely revamping the personnel groupings.

One new play in particular to watch for? The “Fly Sweep” that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen used to shred Clemson’s defense with in the Orange Bowl. (For the genesis of the play, here’s a great rundown.) We’ve already seen the play in UND.com practice videos, meaning Martin and Kelly won’t be afraid to show it again. With talented slot versatility with guys like Robby Toma, Theo Riddick, incoming freshman Davonte Neal and even Cierre Wood, don’t be surprised to see this come into play on Saturday.

***

Jamoris Slaughter will only be adding to his versatility.

After dropping down into the box last season to play outside linebacker against Air Force, the defense found one of its most versatile weapons in safety Jamoris Slaughter. After losing most of his junior year with a nagging foot injury suffered in the opener against Purdue, Slaughter showed his value by moving seamlessly from the back of the defense to the front seven, working well taking on both pulling guards and speedy receivers, filling in for field linebacker Prince Shembo, who struggled playing out of position for most of the year.

With field cornerback a major concern with Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson battling it out for the job across from junior Bennett Jackson, don’t be surprised to see Slaughter working in at another spot, optimizing one of the Irish’s most flexible players. What looked like an experiment at cornerback earlier in the spring is now clearly cross-training.

“I don’t think it’s an experiment,” Kelly said. “He’s in there if we need him. If we get into a bind or we lose a guy or two, he can go in there. I remember when I played baseball, I carried two gloves: a catcher’s mitt and a first baseman’s glove. That’s kind of what we’re doing with Jamoris. He’s our safety, but he’s got to be ready to go if we need him.”

There’s no cornerback help coming in the fall, with Shepard gone and the Irish unable to bring in any other recruits after players like Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer had to be taken off the recruiting board. While Cam McDaniel has shown promise in his 14 practices learning a new position, getting the cornerbacks off the field healthy is of the utmost importance, as is making sure Slaughter can play anywhere. With the coaches confident that Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth can handle safety reps, adding another dimension to Slaughter’s game will only help.

***

It’s a recruiting reunion on campus this weekend for the Irish.

In years past, the Blue-Gold game has been a showcase weekend for the Irish coaching staff as they unofficially welcome handfuls of recruits to campus. That’ll stay the same this weekend, though most recruits coming to campus have already given their pledge to the Irish.

Nine of the ten verbal commitments to the Irish will be in South Bend this weekend for the Blue-Gold game. Offensive linemen Hunter Bivin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern will all reunite after seeing each other at the Irish’s last junior day. They’ll be joined by cornerback Devin Butler, defensive end Jacob Matuska, wide receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson and quarterback Malik Zaire. The only commitment that can’t make it this weekend is New Jersey cornerback Rashad Kinlaw.

The Irish hoped to get an appearance from uber-recruit Jaylon Smith, but the Fort Wayne product — who was timed running a 4.4, and dazzled at his regular outside linebacker/defensive end position before taking reps as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound shutdown cornerback at an Adidas combine recently — will be playing in a seven-on-seven tournament.

But fear not, Irish fans. Notre Dame has its own secret weapon working on Smith. None other than the school’s most popular athlete, All-American point guard Skylar Diggins. After Smith tweeted out candidates like Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and USC, Diggins — for all of her 230,439 followers to see — tweeted back at Smith, “Irish. Easy.”

***

Blue-Gold performance is no indicator for future earnings.

There are plenty of reasons to watch the Blue-Gold game on Saturday. (First of all, it’s your last chance to watch the Irish on TV until you’re up at dawn to see them playing Navy in Dublin.) But take anything that happens on the field with a grain of salt. A great performance in the Blue-Gold game is just that: A great performance in a spring scrimmage. For every performance like Aaron Lynch had last season, there’s one by Kyle Budinscak, who racked up five sacks during the 2001 spring game. (He never had more than three sacks in a season.) Cierre Wood’s big 2010 Blue-Gold game was a sign of things to come, while Junior Jabbie‘s breakout 2007 performance is noting more than a fun footnote in Irish lore.

With live quarterbacks, ones-versus-ones, and legitimate competition at several key positions, there’s plenty you can glean from the only up-close look at the Irish we’ll get until Dublin. But a terrific (or terrible) performance by anyone — quarterbacks included — may be big news to us, but only one of many data-points to coaches.

Saturday will be a fun one and will likely give a few hints at what’s to come. But if you’re expecting to reach any conclusions, you’ll walk away disappointed.

 

 

 

 

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.

***

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.