Gunner Kiel

Projecting the freshmen

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A funny thing happens each winter. As the focus of hard core fans turns from football to recruiting, the attention of that group tends to shift from the players already on board to the inevitable recruits that tend to get away.

Rare is the recruiting class that doesn’t suffer defections. And after a disappointing 8-5 season, Brian Kelly’s recruiting class certainly suffered its share of disappointments. But as the 2012 season approaches, that sting is replaced by the realization that Notre Dame added some really intriguing football players.

Here’s a quick look at the freshman class along with a glance into my crystal ball as we project how this group will contribute this season.

Chris Badger, S: Badger has finally returned to Notre Dame after spending spring practice with the Irish two years ago. Retaining his rookie eligibility after his Mormon mission took him away from football, Badger’s added maturity, not to mention 15 practices with the defensive staff in 2010, should give him a bit of a leg up.
Projection: He may not work his way into the two-deep, but expect Badger, a physical player with a good feel for the game, to be everywhere on special teams.

Nicky Baratti, S: The former Texas all-purpose weapon is making the transition to playing defense after spending his high school days as an offensive star. But early returns on Baratti have been positive, and the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder has good size and looks the part. Whether he plays will likely depend on how quickly Baratti grasps the defense.
Projection: The freshman safety depth chart has thinned itself with CJ Prosise and Elijah Shumate switching positions. But in an ideal world, Baratti spends the season learning, saving a year of eligibility, a la Harrison Smith.

Chris Brown, WR: Most people assumed Brian Kelly’s gushing review of Brown on Signing Day was a way to help Irish fans cope with the loss of Deontay Greenberry. But after a week of practice, it’s clear that Brown is living up to the hype. At 6-foot-2, 172-pounds, he’s not fully developed, but Brown has the ability to blow the top off a defense and looks surprisingly smooth running intermediate routes as well.
Projection: It’s tough to judge Brown’s ability on his glowing UND.com practice report videos, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the freshman will lead the Irish in yards-per-catch.

Scott Daly, LS: It’s clear that the Irish coaching staff haven’t been all that satisfied with their long snapping game since they came to South Bend. After almost signing competition for Jordan Cowart two years ago, the Irish offered Daly and accepted his commitment. He’s not 6-foot-4 as advertised during recruiting (he’s 6-2), but at 245-pounds he’s big enough to hold up and handle both short and long snaps.
Projection: It wouldn’t surprise me to see Daly start to take snaps away from Cowart by season’s end. At the very least in the place-kicking game.

Sheldon Day, DE: Getting Day on campus during the spring was a huge help, letting the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Indianapolis native learn the ropes of college while also accelerating his timeline, now a necessity without Aaron Lynch. Day might not have the height you’d associate with a Brian Kelly 3-4 defensive end, but he’s a physical presence that should contribute.
Projection: Expect to see plenty of Day from the outset. He’ll team with Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann, and Justin Utupo as guys that’ll fill in behind Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Justin Ferguson, WR: Rarely does a recruit actually gain an inch in height when he gets to campus. But Ferguson surprised many when he measured in at 6-foot-2 and a well-put-together 196 pounds. The Florida native is a tricky prospect. Not quite a burner, not quite a size mismatch. That said, he had some elite offers that give you a sense that he might just be an impact player.
Projection: Probably the third-most ready to go freshman wideout, there’s some logic behind giving him the Davaris Daniels treatment. Then again, Ferguson might be too good to keep off the field.

Mark Harrell, OL: At this stage in Notre Dame’s program development, you don’t expect to see a freshman offensive lineman on the field. While early returns on Harrell have been promising, with the depth the Irish have on the interior of their line, a lot would have to go wrong to see the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder on the field. With veterans Chris Watt and Jake Golic likely manning the guard positions and Nick Martin and Connor Hanratty likely the next men in, Harrell will spend a lot of time with strength coach Paul Longo this season.
Projection: A season on the scout team and a saved year of eligibility for the promising newcomer.

Jarron Jones, DE: He may not be the Tuitt-sized monster his recruiting profile purported, but Jones has opened some eyes during fall training camp, and at 6-foot-5, 299-pounds, he’s bigger than just about any pre-Kelly era defensive recruit in recent memory. Jones’ profile roller-coastered a bit during the postseason All-Star game circuit, but he’s looking every bit the part of a key defensive cog in the years to come.
Projection: With depth at end not exactly flush, Jones could work his way into the rotation by midseason. But saving a year of eligibility would give the Irish some flexibility in case Stephon Tuitt finds himself playing on Sundays sooner than expected.

Gunner Kiel, QB: When the Irish flipped Kiel in dramatic fashion, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin pulled a five-star rabbit out of its hat. (A rabbit that might have been LSU’s starting quarterback come September.) Kiel is everything you’d want in an elite prospect: Big, strong, and capable of running Kelly’s spread attack. While things might have been moving quickly this spring, early word is that Kiel is impressing the staff with his ability to grasp the offense, making Kelly’s comments about feeling comfortable with Kiel running the offense this year if needed less than lip service.
Projection: In a perfect world, Kiel makes his impact this season in the classroom. It’ll save a year of eligibility, and preserve another four years of interesting quarterbacking debates.

Will Mahone, RB: Mahone was billed as more thunder to KeiVarae Russell’s lighning at tailback, filling a big need on the roster after last season’s depth was shattered after Jonas Gray went down with a season-ending knee injury. Yet Mahone has looked quick in our brief glimpses during practice reports, with the 211-pound runner far from the bulldozer many thought the Irish were getting. With a crowded depth chart in front of him, Mahone’s first chance of showing fans his running style will likely wait until 2013.
Projection: Another redshirt year of eligibility preserved for the freshman class. (Don’t get down, Will. It worked out okay for Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Maybe it’s better that Neal isn’t wearing No. 3. At 5-foot-9, 171-pounds, the comparisons to Michael Floyd just aren’t there, with Neal giving up half a foot and over 50 pounds to the former Irish great. But while their methodology might be different, there’s reason to believe that the Irish have another game-breaking wide receiver in the diminutive freshman, with blazing speed and a great feel for the game likely putting Neal on the fast track.
Projection: Neal makes an immediate impact on the Irish offense, leading the wide receivers in catches during his rookie season. He also ends up the Irish punt returner.

Romeo Okwara, OLB: Just about everyone expected Okwara to walk onto campus as a typical work-in-progress. Given the “raw athlete” tag, the marvel of the 17-yr-old outside linebacker was that he was just growing into the player he’d become. Fast-forward to the first days in camp, and it’s clear that Okwara is much more than a diamond in the rough. At 6-foot-4, 239-pounds, the youngster just might be too good to stay off the field.
Projection: It all depends on Danny Spond’s health. If the junior linebacker is healthy, Okwara can spend this season growing bigger and stronger. If not, expect to see him getting reps at the Dog linebacker position.

CJ Prosise, OLB/S: Not too often does one of your starting kick returners also moonlight as an outside linebacker. But that’s where the Irish find themselves with Prosise, who has slid down into the box after Spond’s injury. At 6-foot-2, 208-pounds, Prosise is well-developed for a freshman, and while he doesn’t profile as a Dog linebacker, he could easily fill the role of the ‘Star,’ a position Jamoris Slaughter frequented last year.
Projection: More than a few things would have to go wrong to see Prosise taking snaps with the defense this early in his career. Still, expect the freshman to make a splash on special teams, possibly even in the return game next to George Atkinson.

KeiVarae Russell, CB: With depth at cornerback not ideal, Brian Kelly moved Russell to cornerback for his first season in South Bend. While the Seattle talent was known mostly for his smooth dual-threat abilities out of the offensive backfield, Russell has been a quick study on the edges of Bob Diaco’s defense, working with Kerry Cooks to shore up any deficiencies in the secondary. Again, it’s hard to take clips from UND.com videos too seriously, but it’s clear that Russell is a great athlete with good football instincts.
Projection: It’d be great to save a year of eligibility for Russell this season, giving him a chance to stick at corner or shift back to offense when the numbers even out. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound athlete might force his way onto the field.

Elijah Shumate: CB/S: With Danny McCarthy buckling up the third safety job, the move of Shumate to cornerback might have been to help get the talented freshman onto the field. As physically impressive as any freshman, putting Shumate at corner might simplify things enough for him to understand the mental game while putting his impressive skillset to work.
Projection: Might be the sleeper of this defensive class. I could see Shumate finding his way into some defensive packages, working close to the line of scrimmage or in the slot.

Ronnie Stanley, OT: The timeline on Stanley’s development moved up considerably with the departure of Jordan Prestwood. Now running as the second-string left tackle, the 6-foot-6, 304-pound freshman could move even closer to live action if rumors about an injury to Tate Nichols prove true. While the staff is high on Stanley’s future, it’s too much to ask any freshman to step in and protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Projection: A lot of travel squad appearances, but none on the field this season for Stanley.

John Turner, S: We haven’t heard much from Turner this fall, with the Indianapolis native working at a crowded position group as he transitions to college football. At 6-foot-2, 207-pounds, Turner certainly looks the part of an intimidating safety, but we’ll have to see how quickly he develops before making any judgments.
Projection: Lacking the elite offers of many of his classmates, Turner earned his scholarship offer after running a 4.5 forty at camp. Kelly has uncovered plenty of overlooked gems, and Turner might be another. At his size, Turner has the potential to be another great special teams contributor.

***

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.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.