Notre Dame v Navy

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

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DUBLIN — After an offseason and training camp spent listening to talking heads and columnists shovel dirt onto a once proud football program, Notre Dame spent a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Ireland letting out some frustration. For one Saturday, it appears the death of a once proud football program was greatly exaggerated, as Notre Dame turned back the clock to their glory years, beating Navy 50-10 in front of 48,820 fans in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

The 50-10 win was the second consecutive 40-point beating, the first time the Irish have done that in over 40 years, putting to rest any worries that the Midshipmen would continue to close the gap in a rivalry that was once one of the nation’s most one-sided, while also serving notice that the Irish might not be so terrible after all.

Powered by a run game that almost doubled Navy’s vaunted triple-option attack, the Irish racked up 490 yards of offense behind the running of Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, and Cam McDaniel, as first-time starting quarterback Everett Golson‘s debut was a solid one.

After opening last season in nightmarish fashion, the Irish scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, were deadly efficient on third downs, and spent the second half getting the youth on their roster highly valuable game experience.

“I think the storyline for me is the ability to control both lines, offensively and defensively, and to play between 15 and 20 first time participants,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We had a lot of young players getting some valuable experience today.”

Let’s find out what we learned during Notre Dame’s 50-10 victory.

Running behind a powerful offensive line, Notre Dame’s ground attack is going to power the offense.

The suspension of starting running back Cierre Wood didn’t stop Notre Dame from running all over Navy. Senior running back Theo Riddick paced the offense with 107 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, while George Atkinson III chipped in 99 yards on only nine carries. His two touchdown runs included an electric 56-yard sprint that off and running by the middle of the first quarter. Cam McDaniel paced the second string offense with 59 yards on nine carries while chipping in 20 more through the air.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, with the Irish front five appropriately over-powering the undersized Midshipmen. After spending much of the first two years in the shotgun, the Irish turned back the clock and played smash mouth football up front, with Golson under center and a running back deep in the backfield.

With the game well in hand, the starting offensive line gave way to the second string, letting youngsters like Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and true freshman Ronnie Stanley take their first collegiate snaps. After struggling on their first series, the second unit took control of the line of scrimmage as well, driving the ball down the field for a field goal and a late touchdown as well.

Predicting future success after pushing around one of college football’s worst rushing defenses isn’t a safe assumption, but it isn’t hard to see the strength of this team thanks to the skill of Riddick and Atkinson running behind a veteran unit powered by Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Chris Watt and company. With Wood back in game three and Amir Carlisle about to be healthy as well, it’ll be a crowded — and talented — ground attack for Notre Dame.

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In his first start, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was up to the task.

Any concerns Irish fans had about rookie quarterback Everett Golson were likely alleviated early. The talented sophomore quarterback looked calm and poised as he made his collegiate debut and the moment — a truly unique one in Ireland — never got too big for him.

“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”

Golson completed 12 of 18 throws for an efficient 145 yards, throwing a touchdown to All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and adding his first interception when he forced the ball into coverage to his best receiving threat.

“I think he would probably take one decision back,” Kelly said of Golson’s interception. “The great thing about Everett is he figures it out. He’s not going to make the same mistake twice. Other than that, I was really pleased with the leadership, the ability to get in the right plays and keep our offense running.”

With a high-octane running game, Golson wasn’t asked to do too much, never attempting a run and keeping his eyes down field when the pocket collapsed. He threw two accurate fade routes to Eifert, found his tight ends in play action, worked the screen game effectively and had a nice connection down field with Davaris Daniels as well.

The Irish will likely incorporate the zone read running principles soon, saving one more dimension of their offense for future opponents. But any worries that Golson wasn’t ready for the big stage were put to rest this afternoon, with the Irish offense firmly in the hands of its talented youngster.

Moving forward, the job is Golson’s to lose, with the battle now for No. 2 behind him between juniors Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees, now back from suspension.

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Losing Aaron Lynch didn’t strip the front seven of all its playmakers.

You have to wonder if Aaron Lynch, Notre Dame’s freshman All-American that transferred to South Florida this spring, watched his former teammates shut down the Navy option attack and force quarterback Trey Miller to run for his life. While many thought the loss of Lynch was a debilitating loss, the Irish front seven was active and relentless, another good sign for Irish fans.

Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt had the games most exciting play, returning a Miller fumble 77 yards for a touchdown, as the 6-foot-6, 305-pound brute seemingly pulling away from the Navy players giving chase. Tuitt added a sack and wreaked havoc at both end and tackle all afternoon.

The Irish defense had seven tackles for loss and three sacks while holding Navy to 3.7 yards per carry, with Ishaq Williams supplying constant pressure off the edge with Prince Shembo. Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke did a great job clogging the interior of the line as well, collecting a sack and 2.5 tackles-for-loss combined.

Add in Manti Te’o‘s brilliance — the senior linebacker filled the stat sheet with six tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception before he was pulled early in the fourth quarter — and the Irish made a resounding statement up front, shutting down Navy’s triple-option attack while holding the Midshipmen to just 10 points.

“I think we’re just carrying on from where we were last year as a defense that’s very stingy against the run,” Kelly said. “We’re very blessed with a physical group and a great scheme that’s well coached. Any time you can hold Navy to 10 points with one touchdown through the air, you’re feeling pretty good.

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While the run defense looks good, there are plenty of question marks in the secondary.

Perhaps the most alarming part of the Irish’s 40-point victory was the restocked Irish secondary. Breaking in three new starters, Navy’s only success on offense was through the air, not exactly a reassuring thought with some prolific passing offenses on the schedule. Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell showed up a few times on the wrong end of a highlight, while cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Zeke Motta had their struggles as well.

With Miller often running for his life in the backfield, he was still able to complete 14 of 19 passes, throwing for 192 yards and a touchdown. The secondary was asked to cover man-to-man quite a bit, but even without their first two receiving options, Navy was able to move the ball in the air.

It wasn’t all bad news for the unit, with safety Matthias Farley getting a surprising start at outside linebacker and playing very well. Bennett Jackson led the team in tackles with seven, and the Irish were able to get Russell, Jalen Brown, and Josh Atkinson plenty of experience as well.

“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his young secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”

Yet with the Irish so sturdy up front and so green in the secondary, expect opposing offenses to take dead aim at the Irish secondary, throwing early and often against a group that’s learning on the fly. Co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have their work cut out for them, and it’ll be up to Bob Diaco to script a game plan that protects his secondary while the young defenders get up to speed.

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After starting the 2011 season off on the wrong foot, Saturday’s win was cathartic for the Irish.

After a season where just about every break when against the Irish, Saturday’s victory was a stark reminder that last season is in the past. After so many low-lights gutted the Irish in 2011, Saturday afternoon the shoe was on the other foot. It was Notre Dame running an opponent’s fumble in for a touchdown. It was the Irish getting a break in the return game, when Davonte Neal avoided catastrophe when he quickly grabbed a punt that hit him and scampered for 12 yards, a return that tripled the team’s net yardage total from last season.

After consistently being the team that made the mistakes, this Irish team handled their business with a ruthless efficiency, rising to the occasion while keeping their mistakes in check.

“We knew what we could do coming into the game, Te’o said. “We knew what we were capable of. As coach put it in the locker room, this is a celebration of all the work we put in.”

That maturity was evident in Golson’s play and the young quarterback talked about how the coaching staff preached a calm demeanor heading into the season opener.

“I think everybody was comfortable. Part of that is due to the coaches,” Golson said. “Coming into this game, the main thing was everybody is going to make mistakes, but you just have to relax. You’re going to make mistakes, but make them going full speed.”

Thanks to the comfortable victory, plenty of youngsters were able to get their first snaps out of the way. The Irish had a whopping 17 players get their first game action today, a huge benefit moving forward.

“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”

In many ways, this was a picture perfect opening game for the Irish. A 40-point whipping where Kelly was able to empty the bench in an easy victory, but also a ton of teaching points to cover throughout the week. Botched extra point attempts need to be cleaned up. Coverage breakdowns need to be corrected. Young quarterbacks need to stop throwing into coverage. All par for the course in a season’s opening game. And all infinitely more acceptable when you’re blowing out your opponent.

With the Irish already on their way to the airport and heading back across the Atlantic shortly, Kelly and his team accomplished everything they wanted… and still have plenty to work on as they get ready for Purdue.

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.