Cierre Wood

And in that corner: The Purdue Boilermakers

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After starting 2011 in the worst possible fashion, Irish fans couldn’t feel better about things after a 50-10 drubbing of Navy. First-time starting quarterback Everett Golson looked confident and smooth in his debut. The Irish ground attack was prolific, even without starter Cierre Wood. And even without defensive end Aaron Lynch, the Irish continually harassed Navy quarterback Trey Miller.

But that was Navy. The Midshipmen spent almost half a century as an Irish doormat before breaking through in 2007 and winning twice more since then, including beating Brian Kelly’s 2010 squad. Now it appears the Irish are back to their dominating ways, notching two straight 40-point wins.

Now the Irish will turn their attention to the Big Ten and in-state rival Purdue. The matchup won’t have the same heat as the games against Michigan State and Michigan, but Danny Hope’s Purdue squad shouldn’t be overlooked. Fresh off their own impressive first win, we brought in Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails to discuss all things Boilermakers.

We’ve done this three times before (20092010, 2011), a nice time capsule back as we look at the evolution of this series.

I asked, Travis answered. Here we go:

The Boilermakers did a nice job taking care of business on opening day, whipping Eastern Kentucky handily on a day where not everybody had as good of luck with their respective cupcakes. And they did so with some significant pregame distractions, like the last minute suspension of starting quarterback Caleb TerBush. After last year’s nail biter with Middle Tennessee, did you see this coming?

I did not. I expected EKU to put up a better fight, especially since they challenged a very good Kansas State team last year in Manhattan before falling 10-7. This was a rout in every sense of the word. Even giving up five turnovers didn’t hurt Purdue as the defense allowed zero points after them. Kawann Short was dominant in blocking a field goal and an extra point. Even the middle linebacker play was solid after losing Dwayne Beckford due to his recent arrest.

I expected to win, but EKU has one of the best running backs in FCS, a quality receiver, and an experienced quarterback. I didn’t expect to be so dominant on defense to where we only had one bad play, a 30 yard touchdown run by Matt Denham.

Speaking of the QB situation, Marve threw an early pick and had a fumble, but was pretty impressive as the game got rolling. Does that make you willing to scrap TerBush as a starter and roll with the veteran? I know Hope hasn’t decided yet, but is one game against an FCS opponent enough for you?

Whatever makes us ditch the crazy quarterback rotation is good enough for me. I think Marve finally showed what type of player he can be. Yes, he is a veteran, but of his 14 previous starts and through all of last year he has never really been THE guy. At Miami he split every game with Jacory Harris. In 2010 he had three starts before hurting his knee, and even then Rob Henry took a few snaps. Last year he split time with TerBush.

Marve impressed me because he was making good decisions on the roll out and making throws we quite frankly haven’t had a quarterback capable of making in some time. We got our tight ends involved as more than a last resort and most of Marve’s mobility is back. I think the upside for him is higher than TerBush, so he should be the guy. Also, I do not like that a team captain and starter did something (whatever it was) to get suspended right before the opener.

Most people know about All-American candidate Kawann Short, but I’ve heard plenty of good things about the rest of Purdue’s front four. Paired with a strong secondary, how good are you expecting this defense to be? What are your early impressions of new D.C. Tim Tibesar?

I was extremely impressed. We covered the middle of the field on third and long, something I have been screaming for us to do for years. After watching part of the Navy game I had nightmares of forcing a 3rd and 15 only to see Tyler Eifert wandering completely uncovered over the middle for an 18 yard catch. Now I have some hope.

Will Lucas really impressed me with his play at linebacker. Landon Feichter, a guy who was a very unheralded walk-on last year, has earned a starting safety spot and he responded with a pick six and two pass break ups. I also thought Jalani Phillips had a solid game in terms of being disruptive up front with Short and Bruce Gaston.

Of course, this is all against an FCS team. Notre Dame is a much better gauge of competition, so we shall see this week.

The Boilermakers have been a dark-horse candidate to make a run in the Big Ten this year, especially with Penn State and Ohio State already off the board. It’s been a tough few years for Purdue fans, do you get a sense of optimism this year?

I do. It’s really a three-team race with Illinois and Wisconsin. I thought on day one Illinois played better than I thought and Wisconsin played worse. If you’re blasting a good FCS team at home while the favorite in the division is struggling with theirs it is definitely a confidence boost.

I do view the Notre Dame game as a major test to see how we stack up against the Big Ten. It is the only non-conference game that should give us trouble, and last year we were completely uncompetitive. If Purdue comes out and rolls over just like last year I will be very concerned.

Did watching the Irish’s impressive performance on Saturday morning have you feeling more or less confident about the upcoming game? 

I am pretty neutral, mostly because I didn’t expect either blowout to be so dominant. Obviously, Purdue cannot have five turnovers and expect to win. If Purdue fixes that, however, I think the defense can at least slow down Reddick, Eifert, and Atkinson. Those are the three players I am most concerned with. Defensively, I know we offer a different look from Navy’s triple option. Even with the turnovers we moved the ball at will just like Notre Dame.

It is hard to make a definite choice because both of our games were the result of one team being far and away better than the other. I will say that Purdue’s performance encouraged me more than Notre Dame’s discouraged me.

Vegas opened the line for Saturday’s game at 14.5 points. Cliff Notes version of how Purdue pulls off the upset.

First off, Danny Hope picks Robert Marve and sticks with him. I don’t mind the occasional Rob Henry snap as a wildcat QB that can throw, but Marve has to be THE guy. Second, we don’tturn the ball over. Third, we have improved special teams. We had an extra point blocked, kicked a ball out of bounds, fumbled a punt return, and had a punt blocked. Those would be disastrous against Notre Dame. Fourth, we have to be aggressive defensively and not let ND’s running game go wild like last season with Wood.

[Editor’s note: The guys at Hammer & Rails have already addressed Danny Hope picking Caleb TerBush as the starter for Saturday.]

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.