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Tuesdays with BK: Wolverines!

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Brian Kelly met with the media this afternoon to discuss the Irish’s preparation for Michigan, a game that’s likely been circled on the calendar for every member of ND Nation since last year’s late-game implosion.

With a primetime start and two nationally ranked teams, there’s a lot at stake. Yet don’t tell  Kelly that there’s reason to change the team’s focus. He’s been working on keeping this team in check since the offseason.

“We have a sign that is pretty visible for our guys to see when they walk in and walk out of the building,” Kelly said.  “It starts with, ‘Don’t Believe or Fuel the Hype.’  That’s No.1.  No. 2, ‘Manage Expectations.’  No. 3, ‘Avoid the Noise.’  And 4, ‘Speak for Yourself.’  They see that every single day. I put that up last year; expecting that that was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with.  And we’re dealing with it right now, and they have seen that now for over a year and a half.  They know what that sign means.  And they know if they want to continue to be successful, they need to continue to do the things they are doing.”

We’re still waiting for the video of the presser to be made available. But in the meantime Feel free to watch the near 40 minutes of press conference.  Or I’ll pick and choose some of the parts I found interesting.

***

He’s always been one of the players Brian Kelly spoke highly of, but for the first time we actually got to see what a Notre Dame defense would look like with Danny Spond heavily featured.

After missing the season’s first two games after a scary issue with migraines, Spond got the first start of his career at the ‘Dog’ linebacker, contributing four tackles and looking good at home in coverage.

Here’s how Kelly evaluated Spond’s play, and what he thought of his ability to rally from a pretty significant medical issue.

“He’s a big, physical kid, almost 250 pounds,” Kelly said. “I think once you make that decision to put the gear on and go back out to practice, you’ve handled it, you know, and he pushed the envelope, he was the one who wanted to get out there. And so I think we had no hesitation of practicing him and playing him, because of the way he handled it leading up.  He wasn’t, oh, I don’t know if I should play; it’s always been, once I’m cleared, I’m going to play. So I think he handled that before he even got into game week.”

As an edge player with good athleticism, Spond will likely have a big responsibility this weekend as well, needing to give chase to Denard Robinson, a guy that’s gotten loose against the Irish defense before.

***

Speaking of Michigan’s quarterback, Kelly told us with a straight face that 2011 hasn’t come up when discussing the Wolverines and what Robinson did last year. (If you believe that, well — I’ve got some beachfront South Bend real estate for you.)

What he did candidly speak about was the type of player Robinson is, what type of challenge he represents, and how the Irish did against him last season.

“Well, I thought we did a pretty good job, really, for three quarters,” Kelly said.  “I think if there’s a couple plays we’d like to have back in the passing game maybe; but we liked our plan.  We think that we are physically a better football team than we were the previous couple years.

“He’s a superior football player. He’s a difference‑maker.  So we have to find a way to limit big‑chunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks.  It’s about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays.  We gave them up in the running game in year one and we gave them up in the passing game in year two. We have to eliminate and control those big plays that are out there.  If we do that, we feel pretty good.”

When asked the best way to stop him — whether it was shutting down the run game first or the pass game — was there a secret, Kelly got in a good little quip.

“If there was a secret out there, you know, we would have probably gotten it way before everybody else. We’ve got great alumni out there.”

It’s a difficult proposition, because you can’t sellout on either one of those.  You have to be balanced.  You have to be able to manage it and you’ve got to keep him from making big plays. So there isn’t an easy answer to that.  He’s a superior football player.  He’s not a great player; he’s the best player on the field.”

Irish faithful hope Manti Te’o takes exception to that statement.

***

He may catch some grief because he tend to notice a few of his missed tackles, but Kelly was incredibly complimentary about safety Zeke Motta, whose role in the Irish defense is even more important now with the loss of Jamoris Slaughter for the season.

Kelly spoke with pride about the work Motta has done to make himself a better football player and person on and off the field.

“I wanted to push him out front because I saw a young man that the way he practiced, the dedication he has to the game, the kind of young man he is, you want him representing your program,” Kelly said of Motta.

“He gets more than Elijah (Shumate) lined up.  It’s probably one of the most remarkable developments of a player from year one or year two to year three in that sense.  He had a hard time getting himself lined up last year.  He has been terrific back there.  He’s been physical.  He’s played the ball well.  And his leadership skills have continued to grow.

“He was a young man that at times had a hard time speaking in front of a group.  This spring, I had him speak at our spring banquet, along with Justin Tuck; handled himself well there, and it’s just been a great evolutionary process to see him continue to grow as a person and as a player.  He deserves all the credit for that.”

I’ve said it before, but Motta is one physically impressive looking football player. While Harrison Smith had the opportunity to spend a year redshirting before seeing the field, it’s too bad Motta wasn’t afforded the same opportunity, and he still may show himself to be the type of player that gets a chance to play on Sundays.

***

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.