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Pregame six pack: War with the Wolverines

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There’s no doubt about it. This is a defining Saturday for Notre Dame football. A victory over No. 18 Michigan should propel the No. 11 Fighting Irish into the top 10, thrust right into the middle of BCS bedlam as they enjoy a bye week and take a deep breath before starting another harrowing portion of the schedule.

But more importantly, it’ll be another significant data point that Brian Kelly‘s restoration plan is working. Following a process he and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laid out, Kelly has the chance to run the Irish record to 4-0 for the first time in a decade, propelled by a dominant defensive front, a physical football team, and a young offense built around a group of young skill players.

But to do that, they need to beat Michigan. A school that’s taken wonderful pleasure in gutting the Irish even when things were hardly going the Wolverines’ way. Under Rich Rodriguez, Michigan sunk the Irish twice. Add in the dagger Denard Robinson put in Irish fans’ hearts during the improbable 2011 comeback, and even if the Irish aren’t saying it, vengeance is on the mind.

With a primetime audience on NBC and the hype meter already spiked after dominating Michigan State last Saturday night, this is the game that either propels the Irish onward or pokes a pin into one of the more exciting Septembers in recent memory.

As No. 11 Notre Dame prepares to battle No. 18 Michigan on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. ET here on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you prepped.

***

The tale of the tape might end up telling the story.

On paper, you can almost get a feel for how this game could turn out. Of course, when these two teams play it’s hardly worth the exercise, but we’ll go through it anyway. Offense vs. Offense, the Wolverines match-up favorably with the Irish under Everett Golson‘s direction. A quick glance at a few major offensive categories shows a slight edge going to Michigan.

OFFENSIVE STATS

Scoring Average:
U-M: 36
ND: 30

Total Yards:
U-M: 425.3
ND: 388.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 192.3
ND: 155.7

Passing Offense:
U-M: 233
ND: 233

Red Zone TD Efficiency:
U-M: 89%
ND: 80%

Turnover Margin
U-M: -3
ND: +5

Where the story really starts to be told is with the defensive stats. Put quite simply, Michigan’s numbers are pretty ugly.

Scoring Average:
U-M: 26
ND: 10

Total Yards:
U-M: 369
ND: 288.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 211.3
ND: 96.3

Passing Offense:
U-M: 157.7
ND: 192.3

First Downs Allowed:
U-M: 61
ND: 49

Sacks
U-M: 3
ND: 11

That the Wolverines are giving up 211 yards a game on the ground is a fairly staggering number, and one that makes you believe Cierre Wood (we’ll get to him later), Theo Riddick and George Atkinson will make quite a difference on Saturday. You also need to wonder how Greg Mattison will dial up pressure on Golson, with Michigan only getting three sacks so far this season.

***

He played well last year, but expect Cierre Wood to make his presence felt against the Wolverines on Saturday.

It was an afterthought, but Cierre Wood put together a strong game against Michigan, running for 134 yards and a touchdown last year in the loss. But after missing the season’s opening two games after being suspended for violating team rules, expect the senior running back to try and make up for lost time.

Made available for the first time this season to the media, Wood talked about how tough it was to sit at home and watch his teammates play in Dublin.

“It was terrible,” Wood told CSNChicago.com. “I was cheering on my teammates, being a great team player, and stuff like that. But just not playing was terrible. You practice all summer, put in so much work and so much time, and to not play those first two games was heartbreaking, especially for me. But I remain positive, my teammates kept me up and I just cheered them on from afar.”

Worked slowly back into the rotation, it was Wood who carried the ball for the Irish down the stretch, icing the victory against Michigan State with some clutch carries. Wood talked about the benefits of having three top-shelf runners after forming a pretty dynamic duo with senior Jonas Gray last season.

“The way we come in and come out, it’s basically fresh legs on the field at all times, so it’s like nobody never really came out as far as the running backs go,” Wood said. “All three of us have a great amount of talent, so them putting us around different positions on the field is going to make our team that much better.”

It should be a bigger Saturday for the Irish running game, who can do damage by making plays, and keeping Denard Robinson off the field.

***

It may not be the bonanza last year’s night game was, but this weekend will be a recruiting showcase.

It’s not the all-in affair that last season’s USC contest was, but this weekend is shaping up to be a big recruiting weekend for the Fighting Irish. In addition to trying to beat Michigan, the Irish will try to impress a large contingent of 2013 and 2014 recruits that’ll be in town for the game this weekend.

In total, ten recruits will be taking an official visit this weekend:

Michael Deeb, LB — Committed
Mike Heuerman, TE — Committed
Jamel James, RB — Committed
Corey Robinson, WR — Committed
Corey Clement, RB — Offered (Committed to Pitt)
Torii Hunter Jr., WR — Offered
Cole Luke, CB — Offered
L.J. Moore, CB — Offered
Khalfani Muhammad, RB — Offered
Juwaan Williams, WR — Offered

In addition, the following Irish commits will also be in town for an unofficial visit:

Hunter Bivin, OL — Committed
Steve Elmer, OL — Committed
Jacob Matuska, DE — Committed
Colin McGovern, OL — Committed
James Onwualu, WR — Committed
Doug Randolph, LB — Committed
Isaac Rochell, DE — Committed
Jaylon Smith, OLB — Committed
Justin Brent, WR — Committed (2014)

Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune has a nice update on several more potential prospects in town, so if that sort of thing interests you, definitely give it a look.

The Irish will have to impress on the field this weekend, because it doesn’t look like the weather will be all that enjoyable. With cool weather heading through South Bend and intermittent rain in the forecast for Saturday afternoon, the product on the field will have to do the talking.

***

With their most daunting task to date, the focus will be on the young Irish secondary.

If there’s been a pleasant surprise this year, it’s been the solid play of the Irish secondary. Gutted by injury, Bob Diaco, Kerry Cooks, and Bob Elliott haven’t had the chance to go with Plan A, and now are on to Plan C or D after just three games. With starting jobs handed to Jamoris Slaughter and Lo Wood, and a significant role waiting for Austin Collinsworth, Notre Dame will now trot out three freshmen (eligibility wise, of course) to take their place.

No bigger spotlight will be on a defender than Matthias Farley. The soccer player-turned wide receiver-turned safety leapfrogged Danny McCarthy in the safety rotation before the season opener and has been a valuable contributor down in the box against Navy, Purdue and Michigan State, chipping in six tackles. Now he’ll be asked to fill Slaughter’s shoes against one of college football’s most electric ball carriers. Kelly thinks Farley’s up for the task.

“You know, he’s got 140-some snaps,” Kelly said of Farley’s contributions thus far. “That’s a lot of football. It’s not a guy that’s getting the first time out there on the field. He responded really well in practice this week. Now, he wasn’t put in the same position that he’s going to be put in this week. So he’s going to be asked to do a lot more. But he’s s smart kid, he’s athletic, he’s sneaky fast. He can run well. I think the most important thing is he’s played 140 snaps and he’s starting to feel more comfortable in the position.”

Also pushed into action at the nickel back is Elijah Shumate, who is already tied for the team lead with three pass break-ups. While he tried to contain his enthusiasm, Shumate’s potential has Kelly really excited, and the freshman is primed to take on a more prominent role in the Irish defense.

“We think he’s a very special player,” Kelly said of Shumate. “We’re going to continue to work with him. We’ll have more time over the bye week to spend some more time with him and continue to work with him both at that nickel and corner positions and allow us even more flexibility in the secondary.”

If you’re expecting Farley and the other youngsters to feel overwhelmed, don’t.

“Everybody has settled into the roles they have,” Farley said this week. “Maybe they didn’t start, they didn’t come in doing the roles they’re doing, but everyone’s been working real hard, and I feel like the fruit of everyone’s labor is being seen as far as the play goes.”

We’ll get a true status report tomorrow night.

***

If the Irish want to neutralize Denard Robinson, they’ll need to keep bringing the heat up front.

Worried that Denard Robinson is going to beat you with the deep downfield throws? Don’t give him enough time to make them. That recipe worked just fine against Michigan State, when the Irish pass rush bombarded the Spartans’ offensive line and quarterback Andrew Maxwell, making it near impossible to get the downfield passing game on track.

When the Irish lost Aaron Lynch in the middle of spring drills, many thought Kelly was paying lip service to the defensive line when he openly said he expected the front four to be the strength of this football team. Through three games, that strength is apparent. Notre Dame’s defense is getting to the quarterback better than it has in recent memory, finally adding a pass rush component to the Irish defense thanks to Stephon Tuitt and company.

Tuitt leads all underclassmen in the country in sacks and is third in the FBS with five. Even more impressive, the defensive line has nine of the team’s 11 sacks (T-8 in the country), with Louis Nix tallying 1.5 and freshmen Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann notching one each, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kona Schwenke each chipping in a half-sack. With Prince Shembo playing his best game in an Irish uniform last week, the Irish should take dead aim at Robinson in the pocket and overpower the Michigan offensive line.

Interestingly, that wasn’t the strategy Kelly and Diaco employed last season, keeping Lynch and Tuitt on the sideline in favor of Ethan Johnson and Lewis-Moore. With Sean Cwynar missing the game last season with a hand injury, the Irish played solid defense at the point of attack with a limited cast of characters.

With a full allotment of weapons, except to see the Irish getting a great surge at the line of scrimmage.

***

Hold onto the football, win the football game.

To call the Irish victimized by turnovers last season would be doing disservice to victims everywhere. Notre Dame imploded their own season last year by self-inflicted errors, turning the ball over more times in the first three games — 13 times — than any Notre Dame team since 1977.

But through three games this year, the Irish have turned things around. Notre Dame hasn’t had fewer turnovers through three Saturdays since 1993. Tied for 11th in the country in turnover margin, the stats seem to favor Brian Kelly’s team when they manage to simply hold onto the football.

Last year, the Irish were 3-0 when they didn’t turn the ball over. Kelly’s Irish squads are 7-0 when they’re unblemished with the football. Against a Michigan team that has plenty of problems at the line of scrimmage, the Irish don’t have to have a perfect performance. But they just can’t give the ball away. Thanks to a stingy defense and some offensive firepower, the Irish can beat another talented team from the state of Michigan by following the blueprint it used last week.

“Third down conversions are great.  You want third down conversions,” Kelly said, recapping the keys to last week’s victory. “But we were managing the game. We had a great kicking performance.  If we can kick that way, third down conversions are not going to impact the football game.  The turnovers.  It’s short fields.  And it’s the big chunk plays. I know you’ve heard this ad nauseam, but the fact of the matter is, the completion percentage will continue to get better.  The third downs will continue to get better.  We just need to take care of the football and keep our defense on the long field.”

It’ll be harder to do that against one of college football’s most explosive weapons. But if the Irish are going to make it to 4-0 for the first time since 2002, they’ll need Everett Golson to continue playing football wiser than his years.

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.