Lane Kiffin, Matt Barkley

Opposition round-up: Week Six

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It was an up-and-down weekend for Notre Dame opponents. A few big wins. A few shocking losses. And a few close shaves. Overall, the Irish schedule went 7-5 (including the Miami loss), with Michigan laying it on Purdue and Boston College loses in shocking fashion to Army.

Let’s take a spin across the Notre Dame slate.

NAVY — Navy slid by Air Force in overtime on Saturday, winning on a fumble recovery in the end zone after backup quarterback Keenan Reynolds fumbled the snap into the end zone. The Midshipmen clinched the win when the defense knocked down an Air Force pass, giving them the inside track to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

Trending: The Midshipmen are still just 2-3, but hope to build some momentum into a string of winnable games for Navy. Next up a Friday night test against Central Michigan.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers once again no-showed for a marquee game, getting drubbed by Michigan 44-13 at home. It was a hugely disappointing effort for Danny Hope’s squad, who let Denard Robinson run wild for 235 yards as the Wolverines did most of their damage on the ground. Purdue was held to just 15 first downs and 213 total yards and turned the ball over four times.

Trending: Epic fail for a Purdue team that thought itself a Big Ten darkhorse. They’ll have a shot at redemption against a Wisconsin team that looks like a shadow of its former self.

MICHIGAN STATE — Sparty erased a 17-point lead and roared back to beat Indiana 31-27, averting a potential crisis of faith for a team that still considers itself in the race for the Big Ten title. Andrew Maxwell threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns and Le’Veon Bell trudged his way to 121 yards on 37 carries and scored two touchdowns as the Spartans withstood eight penalties for 115 yards and scored 17 second half points to escape Bloomington.

Trending: Color me unimpressed by the win, especially when the Spartans offensive line is struggling to open holes for Bell, who ran for a pedistrian 3.3 yards per carry. A win is a win, but right now there isn’t a Big Ten team ranked in the Coaches Poll. That’s telling.

MICHIGAN — The Wolverines got back to winning on Saturday, with Denard Robinson putting his cape back on and gashing another Big Ten opponent. Michigan only threw for 105 yards, but played stingy defense and took care of business, reminding the college football world that not all two-loss teams are created equal.

Trending: Upwards. The Wolverines play Illinois before battling Michigan State. We’ll see if they can solve the Spartans before we decide if they are ready to make a run at the Big Ten title.

No. 17 STANFORD — It took all Stanford had to outlast Arizona last weekend, winning a shootout in overtime against Rich Rodriguez’s upstart offense. The good news for the Irish? Stanford’s defense finally looked to have some weaknesses. The bad news? Quarterback Josh Nunes got on track, and the Cardinal offense exploded for a season-best performance.

Trending: Holding steady. Two straight tight games for the Cardinal. Pulling out a victory after being down 48-34 in the fourth quarter is clutch.

BYU — It certainly wouldn’t have won a beauty pageant, but the Cougars beat Utah State 6-3 on Friday night, out-gutting the Aggies in a defensive battle. With Riley Nelson still sitting out with a back injury, freshman quarterback Taysom Hill threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. BYU’s defense has now held opponents out of the endzone for 13 straight quarters, one-upping Notre Dame’s performance. Something to watch: The Cougars’ kicking problems. They have been brutal this year.

Trending: With a young, mobile quarterback and a stout defense, BYU looks flawed, but tough.

No. 13 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners bounced back after their loss to Kansas State and vanquished some Texas Tech demons along the way beating the Red Raiders 41-20 in Lubbock. Landry Jones completed 25 of 40 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and the Sooners had three interceptions as they ran away from Texas Tech in the second half.

Trending: We’ll find out after the Red River Shootout, a game that’ll like define either Texas or Oklahoma’s seasons this weekend. There wasn’t much explosiveness in Oklahoma’s offense this weekend.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers lost a tight game to Syracuse on Friday night, falling 14-13 in the Carrier Dome. Pitt fought back from a 14-0 hole and pulled to within one point in the third quarter, but was unable to score in the fourth quarter. The Pitt offensive line struggled with protection all evening and Ray Graham was held to just 57 yards on 24 carries. (Meanwhile, freshman stud Rushel Shell only got one carry.)

Trending: It’s going to be a long season in Pittsburgh this year, with the offensive line a mess and the team in transition after some serious instability at head coach. Pitt now has to face the class of the Big East in No. 18 Louisville on Saturday.

BOSTON COLLEGE — There’s chaos in Chestnut Hill, as the end of the Frank Spaziani era looks near as the Eagles dropped to 1-4 after losing to Army 34-31 on Saturday. Army ran for a staggering 516 yards as they controlled the playclock and pulled off the huge upset when Trent Steelman ran for a 29-yard touchdown with 45 seconds left.

Trending: There isn’t a hotter seat in college football than Frank Spaziani. With AD Gene DeFilippo retired, it’ll be interesting to see when a change comes at head coach.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons fell to 3-3 on the season when Maryland edged past them on Saturday afternoon, courtesy of freshman Stefon Diggs’ 63-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. Tanner Price completed just 13 of 38 throws for 170 yards, but two of them were touchdowns. Without top receiver Michael Campanaro, the Deacs offense was stuck in neutral.

Trending: Not much to worry about here, though you know Jim Grobe’s team will continue to improve.

No. 11 USC — The Trojans spotted Utah 14 points before erupting offensively, scoring 38 points with a downfield passing attack that has the Trojans looking like the team many thought they were. There are still issues — namely on the offensive line — but USC is back to No. 11 after a loss to Stanford.

Trending: This team could go either way. They’ve got no injury leeway, but if they stay healthy they’ll be Notre Dame’s toughest opponent on the schedule.

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.