Texas v Oklahoma

Opposition round-up: Week seven

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Oklahoma stepped forward while Purdue and Michigan State stepped backwards. Oklahoma’s offense looked to be in peak form while USC’s defense did the job against Washington. As the season continues, the Irish schedule continues to come into focus.

Let’s take a look at how Notre Dame’s opponents did over the weekend.

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NAVY — A vintage Navy victory this weekend, bringing the Midshipmen back to .500 on the season as they went into Brian Kelly’s old house and beat up Central Michigan. With Navy able to run the ball effectively, they used the playaction pass as the knockout blow, and freshman Keenan Reynolds threw three touchdown passes — all three on relatively deep shots — to run away from the Chippewas.

Trending: A great win for Ken Niumatalolo’s squad, who played much better defense as they held CMU to just 12 first downs and 221 yards while controlling the clock.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers got off to a quick start against Wisconsin, scoring in the game’s first minute. But after that it was all Montee Ball, as the Badgers rolled over Purdue, sticking the proverbial fork in the hopes that the Boilermakers would be a Big Ten dark horse. Caleb TerBush was just 7 of 16 for 80 yards and one interception, and Robert Marve and Rob Henry weren’t much better. Purdue is now 3-3 and 0-2 in the Big Ten.

Trending: Another big step backwards for Purdue, after the season started off with relatively high hopes. It seems the old adage about having two quarterbacks is true when the number is three as well.

MICHIGAN STATE — After playing roulette last weekend with an inferior opponent, the Spartans struck out against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes tying the game up with a touchdown in the game’s final minute and then winning in double-OT when quarterback Andrew Maxwell was picked off. Maxwell completed only 12 of 31 passes for 179 yards, while Le’Veon Bell ran for 140 and a score. That’s two losses for the Spartans in Big Ten play with their annual grudge match with Michigan set for this weekend.

Trending: A really disappointing loss for Sparty in the rain, who is looking like one of the biggest disappointments of the first 1/2 season.

No. 23 MICHIGAN — What cures the Wolverines’ ills? How about some Big Ten competition. A week after pasting Purdue, it was the Denard Robinson show all over again, running and throwing for four total touchdowns on his way to steamrolling downtrodden Illinois. It could’ve been more if Robinson didn’t exit the game briefly in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury. Michigan’s defense was even more dominating, holding the Ilini to just 134 yards and seven first downs. Illinois had just 29 yards of passing.

Trending: The Wolverines climbed their way back into the top 25 this week. If they can beat Michigan State for the first time in five seasons, they might turn themselves back into the Big Ten’s best team, with the ineligible Buckeyes hoping to play spoilers.

MIAMI — A week after getting shut down by the Notre Dame defense, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels did the same against the Hurricanes, holding Stephen Morris to just 12 of 26 passing and two interceptions. Morris hurt his ankle in the fourth quarter and the ‘Canes couldn’t rally as North Carolina climbed to 5-2 on the season. Another game, another offense runs for 250+ against the Hurricanes defense, as former Notre Dame commitment Gio Bernard went for 177 and two touchdowns.

Trending: It’s a step back for Al Golden’s young Canes, but probably more of a leveling out.

BYU — In a game that was closer than it looked, No. 10 Oregon State ran away from BYU in the fourth quarter, pulling away after the Cougars pulled even at 21 late in the third quarter. Senior Riley Nelson completed 28 of 51 throws for 305 yards, but was intercepted three times. Oregon State also managed to put up 450 yards of offense on the stingy Cougars defense.

Trending: BYU feels like a really dangerous three loss team. They probably feel like they should have victories against Boise State and Utah, and were in this game until the fourth quarter against an undefeated Oregon State team.

No. 10 OKLAHOMA — The Red River Shootout was a beat down, with the Sooners playing their most impressive game of the season against their rival Longhorns. While I expected the Sooners to win, a 36-2 halftime score raised some eyebrows, as the Sooners absolutely shredded the Texas defense for an astonishing 677 yards. Landry Jones threw for 321 yards and the Oklahoma ground game got more than healthy, running for 343 on 51 carries.

Trending: It didn’t take long for ABC to turn this game into a national, primetime broadcast. The farther the Sooner’s loss gets in the rear-view mirror the better they look. With the Irish heading into Norman next weekend, it should be a really intriguing match-up.

PITTSBURGH — Pitt came out swinging against Louisville, but the No. 18 Cardinals rallied with three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter to run away with the win in a high scoring affair, 45-35. Pitt is certainly getting better, with Tino Sunseri putting together an impressive stat line with 28 of 37 passing for 287 and two touchdowns. Freshman running back Rushel Shell took control of the ground game, gaining 96 yards on 18 carries. But Senorise Perry’s four touchdowns were too much to overcome.

Trending: There aren’t moral victories in college football, but Pitt certainly is looking better than they did early in the year. Whether Ray Graham is slow to recover from an ACL injury or Rushel Shell is really good, Pitt seems to have found a running back, now they just need to solidify their offensive line and defense.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Another ugly loss for Boston College, getting beat down by Florida State 51-7 as the Seminoles took out some frustrations on the downtrodden Eagles. E.J. Manuel threw for 439 yards against BC, racking up 649 yards while Chase Rettig and company only managed seven points and 225 total yards. Junior running back Andre Williams offered the only silver lining, running for 104 yards after running for 191 against Army.

Trending: The Eagles’ season is an unmitigated disaster. Their lone victory is against Maine. The Frank Spaziani hot seat is now engulfed in flames.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons had the weekend off, staying at 3-3 and 1-3 in the ACC. They face Virginia and Clemson over the next two weekends.

Trending: Staying put.

No. 11 USC — Nothing all that impressive offensively from USC, though their ground game put together a nice effort behind Silas Redd’s 155 yards and a touchdown. Still, Matt Barkley can’t be doing his draft stock any good with a 10 for 20 day for 167 yards with one touchdown and interception. Still, the Trojans defense is coming together, holding Washington to 299 yards, and SC got a punt block in the second quarter to extend their lead to 24-7, letting their defense do the rest.

Trending: Upwards. You get the feeling that USC’s offense will play well enough to win against Notre Dame come November. But if their defense can keep making progress, the Trojans will be one last gigantic obstacle in the way of the Irish.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy. 

 

 

Smith’s surgeon speaks optimistically about nerve issue

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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For the first time since suffering the injury against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith pulled back the curtain on one of the most talked about knees (and nerves) in all of football. USAToday’s Tom Pelissero spent a day with Smith—and spoke with his surgeon, Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor Dan Cooper, about the progress Smith has been making, less than four months removed from the life-altering injury.

Cooper, a veteran of 30-plus years and one of the world’s top specialists in the repair of complex knee injuries, sounded optimistic in his assessment of Smith’s injury. He also addressed the dreaded “foot-drop,” with Smith using an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) to assist moving his left foot as the nerve slowly returns.

This from USA Today:

A checkup by NFL teams last weekend in Indianapolis showed Smith remains unable to raise his left foot or swing it out to the side because of an issue with his peroneal nerve. But the “foot-drop” isn’t a surprise at this stage, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, who is “optimistic that his knee itself will be stable and a good knee and he’ll get all his strength back. And I also think he has a very good chance of getting his nerve recovery back.”

That’s because the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” like more severe injuries, Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. There’s normally a one-month lag time before the nerve regrows at all, and once it begins, the rate is only about 1 inch per month.

“He’s had time for his nerve to regrow 2 inches, and the area of where his nerve was injured is 6 inches above the muscle that it innervates,” said Cooper, who’s also the Dallas Cowboys’ head team physician. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months. Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all (that) wind up being totally normal.”

Smith expressed optimism to Pelissero—as he has to everyone he’s come in contact with. He’s also continued to work out diligently, back up to 240 pounds and squatting and leg pressing like an All-American linebacker, not a man roughly 3.5 months post surgery. Smith also performed 24 reps on the bench press during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Perhaps more promising, Smith also says he’s making progress with the nerve, feeling tingles down his leg and moving closer to the foot.

“I feel different sensations every day,” Smith told Pelissero. “But it’s a thing where it’s patience, so you don’t try to hype yourself up too much.”