Riley Nelson

And in that corner… The BYU Cougars

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There is no preordained headline for Notre Dame’s battle this Saturday against BYU. It won’t be in a historic location or against a natural rivalry. ESPN won’t be staked out in front of the library. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical Saturday for the Irish.

With BYU heading to South Bend, two independent teams with a ton of football tradition collide. For the Cougars, a win will get their season back on track after uncharacteristic mistakes have led to three losses. For the Irish, it’ll mean getting win number seven before heading to Norman, Oklahoma for the next biggest game of the year.

To get everybody up to speed on the Cougars, Jeff Call of the Deseret News was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Jeff has been covering Cougar sports since 1993, so needless to say he’s seen his fair share of football teams roll through Provo.

I asked, Jeff answered. Let’s all learn a little bit.

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1. From afar, it feels like an up-and-down season for BYU. I’d probably make the argument that the Cougars have to feel like they should be 5-1. Is that the feeling inside the program?

With 29 seniors on the roster, BYU entered the season with very high expectations. Losing by a combined four points at Utah and Boise State in back-to-back weeks was a disappointment. Riley Nelson suffered a back injury in the win against Weber State, rendering him ineffective against the Utes and Broncos. The Cougars felt they had a great shot to knock off No. 10 Oregon State last week, and they were tied with the Beavers heading into the fourth quarter before some mistakes cost them the game. BYU is still a confident team, knowing it is just a few plays away from being 5-1, and the Cougars are looking at this week’s game at Notre Dame as another great opportunity to prove how good they are.

2. Obviously, the strength of this team is the defense. They’ve put up some impressive numbers and kept BYU in just about every football game. They don’t look like the biggest unit, so how are they playing as well as they are?

We knew going into the season that BYU would be strong defensively. The Cougars had a lot of veteran players returning. But they have been better than advertised. They did give up 332 passing yards last week against Oregon State, but other than that, they’ve been very impressive this season. These guys have great chemistry, they love playing together, and they pride themselves in being in the right spot and executing. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy is a big play-maker, while Brandon Ogletree is the emotional leader. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga and Spencer Hadley have been solid this year. On the defensive line, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a native of Ghana who only started playing football a couple of years ago, has also made an impact and is drawing considerable attention from NFL scouts.

3. Taysom Hill seemed like an intriguing dual-threat player until he went down with an injury. That puts the offense back in Riley Nelson’s hands, who looks to have really regressed this season. Can it all be blamed on a back injury? What’s the current state of the quarterbacking position?

Riley Nelson’s back injury has really hampered him this season, obviously. But what we’re seeing from him this year is what we’ve always seen from him. He’s a risk-taker. Sometimes that results in big plays, sometimes that results in turnovers. There are times when he will scramble around and force a throw into triple coverage rather than throw it away. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is adamant that Nelson continues as the starter because he loves his grit and leadership. With Hill out for the season with a knee injury, James Lark, a senior, is Nelson’s backup. Because Nelson is injury-prone, it wouldn’t surprise anyone around here if Lark ends up seeing significant playing time at some point this season.

4. Give me one player on offense and one player on defense that Notre Dame fans should be worried about.

Offense: Wide receiver Cody Hoffman. He has caught at least one pass in 26 consecutive games and is BYU’s leading receiver (41 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns). Hoffman is Nelson’s favorite target and he can be dangerous.

Defense: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Despite being double-teamed often this season, Van Noy has 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, five pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

5. As someone that follows BYU football, can you give me your perspective on what football independence means for BYU? Do you feel like Notre Dame has been an ally in that process?

BYU officials love independence so far because it provides the school, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a tremendous amount of exposure thanks to the broadcast partnership with ESPN. There are BYU fans throughout the country and throughout the world, and ESPN has given those fans the opportunity to follow the Cougars. Independence also gives BYU flexibility in scheduling, and the series with Notre Dame is something that everyone associated with BYU is excited about. The fact that Notre Dame was willing to schedule BYU shows that Notre Dame has been an ally. However, nobody seems to know how Notre Dame’s decision to partner with the ACC will affect the six-game series. While BYU knows it is not Notre Dame, I think the Cougars are watching Notre Dame very carefully as it navigates independence waters.

6. The Irish opened up as two-touchdown favorites. What’s the recipe for a BYU upset victory?

With the way BYU’s defense has been playing for most of the season, I think the key for an upset rests in the hands of the offense. The Cougars can’t afford to turn the ball over. In their three losses, they have had 10 turnovers — including a pair of pick-sixes and a fumble return for a touchdown. Nelson needs to avoid mistakes like that if BYU has any hope of an upset. The Cougars will need to generate some semblance of a run game, and that could be tough against Notre Dame’s defense, and BYU’s starting running back is a 17-year-old true freshman, Jamaal Williams. The Cougars have had trouble at times getting into the end zone this season, and I know Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown in weeks. But if BYU can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, it has a shot.

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Read Jeff’s work at the Deseret News here. You can also follow him on Twitter @ajeffreycall.

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.

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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.