Theo Riddick

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, BYU 14

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From the sounds of it, you’d have thought Notre Dame’s football team beat BYU while keeping an eye on Twitter, Facebook and message boards. The same social media and white noise that Brian Kelly warned his team about all week was tough on the No. 5 team in the country after a hard fought 17-14 victory. So when the Irish head coach walked up the tunnel and into the winning team’s locker room, he let his team know that he expected to hear a little bit more celebration.

“I think the thing that was concerning for me the most is when our guys came in, I didn’t sense a great feeling after winning a tough, tough, football game,” Kelly said. “That’s a team that won ten games last year. That’s a bracket-buster team in basketball parlance. That’s a darn good football team.”

If the emotions were subdued inside Irish quarters, its because this football team understands that expectations have been elevated. And they’ll go nowhere but up after this victory, with Notre Dame packing their things and heading to Norman, Oklahoma where a date with the Oklahoma Sooners awaits.

With any quarterback controversy stopped in its tracks by Kelly before he even got off the field (Everett Golson will start against the Sooners), let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory.

***

This football team can win without playing its best.

It wasn’t pretty for the Irish. Nor was the team playing to the noble characteristics that got them this far. But against a plucky opponent that took advantage of its opportunities, Notre Dame answered the bell in the second half, taking care of business and winning the football game. And while there’s joy after a victory, it’s clear that this team understands the expectations that come with being a top-five team.

“We won, and that’s great,” center Braxston Cave said after the game. “But I think guys hold themselves to a higher standard than what we put out there.”

It’s not just the guys in the locker room. Irish nation took to the internet, filled with panic and anxiety as they watched Notre Dame bumbled their way through the middle section of the football game. The passing game went dry. The defense couldn’t get off the field. Kyle Brindza missed two field goals he needed to convert. On a day where nothing seemed to go right, the Irish just went back to work and kept plugging, paying no attention to the energy vacuum that turned Notre Dame Stadium into a collection of 80,000 nervous fans sitting on their hands.

With just about everybody following Irish football knowing that a win would set up a gigantic match-up in Oklahoma next weekend, the Irish may not have been flat or fallen into a trap, but they sure didn’t play sharp. So they’ll celebrate a victory today, and come back tomorrow ready to correct some sloppy play.

“Saturday, you win the football game, and you need to feel that excitement,” Kelly said. “And then Sunday, Sunday could be an interesting day. But let’s wait for Sunday. Saturday is for success and celebration.”

***

Even with George Atkinson stuck in neutral, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood ran this team to victory.

Maybe Kelly was right when he wouldn’t put any stock into the fact that Theo Riddick was running for almost two yards per carry less than any other running back on the roster. Because today, Kelly was rewarded for putting his stock in Riddick, and the senior back played the best game of his Notre Dame career.

“I think what he did more than anything else is that he ran north and south and he plays physical,” Kelly said of Riddick’s efforts. “That gets an energy for everybody.  The O‑line sees a guy that’s really pounding it in there; I think that he got us that energy that we needed.”

No time was that energy needed more than in the third quarter, when the Irish offense was slumping and facing a third-and-one on their own 37-yard line. Needing to take advantage of a missed BYU field goal that could have turned the contest into a two-score game, Riddick broke a gang tackle at the line of scrimmage, kept his feet, and dashed for 55 yards before he was chased down at the BYU eight-yard line.

You’ll hardly mistake Riddick for a power back, a converted slot receiver who probably needs heels and a weight vest to get to his 5-foot-11, 200-pound program listing. But it’s been Riddick that’s gotten the tough inside yards for the Irish when they’ve needed them.

“He has run really hard and physical for us,” Kelly said. “Last year we had Jonas Gray, who was that big physical back. I’m not comparing him to Jonas because he’s not half his size, but running up between the tackles, it gives an energy to the entire team.”

Riddick’s long run was one of the game’s defining plays, but Cierre Wood also played his best game of the year. Facing a rush defense that was No. 3 in the country giving up just 67 yards a game, Wood sliced and diced his way through the Cougars for 114 yards on 18 carries. While George Atkinson struggled to get out in space and make plays, the veteran duo of best friends Riddick and Wood carried the load for the Irish.

***

From an afterthought to a key cog, Danny Spond has solved the Irish’s ‘Dog’ linebacker problems.

When Notre Dame received the commitment of blue-chip linebacker Jaylon Smith, many thought the youngster from Fort Wayne could step into the Irish starting lineup and fill a hole in the Irish linebacking corps. But after two seasons fighting his way through injuries and a crowded depth chart, Danny Spond has rewarded Brian Kelly for his faith.

Spond was one of Kelly’s first recruits, a prototype “RKG” before Irish fans really knew what one was. A converted high school quarterback, Kelly targeted Spond as a “big skill” talent, unsure of where he’d play once he got to South Bend, but sure that they’d find a place for a 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete. After battling a scary migraine headache problem this preseason that on first glance looked career threatening, the junior linebacker has solidified the ‘Dog’ linebacker position, playing terrific football on the wide side of the field as both a run stopper and in pass coverage.

“He’s been so consistent,” Kelly said of Spond. “We don’t even take him off in nickel. I don’t know if you guys know it, he plays corner. Here is a guy that’s playing corner in our nickel package and running with No. 2 in bracket… He has been physical at the point of attack. Stopped teams that have wanted to go outside, I could go on and on.”

Spond iced the game with a game-ending interception deep in coverage, and made another terrific play knocking down a Riley Nelson pass. With the Irish playing Prince Shembo out of position last season on the wide side of the field and using Troy Niklas there as well, it was clear that Notre Dame needed someone to step up and take that role. While some expected that person to be sophomore Ben Councell, Spond has made himself an integral part of this defense.

“He’s been an unsung player on our defense and we appreciate him,” Kelly said. “He’s just played really, really well for us and he’s not even coming off the field.”

***

They may have given up two touchdowns, but the Irish defense played another rock solid game.

It says something about a defense when allowing 14 points is a disappointing performance. The Irish gave up their first defensive touchdown since Purdue, when broken coverage in the red zone resulted in Cody Hoffman‘s touchdown catch along the backline of the end zone. Fast-forward to another short field, as Kaneakua Friel‘s touchdown catch on linebacker Carlo Calabrese — with an assist to the replay official — put the Cougars in a rare place to score 14 points against the Irish defense in one quarter, the first time that’s happened this season.

“I think for us, we understood that we were beating ourselves and a lot of guys, we just needed to stay together,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “A lot of us were anxious and excited and we weren’t playing our brand of football. We came in at halftime and settled down and the result is the whole team just playing our brand of football.”

That brand of football included another banner game for the Irish’s star middle linebacker, with Te’o pitching in eleven tackles, his fourth interception of the season, and half a tackle-for-loss. After a few weeks with a quiet pass rush, the Irish also chased after Nelson all afternoon, getting four sacks — 1.5 courtesy of Stephon Tuitt — and forcing a few holding calls.

The Irish got a huge break when Nelson missed an open receiver behind the secondary, but otherwise Bob Diaco‘s unit created its own luck in the second half, limiting the Cougars to just 128 yards on 32 plays.

“We are finishing so well. It goes to their conditioning and mental and physical toughness,” Kelly said. “They believe they are going to win football games.  Doesn’t matter if they are behind. They have an energy about them that they believe they are going to win.”

***

With Tommy Rees in the game, Tyler Eifert came alive. The rest of the passing game? Not so much.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Tyler Eifert has missed having Tommy Rees at quarterback. In the game’s first quarter, Eifert matched his season high in catches and scored a touchdown. While he and Rees didn’t connect again for the rest of the game, Eifert’s presence drew nearly exclusive double-coverage on the Irish star, forcing the Irish offense to change their method of attack.

That change turned out to be a difficult one. Against a stingy defense, Notre Dame couldn’t get their passing offense rebooted, with TJ Jones‘ nice 33-yard gain on a good deep throw by Rees one of the only positive passing plays after the first quarter. With Davaris Daniels letting a football hit him in the facemask before it fell for an interception and Rees missing a few throws in the flat to Theo Riddick, Kelly decided to turn to the running game to win the game.

And while most people still peg Kelly for a gun-slinging pass-happy coach, the Irish head coach didn’t want it any other way.

“We always philosophically like to go in thinking about running the football first,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are. We are becoming that kind of football team on offense. You talk about finding an identity; that’s why we talk with it.  Even when we were down, we kept running the football.

“It’s our identity and what we do. There were some opportunities we probably could have thrown the ball and didn’t need to take advantage of it at this point.  But again, that’s how we are playing the game now.”

Anybody looking for Rees to provide the missing spark in the Irish passing offense probably came away disappointed. The junior went 7 of 16 for 117 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his start, modest numbers against a top-25 passing defense. But the quarterback played well enough to win, even if it was mostly getting the Irish into the right run checks and handing off the football.

Those handoffs led to an astonishing 270 yards on the ground, powering the Irish to 7-0 on the year and setting the stage for a very big road trip to Oklahoma, where a top ten Sooners squad awaits.

“Listen, you can’t win games by 28 and 30 points. You need to find ways to win,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are.  There’s a lot of teams around the country that have made their programs on winning 7-6 and 13-7. It’s just who we are. Embrace who we are.”

It may not have been pretty, but it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

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.