TJ Jones

Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Sooners

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Moments like this are earned. Big games, premiere Saturdays, they are a product of hard work off the field and fortune on the field. As Notre Dame prepares to play in their biggest game in a decade, and easily their most anticipated since Pete Carroll’s Trojans came to South Bend to battle first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish, it’s worth remembering that as Herb Brooks once told us, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.”

The table is set for Notre Dame to walk into Norman, Oklahoma and surprise the college football world. It would certainly fit the bill of this improbable season, which has seen the Irish continue to win as this team searches for its offensive identity and matures before our eyes.

Brian Kelly isn’t under the impression that he has a great football team. But his team is ranked No. 5 in the country because they’ve defeated every team they lined up against, and on Saturday night, they’ll have their best opportunity to make another statement. But to beat the Sooners, Kelly knows it’s more about what his team does than anything Bob Stoops‘ squad can do.

“Our guys understand the importance of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday relative to their preparation. The good part for me it hasn’t been a lot about Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “My feeling is that when your team is focused on yourself more so than who you’re playing, that’s the kind of focus you want.”

The Irish have a great deal of respect for Oklahoma, but they also know they control their own destiny this Saturday evening. And that’s what makes this weekend so exciting.

As No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take off for battle against No. 8 Oklahoma, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers miscellaneous musing before Saturday evening’s 8:00 p.m. ET game.

***

If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to have to play better in the red zone.

There are a lot of places Notre Dame’s offense needs to improve. But to win at Owen Field, the Irish absolutely need to cash in their opportunities in the red zone. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have a red zone identity. The pieces are there — Tyler Eifert on the fade, Everett Golson‘s legs, a fairly stout power running game — but the results haven’t been.

With the exception of Golson’s interception against Michigan, turnovers haven’t been the biggest problem. Execution has been. Kelly spoke openly about the two areas holding this offense back, throwing the football efficiently and production in the red zone.

“We have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said. “And those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I’m interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game.”

A quick glance at the rankings and you’ll actually see Notre Dame’s third down conversion rate isn’t terrible at 48th. But looking at the Irish in the red zone, especially cashing in touchdowns instead of field goals, and that’s a different story.

The Irish are 89th in the country in scoring rate, putting points up only 26 of 34 times, good for 76.47 percent. Scoring touchdowns is much worse though, with Notre Dame only getting six points 16 times. Compare that to Oklahoma, who is leading the country scoring on 97 percent of their trips and converting almost 76 percent of them for touchdowns, essentially get seven points just as often as Notre Dame gets anything.

If the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to win the red zone. Their defense makes that victory always possible, but the offense is going to need to do its part.

“We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.”

***

He may not be a terror in the box score, but Prince Shembo is a scary dude on the field.

One of the great stories on the season is the work Prince Shembo has done taking over for Darius Fleming at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position. The junior, who played out of position last year, has been a pass-rushing terror off the edge, while playing stout run defense for a guy many were worried was undersized for the position.

Shembo’s stats might not reflect his work on the field, with his 3.0 sacks modest compared to his impact on the game. But the North Carolina native’s relentless passion, whether it’s screaming about his stolen bike seat or swinging a sledgehammer on the sidelines, embodies the passion, but workmanlike attitude this Irish defense is all about.

“Just do your assignment,” Shembo said this week. “If people try to do things they’ve never done before, that’s when the problems start. Just have confidence and do your job.”

That job will include dealing with Oklahoma’s jumbo quarterback package, anchored by the “Belldozer” sophomore quarterback Blake Bell. Shockingly, Bell doesn’t seem to worry Shembo too much.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. I squat 600. So we’re just going to go put our pads on and meet him in the hole,” Shembo said this week.

Whether Bell is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds or 6-foot-8, 340-pounds as nose tackle Louis Nix joked, don’t expect this defense to be intimidated, something Shembo credits to his teammates.

“We’ve got monsters on our team. Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo told the Sun-Times. “The more you practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed, hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

***

The war in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame.

We’re running out of superlatives for Notre Dame’s rush defense. By this time, we all know the unit hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground yet. But let’s take a look at a team by team breakdown of how well the Irish have done shutting down their opponents compared to their performance against everybody else.

Navy Rushing Yards
Notre Dame: 149.0
Everybody Else: 251.3
102.3 yards below average

Purdue Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 90
Vs. Everyone Else: 169.5
79.5 yards below average

Michigan State Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 50
Vs. Everyone Else: 152.3
102.3 yards below average

Michigan Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 161
Vs. Everyone Else: 232.8
71.8 yards below average

Miami Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 85
Vs. Everyone Else: 132.9
47.9 yards below average

Stanford Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 147
Vs. Everybody Else: 170.5
23.5 yards below average

BYU Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 66
Vs. Everyone Else: 171.4
105.4 yards below average

It’s ridiculous to consider that Notre Dame’s worst comparative game against the run was against Miami, a game where the Irish throttled the ‘Canes 41-3. Saturday night, Notre Dame will certainly be tested at the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners’ running game is effective if not underutilized. The Sooners are averaging a gaudy 5.93 yards per carry, yet only running the ball 33 times a game.

(Edited to add Stanford’s rushing numbers, which detract from the above point, but are actually a bit more nuanced. Stanford has run for over 200 yards against USC, Arizona, and Cal, but their overall numbers are dragged down by 92 rush yards against Duke in a blowout win and 65 yards in their loss to Washington.)

The Irish won’t have the choice to walk away from the ground game, as they’ll need to establish the run early this weekend. And there’s reason to believe they can do it against the Sooners front, an undersized unit that might be the smallest front seven the Irish have faced since playing Navy.

If you’ve got 30 minutes, here’s a great breakdown of the battle in the trenches from the Solid Verbal’s Dan Rubenstein and Oregon offensive lineman Carson York, who is sitting out the season after undergoing right knee surgery. York’s unbiased opinion is favorable for the Irish, and he does a nice job of explaining the intricacies of things like the inside and outside zone running plays, staples of the Brian Kelly offense.

***

He’ll be the best quarterback Notre Dame’s faced this year, but what Landry Jones is going to show up?

Make no mistake, Landry Jones is a talented quarterback. But he’s far from bulletproof in pressure situations. The senior quarterback has put together an impressive career in Norman, thrust into duty as a redshirt freshman after Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. From there, the former Parade All-American has all but rewritten the Sooner record books, holding 13 Oklahoma passing records, including the all-time passing yardage mark.

But Jones, an All-Big 12 quarterback who returned for his senior season after a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, reignited some of the criticism he’s taken over the years for big game struggles after the Sooners’ disappointing loss to Kansas State.

The statuesque quarterback, who has yet to log a run for positive yardage on the season, fumbled twice, including one in the end zone recovered for a Wildcats touchdown, and threw an interception in the Sooners’ 24-19 loss.

Jones talked about the struggles he had against Kansas State and the pressure he’s been putting on himself this season back in late September.

“It drives me nuts that we’re kind of underachieving right now,” Jones said after the loss. “I feel like, specifically for myself, I’ve definitely been underachieving this whole year. It’s one of those things that we played a good team in Kansas State and we made mistakes that put us into a position that we couldn’t win.”

Kansas State’s game plan was to flush Jones from the pocket, forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. With Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and an Irish pass rush that already has 19 sacks on the year, expect that to be the part of Bob Diaco‘s thought process as well.

Even with some uneven performances, Jones will still likely hear his name called relatively early in this spring’s NFL Draft. And creit Jones for taking advantage of games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas to get back in rhythm, putting the Sooners offense in peak form heading into Saturday night’s game, while taking the pressure off himself.

“It was like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way,” Jones told SI.com. “You can’t play like that. You can’t play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you’re capable of playing.”

***

Can Big Game Bob Stoops live up to his name?

There’s no question Bob Stoops earned his reputation as a big game coach. Taking over the Oklahoma program after coordinating Steve Spurrier’s Florida defenses, Stoops quickly turned the Sooners around, going 7-5 in his first season in Norman before running the table in 2000, winning the Orange Bowl and the national championship in his second season.

In Stoops’ first four seasons, he was unparalleled in big games, going 18-2 against ranked opponents, winning an Orange Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl, and three Big 12 championships along the way.

Stoops’ home record of 78-4 at Owen Field is astonishing, but look a bit closer and that big game success is starting to erode after surprising slip-ups seem to pockmark the Sooners’ prolonged success. While Oklahoma is 10-point favorites against Notre Dame, this wouldn’t be the first game the Sooners have lost being decided favorites.

The Sooners were two-touchdown favorites when Bill Snyder and Kansas State ambushed them. Last year, the No. 3 Sooners were shocked in Norman by Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech team, a 28-point underdog pulling off a huge upset. In 2010, the same thing went down, with No. 1 Oklahoma being shocked by No. 11 Missouri, again, with Stoops’ squad a favorite in the polls and in Vegas. And who can forget 2009, when BYU knocked out Sam Bradford and shocked the No. 3 Sooners, a 22-point opening day favorite.

No coach was capable of keeping pace with the torrid start of Stoops’ career, but the Sooners have lost nine conference games since October of 2009, a number that raises a few eyebrows when you consider the rarefied air in which Stoops is still held (not to mention paid).

Notre Dame’s big-game cred certainly isn’t anywhere near what it once was, likely playing into Irish’s underdog role. But that skepticism might need to extend to both sidelines on Saturday.

***

The Irish will need an ordinary game plan and an extraordinary Everett Golson to walk out of Norman winners.

Make no mistake, this game will be decided by the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish need Golson to play the best game of his young career, and do it in the most hostile environment and on the biggest stage he’s experienced. If that’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of the Irish’s inexperienced signal-caller, well… tough. This is the kind of football game a quarterback goes to Notre Dame to play in. And this is the type of game the Irish need Golson to break through in if they’re going to exit the weekend 8-0.

“I really liked the way he practiced. Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re probably all at that stage of, ‘Okay, when’s it going to happen? When’s it all going to come together?’ I think we’re all waiting and it’s going to.

“It hasn’t yet, but he’s starting to put together multiple practices in a row where I leave practice and go, ‘When this thing comes together, it’s going to be pretty exciting.'”

Feeling no ill-effects from the concussion that kept him from playing against BYU, Golson should feel more confident in his job than ever, after watching Tommy Rees falter when taken out of a supporting role and tested as a leading man. And after nursing a variety of maladies to start the season, Kelly believes the week off will be an added blessing for his quarterback.

“As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do,” Kelly said of sitting Golson out. “To really give him that week to kind of give over the hump.”

It may be a bit premature to announce that Golson is indeed over that hump, with the Sooners’ defense likely playing into that evaluation. But with some time to step back and catch his breath, Golson will be armed with a conservative game plan that this staff will ask him to execute efficiently, and if his natural talents help make some big plays, so be it.

After struggling in his first appearance under the Notre Dame microscope, Golson gets a rare mulligan Saturday night. For the Irish to win, he’ll need to take advantage of it.

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.