Manti Te'o, Stephon Tuitt

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13

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Games like this built the legend. Thunder shaking and echo-waking, it could only be built upon a tradition of winning big match-ups like this, what though the odds.  No. 5 Notre Dame added another brick to the house that Rockne built with its incredible 30-13 victory over No. 8 Oklahoma. And after 20 years of hype before substance, corporate ambiance over traditionally dominance, the Irish turned back the clock with a huge win, forcing themselves into a still-crowded national title conversation with an improbable upset over an Oklahoma team that was almost two-touchdown favorites.

This was vintage stuff, led by Manti Te’o and an Irish defense that bent but didn’t break, and a young quarterback that grew up in front of capacity crowd in Norman, Oklahoma. With the win, Notre Dame moves to 8-0, with a clear path to 11-0 and a date with destiny in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at the five things we learned.

1. Everybody in the stadium knew Notre Dame needed to run the ball to win. And the Irish did it anyway.

Few stats tell the story of a football game like this one: 215-15. That was Notre Dame’s dominance in rushing yards, with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and Everett Golson running through the Sooners, while the vaunted Oklahoma running game crashed to a halt.

Few things silence a crowd like an effective running game. And with the Sooners up-tempo offense putting the Irish on their heels early, Wood put an early dagger into the side of the Owen Field crowd when he burst up the middle for a stunning 62-yard touchdown run. The sprint pushed the Irish ahead 7-3 and gave Notre Dame the early lead it desperately needed.

From there, it was pretty impressive stuff for the Irish offensive line, with the impressive effort becoming standard fare for Harry Hiestand‘s linemen. The Sooners had only yielded 3.8 yards a carry and just under 140 yards a game. Against Notre Dame, they gave up 5.5 yards a carry and 215 yards, all of them earned against Mike Stoops‘ defense that certainly didn’t think the Irish passing attack was capable of beating them.

As the calendar turns to November and running the ball becomes even more important, Notre Dame now knows it can trust its two premiere runners. In Wood, the Irish have a slippery back with game-breaking skills. In Riddick, they have a slasher that isn’t afraid to gain the hard yards inside, sealing the game with a 15-yard touchdown that encapsulates his role on the team.

With Notre Dame needing to run the ball to win, the fact that the Irish did it when everybody else in the world knew it was coming is the next step in offensive competency. Saturday night was a huge step forward for this football team.

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2. With the weight of Notre Dame Nation on his shoulders, Everett Golson stepped up and played the hero.

His numbers don’t shine, but Everett Golson did everything asked of him Saturday night. In completing 13 of 25 passes for 177 yards, Golson didn’t light the world on fire, but he moved the chains, played mistake-free football, and was the confident leader Kelly was hoping would appear.

Golson wasn’t the most impressive quarterback on the field, but he was the one that played like the veteran. No snaps rolled through his legs, no miscommunications hurt his team. He knew when to throw it away, he knew when to tuck it and run, and he did his best to silence a gigantic crowd, helping the Irish convert seven of 15 third downs, just about all of them critical.

The sophomore quarterback still knows how to send a chill through Irish fans everywhere, whether its holding the football like a loaf of bread or taking a gut-busting hit. But after suffocating under the pressure against Michigan, Golson stood tall against the Sooners and helped deliver a win.

No time was that more clear than when Golson hit freshman wide receiver Chris Brown on a beautiful 50-yard completion, with the towering spiral falling right into the young receivers hands for the first catch of his career. It was a throw Golson missed earlier in the game, but he dusted himself off and let it fly again, completing the crucial pass when Notre Dame needed it most.

In Golson, the Irish have something Tommy Rees — and a lot of other quarterbacks across America — can’t be. A talented runner, a playmaker, and a wildcard when the play breaks down. On Saturday night, that wildcard turned into trump, and Golson led the Irish to their biggest win in a decade.

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3. Manti Te’o wrote another chapter in his legend, and forced his name into the Heisman conversation.

In a week where Manti Te’o‘s stock off the field pushed further through the ceiling after this story came to light, the senior linebacker played a game for the ages on Saturday night, making a dozen tackles, sacking quarterback Landry Jones once, and catching an acrobatic interception that helped ice the game for the Irish.

At this point, we’re running out of superlatives for Te’o, with us half-expecting him to rescues a cat from a tree at halftime. But on Saturday night, he raised the bar again, showing himself to be one of the country’s most complete players, making tackles in space, playing well in coverage, getting after the quarterback, and helping shut down the Sooners running game in Notre Dame’s biggest game of the seasn.

A Heisman Trophy candidate is only as good as his football team. Usually that’d disqualify a Notre Dame player’s candidacy, as it did with Brady Quinn in 2005. But with the Irish 8-0 and Te’o playing at his best in front of a national audience, the Heisman chatter should rightfully turn itself into a full-fledged conversation.

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4. For a program in search of a signature win, Brian Kelly cemented his place at Notre Dame on Saturday night.

For the naysayers, Notre Dame’s win might have finally muzzled those that weren’t sure Brian Kelly had what it takes to be the head coach of the Fighting Irish. On the biggest stage of the year in enemy territory, Notre Dame came out and played their best, embodying everything Kelly said he wanted to build in his football team.

The Irish played stifling defense. Notre Dame ran the football with impunity. And on a night where the margin for error was slim, the Irish played all but error-free football, with only one penalty for five yards. This was a signature win for a head coach waking up the echoes in his third year in South Bend, a season where the cream usually rises to the top.

Saturday night was Kelly’s best game on the Irish sidelines. He consistently kept Bob Stoops and the Sooners off-balance with his playcalling on offense. He was tight but aggressive, limiting the Sooners’ opportunities with the football, but not falling into the pitfalls of a conservative game plan.

Just about everything Notre Dame needed to do, they did. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together a win with a young quarterback learning how to be great and an offensive line that put the team on its shoulders. Defensively, the Irish rode their star player, stuck with a four man pass rush, and stiffened in the red zone. It was a text book performance by a head coach that clearly knows the winning blue print for his team, even if it wasn’t the one that got him the job at Notre Dame.

There will be plenty of time for national kudos and postseason accolades. But facing an identity crisis last December after falling to Florida State and ending another season 8-5, Kelly doubled-down on himself, and those changes made all the difference in the world.

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5. Celebrate tonight’s victory as hard as you want, but you’re a fool if you don’t think danger lies ahead.

This similarities between tonight’s victory and the 2002 win over Florida State in Tallahassee are uncanny. While the Irish didn’t need special teams fortune and plenty of good luck to spring the upset this evening, Notre Dame’s last 8-0 season suffered a heart-breaking failure just a Saturday later, when the Irish fell to Boston College 14-7 after a stunning implosion.

Now it’s time for Notre Dame to keep an eye on the prize. Because looking too far ahead could be intoxicating. After a win over the Sooners, the schedule opens up nicely for the Irish. With Florida’s loss, the Irish knock another SEC team out of their way, pushing them up the BCS rankings by default.

With 4-4 Pitt next Saturday, downtrodden Boston College in two weeks, and a mediocre Wake Forest team following that, Notre Dame should be heavy favorites in their next three football games. And with Arizona moving the ball at will on USC in their upset of the Trojans, the recipe has been established for beating Lane Kiffin’s talented but flawed team on Thanksgiving weekend.

In 2002, the Irish lost after donning green jerseys and getting a case of fumble-itis that will likely never be duplicated again. The Irish laid the ball on the turf an astonishing seven times, losing three. Add in an interception and winning the yardage battle by almost 200 yards wasn’t enough to beat the Eagles, who have made their name on crushing Irish dream seasons.

Brian Kelly has said all the right things when it comes to avoiding the noise and not believing the press and hype that come with playing for one of America’s most popular teams. His job will become even harder starting tomorrow, with Notre Dame feeding crow to dozens of talking heads across the national airwaves.

But this journey is far from complete. With the Irish entering the season’s final quarter, Notre Dame need to keep their head down and plow forward, continuing to do the things that got them this far.

It’s certainly easier said than done, especially after a historic win like this.

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.