Paul Chryst

And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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Expect things to be testy in Bristol this weekend, as Mark May and Lou Holtz actually have something to bicker about. After a massive win in Norman, the Irish return home to South Bend, a place that’s been much tougher on Notre Dame than any opponent’s stadium.

They’ll face a familiar opponent in the Pitt Panthers. Yet there isn’t much too familiar with Pitt. Another season, another head coaching change. After Todd Graham headed to Arizona State after just one season in the Steel City, Paul Chryst has taken over the program, bringing with him a strong offensive reputation after putting together some high-powered seasons in Wisconsin.

It was far from a smooth start for Chryst and company, who lost their debut against Youngstown State and started 0-2 before rallying to get to 4-4 on the season. Getting us up to speed on the state of the Pitt program is the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. Sam is in his first year covering the Panthers’ beat and is no stranger to the Notre Dame program, having covered the Irish for the student-run Observer not too long ago, working the Irish beat in ’09 and serving as managing editor in ’10.

I asked, Sam answered. Let’s all enjoy.

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It seems that Paul Chryst has stabilized the Panthers’ program after a few rocky years. One of the elite offensive coordinators in the game at Wisconsin, he’s brought back to Pittsburgh an offensive philosophy probably more befitting the program’s identity. How do you assess the job Chryst and his coaching staff have done in their first season?

It’s certainly been a little up and down, results-wise. The loss to Youngstown State was pretty much the worst way a coach could imagine starting his first head job, but Pitt has bounced back nicely to win some big games, notably over future ACC rival Virginia Tech. More than just the on the field results, though, Chryst’s job is about providing some program stability. That part of the job won’t happen for a few years, after he has sort of established himself as the head coach and the whirlwind of coaches that came in here is no longer an issue.

I do think Chryst has a bright future at Pitt for a couple of reasons. First, like you mentioned, the style of his offense fits in much better with the identity of the program and city. Todd Graham’s now-infamous “high-octane offense” just never really seemed to mesh. Two, while the program-wide stability may take a couple of years, Chryst is the perfect guy to do it. I’ve never been around a coach who is as consistent day-in, day-out with his approach to things. He’s the same guy after a win or after a loss, and he prepares the same way each week whether they’re playing Notre Dame or Gardner-Webb. That has to rub off and have a positive effect on his team.

In Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers have two really talented runners. It looks like Graham is rounding back into form after a knee injury slowed down one of college football’s most under-the-radar players. And Shell was a prep phenom and looks impressive physically for a young guy. Running against the Irish has been no easy task. Can Pitt do it, especially with an offensive line that’s been up and down?

This is the matchup I keep coming back to when I’m looking at ways Pitt could win this game. I think the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to keep drives going and keep the game close, but I’m not so sure if that’s going to happen. Graham and Shell are very talented (and Shell especially is going to be a monster as his career progresses), but the running game has had some fits and starts over the last few weeks. They couldn’t really get it going against Buffalo two weeks ago, which doesn’t bode well for them this weekend. Having a first-time starter at right guard after losing Ryan Schlieper for the season last week won’t help either. So, in short, Pitt definitely does have a formidable rushing attack, but they haven’t shown me enough consistency this season to have me convinced that they’re going to be able to establish the run against Notre Dame’s defense.

One person really benefiting from the coaching change is quarterback Tino Sunseri. He’s playing the best football of his career in his final season at Pitt. With two really big and physical targets, the Panthers passing attack looks sneaky good. Assess for me what’s been the difference for Sunseri, who Notre Dame fans have seen quite a bit these past few years. And are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best receiving duo Notre Dame will see this season, outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?

I think the biggest difference for Sunseri this season has just been his comfort level in the offense that Chryst runs. He’s being asked to much make fewer on-the-fly reads and decisions than he was last year, and get just get into a rhythm and make his throws. This has directly led to a drastic reduction in turnovers (he hasn’t thrown a pick in five weeks). I think there’s also something to be said for a fifth-year senior just sort of putting everything together in his final year. Bill Stull did it for Pitt in 2009, and Tino’s doing it this year. I said coming into the year that, in Chryst’s offense, Sunseri didn’t need to be a game-breaker quarterback, he just needed to be the equivalent of Scott Tolzien from the 2010 Badgers. So far, he has even exceeded that.

The receivers, too, have played a significant part in Sunseri’s development. Street is enjoying a breakout year as the passing game’s top target. Looking at him, he has always had the physical skills to be an elite receiver and the mental side of the game just seems to have started clicking this year. He also has talked about how he and Tino are on the same page in terms of breaking down coverages on the sideline this season. Shanahan is also important for the passing game, mostly because of his versatility. He mostly plays split wide but, especially with Pitt limited at tight end over the past few weeks, he has also worked inside on some blocking. I don’t know if these are the “best” receivers Notre Dame will face this side of USC, but they’re probably the most physically imposing.

Statistically, the Panthers defense looks decent, holding points down, rushing attacks to just 141 yards a game, and passing offenses to less than 200 yards a game. But they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they lack size at linebacker. Jarred Holley is a playmaker and the team looks strong up the middle. Can Pitt make things hard for Everett Golson and slow down an Irish running game that’s really hitting its stride?

The defense was dealt a huge blow this week with the news that two linebackers — MLB Dan Mason and WLB Manny Williams — will be out for the season. Regulars starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, so he’s questionable as well. If he can’t go, Pitt will likely only have five linebackers to dress for Saturday’s game. I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime coverages Saturday. This will help them match up against Notre Dame’s spread, but also gets their best players on the field. Holley and Jason Hendricks have started at safety, but backups Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal are outstanding players, as well. Pitt will work to get those guys on the field.

This is also one of the areas that will be key for Pitt keeping it close. The run defense has been almost astonishingly inconsistent this season, shutting down Virginia Tech and Temple’s running games, but allowing Cincinnati, Youngstown State and Buffalo to get over 150 yards on the ground. If the good run defense shows up, this one will be close. If the bad run defense does (and those linebacker injuries really concern me), this has a chance to get out of hand like Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Miami.

The Panthers are pretty heavy underdogs heading into Notre Dame Stadium. Who are two people that are going to have to play really big for Pitt if they’re going to pull off the upset? What’s the blueprint for success for Paul Chyst’s squad?

I’m going all-uglies on this one and pointing to two linemen. On offense, center Ryan Turnley is going to have his hands full going up against Louis Nix. He’ll have to at least slow down Nix from getting into the backfield immediately after the snap. On top of that, he’ll be tasked with organizing the offensive line as a whole facing the best defense they’ll play all season, with a first-time starter at right guard. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Pitt’s offensive line to totally contain Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and company, since no one has done that this season. But if they can keep Sunseri relatively clean and generate enough push to get consistent positive yardage on the ground, Pitt has a chance. On defense, I think Aaron Donald really needs to have a game on the line. He’s probably Pitt’s best player, regardless of position, and can be a force. If he can get pressure on Golson and make him scramble around, Golson has shown that he’s still sort of working out the kinks of finding guys on the run. In the Oklahoma game, a lot of times he was just content to throw it away. That said, the rest of the defensive line has to do a good job setting contain on the edge so Golson doesn’t pick up big chunks with his feet.

I think the blueprint overall for a Pitt victory is to run the ball at least reasonably effectively, and hit one or two big plays through the air. They’re going to need to control time of possession and an early score wouldn’t hurt to get the crowd out of the game. On defense, I don’t think they’re quite ready to just shut down Notre Dame’s offense, so the Panthers are going to need a turnover or two, ideally in Notre Dame’s territory to set up some scores. Pitt isn’t going to win this game 38-35 or even 28-25. But if they play their best and Notre Dame’s focus is still in Norman, Pitt could win this game something like 13-9 (the same score they beat then-No. 2 West Virginia by in 2007).

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A special thanks to Sam for taking the time to make us smarter. For more Pitt coverage heading into the big game, check out Sam’s stuff at the Post-Gazette and follow him on Twitter @SWernerPG

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

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

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

 

First Rounders:

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

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

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

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

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

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

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

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

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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