Brian Kelly podium

Tuesdays with BK: Bring on BC

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It’s officially uncharted territory for Notre Dame. For much of the past month, the Irish have been compared to the 2002 squad, Tyrone Willingham’s first team in South Bend that won thanks to a relentless defense and an opportunistic offense.

For three quarters last Saturday, it appeared those comparisons were all too familiar. Facing a double-digit underdog, it appeared the clock was about to hit midnight on the Irish’s Cinderella season, with the No. 4 team in the country read to fall to a mediocre Pitt team.

But this wasn’t your standard Notre Dame team. With their undefeated season on the line, the Irish found a way to battle back in the fourth quarter from a 20-6 deficit to send the game to overtime. Then the Irish found a way to overcome a goal line fumble by Cierre Wood to win the football game, with an assist to a missed Pitt field goal. It was the type of fortune (and a little bit of luck) that a 9-0 team creates for itself, filled with the self-belief that comes with a lot of work.

“I told the football team that they had the heart of a champion in the way that they battled through triple overtime,” Brian Kelly said Tuesday afternoon. “But now that we understand that we will fight in battle, we’ve got to have the head of a champion, too. The head of a champion understand that each and every week you’re going to get the opposition’s very best. We have to be able to understand that when we play the game on Saturday. As I mentioned, I like the way we prepared all last week. We need to play better.”

With the Irish set to play a woeful Boston College team with a head coach that seems like a dead man walking, the same trappings will face the Irish in a hostile evening environment. But with a chance to get to 10-0 staring at Notre Dame, this team has likely learned another valuable lesson without being saddled with a loss.

Kelly spent over 30 minutes with the media answering questions. While the entire video is below, here are a few segments I found interesting.

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We’ve focused a lot on the freshmen that have contributed valuable minutes during the 2012 season. Kelly gave a quick update on some of the rookies who haven’t seen the field yet, praising a small handful of players.

“I would say guys that really catch my eye, C.J. Prosise. He’s a young man that is fun to watch,” Kelly said. “Gunner Kiel is whipping the ball around there. Big, physical kid on scout team. Really like watching him play. Jarron Jones is doing a great job on our scout team. Hard to block, big, long, physical kid. I would say those kids jump out at me right now. Will Mahone is doing a very good job for us as well. I’m sure I’m missing some of those guys, but those guys have jumped out at me.”

Prosise is a really intriguing athlete. He’s a guy that’s big and physical enough to be an emergency outside linebacker, but also has sprinter speed. With Zeke Motta the only member of the secondary departing, it’s going to be might competitive along the backend of the Irish defense the next few seasons.

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Once again, the Irish struggled in the red zone against Pitt, with two end zone turnovers nearly costing Notre Dame the game. When asked about the difficulties of playing inside the 20, Kelly’s answer all but targeted the decision-making skills of his young quarterback.

“You have to be more accurate; you have to have precision,” Kelly said. “It’s not a word that’s thrown around very easily in our room right now. Precision is not what we have yet. You have to be so precise. I’ve had quarterbacks that were precise, could read things quickly, and then it was easy down there. It was just, you know, shooting fish in a barrel. We’re not there yet. Getting to that precision in that area is the progress that we have to make.”

To that point, Kelly was asked about what things will be like when this offense actually gets to where he wants it to be. With a fleet of strong running options still likely around next season, and a depth chart at tight end and wide receiver that should only thrive, Kelly was pretty candid about what the engine of the offense will be.

“It’ll be driven by the quarterback, by his consistent play, by his decision making, by his athleticism,” Kelly said. “Certainly if you take the last quarter in overtime, I think Everett contributed 75 percent of our offense. So that quarterback will be the one that drives it; he’ll have athleticism; he’ll have the ability to throw the football.”

Consider that a large vote for Golson and his future. Interestingly enough, Gunner Kiel possesses all of those traits as well. But for those worried that the offense was thrown too much on the back of the quarterback down the stretch, that 75% ratio didn’t seem like a number that Kelly feared.

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Lastly, the offensive line has been playing better football of late, running the ball effectively while protecting Golson better. Kelly was asked about his starting left tackle, and what makes Zack Martin, a guy that’s locked down the position since Kelly came to campus, and what makes him so good.

“One word: Consistency. He’s lapping the field. He’s that good on a consistent basis,” Kelly said. “I think Coach Hiestand is grading him out in the 90s where guys are grading in the 60s and 70s. He’s just a consistent player for us at a high level, and has been that way all year.”

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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.