Senior Day

Tuesdays with BK: One last time at Notre Dame

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With 26 seniors getting set to play their final game in Notre Dame Stadium, you could understand if media members were less inclined to discuss the challenges Wake Forest present, but rather ask Brian Kelly what it’ll be like for guys like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, All-American performers playing their final game at home.

But with the Irish at 10-0 and in the thick of a three-team race for two spots in the national championship game, Kelly wasn’t too eager to look back at the unexpected success of the 2012 season yet. And as Irish fans can remember from recent years, Kelly knows Senior Day is only special if it ends with the home team walking away with a victory.

“I told our team yesterday that certainly the most important thing is for them to get the proper perspective through the week. Kelly said. “What you’ll remember most is whether you win the game, not that it was your last home game.  So make sure that you keep the distractions to a minimum.  And if there is any emotion let that be after the game.  Let’s have the emotion after the game celebrating a great victory.”

As usual, you can watch the entire press conference in the video below. But I’ve clipped a few sections I found interesting as well.

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Any worry about KeiVarae Russell‘s availability this weekend has been put to rest, with the freshman cornerback passing all hurdles for any concussion and being cleared to return to practice today. But as the Irish begin to prep for life without fellow (redshirt) freshman DaVaris Daniels, Kelly talked about the opportunities for John Goodman and Daniel Smith to step into the rotation.

For Goodman, it means finally being healthy enough to get on the field.

“He really hasn’t been healthy all year.  He’s battled a number of different ailments.  When we ask him to go in there, he’s the center of some big plays.  Obviously Michigan State and then of course Boston College,” Kelly said. “John has given us everything he has in his senior year.  He’s been a great teammate.  He’ll get a chance now to play a little bit more.”

Just a week or two after Kelly mentioned finding reps for Smith as a pass catcher and not a run blocker, that opportunity will come while Daniels’ collarbone mends, giving the South Bend native an opportunity to make plays via the pass on the edge of the offense.

Expect freshman Chris Brown to get some reps as well, with the freshman now the Irish’s only true deep threat with Daniels on the shelf. With Daniels gone until the bowl game, it might be an opportunity for Brown to run a few routes that don’t merely go vertical.

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It’s difficult for a football coach to discuss recruiting during the season without running afoul of an NCAA rule or two, but Kelly talked about the advantages that come with a 10-0 record.

“It’s been a great year, there’s is no question. I will tell you that winning helps in recruiting,” Kelly said. “It also solidifies those commitments.  We have a number of mid‑year enrollees that obviously are very excited about the direction of the football program.”

Yet Kelly was also candid about his strategy forr this recruiting class, specifically the work he and his staff did putting together key pieces before Notre Dame ever hit the football field.

“There is no mistaking that that kind of success helps you in recruiting. Having said that, I think we had made great progress coming into the season where we had a number commitments already in place,” Kelly said. “I think the winning has obviously enhanced that and strengthened those commitments.”

It’s hard to quantify the importance of recruits like Steve Elmer and James Onwualu, guys that really carried the Irish flag for a long time, helping to build a recruiting class, and often times acting as recruiters themselves at national events. In an era where the spotlight continues to build as recruits take part in combines and showcases run by shoe companies or recruiting services, a key group of players — even if they don’t have five-stars next to their name — can do more for a staff than any letter an assistant coach can write.

Notre Dame has put together the perfect storm in recruiting, holding onto key commitments like Alex Anzalone and Jaylon Smith while continuing to set their cross-hairs on some elite national talents still available. That’s the kind of success you can have on the recruiting trail at a national school Notre Dame, but only if the product on the field matches up with the sales pitch in the head coach’s office.

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Saturday will obviously be an emotional moment for Manti Te’o, who will hug his parents before he plays his final game in Notre Dame Stadium. Te’o talked about the effect Senior Day had on him last year, watching his teammates experience such a special moment with their parents and families, and how it played a large part in coming back for a final season.

With rumors swirling that Cierre Wood might be playing his final game and forgoing a fifth season of eligibility, and tough decisions coming for guys like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Kelly talked about the decision Te’o made to return for a senior season, something that Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd also did under Kelly.

“I think it’s important if you look at getting your degree and how important that is.  You know, it’s what, 2.5% of all college players play in the NFL.  Average career is 3.3 years,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a great case in point for a guy that understands and recognizes the value of a life versus a career. You know.  His life is set up because he’s got a degree from Notre Dame.”

Still, just because the decision made sense for Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd doesn’t stop guys like Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph, and Golden Tate from leaving early. And while Kelly had less of a relationship with the three Irish stars that went three-and-out from Notre Dame, success on the field, particularly for a guy like Stephon Tuitt, could make for some tough decisions. Kelly talked about how the culture of the Irish program may help keep kids on campus until they have their diploma.

“I think it’s beginning to become more pervasive within our program that our guys are here to get a degree first, and that the NFL calling will take its course,” Kelly said. “You’re not coming to Notre Dame because you’re going to hang your hat here a couple years to go to the NFL.  I don’t want to recruit that way. I want to keep that dream alive that you can have a career in the NFL, but the way I want team and program to be constructed is that you recognize the value of a degree and help your team win.

“Look, Manti doesn’t get any of those accolades unless this team is winning.  Help the team win, and then all the other things are in your grasp.  That’s what we’re hoping that this program is moving towards.”

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Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.