Tanner Price

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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A year after surviving a battle in Winston-Salem, Notre Dame returns the favor, hosting Wake Forest in South Bend, the final home game of the season. For the Irish, every game is must-see TV, with an undefeated season on the line and a home record that’s included nothing but nail-biters. For the Demon Deacons, it an opportunity to play well against a good team, something that hasn’t happened yet this year for Jim Grobe’s squad.

At 5-5, Wake finds itself needing a win against either the Irish or Vanderbilt to become bowl eligible. As a three-touchdown underdog on Saturday, the Deacs will need to play their best game of the season to keep things interesting. Getting us up to speed on the state of Wake Forest football is Martin Rickman, editor of Blogger So Dear.

Can Wake Forest looking to stage one of college football’s more improbable upsets this Saturday? Martin was kind enough to give us a closer look at the Demon Deacons’ chances to steal a victory.

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1) As you’d expect from a team with a 5-5 record, Wake Forest has had an up and down season. At its best, what is this Demon Deacon team? At its worse, how bad does it get?

At its best, this team is a .500 team. Honestly. The defense is inconsistent and gives too much of a cushion in the secondary. It doesn’t limit big plays. The offensive line is a disaster. Tanner Price doesn’t trust his receivers aside from Michael Campanaro. The running game is unreliable. The playcalling is suspect. The coaching is conservative to a maddening level. Jim Grobe doesn’t trust his players this year, and the schedule is so weak, somehow with all the wounded on the offensive line, the suspensions and the injury to Campanaro in the middle of the season, the team is 5-5 and a win away from bowl eligibility. Funny how that works sometimes.

At its worst, this team lost to Maryland, almost lost to Army, got blasted by Florida State and was embarrassed by N.C. State and Clemson.

2) Last season, Brian Kelly was incredibly complimentary about the personnel Jim Grobe had on the field, and the Deacs played the Irish really tough. He said similar things in his weekly press conference, particularly about the defensive personnel. For someone that’s only seen highlights and box scores, is Kelly just offering coaching flattery or is there some good talent on Jim Grobe’s defense?

There is good talent on the defense, and that is one of the more frustrating issues this season. The defense was supposed to be the strong point. Nikita Whitlock was coming off a spectacular season a year ago, the linebacking corps was retooled and the secondary had some truly gifted athletes. But aside from some nice stretches here and there, the defense has been a huge disappointment. Part of that is from being on the field so much due to the ineptitude of the offense, but some of it is straight getting beat in coverage. A unit that was supposed to be a huge strength is just another representation of a lackluster year overall.

3) How much of the team’s inconsistency can be put on the offensive and defensive lines? What has been the problem there?

The offensive line has been decimated by injuries, but has been better than I expected knowing how patchwork it all was. Honestly, the lack of a consistent No. 2 receiver is one of the biggest issues on the offensive side of the ball. It completely messed with Tanner Price’s psyche.

The defensive line, I don’t know. It was supposed to be solid. But when you go with a scheme that emphasizes speed over size, you have to get to the quarterback and bring pressure. This team does not do a very good job of that.

4) In Tanner Price, Josh Harris, and Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest has three top-flight talents on offense. If the Demon Deacons are going to pull off the upset, what do you expect from them?

It’s going to have to be perfection for the trio. Notre Dame’s defense is second-to-none this season. Wake’s offense has its work cut out for it. But, I’ll play this game. Price needs to make throws in tight windows when he has the opportunity to take shots. Harris needs to fight for yards after contact and break a couple runs into the second level. Campanaro needs to catch everything thrown his way and break tackles. The entire team needs to take care of the football. Let’s start there.

5) A lot of Notre Dame fans are struggling to understand how Kansas State is ranked ahead of the Irish, especially when you look at common opponents and strength of schedule. As someone without a dog in this fight, how do you rank the three remaining undefeated teams? Where does Notre Dame fall on the spectrum of title contender-to-lucky to be there for you?

I actually wrote about this with Mark Ennis of East Coast Bias and Louisville’s ESPN 680 on Saturday when we were trying to put together our top 10. Notre Dame came in third for both of us, behind Oregon and Kansas State, and I realize that’s a bit of a sore subject for Irish fans, but we looked at how defense-heavy Notre Dame is and the recent struggles at times. But it’s really not far off.

I expect one of the three undefeateds to lose in the next two weeks anyway, so this won’t be an issue. Bottom line: Notre Dame takes care of business in the next two games, it’s all but assured the Fighting Irish will be playing for the National Championship.

6) Obviously, last year’s game was a tight contest and Wake Forest was in it until the end. What do you expect on Saturday?

Pain.

This game is not going to be close. But fans in South Bend are good hosts, so Wake fans making the trip will have a great time. And it’s always fun to play a night game against a Top 5 team.

If we’re making a prediction, let’s say 34-10. I honestly don’t know if it will even be that close.

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For more leading up to the game, follow Martin on Twitter @MartinRickman and check out the other great stuff going at Blogger So Dear, where haiku game recaps are the norm.

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.

 

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.