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Why I’m Thankful: Notre Dame and its magical season

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Thanksgiving Day. A time for the Macy’s parade, a day of football, too much turkey, and corny columns from writers everywhere. But in the midst of a historic season, some stories absolutely have to be written, even with family, football, and food waiting.

As the Irish gather at their coaches’ homes for holiday meals before taking off for Los Angeles tomorrow, it’s amazing to look back on the year that got us here, and the team we’ve all spent the last twelve weeks obsessing over.

So here’s why I’m thankful.

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I’m thankful that Notre Dame has proven that a team can compete for a national championship and graduate nearly all of its players. For the first time ever, the same school with the highest football player graduation rate is No. 1 in the BCS rankings. And while it’s no certainty that the Irish will win their next two football games, hopefully this shatters any illusions that winning on the field and graduating almost all your players has to be mutually exclusive.

If there’s a story that can’t be overblown more, this is certainly it. As it had been envisioned by Father Theodore Hesburgh years ago, Notre Dame always wanted to fulfill two missions: deliver a quality academic experience and compete at an elite level in football. After years of watching the SEC teams dominate the trophy case yet let a large portion of their student-athletes leave school without a degree, having Notre Dame, a flagship program in college football, remind schools it is possible to achieve greatness on the field and in the classroom is the most important lesson of any that’ll come out of college football season this year.

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I’m thankful for Brian Kelly. After watching four head coaches get chewed up and spit out by the pressure cooker that is Notre Dame, Kelly had the moxie to tune out the noise and follow his plan. Along with athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the Irish head coach tore the football team down to its studs, a gut job of a program that had been building on top of a faulty foundation for over 15 years.

There were dark times for this football team. Think back to the panic that ensued when Aaron Lynch left the football program against his family’s wishes and Louis Nix looked close to going home, too. And while even the most ardent believers saw this team’s chances go down the drain when the Irish lost what was believed to be their most important defender on the roster, Kelly was steadfast in his belief that the defensive would be just fine.

Of course, it turned out to be more than just fine, perhaps the most dominant unit the Irish have trotted out in at least a quarter century. And Kelly’s belief in himself — his double-down on what made him a great head coach to begin with — transformed this team in an offseason where questions at quarterback, the graduation of the team’s best offensive and defensive player, and the toughest preseason schedule in the country all had even the most faithful fans clutching rosary beads.

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I’m thankful for a team filled with personalities. Iconic leaders like Manti Te’o, a Hawaiian warrior that isn’t afraid to tell his teammates that he loves them, words that don’t always flow from the mouths of 21-year-olds. Veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, a defensive cog that may have been recruited by the previous regime, but bought into Kelly’s program after many friends and teammates felt like leftovers. For Louis Nix, a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor, who picked Notre Dame without knowing who his head coach would be, and has turned into one of the finest nose tackles in the country. For Tyler Eifert, Braxston Cave, and Zack Martin, three Indiana boys who may not be the most quotable, but anchor an old-school, Midwestern toughness that this team embodies.

For Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, two best friends pushing each other to be great while fighting for carries in the backfield. For Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, who have played cornerback like time-tested veterans, not converted offensive prospects. For Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, two quarterbacks that have co-existed and pushed each other, working towards a common goal instead of fanning the flames of a potential quarterback controversy.

From Trick Shot Monday to the unmitigated joy that comes with singing the fight song after a victory, the small peeks behind the scenes of this team show a group that’s bonded into one, a trait that’s common among championship contenders. At a school where you’re never as good as its touted or as bad as its trashed, this team has kept its head down, marched to the drum of its leaders, and focused on the task at hand for eleven important Saturdays.

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No school is perfect. And while many people bristle at the thought of Notre Dame’s singularity, there’s no reason to argue about the unique place Notre Dame holds in the world of college sports. It has withstood the recent years of punching bag status, picked itself up from the mat after timeless embarrassing losses on the game’s biggest stage, and continued to plow ahead even when its been far more fashionable to bash than revere. And now, one game from the sport’s pinnacle, a season nobody saw coming is close to being frozen in immortality.

The facts are nearly indisputable. When Notre Dame is back, the entire college football world thrives. Whether it’s top television ratings, countless hours of debate, or just echoes awakened, after almost four seasons of writing daily about a football team that felt so far from the top of the mountain, I’m thankful that I get paid to cover this football team, in truth, a group I’d probably be obsessing about anyway. Every season is a grind for writers, and after three grueling years, this one has been a breeze, and a journey I hope we all enjoyed taking together.

I’m thankful that Notre Dame’s most heralded rival stands in the way of its date with destiny. You wouldn’t want it any other way, and the entire college football world will be watching.

And I’m thankful after nearly twenty years, that the final Saturday of November finally means something.

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.