Irish linebacker Te'o follows the play against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their NCAA college football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend

Pregame Six Pack: The final battle

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On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame will board a plane for Los Angeles. By the time they leave, they’ll know if they’ve punched their ticket to Miami, awaiting a challenger in the national championship game. After three months of twists and turns, the No. 1 Fighting Irish take on Southern Cal in the country’s greatest intersectional rivalry.

We’ve spent three months leading up to this game, with no amount of hyperbole overselling the importance of this Saturday night to the Irish. Win and the Irish will be 12-0 for the first time since 1988 and just the second time in school history. They’ll also spend the next six weeks preparing for a title game many thought was out of the school’s reach.

It’s a season finale unlike just about any other. With all of college football’s eyes on them, Notre Dame will have a chance to walk out of the Coliseum with not just the Jeweled Shillelagh, but a chance to play for the crystal football.

Before No. 1 Notre Dame takes on USC, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.

***

The Irish have traveled to Los Angeles undefeated in five previous season finales. They’ve come out alive three times.

Notre Dame is 3-2 against USC when the team is undefeated and playing in the season finale. In 1938, they lost 13-0 to a No. 8 ranked USC team and won in 1947 after beating the No. 3 Trojans 38-7. In 1964, the Irish had their undefeated dreams dashed when the Trojans roared back from down 17 to score 20 points in the second half and beat the Irish 20-17. In 1966, the Irish took care of business, demolishing the Trojans 51-0.

It’s been 24 years since an undefeated Notre Dame team went into the Coliseum with the No. 1 ranking on the line. That year, the Trojans were No. 2 in the country at 10-0 with Rodney Peete captaining the high powered offense. Making things more difficult for Notre Dame, Lou Holtz sent home Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks after the duo was late for the team dinner the night before the game.

“There’s no excuse for anybody being late now, because everyone’s got a Cotton Bowl watch,” Holtz quipped.

The Irish jumped all over the Trojans, taking advantage of four first half turnovers as they ran away with a 27-10 victory. After beating the Trojans, they went on to finish the dream season with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

***

The Trojans have fallen off a cliff in the past month.

Starting the season atop the AP rankings, it’s been a four-loss disaster for the Trojans. With the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite, two All-American caliber wide receivers, and nearly an identical defense to an upstart 2011 unit, Lane Kiffin’s team has been in free fall.

“It hasn’t turned out so far how we’d have liked or how we anticipated. We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest,” USC athletic director Pat Haden earlier this week.

Earlier in the week, Kiffin talked about the swing the season has taken in just the last month, going as far as to identify the play where things turned south.

“It’s been a disappointing season as we all know, but as I look at it and break it down, it’s been a disappointing month, we’ve had a bad month, a disaster month,” Kiffin said. “One month ago we’re sitting at 6-1 and we’re up 15 points in Arizona. We run a double-move and we’re getting ready to go up by 22 and put the game away. From that play on, not a lot of good has happened.”

“Not a lot of good,” might be an understatement. Dropping three of four games, the Trojans defense has fallen off a cliff, giving up 156 points and 1,974 yards to Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. Offensively, they’ve killed themselves with turnovers, coughing up the ball 16 times, including nine interceptions.

Putting that into context, the Trojans have given up 45 more points in that four games stretch than Notre Dame has all season. They’ve also turned the ball over more this year than the Irish did last year, shocking when you consider Matt Barkley was expected to be the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft.

Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

***

For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll need to follow a familiar script on offense.

Make no mistake, helping the Irish’s rock solid defense will be a consistent offense. More to the point, a running game that can eat of the clock and move the ball efficiently, something the Irish have done well this season, averaging 200 yards a game this season.

While the Trojan run defense ranks a semi-respectable 49th in the country, they’ve only faced three run games that ranked statistically better than Notre Dame’s. Here’s how they fared:

Arizona: (39-36 loss)
Rushing Rank: 15th
Team Totals: 44 carries, 222 yards, 2 TDs

Oregon: (62-51 loss)
Rushing Rank: 5th
Team Totals: 60 carries, 468 yards, 5 TDs

UCLA: (38-28 loss)
Rushing Rank: 28th
Team Totals: 50 carries, 240 yards, 4 TDs

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, one thing that’s really plagued the Trojans is a mobile quarterback. Before Matt Scott left the game for Arizona, he had run for 100 yards on 15 carries. In Oregon’s juggernaut rushing performance, Marcus Mariota ran 15 times for 96 yards. While Brett Hundley isn’t part of the UCLA game plan as a runner and was sacked five times, his mobility caused problems for USC’s defense before Jonathan Franklin wore out the Trojans on the ground.

In Everett Golson, the Irish have the perfect running weapon to go along with Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, both of whom should have nice days. And as Arizona and Oregon showed, running a spread offense with tempo beats USC. The Irish might not be able to move quite as quickly as the two Pac-12 teams, but they’ve got a defense that can pull its own weight.

***

With irrelevance long forgotten, Pat Haden talks about Notre Dame’s role in college football.

As a one-time NBC broadcaster that saw Notre Dame for a lot of years, Pat Haden understands the Irish’s role in the college football world. While the former USC quarterback has gone back to his alma mater to run the Trojan athletic department, he hasn’t lost any respect for a football program that in many ways is an aspirational model for USC, a school trying to leave behind the scandal that costs Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy and USC thirty scholarships.

Haden went on with everybody’s favorite ESPN pundit Collin Cowherd this week and discussed all things Notre Dame, complimenting Brian Kelly for the work that he’s done as he’s become the toast of the college football world.

“I’m a little surprised, I thought they had a very daunting schedule when I looked at it,” Haden said to Cowherd. “They’ve navigated their way through that schedule very well. Brian Kelly has done a great job. Their quarterback has played very well and come on particularly the last few weeks. Last year, Notre Dame got in trouble turning the ball over and they’re not doing that this year. Their defense has played spectacularly.”

Perhaps more impressive than anything Haden said about the work Notre Dame has done on the field was what he said about the Irish’s role in the college football world, crystallizing why Jack Swarbrick continues to keep the Irish independent as conference commissioners like Jim Delany keep trying to swallow up universities in a real estate and cable TV power-plays.

“There’s only one brand name in college football, and that’s Notre Dame,” Haden said. “And I think it’s good for all of us when Notre Dame is playing very well and people are following them. I’ve always had great respect for Notre Dame. They’re a great model for us. They do things so well. Academically, athletically. We have great respect for their institution, their athletic program, and the rivalry.

***

While USC is saying all the right things about Max Wittek, the reality of a first time starter could be sobering for Trojan fans.

Max Wittek could very well be the next great USC quarterback. But anybody thinking the Trojans will have a strategic advantage because Notre Dame hasn’t seen much of the young quarterback is kidding themselves.

The loss of Matt Barkley is huge. Last season, Barkley and Kiffin engineered a near perfect game plan, using Notre Dame’s defensive strengths against them throughout the game. Every single pass had a playaction element to it, helping to freeze the Irish’s over-aggressive linebackers as Barkley picked Notre Dame apart. That playaction throws also helped the Trojans running game, as the USC offensive line and some solid cut-back running took advantage of an injury-ravaged defensive front and ran the Irish out of commission.

But that was with one of college football’s best triggermen at the helm. Not a redshirt freshman starting his first game. Want a look at every snap Wittek’s taken for the Trojans? Here. You. Go. It’s about what you’d expect from a quarterback playing in mop-up time, with not much to gather from the handful of throws Wittek made against three defenses ranked no better than 70th in the country.

Yet Kiffin and the Trojans are doing their best to talk Wittek up, whether its truth, strategy, or to boost the young quarterback’s confidence.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Kiffin said earlier in the week. “Had a great command of the huddle out there. He’s been working really well with the skill guys. Does not seem like a freshman.”

At his best, Wittek brings a strong arm to the table and the ability to try and stretch the Irish defense vertically. With decent mobility for his size, expect Kiffin to continue to use playaction, often rolling Wittek to a half field look, where he’ll have an easier read before he needs to get rid of the football.

There’s a version of Saturday night that ends with Wittek triumphant, carving out the first chapter of a legendary career in South Los Angeles. But the more likely scenario ends in disappointment for USC, with a team already prone to turnovers facing the toughest defense it’s seen all season.

***

Forget about superstition. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the script.

Enough stories will be written about destiny, stars aligning or magical third season. Enough worry will be wasted on SI cover jinxes or mystical superstitions. Throw it all in the garbage. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the blueprint that got them this far.

On defense, the Irish will face their most dangerous test yet. Even with Max Wittek at quarterback, Notre Dame hasn’t faced talent like Marqise Lee, college football’s best receiver, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor, who broke the Irish staff’s heart when he picked Southern Cal last signing day. The Trojans also have a powerful running attack, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal running for almost 1,400 yards this season.

Yet Manti Te’o and company will win if they do what got them there. Suffocate offenses with an elite front seven. Shut down the run. Keep the football in front of the secondary and tackle like crazy. Up front, the Irish should give the Trojans’ suspect offensive line all it can handle. And Te’o should have more than a few opportunities to take the ball away from Wittek. And after eleven weeks of playing assignment correct football in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott need to drum up one more game plan that keeps the opposition away from the big play.

On offense, everything runs through Everett Golson. After playing his best football the past month, Golson will make one more primetime road start, and if he’s as sharp Saturday night as he has been in the past, Notre Dame will be just fine.

Get Cierre Wood established. Let Theo Riddick run hard and make plays out of the backfield. Move the chains with Tyler Eifert while taking some shots down the field as well. Most importantly? Hold onto the football. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a way the Irish lose this football game if Notre Dame doesn’t lose the turnover battle.

A week after having to channel emotion into enthusiasm, Brian Kelly’s team will be tasked with channeling nervous energy into synchronicity. In the season’s defining moment, it’ll be fun to see if the Irish can summons the play of a champion, or if they’ll let the moment define them. These are the seasons you remember for decades. These are the games that build coaches statues.

But not for the Irish. It’s just sixty more minutes of following the plan.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

***

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.