Notre Dame at USC

Weekend Notes: Dial, Pac-12 refs, and Russell’s journey

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We’re still 24 long days away from Notre Dame’s date with Alabama in the national title game. While following the daily rumblings on the recruiting trail or coaching carousel has been enjoyable, it’s time to get to the holidays so we can make the calendar move a little bit quicker.

Starting next week, we’re going to look back at the regular season, and take a 30,000 foot view of what we learned from each of the 12 Irish victories. While it’s easy to get swept up in national title game mania, the evolution of this football team is fascinating to look back on.

But before that, here are a few stories that caught my eye:

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File this one under “Shocker!” — Alabama’s Quinton Dial won’t be suspended for his violent hit against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. If you need a refresher, Dial, a 6-foot-6, 304-pound defensive tackle, threw an absolutely vicious block on Murray after an interception, launching himself (and his helmet) into the helmet of the Georgia quarterback, who didn’t see the hit coming.

SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said that Dial’s hit should have been ruled a penalty after the SEC Championship game. He also said that conference commissioner Mike Slive would review whether Dial should be suspended for the flagrant hit, something the SEC has tried to crack down on.

“By rule, you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “What the determination needs to be is was this a defenseless player and was contact initiated above the shoulders? When we go through video review of it, that’s what we’ll have to determine. And then you as you break it down, did he lead with the head or lead with the shoulder? From game action, it was a personal foul regardless of how we break it down frame by frame.”

Shaw was candid in the case of Dial’s hit.

“We missed the call,” Shaw said, who also talked about the decision-making process on a suspension.

“As you’ve noticed, Commissioner has been vigilant on this and he did it (suspend players) when warranted and didn’t when it wasn’t,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “I’m not sure the upcoming opponent is ever a condition in the decision. I think it’s more based on the facts in the play.”

As hard as it is not to chuckle when reading that statement, Yahoo! Sports’ Dr. Saturday blog took a look at two hits that led to one-game suspensions. You be the judge if you think the upcoming opponent and the enormity of the game factored into the decision.

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It was announced that the Pac-12 will supply the officials for the BCS Championship game. On average, Pac-12 officials have thrown more flags than any conference in the country this season.

This from the Press-Register:

Officials from the six automatic-qualifying conferences work BCS bowls on a rotation. The Big 12 officiated last year’s BCS Championship Game so it won’t work any of the five BCS bowls this season. Officials get recommended by their conference coordinator to work bowl games and can’t be assigned to any game involving a team from the conference they represent.

Because of the SEC’s seven-year streak in the national championship game, SEC officials have not worked the title game since USC-Oklahoma in the 2004 season. The SEC will officiate the next championship game not involving the SEC.

Irish fans harbor some resentment against Pac-12 officials way back to David Grimes (non) catch of the century, but they’ve also been the beneficiary of some 50/50 calls, like the contested goalline stand against Stanford.

Alabama is one of the best teams in the country with just 3.85 penalties per game. Notre Dame averages 5.67 a game.

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Notre Dame has finally take the gag off freshman KeiVarae Russell, and the early returns are as expected. The rookie cornerback, who arrived in South Bend expecting to enter the running back depth chart, immediately propelled himself into the conversation for best quote of 2013, as the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc detailed.

Russell, who got beat for a touchdown pass in the season’s opening game against Navy, but played fearlessly against the dynamic duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, grew as much as anybody this season, playing a crucial role in the untested Irish secondary.

More from the Trib:

Russell’s journey began rather ignominiously when he was beaten badly for a touchdown during the Irish’s first game of the ultimately undefeated campaign. The deke to the outside and then deep slant across the middle of the field from Navy receiver Shawn Lynch had left Russell chasing and finally flailing both arms while hitting the turf as Lynch caught the ball cruising into the end zone for a 25-yard scoring strike Sept. 1 in Dublin.

The moments that followed helped shape Russell’s — and the Irish’s — storybook season.

“I was hurting,” Russell recalled. “Bennett (Jackson) came to me and started laughing, saying, ‘Man, pick your head up. We have more football to play.’ Then coach (Kerry) Cooks and Manti Te’o came up to me laughing and said, ‘You have a long season, let’s go. Don’t worry about that one play.’ After that, throughout the season whenever I’d make a mistake or miss a tackle, I’d say, ‘Let’s go, forget it; next play.'”

The sequence began a rapid maturation process for the 19-year-old who not many months earlier was roaming high school football fields in Everett, Wash.

“I wasn’t a freshman after the first game,” Russell said. “I had to grow up real quick. I learned that you can’t use excuses of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. When I first got here I was making excuses during camp. I was like, ‘OK, this is my first year’ but I grew out of that real soon. They offered me a scholarship for a reason. I was one of the best in the country so I had to show why.”

Confidence like that helps build a team. While many Irish fans were worried about inserting a converted running back into a starting corner, Brian Kelly made mention to Russell’s uncanny ability to just perform, and the freshman rewarded his head coach with a tremendous season.

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.