Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Atkinson III jumps into the arms of teammate Martin after a touchdown against Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana

Martin’s return keyed by Hiestand’s results

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You won’t confuse Harry Hiestand for a man looking for greener pastures. The veteran offensive line coach, in his first season in South Bend, has no qualms being a position coach, a job that might seem like old hat for a respected assistant who has coached in a Super Bowl and spent the last three decades working in the trenches.

“As I’ve gone on in the years, I’ve found that what we do with the offensive line is what excites me,” Hiestand said. “It’s what brings me to work every day with a good attitude. An opportunity to work with those guys. It’s not to be a play caller or a head coach. That’s not really what motivates me everyday. What motivates me is seeing a group of guys, taking a group and trying to help them be the best that they can be as individuals and then put an offensive line together that can go out on the field and function and go out and win.”

Hiestand’s approach was music to the ears of the Irish offensive line, a group that rebuilt the right side and came together to be one of the most balanced offensive attacks in college football, averaging over 200 yards of offense on the ground and through the air this season.

While getting Mike Golic Jr. and Christian Lombard up to speed, and developing a second string with virtually no experience, Hiestand found one of his strongest supporters in his best player. Zack Martin, who decided to return for a fifth season after winning three straight lineman of the year awards for the Irish, paid Hiestand the ultimate compliment by returning for another year of tutelage.

“He’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an offensive line coach,” Martin said. “He pushes you on the field. He’s a technician. He’s taught us what it means to work, but off the field he’s somebody you can sit down and talk to and go have dinner with. The pride that he’s kind of instilled back in the offensive line here at Notre Dame, which hasn’t been here for a while, we started it and I want to finish it out next year.”

The return of Martin as the team’s left tackle means three veterans will anchor the line, with Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all returning. While finding Braxston Cave’s replacement at center will be imperative, having one of the nation’s top left tackles certainly cushions the blow quite nicely.

Hiestand was effusive in his praise of Martin, one of the most underrated linemen in college football according to the line coach.

“I’m not really sure who makes those decisions,” Hiestand said of All-American honors. “I watch an awful lot of film, so does our coaching staff. We don’t see anybody out there better than him. He’ll get it next year, I guess.

“He does everything: power plays, runs inside zone, outside zone. He’s a physical presence on the left side in the running game and he’s an excellent pass protector. I’d love to see the guy that somebody thinks is better than him, because I haven’t seen him.”

To his credit, Martin wasn’t too worried about the snubs, though he did earn second team All-American honors from the Walter Camp team.

“I’d much rather be on an undefeated team playing for the national title,” Martin said. “It didn’t bother me at all.”

After spending the past two years with Ed Warinner, there’s been no secret that the entire line has gelled under Hiestand’s supervision, a key hire for Kelly after Warinner left to join Urban Meyer’s staff as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. And while the Irish ground game had taken steps forward in the first two years of Kelly’s tenure, Martin talked about the benefits of Hiestand’s hands-on philosophy, and how the communal play has helped the Irish succeed.

“So many people think that the offensive line is going out there and making one-on-one blocks,” Martin said. “But I’ve got to know what the right guard is doing. The ability to know what everyone is doing and playing together is a big thing we’ve been working on all year. We’ve gotten better, and we know that we haven’t played a complete game together.”

That opportunity to play a complete game is just less than three weeks away, against one of the most talented defenses in the country. But thanks to Hiestand, Martin and company are relishing the opportunity.

“The offensive line at Notre Dame the last how many years has been kind of the whipping boy of the team, so it’s time to change that,” Martin said. “I don’t think we could have gotten a better guy.”

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.

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.