Notre Dame v Michigan State

The road to 12-0: Michigan State

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The third in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy and Purdue.

Sure, Notre Dame bumped up the rankings to No. 20 after squeezing by Purdue. But there would be little room for the Irish to play anything but their best game in East Lansing. While the depth chart would be replenished with Cierre Wood returning from suspension and Danny Spond healthy after his scary preseason injury, the Irish were happy to have all hands on deck for their first edition of the biggest game of the year.

Traveling to No. 10 Michigan State was the first of many big tests for Notre Dame. While the Spartans didn’t turn out to be the elite team many pegged them to be, they had a defense that was top flight, and a lofty ranking that usually spelled certain doom for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn’t won a night game against a top ten team in twenty years, when Lou Holtz’s Irish beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators in the Sugar Bowl.

It was time for the first of many moments for this football team. And Brian Kelly felt good about it.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be,” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

STATUS CHECK

The week heading into the Michigan State game was a life changing one for Manti Te’o. In a 48 hour span, he lost his girlfriend to her battle with leukemia and his grandmother. Still, Te’o found strength with his teammates, and in retrospect the game he played against Michigan State — where he filled the stat sheet up with 12 tackles, one TFL, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups — was just tremendous.

The game against the Spartans was also a huge data point for the development of Everett Golson. The young quarterback had just sat out for the Irish’s game-winning drive against Purdue and was in desperate need of a fast start and a smart football game. Facing one of the country’s toughest defenses, and playing in one of the season’s premiere early-season match-ups, Golson delivering in the clutch was a great sign of things to come.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Could the Irish ace their first big test?

It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. The Irish defense held the Spartans to just 237 total yards, neutralizing Le’Veon Bell while sacking Andrew Maxwell four times. The offense didn’t do much, but was aided by the return of Cierre Wood, who averaged 5.6 yards a carry while Theo Riddick struggled to a rough stat line of 30 yards on 12 carries.

Yet Notre Dame did everything that was needed to win. Control the line of scrimmage, hold onto the football. Break a big play with George Atkinson on a nifty counter draw that went for 43 yards while John Goodman caught a game-changing 36-yard touchdown catch beating one-on-one coverage.

Could the Notre Dame receivers beat Michigan State’s coverage?

We asked this exact question before the game and the Irish receiving corps answered the bell. Even without Tyler Eifert having a catch, the Irish receivers made big plays. In addition to Goodman’s long touchdown catch, Robby Toma and TJ Jones each chipped in a 20-plus yard catch. While Davaris Daniels was slowed still by a tweaked ankle, Daniel Smith chipped in a catch and also established himself as one of the team’s best blockers.

Can Everett Golson manage a football game?

That was the first question I asked on game day, especially a week after Golson made to critical mistakes down the stretch against Purdue. Yet Golson played decisively and with poise, throwing the football away when the moment called for it and keeping the offense out of difficult situations.

Still, it wasn’t all positives for the offense. The Irish were an anemic 1 of 14 on third downs.

“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said. “A lot of it is in the quarterback’s development. Again, he did some really good things. But we’ve got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.”

How would the Irish secondary play without Jamoris Slaughter?

Notre Dame suffered a heart-breaking loss when fifth-year Jamoris Slaughter suffered an Achilles tear against the Spartans and was lost for the season. Already without Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth, the Irish were going to have to find a second safety to pair with Zeke Motta.

While the decision to bring back Dan McCarthy for a fifth year seemed like a fortuitous decision, Kelly called on redshirt freshman Matthias Farley to step into the starting lineup. Still, there was no discounting the loss, with Slaughter one of the most versatile players on the Irish roster.

“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you’re losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said Sunday. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He has to continue to develop, but we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He’ll be getting a lot of work back there.”

Kelly was confident that a secondary featuring Farley and freshman KeiVarae Russell wouldn’t hold back the defense.

“You’re worried if you feel you have to hide them out there,” Kelly said of his young players. “We don’t have to hide those guys, they just need to continue to develop.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 6.

Entering the toughest stretch of the season, Notre Dame walked out of Spartan Stadium looking like a team that could physically battle with anyone. The defense was playing at near historic levels, giving up just 30 points in the season’s first three games, the stingiest any Irish team had been since 1988. Against Michigan State, Prince Shembo terrorized the Spartan offensive line, with two tackles-for-loss, a sack, and a well-earned holding call. The 237 yards Michigan State’s offense put up was the lowest output for an opposition since the Irish beat the 2008 Washington Huskies, a team that didn’t win a football game.

Offensively, the run game continued to evolve, with the Irish offensive line winning the battles down the stretch. With the game still up for grabs, Notre Dame took the ball from their own four-yard line and marched down the field for a game clinching field goal. The line play against the best defensive front in the Big Ten controlled the ball for 18:32 of the second half, winning the game with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry and allowing only one sack.

Needing to find some big plays for the offense, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly had a terrific game plan, utilizing a diverse personnel group, with Chris Brown running a deep pattern that nearly went for a big gain and George Atkinson getting limited touches, but on plays that helped the young runner break a big play. While Golson was still developing chemistry with Eifert, the quarterback took shots down the field attacking the Michigan State secondary even before he was utilized as a key in the run game.

For Kelly, the victory was a big one. After falling victim to Mark Dantonio courtesy of a trick play called Little Giants, the Irish head coach dispatched Dantonio’s Spartans 53-16 over the past two seasons, beating two teams that were ranked 15th and 10th in the country.

“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room.”

That confidence would come in handy the next week, when Notre Dame would need to take on Denard Robinson and Michigan.

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.