Miami v Notre Dame

The road to 12-0: Miami

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

After starting the season 4-0 for the first time in a decade, the Irish enjoyed a well-deserved bye week before prepping for another marquee opponent, the Miami Hurricanes. Even though Al Golden’s team was filled with youth along the depth chart, they came into Soldier Field 4-1, with an offense that had been surprisingly high powered, thanks to the arm of Stephen Morris.

With Notre Dame in the AP top ten for the first time since 2006, there was a ton of anticipation for the year’s Shamrock Series entry, even with the polarizing helmets and uniforms. There was also quite a bit of intrigue swirling around behind the scenes.

STATUS CHECK

Running the table through the first four games of the season reinvigorated a fanbase that hadn’t seen that happen since Ty Willingham’s first season. Still, there was plenty of skepticism about this team, if only because the offense was still a crude work-in-progress.

With a bye week to prepare, the Irish did their best to continue installation, but also continue to develop Everett Golson into the quarterback that was desperately needed by Kelly if he wanted to continue this climb up the mountain.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Who actually is starting at quarterback?

Rumors swirled along the internet that a quarterback change was potentially in the works. With Everett Golson not exactly holding down the fort and Tommy Rees playing well in relief, a head coach known to have a hair trigger with quarterbacks continued to be questions about the man behind center.

But Brian Kelly continued to double down on Golson when asked about the depth chart.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said the Thursday before the game. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

Certainly emphatic words by the Irish head coach. But on Friday night, after the team had already traveled to Chicago, I heard from two sources that a quarterback change was coming. While Notre Dame denied it, I was told Tommy Rees was starting the game.

Twitter was a buzz Saturday morning after my initial report, and Alex Flanagan confirmed the rumor when she caught up with Kelly before the game.

It turned out to be much ado about nothing, as Rees played the first series before turning the keys to the offense back over to Golson. After the game, Kelly had this to say:

“Our team rules are pretty simple as it relates to being on time. We have high standards and we hold all of our players to that standard.”

Needing to dominate, the Irish offensive line turned the corner.

It looks like Harry Hiestand’s unit did some bonding over the bye week. After some so-so performances, the Irish offensive line absolutely dominated Miami up front, putting on a clinic in the second half as they took the then 86th ranked rushing offense in the country and rattled off a monster game.

Both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson went over 100 yards, and after a modest 106 yards in the first half, Notre Dame ran for a staggering 270 yards after halftime. Featured prominently for the first time this season was Wood, who broken the game open with a dazzling 37-yard run.

“He did a great job on his run, showed great patience, stepped on the heals of the guard and bent it back. He hadn’t done that all year,” Kelly said. “He had a great week of practice, preparing himself to do what we’ve asked him to do.”

After struggling in the trenches against physical opponents, the right side of the offensive line, Christian Lombard and Mike Golic, played their best game of the season.

Just how good was Bob Diaco’s Irish defense?

After a first series where Miami dropped two passes that could’ve gone for touchdowns, the Irish suffocated the Hurricanes, holding them to under 300 yards and just three points. Bob Diaco’s unit was in the middle of a truly impressive run.

Here’s what I wrote after the game:

Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown over its last 12 quarters, holding Michigan State, Michigan and now Miami out of the end zone. The Irish defense is allowing just 7.8 points a game now, and has surrendered only three touchdowns on the season, the least amount in college football.

After scoring 86 points and gaining 1,260 yards over the last two Saturdays, Miami scored just three points and gained 285 yards of total offense. Missing on two deep chances on their first drive, the Hurricanes struggled to do anything against Notre Dame’s defense after the Irish got settled in.

“After we settled down to the speed of the game, we limited a very good offense,” Kelly said. “We didn’t give up the big plays and we certainly got a couple breaks early on. I thought we adjusted well to the speed of the game after the first quarter. Again, we have now held University of Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State to not scoring a touchdown. That’s an incredible feat for our defense.”

A victory like this one — a dominant performance on both sides of the ball against a marquee program in prime time — was a statement game for an Irish team that had just slid by

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 41, Miami 3.

Notre Dame was getting tough to ignore. After five wins and a dominant performance against Miami, the Irish were looking like a pretty impressive football team. With a top five losing three undefeateds from their ranks that first Saturday of October, while there was plenty of work left to be done, Notre Dame was in the conversation for a BCS bowl.

The Irish’s 41-3 bludgeoning of Miami was its most dominant victory over the ‘Canes in 35 years, when Dan Devine’s Irish won the 1977 national title. With the offensive line picking up the pace and Everett Golson playing solid, the pieces were slowing coming together.

Offensively, the Irish took the bye week to open up the playbook and the tweaks showed themselves useful. Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly unlocked Golson’s ability to contribute in the running game and it gave the Miami defense — and every opponent watching film — one more thing to worry about. They also showed a run game that could be the basis of a strong offense.

“We used some formations to get some good match-ups,” Kelly said after the game. “They were rotating their coverage to Eifert quite a bit and it opened up a lot of things for us in the running game.”

A tremendous win on a big stage turned the Irish into one of the prominent early stories of the college football season. With ESPN set to return to South Bend for the first time in a long time, the Irish were already turning their attention to another edition of the biggest game of the year, with one-loss Stanford coming to town.

We might not have been sure how good this football team could be yet. But holding an explosive offense filled with speed and skill, and bullying Miami’s defense for the entire second half helped prove that this defense could play with anybody. And with an offense that continued to grow, the Irish ascended to No. 7 in the country.

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.