Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Pregame Six Pack: For all the marbles

47 Comments

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — We are finally inching closer. After forty days of waiting, Notre Dame and Alabama will go to bed tonight and wake up on game day. An eternity for football teams that thrive on the day-to-day process and structure a season provides, the layoff adds just another variable into an equation already riddled with uncertainty.

For Notre Dame, those unknowns are well established. Can the Irish move the football against the mighty Tide defense? Can they stop a power run game unlike any they’ve seen? Can somebody finally topple the SEC? The answers to all these questions will be apparent on Monday night. But until then, the waiting is the hardest part.

With head coach Brian Kelly running his team through their final prep work, let’s break out one final six pack. Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame and Alabama get ready to play for all the marbles.

***

1. In a match-up of strength versus strength, Notre Dame’s size might be it’s biggest asset.

The last time Notre Dame had a team that harbored true national championship aspirations, Brady Quinn, Tommy Zbikowski, and Travis Thomas were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In Quinn and Zbikowski, the Irish had the skill players needed to make a run. But Thomas, a 212-pound running back turned outside linebacker, exemplified Notre Dame’s biggest issue: A glaring lack of size.

That 2006 team was exposed in their date with the SEC, when LSU overpowered the Irish on their way to a dominant Sugar Bowl victory. But in Brian Kelly’s three seasons, a lot has changed. And when Alabama’s stout offensive line takes the field on Monday night, they’ll be facing the biggest defense they’ve seen all season. And one of the biggest in all of college football.

From a sheer tonnage perspective, the Irish will trot out 1,928 pounds in the front seven when they take the field on defense in their base 3-4 alignment. Of the top ten rushing defenses in the country, no other front seven cracks 1,900 pounds. It is likely the biggest front seven in all of college football.

Size is only one part of the equation. But as Notre Dame’s defense has shown all season, their ability to play physically at the point of attack has been truly elite this season.

“This is as good of a front seven as we’ve seen,” Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.

***

2. With a stacked trio in the Notre Dame backfield, the Irish coaching staff will need to successful juggle touches one last time.

In Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame has a trio of running backs that defenses need to account for. It’s a challenge that Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spoke candidly about, as the long layoff gave the Alabama coaching staff time to analysis the Irish running game.

“You try to find tendencies,” Smart said. “You try to say, what do they run with this guy, run with that guy?

“When you bring Notre Dame down, they run a lot of the same plays with the same backs, so there’s not a true tendency unless you get to bead on one during the game.”

That type of versatility is a headache for a defensive coach. But it also creates problems for the Irish coaching staff. Namely, how to find enough touches for everyone.

“Truth be told, they all could be a feature back,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “But there’s only one football.”

Down the stretch, Kelly and Martin decided to ride Riddick, utilizing the senior back’s versatility to create mismatches. But on Monday night, giving all three backs a shot at catching fire will be important, with Wood and Atkinson true wildcards for the offense.

In a season where finding carries for all three guys was difficult, pulling the right strings one last time with be critical.

***

3. Notre Dame’s most miraculous win of the season shocked an Alabama player, too.

During a week where every reporter was searching for a unique angle, credit CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz for finding a good one.

Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri thought his brother had pulled off the upset of the season when he turned off the Pitt-Notre Dame game. Prepping for a battle with LSU, the Tuscaloosa native didn’t know the Irish charged back to victory until that evening, making for a tough conversation with his brother, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri.

“I was like yeah, this one’s in the bag,” Alabama’s Sunseri told CSNChicago.com on Saturday.

Sunseri didn’t get to watch the rest of his brother’s game, seeing as Alabama was in the midst of its biggest game of the season to date at LSU. But when he got back in to the locker room at halftime, he noticed Notre Dame won in triple overtime. Later, he called Tino to talk about the game.

“He just said it was a perfect storm kind of thing,” Sunseri said. “It wasn’t just the missed field goal, he said, he said ‘I could’ve made more opportunities’ — he tried to put all the pressure on himself. The missed field goal was a big part of it, but he tried to put it all on himself saying he could’ve done more, he could’ve done certain things to put themselves in better situations.”

The Sunseri brothers are part of a big football family, with father Sal a former Tide linebacker and coach and now the current defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Vinnie, a sophomore that’s made 52 tackles this season and starts in the Tide’s nickel and dime formations, will look to get a modicum of revenge on behalf of his brother.

***

4. For the Irish to have a shot at victory, Everett Golson and the offense will need to continue their ascent.

Far from hard-hitting analysis, Notre Dame’s offense needs to play well to win. And that’s a fact that’s not lost on Chuck Martin, who spent some time over the layoff keeping his offense humble by popping on the Purdue game tape.

“It was almost mind-numbing pathetic how bad we were,” Martin said, when thinking back to the Irish’s ugly 20-17 victory.

And while Martin acknowledges that this will be the toughest defense they’ve faced all season, he’s confident that the work put in over the past 40 days has done a great deal to help keep the unit improving, and building up young quarterback Everett Golson. It’s been a process where the offense went back to the basics, brick by brick looking for ways to improve.

“We looked at our run game,” Martin said. “We looked at all parts of red zone, and particularly since they don’t give up many opportunities.”

“It’s execution, it’s playing physical, it’s in the run game, carving out some space for our running backs, and then obviously in the pass game, giving Everett some time and then him making sure he figures out that coverage and where to get the ball and put the ball in the right place.”

***

5. The similarities between Alabama and Notre Dame extend to the recruiting trail as well.

There are a ton of similarities in the recruiting philosophies of Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. And as Notre Dame fans have been finding out, that’s a really good thing.

With two programs that both subscribe to “the process,” and two head coaches that keep in-house details out of the media, hearing Kirby Smart open up about Alabama’s recruiting philosophy was surprising. And it also mirrored some of the things we’ve heard out of Notre Dame coaches, particularly as they seek a certain profile of players.

“We certainly have player descriptions, player profiles that we want. If guys don’t fit that certain description, they may be a five-star great player,  we’re just not interested because we recruit to a certain standard,” Smart said. “We say we want the guy to be this tall, this big. Does that mean there’s not exceptions? Sure, there’s exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions. So we’re trying to get six corners that are all 5-11 or bigger, we want D-linemen that are all 6-2. There’s criteria for those positions that we want to recruit to.”

Smart’s words might as well be clipped from those said by Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco back in August. When discussing recruiting philosophies, Diaco talked about the Irish recruiting profiles, specifically their search for height and size.

“We really don’t like small players, in general,” Diaco said this summer. “We believe that if we have a big defense, we’re going to have a chance to have a good defense. How good? We don’t know. But when we come off the bus, if we’re as big or bigger than our opponent, we believe we’ll have a good chance to have a good defense.”

Notre Dame fans might remember a few eyebrow raising recruits that the Irish didn’t chase. Specifically, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, who took offense to the Irish passing on him.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden said. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Bolden contributed 31 tackles to the Wolverines defense as a true freshman, playing up to his recruiting ranking. But as Smart and Diaco both pointed out, these are two of the best defenses in the country because they bring a tremendous amount of specificity to the recruiting process.

***

6. While they might be mighty Alabama and the defending national champions, the Crimson Tide was a group of over-achievers as well.

It may be tough to call a team that started the year ranked No. 2 and is in the middle of what looks like a college football dynasty over-achievers, but Nick Saban all but did it today.

“To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,” Saban said. “If you look at all the players that we lost last year, the leadership that we lost, the injuries that we’ve had, the scheudule that we played, the adversity that had to be overcome, the new roles that so many people had on this team, the young players who had opportunities to really kind of show what they could do and how quickly they would mature to be able to do their job in a way that would give us a chance to be successful as a team, I’m really proud of what this team actually was able to accomplish together as a group.”

All of those factors weigh into why Notre Dame could spring the upset Monday night. While this Alabama team is a great one, they aren’t the 2011 squad, a team that had five of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft. They’re also a team that’s seen its depth chart hit with injuries, including ones to several key contributors that still may be lingering.

After building a juggernaut that can simply reload instead of rebuild, Saban has done so, relying on a new crop of veteran leaders as well as dynamic young players.

It’s been a strong enough team to get to the biggest stage in the sport for the second consecutive season. We’ll find out if it’s good enough to win it Monday night.

 

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)
2 Comments

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.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
6 Comments

Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
2 Comments

In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
3 Comments

With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.