James Onwualu

Five recruits enroll at Notre Dame early

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Notre Dame begins the spring semester today. With that brings the start of five recruits’ football careers with the Irish. Offensive lineman Steve Elmer, tight end Mike Heuerman, wide receiver James Onwualu, wide receiver Corey Robinson and quarterback Malik Zaire all moved into their dorms over the weekend, becoming the first members of one of the top recruiting classes in the country to enroll at Notre Dame.

Graduating early from high school and enrolling early at a college allows a recruit to take part in spring practice, a nice jump-start to a college football career. For players like TJ Jones, it helped them find immediate playing time. For quarterbacks like Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, it was a first look at a very different level of football, and still required a redshirt season.

As the five freshman get acquainted with dorm life, the academic pressures that come with Notre Dame, and the requirements of strength coach Paul Longo, they’ll likely be jumping into the proverbial deep end from day one.

Want to know what’s on most of these guys’ mind? It sure isn’t football… yet.

“Shout out to Steve Elmer for saving me from sitting alone at breakfast on my first day,” Onwualu tweeted this morning.

Here’s a quick look at the five early enrollees (it was set to be six until linebacker Alex Anzalone’s late defection to Florida), and their immediate future with the Irish:

Steve Elmer

The return of Zack Martin likely ended any shot of Elmer playing as a true freshman. But with injuries ending the career of Brad Carrico, and unknowns surrounding guys like Matt Hegarty and Tate Nichols, Elmer could work his way into the two deep pretty quickly, especially with Ronnie Stanley coming back from elbow surgery.

Elmer might physically be ready for play at the collegiate level. Talking to people that watched him at the Army All-American game, they were impressed by the improvements he made in the last calendar year, and Elmer looked like one of the most college-ready linemen in San Antonio.

Still, there’s little need at tackle with both Martin and Christian Lombard returning to their starting spots, and it might be best for Harry Hiestand’s prized pupil to spend the fall watching and learning. But that’ll likely be determined after 15 spring practices.

Mike Heuerman

Bringing in a top tight end recruit was a priority, especially after leaving the position empty in the last recruiting cycle. But with Tyler Eifert heading to the NFL and Jake Golic graduating, the depth chart looks ripe for a guy like Heuerman to make a push for playing time.

Troy Niklas looks to have the starting tight end job locked down for 2013. And Alex Welch should be ready to return come spring after an ACL injury robbed him of the 2012 season. Ben Koyack’s season has to be deemed a disappointment, as the sophomore struggled with a few drops early in the year and lost his place in the rotation to Niklas. And if Heuerman can put enough heft on his body to hold up to the pounding of the position, there’s room for him to fight his way up Scott Booker’s depth chart quickly.

James Onwualu

Where Onwualu ends up on the football field might be the biggest question among the freshman. Spending time as both a running back and receiver at Cretin-Derham Hall, Onwualu might end up on the defensive side of the ball before his time in South Bend in over.

After talking to CDH head coach Mike Scanlan, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brian Kelly and company gave Onwualu a look on defensive this spring, with the wide receiver depth chart only losing John Goodman and Robby Toma. But Onwualu might be too good with the football to move to defense, and his improvement during his senior season was one of the biggest leaps forward Scanlan had seen in a long time.

Corey Robinson

It looks like Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin might have a shiny new toy in Robinson, a red zone threat from the moment he steps foot on campus. At 6-foot-5 and likely growing, Robinson wowed those watching in San Antonio with his athleticism, good hands, and better than expected route running and speed.

After coming out of nowhere to receive an Irish scholarship offer, the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson gives the Irish a raw athlete, yet one that looks far more polished than expected. Still, transitioning to an offense far more complex than the one he ran in high school could prove to be a challenge, and ultimately how quickly Robinson grasps things off the field will play a factor in how quickly he finds his way onto the field.

Malik Zaire

While the quarterback position looks mighty crowded with Everett Golson holding a pretty firm grasp on the starting job heading into spring practice, Zaire is the type of talent that could shake things up. A southpaw with a smooth throwing stroke, Zaire really impressed on the combine circuit, earning his way to the top of the Elite 11 competition and gaining a ton of fans on the nation stage.

Quarterback coach Yogi Roth, who helps run the Elite 11 camp and now works for the Pac-12 Network, had a chance to work with the last three Notre Dame quarterback signees, Golson, Kiel and Zaire. He liked Zaire more than the others, and it wasn’t even close for him.

With a depth chart chocked full of talent in front of him, Zaire will likely watch and learn this season, saving a year of eligibility while the position sorts itself out. The likelihood of a major program holding onto five scholarship quarterbacks without a transfer isn’t high. And when the dust settles, Zaire could find himself in the running for playing time sooner than later.

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.