Notre Dame v Michigan State

I still believe in Manti Te’o

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I still believe in Manti Te’o.

I’m not sure what that says about me. Certainly something different than yesterday, when the story had Te’o pegged as a co-conspirator in one of the strangest most depressing stories to come out of the sports world in a long, long time. Yet I can’t shake the fact that I believe in Te’o, enough to look past a story and timeline that has people quickly mixing up the heroes and villains.

But ever since Deadspin dropped one of the biggest bombs of the year  — and the mainstream media scampered to cover its tracks — Te’o has been in the crosshairs of not just sports fans, but Americans everywhere. The bizarre hoax has transfixed millions of people, and spurred almost as many conspiracy theories, with nearly all of them turning people against the Hawaiian linebacker with a story that turned out to be too good to be true.

Make no mistake, I’m waiting to hear from Te’o. And I’m hoping he comes as clean as possible. That means phone records, photos, and a more than candid presentation of the facts, however awkward, embarrassing or terrible they might make him feel or look.

But if this story does anything, it should force all of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Because there’s something terribly wrong with the reaction this story drew, and the almost universal vilification of a kid that’s stood for everything that’s right about sports.

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, it hasn’t seen sports fans (or writers) yet. Because there’s no other way to explain how only 14 percent of Americans can think Te’o’s an innocent victim in this, with the rest of the country so quickly turning on the star linebacker, even before hearing his side of the story.

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For all the incredible work Deadspin did in its initial reporting, it did no favors to Te’o, casting immediate skepticism on the All-American, including this dagger that all but served as the subtext needed to insinuate Te’o was in on it from the start.

A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was “80 percent sure” that Manti Te’o was “in on it,” and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te’o together on Tuiasosopo’s now-deleted Instagram account.

The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti’s relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah’s, believe Te’o had to know the truth. Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn’t believe that Te’o would be stupid enough—or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough—to sustain the relationship for nearly a year.

An anonymous friend of the villain that orchestrated the hoax is hardly on objective bystander. But that didn’t stop Deadspin from using the quote effectively, framing the story in its final paragraphs to cast Te’o as man that lived life like a man in disguise.

From there, only Notre Dame’s response advanced the story. Speaking candidly for almost an hour, athletic director Jack Swarbrick backed Te’o strongly, while also laying out the fact pattern that is now well established. Te’o allegedly received a call from the phone number he recognized as that belonging to Lennay Kekua on December 6th. A series of calls continued, with Te’o trying to find out if the voice on the phone belonged to the girlfriend he thought had died months earlier. In the midst of a whirlwind awards circuit that had Te’o zig-zagging across the country for 11 days, Te’o came to the sick realization that he had been conned.

“Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help,” Swarbrick said. “As this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap.”

***

How could Te’o fall in love with a girl that doesn’t exist?

That’s a question worth asking. And one that Catfish star and documentarian Nev Schulman knows quite a bit about. His film, about a serious relationship with a fictional person, sparked an outbreak of “catfishing,” a practice where people set out to create a fake persona to pursue an online relationship, often times with malicious intent.

Schulman has seen his popularity explode recently, gaining over 20,000 new followers on Twitter in the 24 hours after Te’o’s story broke. Schulman talked about how someone like Te’o could fall so deeply into this relationship, with a person he’d never physically met.

“It seems very easy to look at a series of events and say, ‘Wow, look at how these things compiled together didn’t seem clear that this is somehow a hoax or fake,'” Schulman told USA Today. “But for people living this story and communicating on a day-to-day basis and receiving lots of information, much of which is insignificant – like, I’m painting my nails or I’m just walking my dog – all of those regular day-to-day stuff, they simply get mixed in with all of the dramatic red flag events. At the time, it doesn’t seem like such an unusual thing and then a couple weeks go by and nothing happens and then something else happens.

“It looks like whoever is behind all of this either followed Manti’s career closely or may have in fact known him because they had a way of missing him, that they had met and that perhaps they had been at certain events together. And I’m sure they used specific reference that they either found through social media, fan pages or Instagram feeds, to indicate that there was a real, physical closeness at times.”

As someone that’s witnessed the scene surrounding Te’o after football games, it’s very likely this was the entry point used to sink the hook into Te’o. The linebacker is often mobbed after games even away from South Bend — especially on West Coast trips where extended family is often present — giving ample opportunity for a guy like Tuiasosopo to build a plausible backstory. Te’o often times looks like a Mayor after a game, kissing babies and shaking hands, meeting family and strangers at the same time. And in the Polynesian culture, sometimes those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s no surprise that Te’o’s relationship flourished on the internet. The internet has a high proliferation of dating sites aimed at the Mormon community. One popular dating has over 500,000 online profiles, a staggering number when you consider there’s only six million Mormons in the United States. As a college kid thousands of miles and five hours ahead of his home, tucked into a Midwestern town with a student body predominantly Catholic, where exactly did you expect Te’o to turn for a relationship?

***

Perhaps what made Te’o’s story explode so quickly was the conspiratorial nature of it all. Was he in on it? Did he help promote his story for his own gain? Was this all part of some master plan?

Manti Te’o has always believed in a master plan. But it started well before anyone had heard the name Lennay Kekua.

To know Te’o is to know a young man steadfast in his beliefs. Even before most of the college football watching country started to notice, Te’o was living life in accordance to his Heavenly Father. He has often talked about a message from above that helped him select Notre Dame on Signing Day. Dead set on attending USC and continuing the long line of Hawaiian and Polynesian greats, Te’o chose Notre Dame quite simply because God told him to go to South Bend.

That same faith based approach led him to bypassing his Mormon mission, an announcement he made after a long consultation with his family and the local bishop in South Bend.

“This was probably the biggest decision that I’ve had to face in my entire life. I knew the impact of my decision could have a positive influence on those who follow me and those who watch what I do,” Te’o said back in December 2009. I always want to have a positive influence on them. I just thought that I was sent to Notre Dame for a purpose and that is a purpose I have to devote to.”

Those sentiments were echoed when Te’o surprised many and decided to come back for his senior season, making the announcement even before he consulted with the NFL’s advisory board.

“This was a tough decision, and I found myself praying about it often,” Te’o said last December. “Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame. The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don’t think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year.”

For the critics that accused Te’o of using this season as a platform to promote himself, Te’o has used these four years at Notre Dame to do that. But he’s done that by being a “humble servant,” embracing the quiet moments he’s spent doing community outreach just as much as he’s enjoyed any national attention. And Te’o has never been bashful about the pride he carried not just for himself, but for those back home on the islands of Hawaii.

“My main thing is to show the kids back home that we can step out of that bubble,” Te’o said. “Hawai’i is such a comfortable place to be, and you don’t want to leave. For us kids who grew up there, it’s definitely hard to leave. When you leave Hawai’i, it’s far, and so for us to leave that nest is definitely something that’s very difficult.”

That step away from the bubble and into the spotlight led to the situation Te’o finds himself in now. That openness led him to take in someone like Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a young man seemingly not all that different from Te’o. From a family strong of faith (his father runs a church in Southern California), and with a family name synonymous with football excellence, there’s little wonder Te’o extended his online friendship to a guy that he seemed to have so much in common with.

Yet we now know that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the last person Te’o should trust. While Tuiasosopo is still in hiding and not speaking publicly, his friends have told ESPN that he’s confessed to the malicious stunt that’s gone on for years. He also seems prone to pathological lies. During an audition for NBC’s hit television series The Voice, Tuiasosopo engineered a similar story to the one he crafted for Te’o, telling producers that the Christian band he started got into a deadly car accident on their way to a performance. It wasn’t enough to land him a spot on the show.

On Friday, those close to Tuiasosopo came clean about their knowledge of his plot. After serving as anonymous sources for Deadspin, two witness spoke to ESPN’s Shelley Smith on the record, with one recanting the damning “80 percent” judgment that all but had people convinced Te’o was in on this from the start. That proclamation seemed especially confusing considering Tuiasosopo tried to pull the same scam on the witnesses own cousin.

“When I found out about the Samoan football player and his girlfriend, his Grandma died the same day, I was like, ‘Whoa this is crazy,’ I feel so bad for him, so I just looked him up,” J.R. Vaosa told ESPN. “I found out his girlfriend’s name was Lennay Kekua. And right when I read the name Lennay Kekua, I immediately thought of Ronaiah. Then I thought of my cousin. That this has to be the same person.”

Up until Vaosa and Celeste Tuioti-Mariner came forward, skepticism still carried the day. Reporters like CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel were damned to be fooled again by Te’o.

“Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next,” Doyel wrote. “I cannot comprehend Manti Te’o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim.”

Even after Te’o’s initial statement confessed to the embarrassment of being duped by an elaborate hoax, there was nothing that’d change Doyel’s mind. In the middle of an already sensational senior season, it was suddenly far more plausible that Te’o concocted a tale about a fake dead girlfriend to boost his Q-rating than the simple fact that he fell in love with a girl tailor-made for him.

***

No matter the end of this story, Te’o will ultimately be branded for this incident for the rest of his life. No longer will he be remembered for his record-setting career and historic senior season that turned him into one of the most decorated players ever. The multiple national awards Te’o earned will be replaced by one that’ll never go on his mantel: Sucker of the Year.

Te’o is only now responding to the calls for comment. Spending two-plus hours with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, any explanation that comes from Te’o will likely only satisfy some of the people that spent the past two days making up their minds. But that didn’t keep Schaap from saying this about Te’o.

“I don’t know how many questions I asked, but he answered every one of them,” Schaap said. “He admitted to a couple of mistakes along the way.”

The biggest being the fact that he never went out of his way to explain to reporters that the girl that he had been talking to almost nightly since April was one that he had never met in person.

“I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn’t meet her,” Schaap recounted Te’o saying late Friday night. “So he kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”

Embarrassment of an online relationship. A feeling shared by many that kindle deep feelings before ever meeting someone. Yet an all too plausible explanation that makes perfect sense, even if it doesn’t uncover the deep dark secret people so desperately wanted after these last few days.  And while there are those still clinging to the December 6th date where Te’o heard from someone claiming to be Kekua, Te’o didn’t truly believe that the girl he loved didn’t exist until just two days ago.

“He was not fully convinced that Lennay Kekua did not exist until two days ago, when he heard from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo,” Schaap said.

Te’o’s story will eventually be categorized as just another cautionary tale and likely fade into the next big national controversy. But it shouldn’t stop all of us from taking a second to remember that it’s far more important to be right, than to be first or loudest.

For many, this won’t end with Te’o’s explanation. Little will convince them — either way — that Te’o was either an innocent pawn in a sick and twisted game or a chess master caught exploiting a media machine for his gain.

But I still believe in Manti Te’o. If only because I’ve spent four years watching him grow up, making his message to Tuiasosopo all the more predictable.

“I hope he learns,” Te’o told ESPN. “I hope he understands what he’s done. I don’t wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough.”

“I’ll be okay. As long as my family’s okay, I’ll be fine.”

Path to the Draft: Nick Martin

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a six-yard touchdown run by C.J. Prosise against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Part four of the series. See earlier work on Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith. 

 

NICK MARTIN
No. 50 overall to the Houston Texans

While it feels like Nick Martin’s path to Notre Dame was destiny, it’s worth pointing out that it took until his recruitment’s final weeks to even get him to commit to the Irish. Even with brother Zack fresh off an impressive redshirt freshman season as a starting left tackle, Nick was a solid commit to Kentucky, where the Martin brothers’ father Keith played his college football in the 1980s.

But as Notre Dame’s coaching staff saw the early returns on their inherited left tackle they also saw something worth gambling on with brother Nick. And while it took a while to make an official offer, it didn’t take long to realize it was a very good idea.

So five years and four seasons of captaincy later (not to mention a mantel full of lineman of the year trophies), the Martin brothers leave Notre Dame with a special legacy in place. If you saw that challenge coming at the beginning of the Brian Kelly era, head out and buy a lottery ticket.

A late offer and addition by the Irish coaching staff, Martin flew below the radar in a 2011 recruiting class that was heralded by analysts, but had just as many hits and misses. But on Signing Day, even if fellow classmates Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch were the headliners and fellow lineman Matt Hegarty came in with more pedigree, head coach Brian Kelly saw the traits and demeanor that played out in Martin’s five seasons in South Bend.

“The common theme here with the offensive linemen is their ability to move,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He’s got really good athletic ability, and he finishes off blocks. He’s got a demeanor again. That offensive line demeanor for us is the way they play the game. And he plays it very, very well.”

Kelly sprinkled a few other lineman buzz words when describing Martin’s play—brawler and athleticism noted—while also throwing in the prerequisite, “his brother’s not bad, either.” And while Kelly was wrong in one regard, Nick didn’t end up playing tackle as projected, the slide inside to center now appears to be the template Kelly and Harry Hiestand have followed on their way to developing interior offensive linemen.

Martin’s ascent followed a traditional path. A redshirt season. Limited time as a sophomore, serving as a backup tackle and special teams contributor in 2012.

But after needing to replace Braxston Cave at center heading into 2013, the move of Martin to center helped bring the look of the line into focus, with his size, strength and athleticism helping trigger the running game. Martin starting the first 11 games of the season at center before suffering a knee injury.

That knee injury wreaked havoc with Martin’s lower-body strength for all of 2014. A hand injury forced him to move from center to guard, versatility that paid dividends as he displayed multi-position ability but also a tremendous amount of toughness playing at less than 100 percent.

Martin’s return to center was a logical decision for the coaching staff. So much so that they understood why Matt Hegarty would transfer as a graduate instead of stick around and back-up Martin or compete for playing time with Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer. With the two-time captain’s strength back for his final season, even battling a high ankle sprain, Martin played like one of the country’s best centers, the second off the board in the draft behind Alabama’s Ryan Kelly.

That body of work—not to mention the pedigree Martin brings with an All-Pro brother already an anchor in the league—weighed into the decision by the Houston Texans to trade a sixth-round pick to move up a few slots and select Martin.

“I think you know from my history, I put stock in careers, I put stock in leadership, I put stock in a lot of those things and Nick certainly has those,” Texans GM Rick Smith said. “He’s got pedigree, he has an NFL pedigree, so he’s been around it.

“We just really feel like he adds to our offensive line group. He’s a guy that can come right in, he’s a plug-and-play guy, he’ll compete right away we think, so we’re happy to get him.”

Smith quipped that it pained him as a Purdue guy to spend the team’s first two draft picks on Notre Dame players. But as the Texans try to get their offense up to speed with other Super Bowl contenders, they’ll lean on two former Irish stars to make it happen.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.