2008 Army All Americans

Recruiting rankings only part of the puzzle

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It’s been five years since Notre Dame had a recruiting class that was in the running for the top group in the country. That year, beyond any expectation considering the Irish’s horrific 3-9 season, Charlie Weis and company reeled in a class headlined by five-star recruits Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

Like the Irish’s current class, Notre Dame signed 23 players, with all but four garnering four star ratings or higher. It was a class that was hailed as one of the best recruiting classes ever landed at Notre Dame. Yet for all the accolades the group received, some core inefficiencies ended up sinking Charlie Weis, and making Brian Kelly’s job a whole lot tougher.

As we begin to analyze the final group Notre Dame signs next Wednesday, it’s important to look back at the 2008 class to see if we can learn any lessons, especially when it comes to roster management.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where Charlie Weis failed. While he brought record production to the Irish offense as a recruiter and almost cherry-picked statistically dominant wide receivers, Weis struggled to find players along the defensive front, failing to fill some massive holes along the offensive line (which he inherited from Ty Willingham), and struggling to find enough pieces in the secondary, a situation Kelly and his staff had to rectify by recruiting an astounding amount of safeties over the past two seasons.

For the sake of the exercise, let’s take a closer look at the 2008 recruiting class, breaking it down into a few key groupings:

STAR PLAYERS

Michael Floyd, WR: Floyd walked onto campus as a productive player and left with the school’s record book. A first round wide receiver taken 13th overall.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Robert Blanton, DB: Blanton was a productive contributor, seeing the field early and starting at field corner before being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.

Braxston Cave, C: Cave played out his eligibility this season, being selected for the Senior Bowl. He was a three-year starter at center.

Darius Fleming, LB: Never as productive as initially hoped, Fleming was a tweener position wise, and his development wasn’t helped by flip-flopping schemes. Still drafted by 49ers.

Ethan Johnson, DE: After spending his senior year of high school rehabbing an injury, a redshirt season would have done Johnson well. But he played early and often, one of the few 3-4 ends the Irish had.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE: After growing into his body, KLM became a rock solid defensive end, starting four seasons and finishing his career as a captain of a 12-1 team.

Trevor Robinson, OG: He never turned into the elite tackle prospect many thought the Irish signed, but Robinson played a lot of football for the Irish.

Kyle Rudolph, TE: He may have been the first tight end off the NFL Draft board, but Rudolph never played to his recruiting stature at Notre Dame, leaving after three seasons.

Jamoris Slaughter, DB: Injuries kept him from being even more productive. If Slaughter isn’t granted a sixth season, he’ll still have exceeding expectations, garnering only three-stars as a recruit.

Sean Cwynar, DT: Undersized for a two-gap player, Cwynar still had a productive career, splitting time during his junior and senior season before passing on a fifth-year to pursue a career in business.

UPS AND DOWNS

Dayne Crist, QB: Crist never played up to the lofty expectations people had for him. But two major knee injuries probably had a lot to do with that.

Steve Filer, LB: Another touted Chicago linebacker that could never quite breakthrough. Four-star elite prospects should be more than special teams demons.

Mike Golic, Jr., OL: If you had told a ND fan in October 2012 that Golic would spend 15 games in the starting lineup he’d have called you nuts. A productive career for the lowest rated recruit of the class.

John Goodman, WR: He never became the down field, vertical threat many expected, following in the footsteps of Jeff Samardzija. But Goodman had a nice fifth year, making some big plays.

Jonas Gray, RB: An incredible senior season turned a disappointing career into a final season of triumph. Gray’s knee injury kept him on the Miami Dolphin’s shelf this season.

NON-FACTORS AND WASHOUTS

Lane Clelland, OL: Clelland looked the part of an elite recruit, yet he couldn’t dent the two-deep. A spring practice experiment to try DE short circuited quickly as well.

Joseph Fauria, TE: Ah, what might have been. Fauria, who transferred to UCLA after a disciplinary issue at Notre Dame, had 12 touchdown catches this season. Imagine the TE depth chart with him in the mix.

Dan McCarthy, DB: A neck injury during his senior season might have delayed McCarthy’s development. But he never turned into the late-bloomer his brother did. Looked the part of an elite safety.

Anthony McDonald, LB: Injuries and Manti Te’o kept McDonald off the field. Reunited with Charlie Weis this season at Kansas, McDonald played in eight games this season.

Brandon Newman, DT: Struggled to crack the two-deep at nose tackle for the Irish, Newman played his fifth year at Ball State, collecting 30 tackles with five TFLs. Did give us Trick Shot Monday.

David Posluszny, LB: The younger brother of former Penn State All-American Paul, Poz didn’t have the size to make it as an inside linebacker. Never collected five tackles in a season.

Deion Walker, WR: An elite wide receiver recruit that never made it onto the field, Walker’s physical skills never matched his own assessment of them. Caught 59 passes for UMass this season.

Hafis Williams, DT: Not big enough to play nose guard, nor fast enough to play end, Williams was surpassed by the youth recruited by Brian Kelly and played only a bit role for the Irish.

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A swing and miss rate of eight players out of 23 isn’t great, especially considering injuries weren’t really the problem for the bottom section of this grouping. Add to that the underachieving performances from elite guys. Take a look at the staggering amount of Top 100 guys the Irish had on the roster from that class:

RIVALS TOP 100 PLAYERS

No. 20 — Kyle Rudolph
No. 25 — Dayne Crist
No. 27 — Michael Floyd
No. 32 — Ethan Johnson
No. 37 — Trevor Robinson
No. 72 — Jonas Gray
No. 89 — Darius Fleming

Of that group, only Floyd played to his ranking, with Fleming probably coming closest after that. As I mentioned earlier this week, Rudolph certainly had the talent, but he never played up to that level in his three seasons in South Bend.

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We will find out soon enough if this 2013 recruiting class is the premiere group of talent that many think it is or an underachieving group of prospects. Playing to its favor are the roster holes it fills. Signing a large group of offensive line prospects helps replenish a position grouping that’s dangerously thin. Bringing in two tight ends will help ease the talent loss of Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Doing the same thing at running back will add high-end talent to an open positional race.

That the Irish are still chasing guys like Eddie Vanderdoes and Kylie Fitts lets you know that Kelly and company understand the need to restock power players up front, even with depth at an all-time high. Conversely, keeping an eye on the inside linebacker position now that Manti Te’o is gone is important, as the loss of an elite player like Alex Anzalone is tough, especially because he was filling a big position of need.

For six more days, recruits will be sized up by rankings and stars. Classes will be assessed by quantity and quality, as determined by analysts who largely have never coached a game or truly scouted the sport. So while we all (understandably) get wrapped up in the Signing Day sweepstakes that has become a February college football holiday, it’s worth a reminder that finding five-star prospects is just part of the equation.

 

 

 

 

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.

***

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.