Chris Watt,  Zack Martin

Restocking: The offensive line

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In landing five offensive linemen during this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame filled a critical need at a position group that had gotten way too thin. With Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey, the Irish have two intriguing candidates that have NFL potential at tackle. In John Montelus and Colin McGovern, Harry Hiestand has two true guard prospects that immediately infuse some size and physicality to the depth chart. And in Hunter Bivin, the offensive line has an intriguing athlete, and a guy that could play center — or just about anywhere else — depending on his development.

Filling holes up front was one of the most critical needs of the recruiting cycle, as the depth on the offensive line had gotten scarily thin. It’s worth taking a look back at the past few recruiting classes and see just how the situation was created.

2008
Braxston Cave — Started three seasons at center.
Lane Clelland — Reserve offensive lineman, didn’t return for a fifth season.
Mike Golic — Fifth year player who started final season at right guard.

2009
Alex Bullard — Transferred to Tennessee after death of his father. Part time starter for Vols.
Zack Martin — Four-year starter at left tackle of Irish.
Chris Watt — Three-year starter for Irish at guard.

2010
Matt James — Blue-chip tackle died in spring break accident before enrolling at ND.
Tate Nichols — Plagued by injuries since arriving in South Bend. Career might be over.
Christian Lombard — First-year starter at right tackle in 2012.
Bruce Heggie — Recruited as a defensive end, Heggie is now a reserve center/guard.

2011
Brad Carrico — One time DE, switched to OL before foot injury ended his career.
Conor Hanratty — Reserve guard will battle for open job in 2013.
Matt Hegarty — Medical issues appear to be cleared up, starting center candidate.
Nick Martin — Candidate for job at either center or right guard.
Jordan Prestwood — Florida State transfer left Notre Dame. Now at UCF.

2012
Mark Harrell — Redshirted his freshman season.
Ronnie Stanley — Saw time at tackle before injuring his elbow.

2013
Hunter Bivin
Steve Elmer
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
John Montelus

The turnover on the offensive line has been pretty staggering, to the point where Brian Kelly and company have to feel like they’ve been a little snake bit. The staff barely had a chance to see what Alex Bullard could do before he returned home to Tennessee. Matt James was the elite tackle prospect Notre Dame desperately before his spring break tragedy. The Irish thought they had another tackle until Taylor Decker flipped to Ohio State in the final days of the 2012 recruiting cycle.

Add to that the bad medical luck they’ve had with Carrico, Nichols and Hegarty, and the departure of Prestwood, and you begin to see just how badly the Irish needed to recruit the offensive line, regardless of projected position. People may have scoffed at low-rated recruits like Mike Golic and Bruce Heggie, but they were vital pieces of the depth chart this season, and Golic’s return was a necessity.

Way too early spring projection

What the Irish decide to do with the interior of their offensive line should be interesting. There’s no question Zack Martin is locked in at left tackle. Christian Lombard had a nice first season at right tackle as well, though he is a bit undersized.

But with Chris Watt by far the best interior lineman on the roster, do Kelly and Hiestand toy with moving Watt to the right side, helping to prop up a new center and Lombard, while Martin helps bring along a rookie guard? Can Ronnie Stanley win a tackle job, forcing Lombard inside? The Irish were incredibly left-handed last season running the football and they’ll continue to be that if some unestablished players don’t step up and seize and opportunity. But with three returning starters, the foundation is set for continued improvement along the line.

 

 

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.

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)
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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)
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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)
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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.”