AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am - Round One

Weekend notes: Belichick, schedule, rankings and more

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The Notre Dame coaches clinic is underway, with hundreds of high school coaches from around the country descending on South Bend to hear Brian Kelly and his staff speak. In addition to the Irish coaches, a star-studded list will also be joining the festivities, with current NFL head coaches Marc Trestman, Marvin Lewis and Bill Belichick all taking the time to share some tips as well. They’re joined by former Bengals coach Sam Wyche and former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who is widely credited for the Pistol offense that’s the rage of pro and college football.

The assembly of coaching talent says a lot about the relationships Brian Kelly has developed over his years as a head coach. It’s funny to think back to the hiring of Kelly, when many wondered if he was too “small-time” with his roots being at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

With a cast of coaches befitting an Ocean’s Eleven movie, I think we can put that notion to rest for the thousandth time.

Speaking of Belichick, the notoriously tight-lipped coach actually spent a little more than ten minutes with the local press, doing his best to show his admiration for Kelly and the program he’s built, but also Notre Dame and the players it develops.

Here’s Kelly on his experience with former Notre Dame players.

“They’re all smart, they’re tough, and they’re disciplined,” Belichick said. “To get through four years here with the program that Notre Dame has academically, socially and from a football standpoint takes a lot from a kid. That’s the kind of player you see come out of here. Kids that are smart, well-versed and have more than football in their lives.”

While Belichick had good things to say about former Irish wide receiver David Givens and former cornerback Mike Richardson, he saved his most glowing praise for former Giants great Mark Bavaro.

“Mark Bavaro is right at the top. He’s about as Notre Dame as they come.”

***

In what’s only news because it’s the middle of April, Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson created a couple ripples when he took to the airwaves of a local Phoenix radio station to complain about Notre Dame considering whether or not they’ll play in Tempe in late October, 2014.

The Irish have themselves in a bit of a scheduling pickle in 2014, the first season they’ve agreed to play five games against ACC teams.

FoxSports Arizona has more on Patterson’s remarkably candid comments:

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

–snip–

“Our position is ‘Hey, we’ve got a contract,’ and we expect Notre Dame to live up to it,” Patterson said.

ASU and Notre Dame are set to play this season at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5 as part of Notre Dame’s “Shamrock Series.” That game is not in question, but the possibility of losing the 2014 game could put ASU in a tough spot with its schedule for next year, which also includes nonconference games with Weber State (home) and New Mexico (road).

“What people don’t understand is you do this 18 months before a game,” Patterson said. “Virtually every other university in the country’s got their teams scheduled until 2014. So who do you get as a replacement even if you wanted to do it?

“If you act in a professional way and you want to talk about three years down the line or four years down the line where somebody’s got a chance to make an adjustment in their schedule, that’s a different thing, but when it’s 18 months out, everybody’s got their season booked.”

While Swarbrick hasn’t made any comment publicly, senior associate athletic director John Heisler told the South Bend Tribune that the schedule for 2014 is still in flux.

“It looks like we’re kind of in the home stretch here,” Heisler said Wednesday, “but the reality is we have more games than we could play.”

We talked about the overloaded schedule earlier in the week, but there’s little doubt that Swarbrick and company won’t fully weigh their options before making a decision. Still, it’s a little crazy to see normally behind-the-scenes discussions like this get blown out in public.

No word if the nuns in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin have a problem with airing dirty laundry in public.

***

Don’t look know, but Athlon released their annual coaching rankings, and Brian Kelly came in at No. 4 in college football. Here’s the top ten:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
3. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
4. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
6. Chris Petersen, Boise State
7. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
8. Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky
9. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
10. Gary Patterson, TCU

Here’s what Athlon had to say about Kelly:

Not many coaches in college football can rival Kelly’s resume in four stops as a head coach. Kelly’s first head coaching gig came in 1991 at Grand Valley State, and he stayed in that capacity until 2003. During 13 years with Grand Valley State, Kelly went 118-35-2 and won two Division II titles. After his success with the Lakers, Kelly went 19-16 with Central Michigan, which included a MAC Championship in 2006. Kelly moved on to Cincinnati at the end of the 2006 season and guided the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009. After back to-back 8-5 seasons with Notre Dame, Kelly led the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the BCS National Championship game at the end of the 2012 season. Despite the blowout loss to Alabama in the title game, Kelly clearly has the program back on track to be an annual top 10-15 team.

Other than Stoops, coaches on the Irish’s upcoming 2013 schedule include Brady Hoke (14), David Shaw (20), Mark Dantonio (26), Todd Graham (29), Bronco Mendenhall (46), Paul Chryst (52), Lane Kiffin (57), Troy Calhoun (58), Darrell Hazell (67), Ken Numatalolo (76), Matt Rhule (109).

***

When reading Stewart Mandel‘s recent profile on Lane Kiffin and USC at SI.com, I couldn’t help but think back to the days when Charlie Weis was at Notre Dame. Fair or not, it seemed like things that happened early in Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame lingered over Weis’ head long after his introductory press conference.

In Weis’s case, he could never dig out from underneath comments like “decided schematic advantage,” or the brash persona he openly embraced for a profile on 60 Minutes. Kiffin deals with similar pain, unable to shake the portrait he helped paint of himself, after horrible runs with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Vols, yet continually failing up, something skeptics credit to a family name built by his father.

That’s what makes the thought process behind Kiffin’s below comments so difficult to understand. He’s certainly not going to live down any criticism any time soon. So why keep talking about it?

Kiffin told a story recently about the perils of fashion choices. When the Trojans played at Oregon in November 2011, Kiffin, who openly detests cold weather, wore a white beanie to stay warm. After USC pulled off the upset, there was a run on beanies at the school bookstore. The Dan Patrick Show requested the original.

Now fast forward 13 months to last season’s Sun Bowl. As USC was getting embarrased by 6-7 Georgia Tech, Kiffin was getting blasted on Twitter for donning a hood and dark sunglasses. “He wasn’t focused, he didn’t care, he checked out, because we lost the game” said Kiffin of his perception. “If we won the game, no one would have noticed.

“And if we lose the game at Oregon, [the perception] would be, ‘What kind of head coach wears a beanie?'”

Kiffin even addressing this topic shows a hopeless lack of media savvy. So does the revisionist history the head coach and athletic director Pat Haden exercise by acknowledging last year’s team was overrated.

Here’s Kiffin and Haden on the lofty preseason expectations, something he didn’t shy away from at the time.

“I felt if I was to talk that way to [the media] … I would be giving our players an excuse to lose,” Kiffin said to SI. “That’s why I didn’t temper expectations outside even though I knew where we had some issues and weren’t as good as people thought we were.”

“I had us pegged for two losses myself,” AD Pat Haden told Mandel. “You don’t want to discourage your kids by saying you’re not that good, but we knew.”

It’s interesting comparing these comments to the ones coming from Notre Dame after their embarrassing defeat to Alabama. Certainly, Kelly talked about a lack of depth along the offensive line, but he — and his players — have taken the loss as an objective measure of what they still need to work on.

***

Lastly, here are a few high school coaches that’ll be speaking at the clinic this weekend.

Michael Johnson, Head Coach
Bishop Dunne H.S. — Dallas, TX

Tony Perry, Defensive Backs Coach
Fresno Central H.S. — Fresno, CA

Tony Sanchez, Head Coach
Bishop Gorman H.S. — Las Vegas, NV

Mike Rumph, Head Coach
American Heritage H.S. — Plantation, FL

Don Fellows, Head Coach
Grand Rapids Christian — Grand Rapids, MI

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.