Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Pregame Six Pack: Blue vs. Gold

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Notre Dame’s spring practices will come to a close on Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game. For the first time in what feels like a decade, there doesn’t seem to be a major storyline playing out in front of our eyes.

There is no quarterback controversy, with Everett Golson holding down the No. 1 job and Tommy Rees serving as the veteran backup. There is no cloud hanging over the head coach, with Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick putting the final touches on a contract extension. And while the Irish will need to replace an All-American on both sides of the ball, there’s confidence that the sums of the parts will do just fine filling the individual shoes of Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o.

With the action set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Channel at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, let’s run through the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the offense takes on the defense.

1. With depth still not ideal, it’s going to be Offense vs. Defense on Saturday afternoon.

With some depth issues along the offensive line, Kelly decided to go with an offense vs. defense format for Saturday’s televised scrimmage. It’s the same scoring system that led to the defense beating the offense 42-31 last year, and will likely produce another high scoring affair.

For those unfamiliar with the set-up, here’s how the scoring system will be broken down.

OFFENSIVE POINTS:
6 points for a touchdown (1 point for PAT kicks, no rush allowed).
3 points for a field goal.

DEFENSIVE POINTS:
4 points for a defensive stop before offense crosses the 50.
2 points for a defensive stop after offense crosses the 50.
7 points for a turnover before the offense crosses the 50.
3 points for a turnover after the offense crosses the 50.
1 point for holding the offense to a field goal.

Last year, the offense turned the ball over six time, even with a running clock in the second half. Let’s see if they can clean things up this spring.

***

2. It’ll be a little shy of all hands on deck Saturday.

For a spring that’s been filled with its share of heavy hitting and full contact, the Irish walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a pretty healthy roster. But Kelly walked us through the players that would be sitting out the Blue-Gold game.

Dan Fox, ILB – Shoulder
Bennett Jackson, CB – Shoulder
Nicky Baratti, S – Shoulder
Chase Hounshell, DL – Shoulder
Amir Carlisle, RB – Collarbone
Corey Robinson, WR – Elbow
Tyler Plantz, RB

Outside of Hounshell’s labrum tear, which will keep him out for the 2013 season, all injuries are expected to be healed before the start of summer camp.

***

3. Even though we won’t see Carlisle and Robinson this Saturday, it was an impressive spring for both players.

Irish fans will have to wait a few more months before getting a look at Amir Carlisle. The former USC running back, who received a waiver that granted him immediate eligibility in 2012, still sat out the season after lingering nerve damage slowed down his recovery from a broken ankle suffered on the eve of spring practice.

Carlisle suffered another injury setback this spring when he broke his collarbone during one of the team’s first padded practices, casting a doubt over whether or not he’ll ever be able to withstand the wear and tear that comes playing running back.

Kelly didn’t seem to have that concern. And Carlisle proved more than a few skeptics wrong by practicing almost immediately after surgery. He even put pads on for the team’s final workout, though will be held out of Saturday’s game.

“Amir Carlisle was in pads today, but we will not put him in a contact situation,” Kelly said. “He tried to talk himself into that, but we’re not going to let him.”

Holding Corey Robinson back from the Blue-Gold game will be a disappointment for Irish fans hoping to see for themselves the moves that turned more than a few heads this spring. Robinson, a below-the-radar recruit who many expected to need some seasoning, has looked more college-ready than anyone expected.

Kelly talked about the type of role Robinson can have next season for the Irish.

“He’ll be a role player, kind of like Chris Brown was,” Kelly said. “Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma. That’s how you have to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get stronger. But he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball near him, he comes down with it. So I think there’s a place for him in our offense, but he won’t be a featured guy.”

With an offense that struggled to produce points in the red zone last year, a six-foot-five (and growing) receiver with hands like Spiderman can’t be a bad thing.

4. We’ll see how ready the newcomers are on the Irish offensive line.

It’s a big day for the young offensive lineman on the Irish roster, with Harry Hiestand getting a nice long look at his depth chart. We already know that Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard are going to be in the starting lineup. What remains to be seen is who gets to next two jobs.

It appears Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty have the inside track at center and guard. But it’s a great opportunity for guys like Matt Hegarty and Mark Harrell to make a move, and young tackles Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer to show that they’re one of the best five, potentially pushing Lombard inside to guard.

Against one of the best defensive lines in the country, it’ll be one of the toughest assignments of the year for the offensive line. But before four new freshman make their way onto campus, it’s one last piece of game tape to show the coaching staff.

***

5. With Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter gone, let’s see how the kids play at safety.

While the Irish secondary unfortunately had to say goodbye to Jamoris Slaughter far too early, this will be the first time we see the safeties without its two veterans leading. Last year, it was Motta who played traffic cop, getting the defense in alignment and holding down the fort. This year, that appears to have fallen into Matthias Farley‘s hands, with Elijah Shumate all but anointed by Kelly to be the other safety across from him earlier this week.

Just don’t tell Bob Diaco that.

The Irish’s star defensive coordinator wasn’t ready to heap praise on the talented rising sophomore, who has impressed the Irish staff, but still must have a ways to go.

“I wouldn’t say so, no,” Diaco bluntly said, when asked if Shumate was one of the spring’s stars. “Elijah we’re pleased with. He’s a very talented player. But he’s a long ways away from functioning and driving our defense. Light years away.”

That kind of tough love and honesty isn’t all that surprising from Diaco, who has always been brutally candid. But it also goes to show you how vital the safety position is in the Irish defense.

Since reloading the depth chart in recruiting, the position is now filled with players Kelly and Diaco hand picked for the system. And while it appears Farley has locked down one starting job, there will be others that see the field, with Shumate working as the No. 1 field safety by default.

With this spring a huge determining factor for the depth chart entering fall camp, keep an eye on a few guys battling to work their way into the rotation.

Austin Collinsworth is back and healthy after a lost season to injury. Eilar Hardy seems fully recovered from a serious knee injury that robbed him of some confidence and athleticism. Both have shown themselves useful this spring. Nicky Baratti will also force his way back into the conversation when he’s healthy.

Chuck Martin and the Irish offense will take some shots down the field on Saturday. With Bennett Jackson sitting, let’s see how the young secondary reacts.

***

6. In Notre Dame Stadium, natural grass is still greener… for now.

On the heels of Notre Dame and NBC’s ten-year extension, athletic director Jack Swarbrick spent some time with the media yesterday. In between ducking questions on scheduling and the announcement date of Brian Kelly’s new contract extension, Swarbrick calmed the nerves of traditionalists, when he said field turf was staying out of Notre Dame Stadium.

“I see nothing in the near term that would move us away from natural grass,” Swarbrick said. “Down the road as we contemplate the future of the facility, finding more ways to use it is important,” Swarbrick said. “Might turf be a dynamic in that? It may. But alone, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

If you enjoy reading between the lines of the always cagey Swarbrick, the sentence “contemplate the future of the facility,” might be one worth digging into. That could mean renovations, remodels, Jumbotrons, or private suites.

But until then, the improvements made by the field turf crew have been enough to stave off a change to an artificial surface.

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.