Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

Five things we learned: Defense 54, Offense 43

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What a difference a year makes.

Just think: Twelve months ago, the Irish were in the middle of a four-man open race for the starting quarterback job. The coaching staff was rebuilt and reshuffled, all with the hopes of fixing an offense that needed to replace its best player. Coming off two 8-5 seasons, the sky felt like it just might actually be falling, with star freshman Aaron Lynch’s departure in the middle of spring feeling like an early sign that the Brian Kelly era was doomed to end just like those of Davie, Willingham and Weis.

Nothing an undefeated regular season and a date in the BCS National Championship game couldn’t fix.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon in South Bend, it really didn’t matter that the defense defeated the offense 54-43. It was just another day at the office for the Irish, with the glorified scrimmage a celebration of the hard work that’s gone into creating the foundation for the 2013 squad.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Blue’s 54-43 victory over the White.

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1. They are who we thought they were.

For the most part, the Blue-Gold game was absent of any real subplot. The Irish know who their quarterback is. They’ve got an idea of their depth chart at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball, this game provided another look at the growing depth in the front seven. It showed the work that still needs to be done in the secondary. But to credit Denny Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

That might be a very good team, though it’s a squad with some work to be done.

The Irish offensive line struggled to get a push against the starting defense, no doubt hampered by the absence of Chris Watt, who was held out of action for precautionary reasons after a minor neck injury flared up during pregame. Everett Golson wasn’t as sharp as many hoped, with the red jersey almost an open invite to revert back to the sandlot quarterback Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have been eliminating.

But nothing done today — and likely on purpose — showed opponents anything the Irish coaching staff didn’t want to show. And just as important, it didn’t give anybody any reason to think this upcoming season will be one with anything but sky-high expectations.

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2. While he might not have shown it today, Everett Golson took a great step forward this spring.

Everett Golson’s fairly average numbers didn’t tell the story of the rising junior’s spring. A year after surviving during a surprising 12-1 season, Golson spent the winter and spring moving into a leadership position, a role we saw him play not just today, but throughout the spring’s fourteen other official practices.

While Golson put up only modest numbers, 6 of 13 for 98 yards with an interception in the red zone, he talked after the game with NBC’s Alex Flanagan about something far more important — his improved confidence.

“It’s different,” Golson admitted to Flanagan on the field after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

That’s a quarterback that’s come a long way from last season. Golson was a young kid that openly admitted to being embarrassed after getting yanked against Michigan after a horrendous start. He’s also far from the kid who got benched for the first series against Miami for showing up late for a pregame meeting in Chicago.

After graduating stars like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the best player on the offense is now its starting quarterback. This spring showed that Golson understands the responsibility on his shoulders.

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3. If there’s an area of concern heading into the fall, it’s that the special teams are still very much a work-in-progress.

Brian Kelly said a large emphasis was put on improving the special teams this spring. It didn’t show on Saturday afternoon. While none of the coverage units were live during the scrimmage, a few of the major questions Irish fans had about the special teams were only magnified after watching the Blue-Gold game.

Kyle Brindza struggled as the team’s starting punter. (Walk-on Jude Rhodes was even worse.) Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed his first field goal attempt, before making three chip shots. And the open audition for punt returner looked more like a game of Hot Potato, with a slew of other candidates not looking like they wanted anything to do with catching the ball.

“I’d like to leave the spring feeling a little bit better about it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly admitted after the game.

Taking too much from the performance of the special teams units in 39 degree weather during non-contact situations isn’t wise. But Brindza’s inability to average more than 30 yards a punt is worrisome.

Kelly has pledged to use his best players on special teams come the fall, after seeing how Alabama dominated the third segment of the game with starters on all units. We’ll see if that happens come fall camp, when the Irish will have a full allotment of players on hand.

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4. We certainly didn’t learn this today, but Louis Nix is wonderful.

In a game that lacked any true breakthrough performances, Louis Nix provided the highlight of the afternoon, with a quarterback draw executed to perfection for a two-point conversion.

Nix, who looks every bit the 347-pounds he’s listed at, calmly looked both left and right before tucking the football and charging for the end zone. You could hardly blame Kendall Moore for stepping out of the big fella’s way, even though Nix was looking for a collision.

“My intentions were just to truck somebody,” Nix said after the game. “I didn’t care about the touchdown too much. I just wanted to run somebody over.”

That Kelly would give Nix the opportunity to take a snap at quarterback shows you how beloved the All-American nose guard is to his teammates. But perhaps a better illustration of that was shown during the Strong and True documentary, where Nix’s teammates rallied around him as he struggled to finish a particularly hellish conditioning session in the middle of Camp Kelly, a rugged winter workout that featured pushing a wood board along the snow-covered artificial surface.

That kind of thing isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a 350-pound nose guard. But then again neither is playing quarterback, as Nix admitted after the game.

“We haven’t actually conditioned me to read defenses yet,” Nix joked. “So I just ran it.”

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5. Brian Kelly is a different man.

The red-faced screamer of yesteryear would not recognize this head coach. Kelly, who didn’t see a ton of good from his offense, seemed to let it all roll off his shoulders, as much of a sign as you’d ever want from a head coach evaluating his football team.

It’s startling to see how different Kelly is heading into his fourth season at Notre Dame. While we heard that the head coach would evolve as his team learned what he expected from him, we’re now actually seeing it before our eyes.

When George Atkinson got creamed for running with his pads too high, Kelly joked about it with him, before reinforcing his coaching point. When his starting quarterback scrambled too much and threw a bad interception, Kelly called it valuable tape for a long offseason. The only time Kelly got really animated on the sideline was when new long-snapper Scott Daly jumped on a muffed punt — nearly taking out wide receiver TJ Jones’ legs.

It’s crazy to think that Kelly’s fourth season at Notre Dame is the first time he’s had a fourth season since Grand Valley way back in 1994, when half this roster wasn’t born. But Kelly’s stress-free attitude is a sign that all is well for the flagship athletic program under the Golden Dome.

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.

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.