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Irish focus recruiting efforts on defensive tackle

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It’s no secret that Louis Nix is likely playing his final season for the Fighting Irish. While the preseason All-American has a fifth year of eligibility remaining, Nix is on track to get his degree and will likely enter the NFL Draft after the season, with the mighty defensive tackle on track to be a first round draft pick.

With the loss of Eddie Vanderdoes, that leaves a fairly large hole in the interior of the defensive line. While Tony Springmann looked good in limited minutes, there’s no doubt that the Irish coaching staff is focusing their efforts on finding a new mountain (and maybe two) in the middle of their defensive line, and this week two premiere prospects got a look at Notre Dame.

The early returns on visits from New York’s Thomas Holley and Kentucky’s Matt Elam were both positive. The Irish coaching staff would welcome the commitment of both players — two highly touted defensive tackles — and signing either would be a great get and important anchor for the defensive line.

Taking a closer look at Holley, the Brooklyn native hails from the same high school that gave the Irish Ishaq Williams, though the two don’t know each other. Holley is an intriguing prospect, with the 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive tackle new to the sport, playing in his first season of organized football last year. That makes for a raw prospect, but the athleticism he’s displayed has brought offers from Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, and many other elite programs.

Holly spent the weekend between South Bend and Columbus, and he had all the obligatory great things to say about Notre Dame that an interested prospect usually says. Camping with the Irish staff, he had a chance to work with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, defensive line coach Mike Elston, and even head coach Brian Kelly chipped in with the talented New Yorker. Holley isn’t in a hurry to make a decision, but he’s a guy that is well positioned with Notre Dame, and understands that the depth chart has some opportunities.

(Want to feel good about where the Irish stand with Holley? Take a look at 247’s Crystal Ball Predictor, where four of four analysts predict Holley to Notre Dame.)

If there’s a way to make Holley look undersized, standing next to Elam will do it. The mammoth prospect, who reportedly measures 6-foot-6, and according to his high school coach is tipping the scales at close to 370 pounds, took in South Bend yesterday and had nothing but good things to say about his visit.

“It was one of the best visits I have been on,” Elam told Steve Wiltfong of 247 Sports. “Just a wonderful campus. Just so much tradition there. It’s crazy.”

Again, the idea of early playing time was brought up, and as you’d expect, Elam was open to the plan.

“I can come in and really play,” Elam told Steve Hare at Irish Illustrated. “They have absolutely no one at nose guard so it’s a great time to come in. That’s real important to me.”

It’s hard not to think of Louis Nix when you look at Elam and what he brings. If he’s even close to 370 pounds, there’s a ton of work that needs to be done on the conditioning side of things, and expecting Elam to fit into the Irish defense, especially after hearing Kelly and his staff talk about work volume and conditioning, is tough to believe.

That said, it’s impossible to teach size, and Elam looks to be built from a mold similar to the one that produced Stephon Tuitt. Those are rare finds, and if Elam has the work ethic to get himself in shape, he could turn into one of college football’s elite prospects.

Elam has a top five that includes Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Alabama, so if the Irish are going to win either of these prospects, they’ll have to beat two of the country’s most relentless recruiters in Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.

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.”