Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

Freshman Focus: Steve Elmer

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Steve Elmer was the first commitment to the heralded ’13 recruiting class. He might also be one of the most important. A bookend tackle prospect that closed down his recruitment early and still ended up being viewed among the elite of his class, Elmer anchors an offensive line class that many believe is one of the top units in the country.

In Elmer, it looks as though the Irish have the heir apparent to Zack Martin. Already looking the part of an upperclassmen, the Michigan native and early enrollee wowed the coaching staff in his 15 spring workouts, and his 6-foot-5.5, 317-pound frame looks ready for competition already. Added to Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame has two young tackles that will likely play a key role in the Irish offensive line for years to come.

Let’s take a closer look at Elmer and what he’ll bring to the Fighting Irish this season.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

If you’re underwhelmed by the offer list Elmer had, it’s a product of a very early commitment to Notre Dame, with Elmer shutting down his recruitment in September 2011, a full two years before he’ll suit up for the Irish.

Still, Elmer was seen as a Top 100 player by just about every service, with 247 having him in their Top 50 and Rivals in their top 60. In the middle of the recruiting cycle, it seemed some websites soured on Elmer, with reports coming out from combines that he looked less athletic than many expected during drill work. Those fears were allayed with an impressive US Army All-American week, and Elmer catapulted back up the rankings to the lofty status where he finished.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

It’s never a good sign when freshman offensive linemen have an early opportunity to see the field. That said, during spring practice Kelly and the coaching staff felt like Elmer was physically ready to help the team if needed next season.

If needed is the key component here. A quick look at the tackle depth chart shouldn’t exactly give Notre Dame fans the warm and fuzzies. With Tate Nichols ending his career with a medical redshirt, the depth chart is now starters Martin and Lombard, with Stanley the only non-true freshman backing him up.

This is likely the last season where the Irish will truly struggle with depth issues, but the loss of guys like Jordan Prestwood and Nichols really hurt the depth chart. It’s no wonder that Kelly called Zack Martin a six-star recruit.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

It looks like Elmer is the starting left tackle of the future. And it also looks like Notre Dame’s fortunes at the position are only on the rise. Adding Elmer and Mike McGlinchey to the current class is a start. Blue-chippers Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, both seemingly elite prospects, shore up this deficiency quickly (’15 recruit Jerry Tillery seems like icing on a far-too-in-the-distance cake).

Still, pushing the development timetable of any lineman is a dangerous game. As Irish fans saw in 07-09, forcing players into the starting lineup early builds experience, but doesn’t necessarily make things better for the future. The list of blue-chip recruits at Notre Dame who saw the field early and plateaued is long.

That’s not to say that Elmer will suffer the same fate even if he does see the field this season. Many think that Elmer won’t have the opportunity to redshirt even if Martin and Christian Lombard stay healthy, as he’ll be too good to keep off the field. That’s a good problem to have for Kelly and Harry Hiestand, and hopefully one that doesn’t resurface in the near future.

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.”