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Vanderdoes saga ends, but not without some unanswered questions

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One-time Notre Dame signee Eddie Vanderdoes has won his final appeal with the National Letter of Intent Steering Committee, gaining immediate eligibility to play for UCLA this fall. The victory for Vanderdoes comes after a rather lengthy (and sometimes public) spat with Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly, who allowed Vanderdoes to enroll at UCLA, but refused to release him from the letter of intent he signed with Notre Dame in February.

Kelly released a statement today commenting on the decision.

“While I disagree with yesterday’s decision by the NCAA National Letter of Intent Appeals Committee to reverse its original ruling and grant Eddie Vanderdoes a complete release from his NLI, I understand and respect the entire appeal process,” Kelly said in a statement. “However, this result does not change my opinion concerning the importance of protecting the integrity of the NLI program, nor will it change our approach to the process going forward.”

For those looking to distill this story into a debate topic, the Vanderdoes appeal has been a juicy offseason subject that’s done its best to create heroes and villains. While some national pundits do their best to paint the Irish head coach as the bad guy in this situation, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

From what is publicly known, the main thrust of Vanderdoes’ decision is reportedly the desire to be close to his ailing grandmother. In late May, Vanderdoes publicly commented that he looked forward to sharing his story and the rationale behind the decision. The only comment made since then has been through ESPN reporter Joe Schad, who quoted Vanderdoes in early June as saying, “I take my commitments seriously, but as circumstances changed, the most important commitment is to my family.”

Since then, information on the saga has mostly advanced through the work of local Sacramento prep sports reporter Joe Davidson. In his most recent update, Davidson tweeted that Vanderdoes “wanted (his) release from LOI for myriad reasons,” citing that it was more than just a “change of heart.” Rumors of distrust have long surrounded Vanderdoes’ departure, with a Signing Day snafu inadvertently including Vanderdoes’ name on a document circulated at a local South Bend press conference announcing the recruiting class, ruining an announcement planned later in the day at Vanderdoes’ high school.

(As one of the people at Notre Dame’s press conference, the document containing Vanderdoes’ name was collected within minutes, with an amended list redistributed without Vanderdoes’ name, but not before a few reporters tweeted the lineman’s inclusion on the list.)

Notre Dame fans have been overly skeptical about Vanderdoes’ rationale for leaving his binding commitment just months after signing his letter of intent, the culmination of a whirlwind recruiting experience. Vanderdoes, once a long-time USC commitment walked away from the Trojans in December before eventually choosing Notre Dame on Signing Day over Alabama, USC and UCLA. That Vanderdoes would visit South Bend in late January, pick the Irish a week later, only to want out from South Bend before ever stepping foot on campus as a student-athlete reeked of something fishy to fans, with corresponding rumors swirling in every direction.

After talking with people connected to UCLA, Notre Dame, and the Vanderdoes family, here is what I’ve cobbled together after chasing this story for weeks. If there is skepticism about an ill grandmother, it seems warranted. One source very close to the situation said that Vanderdoes asked for his initial release from Notre Dame well before ever mentioning any family reason or a sick relative.

In regards to allegations that UCLA tampered with a signed athlete, the same source mentioned that communication between Vanderdoes and the Bruins started well before any official recruiting window re-opened, and that the communication may have been initiated by the Vanderdoes family very soon after Signing Day. One source close to the UCLA program told me that the Bruins were actively pursuing Vanderdoes throughout May.

When reached for a comment on Vanderdoes’ appeal victory, or any misconduct in the recruitment of the star defensive tackle, UCLA declined to comment.

A connection between UCLA defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure and Vanderdoes’ personal trainer Jon Osterhout has been mentioned by multiple outlets. Osterhout played for McClure at Sacramento State, and trained Vanderdoes throughout the offseason. In a conversation with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Osterhout said he had “no inkling” that Vanderdoes was trying to get out of his commitment, which makes sense considering Osterhout was featured in an offseason story written by Sampson in mid-May, just a week before the news broke. Still, the connection of a personal trainer with the Bruins’ recruiting coordinator is more than coincidental.

Any pursuit of proof that UCLA continued communicating with Vanderdoes or members of his inner-circle was stopped by the Bruin athletic department. A Freedom of Information Act Request seeking emails sent to Vanderdoes or his family after Signing Day (an NCAA violation) by head coach Jim Mora, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, and defensive line coach Angus McClure, was denied by the university.

One scenario that did play into Vanderdoes’ decision to back out of his commitment to Notre Dame was academics. While the Irish coaching staff had an academic roadmap clearly laid out for Vanderdoes upon signing his letter of intent, multiple sources have confirmed to me that Vanderdoes and his family felt mislead by some of the requirements, including a well established foreign language requirement. (That Vanderdoes would be the first high profile recruit not to have known about the language requirement at Notre Dame might be difficult for some to believe.)

In the end, Brian Kelly’s battle to hold up the integrity of the letter-of-intent program was more about setting a precedent than holding a player hostage to a promise he doesn’t want to honor. For those thinking this is a vindictive coach trying to punish a player, you only have to look at five-star transfers like Aaron Lynch, Gunner Kiel and Davonte Neal, three recruits with profiles similar to Vanderdoes that Kelly had no problem letting walk. Vanderdoes himself thanked Notre Dame for being “gracious” in the process, while still pursuing his appeal for immediate eligibility.

Over at the Bylaw Blog, John Infante digs a little deeper about what Vanderdoes’ LOI appeal victory means, especially considering this is one of three high profile cases this spring where an elite recruit wanted to back out of his signed commitment. Infante believes that the worry about signed Letters-of-Intent no longer being binding should be quelled by the fact that it took two appeals for Vanderdoes to win.

That’s easy for Infante or anyone else to say, but in Brian Kelly’s case, the fight had to be fought. With a national recruiting footprint where the Irish often walk into rival programs’ back yards attempting to pull out their finest prospects, the concern that a letter-of-intent isn’t enough is a valid one. After rollercoaster recruitments of elite prospects like Lynch, Neal, Kiel and Stephon Tuitt, allowing opposing programs to continue to work over recruits before they have a chance to step on campus and actually experience life as a student-athlete at Notre Dame would all but extend the recruiting calendar another four months.

While it may not fit into the angry narrative that some columnists are pushing, holding the line on Vanderdoes wasn’t as much to limit a talented freshman football player, but to keep rival coaching staffs away from negative recruiting after the war is over. Say what you want about the fairness of the Letter-of-Intent program, but the system is what it is.

The Irish staff is eager to put this whole debacle in their rearview mirror. And while they don’t agree with the decision to let Vanderdoes play, they do wish him well — he won’t be the first or last high profile recruit to leave South Bend.

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.