Tommy Rees

Focus on Red Zone offense key for Irish


For a team that ran the gauntlet to an undefeated regular season, Notre Dame’s offense had a major flaw: The Red Zone.

In a season that was extraordinary, the Irish would’ve settled for being simply ordinary inside the opponent’s twenty yard line. Yet the Irish were one of the worst teams in the country in the scoring zone, even with jump ball threat Tyler Eifert and a powerful running game that averaged 200 yards a game in the regular season.

The Irish ranked an anemic 112th in the country in converting red zone appearances into touchdowns. Right there lodged between Middle Tennessee and Idaho, converting only 48% of their possessions. While the stout Irish defense bailed the team out, that type of conversion rate isn’t sustainable and is one of the biggest focuses the team has during training camp.

When talking to the media on Monday afternoon, Kelly discussed the focus on the red zone, and Tommy Rees‘ work in the scoring area. For all the scorn Rees has taken over his turnovers, the Irish converted 66% of red zone drives for touchdowns in ’11, good for 28th in the country. (They did rank 77th in the country on overall scoring percentage, with early season turnovers against USF and Michigan a big part of that low conversion rate.)

Asked if any segment of the team was ahead of schedule after eight practices, Kelly looked at the red zone play.

“I think our red zone play, what we’ve focused on, has been so much better,” Kelly said. “A lot of that has to do with Tommy, his experience. He’s been really good taking care of the football. He’s given us opportunities to score touchdowns, not kick field goals. I’d say that probably stands out the most.”

What’s interesting to consider is that for the first time under Kelly, Notre Dame won’t have a premiere red zone receiving weapon. As promising as freshman Corey Robinson may be, he’s not the kind of guy that All-Americans Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert were. That makes it likely the quarterback’s reads will be a little bit more complex than last year, when they seemed to be as limited as, “If Eifert is one-on-one, throw it to him.” (A strategy offensive coordinator Chuck Martin did his best to beat into Everett Golson.)

Notre Dame was once incredibly effectively with the fade route with guys like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen throwing to targets like Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight and Floyd. But it hasn’t exactly been the weapon of choice for Kelly’s team. Dayne Crist struggled with accuracy, Golson hasn’t looked all that comfortable throwing it, and Rees hasn’t Rees hasn’t been a great touch thrower, surprising considering his accuracy. That may have changed over the summer, with Kelly complimenting Rees’ fade routes to the short side of the field.

Wins almost always cover up blemishes, and last year’s offensive struggles were often erased by the end result. But with personnel that Kelly expects to improve and a few key pieces ready to find roles, moving the ball isn’t hardly as important as being effective in the scoring zone — a priority for this football team.

Last year, the turnover problem was erased through a lot of offseason work. If that’s the case with red zone struggles, expect the Irish offense to put up a lot of points.

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

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)

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)

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.