Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk

Special teams duties are (almost) set

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Talk to enough Notre Dame fans and eventually the Irish’s mediocre punt return game with come up. Perhaps I’m mixing this old adage up a bit, but it goes something like, “Run the table with an undefeated regular season and finish 120th in punt returns and nobody remembers you went undefeated.”

So maybe that’s not quite right. But even Brian Kelly was listening this offseason. This spring, he talked about adding starting personnel to his special teams units, citing Alabama’s usage of starters in just about every segment of special teams, helping the Crimson Tide find another (negligible in this case) advantage during the BCS National Championship game. Kelly also had his staff spend time with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick this offseason, with the Hall of Fame coach exchanging a few tips on how to improve the return and coverage units for the upcoming season.

Yesterday, Kelly discussed the plans for the special teams, and as promised he’s holding true to his word about starters anchoring the units. Running back George Atkinson will be the deep man on kick off returns, even as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart heading into Temple. And wide receiver TJ Jones, the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, will add punt returner to his resume, with the senior all but forcing Kelly to give him the job.

“He wants to return punts,” Kelly said yesterday. “It’s important to him. He’s got the skill for it as well. Obviously, it’s going to build his resume. That’s fine with me. But he’s got that passion for wanting to do it. He’s immediately impacted the punt return team.”

Finishing 120th in the country in any category usually speaks to a fundamental flaw of the team. But Kelly talked a little bit about why the return game was so mediocre, acknowledging that 42 percent of the time, the team conceded a fair catch by going into “punt safe,” formation. That won’t likely be the case this season, with the defense (and offense) different beasts.

We saw what enhancing the personnel does to even the Irish’s punt return game when Michael Floyd returned a punt 41 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl, netting three more yards than the team had done all year up until that point.

Where things are still a bit interesting is in the kicking and punting game. Kelly announced that Kyle Brindza will again handle kickoffs and will get the first shot at the punting job in front of Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck. While Brindza was steady in the clutch but far from spectacular last season as a place kicker, fifth-year senior Nick Tausch will get the first shot to kick field goals against Temple.

“Kyle’s been a bit distracted, because we’ve asked him to put all this time and energy in punting,” Kelly explained. “So what we’re going to do is going into the first game, I’m going to give Nick an opportunity to kick.

“Kyle’s going to kick off, because he’s won that clearly. He’s going to punt, and we’re going to use the Temple game to get all three of them some action. And then we’ll make a decision in game two as to where we are.”

That sounds an awful lot like a head coach that feels mighty confident about the season opening game against Temple, but acknowledges that he needs to have his personnel locked up by the team’s visit to Ann Arbor, one of the great litmus tests on the season.

There’s an awful lot of stress on a specialists that needs to handle three duties and Brindza could very well end up being the team’s kickoff man, place kicker and punter. And while a few heads were scratched when the Irish didn’t pursue a punter in the last recruiting cycle, Kelly thinks the sky is the limit for Brindza.

“I really think he can be an All American punter,” Kelly said. “He may not be there yet, and we’re going to have some growing pains there. But we have a guy in Wulfeck that can get us out of some jams. He’s really consistent.”

If there was one scary segment of the spring game, it was the Irish’s mediocre punting. While Ben Turk was nobody’s All-American, he had a somewhat tolerable level of consistency. One place Brindza seems very strong is between the ears, and if he’s able to work through some of the rough spots early in the season, the Irish could have a weapon in every segment of their special teams.

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.

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.