Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Atkinson III jumps into the arms of teammate Martin after a touchdown against Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana

Final thoughts before kickoff


With the Irish set to start the season, here are a few final thoughts before kickoff.

* What makes a good season? Listening to Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN College GameDay this morning, you hear a familiar echo of what was being said this time last year. With Notre Dame’s schedule, a great season might be eight or nine wins.

While that sort of thing probably gets Irish fans angry, it’s just extra fuel in the tank of head coach Brian Kelly, who loves having that type of external motivation available for his team.

* Do we see tempo from this Irish offense early? And will it be dictated by a high-paced running attack? I think so.

I expect to see the Irish offense try and get the running game established quickly, while also trying to execute a few high percentage passes for Tommy Rees to get the veteran quarterback comfortable. This game has the opportunity to feel a lot like Navy did last year, where the Irish can physically push around a Temple team that’s really, really young up front on defense.

* How will Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly split the running back carries?  It might not be how they do it in Ann Arbor. You’ve almost got to expect a really big day from George Atkinson this afternoon, with the junior running back almost certain to break a long run from scrimmage eventually.

That said, it remains to be seen if Atkinson is the guy that Kelly and Martin trust to be the pounder between the tackles — a job that’ll come in handy against Michigan. This afternoon could be treated as another very important datapoint for how to distribute touches in the backfield, with guys like Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant all viable options for starting touches.

If this game gets out of control and the Irish go to the No. 2 offense, expect to see one of these running backs taking advantage.

* Can the Irish play a good game on special teams? It’ll be key for Nick Tausch to get off to a strong start kicking and Kyle Brindza needs to show some progress from when we last saw him punt in the Blue-Gold game.

While the return units appear to be in good shape, having place-kicking duties up in the air going into week one isn’t ideal, but we’ve seen both Brindza and Tausch do it when it matters.

* How dominant will the Irish defense be? We’ve heard a whole lot about just how good this Notre Dame defense can be all offseason, but now it’s a chance to finally show it. I don’t expect a Bob Diaco-coached unit to ever come into a game thinking too highly of itself, but this afternoon should be a perfect opportunity to dominate an opponent.

Watching the rotation along the defensive line will be interesting. Who is the first man off the bench for the Irish when Sheldon Day, Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt come out? How does the inside linebacker split work with Jarrett Grace? And how will the safeties split snaps, with young players like Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield needing live reps to build comfort.

We’ll get our first look at freshmen Jaylon Smith, Isaac Rochelle, and Cole Luke, three youngsters that have already broken into the two-deep. Expect to see quite a bit of Smith, who could start his career with a bang today.

* Expect Temple to throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. Listening to first-year head coach Matt Rhule talk about the game against Notre Dame, you get the feeling that he’s genuinely excited… and admitted to being a little bit nervous as well. (He said he’s been nervous for every football game he’s been in since fifth grade.)

But Rhule and the Owls will hold nothing back this afternoon, with the 38-year-old head coach vowing to hold nothing back.

“This is why you play the game,” Rhule said. “For these kind of moments. I promised our players, I will not be tight. I refuse to be tight. Our coaches will not be tight. We’re going to go play this game the way it’s supposed to be played.”



Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

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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)

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.

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)

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.”