Kelly Hoke

Rivalry or no rivalry… it’s still a big deal

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It’s Michigan Week.

For Irish fans, these seven days come with an extra chip on their shoulders, with the hated Wolverines winning five of the last seven games against Notre Dame, nearly all of them in unreasonably cruel fashion. For Michigan fans, it’s an early season opportunity for the Winningest College Football Program to ruin Notre Dame’s season before it gets started, a nice September test before getting into Big Ten conference play.

Last year, the Irish conquered a few demons in Notre Dame Stadium, forcing Denard Robinson to turn the ball over five times on the way to a hard fought 13-7 victory. Making the pill even more difficult to swallow for Wolverines fans, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick hand-delivered a letter to Michigan AD Dave Brandon, notifying the school that the Irish were canceling games in 2015-17, ending a 13-year run of playing each season.

The decision to step away from the rivalry was a product of scheduling conflicts that have arisen with conference realignment. While Michigan already asked to get out of games in 2018-19, Brandon made it clear that the decision to cut things early wasn’t a decision made by him.

“The decision to cancel games in 2015-17 was Notre Dame’s and not ours,” Brandon said in a release. “We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series.”

On the banquet circuit, Michigan coach Brady Hoke threw some gas on the fire by accusing the Irish of “chickening out.” While Notre Dame fans can make the argument that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s land grab in conference realignment has had a bigger hand in this cancellation than either school, Notre Dame’s commitment to play five ACC games a year starting next year forced the Irish to make some room in their schedule, and Michigan was a game they felt like losing.

For better or worse (and it’s pretty obvious it’s for the worse for college football fans), this series only has two more games until the end of the decade. And while we can argue until we’re blue in the face as to who or what is at fault, it’s turned the focus onto one of those debate points that two proud fanbases like Notre Dame and Michigan love to discuss: Is this game a rivalry?

Here’s Brian Kelly’s take on the subject:

“I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen it as one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played. For me, I’ve been in Michigan a long time, so I’ve always felt the Notre Dame-Michigan game was a big regional game, but I think the Notre Dame history books, this game has played itself, but there have obviously been a number of years where it hasn’t been played.

“I think if you ask a lot of the traditionalists, the historians, this game has had many years where it hasn’t been played. From my perspective, being in Michigan, these have been really hard-fought and a really-high profile games.”

All fair points, considering there have been two thirty-plus year gaps in the rivalry, one a well-discussed product of blackballing and hatred. Of course, rivalries don’t need to be annual to be important, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke brought up the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Ann Arbor this weekend, the sixth time they’ve been at this match-up, squelching the notion that this game only has regional significance.

“I think it’s great for college football. ESPN Gameday has been here six times for this football game,” Hoke said Monday in his weekly press conference. “That’s pretty significant if they’re coming to this campus or to the campus in South Bend. So, it must have some sort of national appeal. Coaching in a lot of places, and maybe it’s just me, but I know that whenever Michigan and Notre Dame was on TV, I was going to be watching it. I know people in Corvallis, Ore., were going to be watching it — for one reason or another.”

Rivalry? Regional or National? At this point, who cares.

For Kelly and Hoke, two head coaches who have been going head to head for almost a decade, calling this anything but one of the biggest games of the year is a lie. While they might stop playing each other after next season, these two will be going head to head each year for the region’s best players for as long as they both represent two of college football’s biggest programs.

Both teams head into Saturday with the belief that they should walk away victories. For the Wolverines, their 50-point victory over Central Michigan gave them the opportunity to get Devin Gardner and a young defensive front comfortable. For Notre Dame, an early offensive explosion and a vanilla defensive effort have the Irish heading into Ann Arbor with a much needed tune-up.

Water-cooler topics like this tend to get a ton of attention. But with a great football game on tap for this Saturday, let’s not waste time debating semantics. We’ve only got two of these left on the schedule.

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.