Central Michigan v Michigan

Objectives cut and dry for both teams

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Football is a game of numbers. And it’s not hard to look at a few of them and understand the difference between winning and losing.

When you check the stat sheet from last year’s 13-6 game, the Irish held Michigan’s offense to just 299 yards while forcing a whopping six turnovers in a hard-earned victory. Compare that to the game in ’11, when Michigan racked up 452 yards, while going +2 in the turnover differential in their furious comeback win. Turnovers and defense. Hold onto the football and limit yards. Just about any guy with a gas grill and a cable TV package can figure that one out.

That said, the key to the Irish’s defensive plan makes simple math look mighty complicated. Especially when facing a quarterback like the ones Michigan has had behind center the past few years. Gone is Denard Robinson, a quarterback Brian Kelly called the most dynamic and electric playmaker he’s ever seen at the position. But in his place is Devin Gardner, another dual threat player that also happens to throw the football with grace and accuracy.

Kelly talked about defending a guy like Gardner, who he compared to Randall Cunningham, and how it’ll be different than facing someone like Robinson.

“Gardner throws the ball with much more accuracy,” Kelly said. “He pushes the ball down the field very easily.  And he certainly scrambles very well, keeps his eyes downfield and is not afraid to run. Another dual‑threat quarterback that is going to be very, very difficult to defend.”

As the Irish prepare to face yet another Wolverine quarterback that keeps defensive coordinators up at night, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges talked about the challenges that he faces in the Irish defense, a group that shut down his offense last season.

“They’re as good as anybody we’ll play I think, across the board,” Borges said. “A stout nose guard, two athletic defensive ends. They don’t have Te’o any more at linebacker, but they’re still pretty active kids. Solid cover guys on the back end.

“They know their system pretty well because they’ve been playing it for a while. They’ll be formidable. That’s a good defensive football team.”

Borges brings up what life is like for Notre Dame after Te’o. Kelly also talked about Michigan’s offense post-Robinson. That leaves a little bit of guessing for both teams, as tendencies and structure tends to change.

“We’ll have a little bit of a different plan,” Kelly said. “There’ll obviously be some similarities, but they’re different players.”

Borges conceded the same, though reserved the right to go back and use some things that have been successful.

“We’re different, but there’s still a little carry over here and there that you can steal from a year ago,” Borges said.

That carryover exists in the ability to scramble. Michigan coaches likely watched Temple quarterback Connor Reilly scrambling last Saturday and began licking their chops. That’s where Gardner is at his best — dangerous with his legs but deadly with his arm — and put together a few highlight reel plays against Central Michigan, extending plays until a receiver broke open. It’s something Borges and the Wolverines offense has worked hard at perfecting.

“You have to have some structure within your improv. What we practice, and talk about a lot, is how we are going to adjust when the pocket is broken,” Borges said.

Last year, that rarely happened. The Irish were able to pin Robinson in the pocket, using an overpowering front seven to keep Michigan’s quarterback hemmed in and hassled, forcing bad decisions by Robinson, which turned into four interceptions.

While Gardner sparkled over the weekend, he still threw two interceptions — one a very bad decision deep in his own territory and the other when he was under duress.

“I know one thing about Devin. If he uses good judgment, he’s a problem for the defense,” Borges said. “There’s some stuff you just don’t draw up on that board to account for. You’ve got to cover him and cover the receivers. And that’s not easy to do.”

Limit yardage and force turnovers. Play mistake free and get outside the pocket. Only one of these two objectives will be reached. And that team will likely be celebrating a hard fought victory Saturday night.

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.