Central Michigan v Michigan

Michigan Mailbag

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Thanks to everybody for putting in some great questions. Sorry I couldn’t get to all of them. Let’s dispense with the nonsense and get to it.

Nudeman: I saw on another board that Bryant was off to the side by himself during some of the game last week, the implication being that he was sulking over not playing. As we know now he eventually did get in but it was garbage time and probably not what he was hoping for.

I was just about to quote Ferris Bueller when I saw somebody beat me to it on the comments. But I don’t think sulking is going to get Greg Bryant anywhere with Tony Alford and Brian Kelly, nor do I necessarily believe that it was happening.

I expect Bryant to get a few more looks on Saturday night as I think the running game is going to be a major factor. Steve Elmer didn’t get in the game after we heard all spring and fall that he was going to play. We’re just 1/13th of the way into this season, there will be plenty of time for Bryant to make his mark this season.

Andy44Teg: KA (Best Irish Blogger on the Interwebs) Who do you think has the better game: Devin Gardner or Tommy Rees??

How do I not answer that question, Andy? Obviously the answer to this question likely dictates the winner of the game. I’m not making any predictions, but I kind of think that Rees will play the better game, though Gardner has the ability to make mistakes with his arm and still be a gamebreaker, just because of his ability to keep plays alive and make plays down field.

If there’s one guy that should keep Bob Diaco up at night, it’s Gardner.

@jfoneil22: I was concerned/unimpressed with our D line play last week. Did someone get Nix a Xanax this week? Am I overreacting?

I think you are over-reacting. Louis Nix is a nose guard. He was double-team on about 2/3 of them. After spending the last nine months talking about Jadeveon Clowney, he only managed three tackles in his debut.

Nix is going to have to learn that being a preseason All-American puts a bullseye on your back. And he’ll also need to make some plays, regardless of blockers. But let’s pump the brakes for now.

upthera44: The thing I worry about this year (and specifically this week) is one of those recurring problems for Notre Dame. Do you think our guys able to play with some swagger this week? Because that’s what I think you need in these elite games: the belief that you’re better than everyone. I wouldn’t trade the class of our players. But they seem a little too nice sometimes. When interviewed about a good performance you ALWAYS hear our players say they owe it all to the team and other players, etc., talk about what a great game the other team played. Are our players a little too muzzled?

What these guys say and what they believe are two very different things. Being coached up when talking to the media isn’t an issue, though it does make for some boring interviews. I don’t think the Irish have a confidence or swagger problem. Maybe there’s a void that needs filling after Te’o was such a singular leader last season, but I think the Irish will come out on Saturday night with plenty of swagger.

@NDIrish1029: You probably watched Michigan v cent Mich video. Was Mich 59 points good or were cent Mich that bad?

CMU lost their starting quarterback and starting running back in the first half. I did watch the game and to tell you the truth, I can’t decide. CMU looked really bad, and somehow the Wolverines scored 59 while still throwing three interceptions.

chadwalters425: What would you rather fight, 100 duck-sized wolverines or one wolverine-sized duck?

Maybe you aren’t privy to my phobias, but I don’t want to fight any animals. Ever since I was attacked by two geese walking along the pond on hole 3 at the Warren Course in college, I’ve been freaked out of everything — domestic and wild — ever since.

What type of strategy do you use to fight an animal? Boxing? Wrestling?

To answer your question, I think 100 duck-sized wolverines sounds terrifying. A wolverine sized duck just sounds bloated.

mtflsmitty: Based on your observations and access, what gives with Tuitt’s performance this year? He came into camp overweight and all the tape we saw (Martin 3, Tuitt 0) suggested he had lost a step or five. Last week he seemed to being playing a strict contain technique most plays, or he was just taking plays off? What’s up?

Smitty, so far he’s on pace to have 13 sacks and have the choice of returning for his senior season or getting drafted in the first round. Tuitt plays a specific type of defensive end in Bob Diaco’s system. He’s not just crashing off the edge rushing the passer. He’ll be just fine as well.

@JMset3: Sierra Nevada Nut Brown or Sam Adams Oktoberfest. Choose wisely.

Both? I’m hardly a particular beer drinker, though have enjoyed both choices (I think).

irishhaggie: Heading into Michigan I am concerned about who our #2 QB should be in case Tommy was to be taken out (lets hope not). Do you think Andrew is a legitimate backup? I feel like we are an injury away from being an 8-4 football team. What have you heard about Malik’s development?

I have been skeptical of Hendrix’s ability to run this offense since he stepped onto campus, and his mediocre series in garbage time didn’t do much to help. Tommy Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on this offense outside of Zack Martin. You are right on the money with your 8-4 prediction if Rees goes down, and don’t expect Malik Zaire to strap on his cape and spring into action. He’s still out with mono.

@DanFree5: As a Notre Dame fan, why should I feel good about this game?

ND’s offensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s defensive line. ND’s defensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s offensive line. But I don’t know if any Notre Dame fan ever feels good about a game with Michigan.

@ndfanwabashman: Can Notre Dame win without winning the turnover battle?

I don’t want to step all over some six pack topics, but they’d be a lot better off not turning the football over. But they can, they’ll just need to play good defense and special teams.

@jajensen23: Would be helpful if you have everyone a history lesson on Brandon renegotiating the 20-yr contract agreed to by Bill Martin?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Here’s what I wrote back in May:

@SaturdaysNick: Should ND be concerned that their points came from big plays against a less talented D rather than sustained drives?

@JohnnyFlynn33: curious why Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston didn’t play more in the opener?? I understand they are freshman but come on.

They each got a series with the No. 1 offensive line, but I’m guessing they didn’t get as many touches because the game wasn’t that out of reach.

irishdodger: Do you think the three heartbreakers from 2009-2011 have Irish fans gun-shy? I don’t see many prognosticators or fans of other teams giving the Irish much of a chance.

There’s no question ND fans are still gun shy. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly surrounded by this group, but the panic-meter of Irish fans has the acceleration of a Porsche, going 0-60 in a play or two.

I’m not quite sure I understand the line on this game either, though the underdog has covered 20 of the last 24 times.

dudeacow: This is the most important game on either team’s schedule. Winner goes to a BCS bowl, loser goes to the toilet bowl. Last two years, this has been the case. Do you agree?

Makes for a perfect headline, but ND still needs to get by six of the top 29 teams in the AP ballot. I also don’t think one loss is the end of the world for either team (particularly Michigan), but it will certainly dictate the trajectory of each program.

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

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Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

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.