Notre Dame v Michigan

Five things we learned: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It turns out Notre Dame’s quarterback nightmares didn’t end when Denard Robinson graduated. With the shoelace-less wonder gone to the NFL, redshirt junior Devin Gardner took his turn terrorizing the Irish, with the quarterback putting on a performance for the ages in Michigan’s 41-30 victory.

Gardner passed for 294 yards and four touchdowns while running for 82 yards and another touchdown as the Wolverines offense was just too much for Notre Dame’s defense to handle. Teaming with Jeremy Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns, the Michigan offense hit the Irish for multiple big plays, doing to Bob Diaco’s unit what nobody but Nick Saban’s Alabama team could last year.

In the last match-up between the two teams in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future, Gardner sent the home crowd home happy while dropping the Irish to 1-1, their first regular season loss since losing to Stanford to close the 2011 regular season.

Let’s take a look at what we learned.

1. Even with the kitchen sink thrown at him, Devin Gardner made Notre Dame’s defense pay.

It’s not often a man wearing No. 98 is the most athletic and elusive player on the football field. But Gardner’s homage to Heisman winner Tom Harmon had the redshirt junior quarterback looking like another Michigan legend in training.

Early and often Gardner made the Irish pay, regardless of the tactics Bob Diaco threw his way. Gardner opened the game throwing with precision, putting together scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions.

“Devin Gardner played outstanding,” Kelly said after the game, an assertion that really didn’t require much explanation.

While the talk in Ann Arbor has long been about getting back to the pro-style offense that the Wolverines utilized with statuesque, strong-armed quarterbacks, the reality is that Al Borges’ offense is more difficult to defend with a dual-threat player like Gardner than any offense piloted by a traditional dropback passer that Michigan used to collect like baseball cards.

Gardner made the Irish pay in a variety of ways on Saturday night, keeping the ball on the zone read, buying time and making plays outside of the pocket, throwing deep over the top or in the precision-based short passing game. With a flair for the dramatic and the same riverboat gambling genes that Robinson possessed, Gardner almost brought the Irish back into the game in the fourth quarter, but nevertheless was the difference maker on Saturday night.

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2. This isn’t last year’s Notre Dame defense.

Sure, eight starters return from a unit that was among the best in college football last season. But this sure isn’t the group that finished second in scoring defense last year. While it’s hard to quantify what Manti Te’o brought to the heart of the Irish defense last season, it’s clear that this unit is still trying to figure out what it is, and Michigan’s 460 yards confirmed that there are deficiencies in a group that was expected to be among the nation’s elite.

A season after a very green secondary still managed to finish in the top 25 against the pass, Notre Dame was beat early and often by Michigan through the air, with KeiVarae Russell looking like he was being picked on by Jeremy Gallon, who had a career day catching eight balls for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Bennett Jackson also gave up some throws when playing man-to-man, and too often the Irish were burnt when their secondary were forced to win an individual battle during an Irish blitz.

The Irish defense managed to make eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage, with Ishaq Williams notching the team’s lone sack. But even with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix chasing after Gardner for most of the night, there were too many breakdowns, with the Wolverines putting together five plays of 15 yards or more, including two critical pick-ups in the fourth quarter after the Irish pulled within four points.

Add in three critical pass interference calls that extended Michigan drives and led to touchdowns, and there’s a lot of work to be done in the defensive meeting room.

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3. While the defense gave up 41, the Irish offense couldn’t do its part to win this game.

When recapping the loss, you might have expected Brian Kelly to discuss his defense’s inability to stop the Wolverines offense. But interestingly enough, Kelly talked about the failures of the offense when trying to decipher how the Irish came up short.

“I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could’ve given us the opportunity to win this football game,” Kelly said. “I felt like we had two opportunities to score. We’ve gotta make those plays. This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us and we just came up short on a couple of key plays for us.”

A season after the Irish slugged out a 13-6 victory, Kelly talked about the need for his offense to keep pace with Michigan’s tonight.

“We knew that Gardner was a very difficult quarterback to defend,” Kelly said. “We also knew that offensively that we were in a position where we needed to score more points. I didn’t think this was going to be like last year.”

If you’re looking for where things went wrong for the Irish, look no further than the difference in the teams’ red zone performances. Michigan went four-for-four inside the Irish twenty, cashing in all four drives for touchdowns. Notre Dame only converted two of their five appearances for seven points, getting nothing twice when they were in scoring position.

Forced to throw much of the second half trailing by 14 points, Tommy Rees threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns. But Rees also threw two interceptions in his 51 passing attempts, one at the end of the first half and the second on a deflected ball that sealed the game late. On a night when the offense needed to play with efficiency to hang in and win, they were unable to do it.

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4. The Big House continues to be a house of horrors for the Irish. 

As 115,109 fans excited the stadium, the Michigan PA blared the Chicken Dance, a less than subtle dig at a Notre Dame team that Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said was “chickening” out of the spirited rivalry.

It was a glorious conclusion for Michigan fans, who celebrated another huge victory over the Irish under the lights, a showcase evening for a football program that’s still undefeated under Hoke playing at home.

Last season, Brian Kelly looked like a changed man from the one we had seen in ’11, a fiery sideline yeller that created headlines with the different hues his face turned during turnover plagued football games. That head coach returned for a bit this evening, a familiar look for the coach when playing Michigan, a program he has lost three of four to in his four seasons in South Bend.

The night looked as if it were going to take a turn for the better for Kelly, when Stephon Tuitt made a diving catch in the Michigan end zone capping one of Devin Gardner’s more inexplicable plays. But after kicking a field goal to pull within four points, the Wolverines were able to march down and score a game-icing touchdown, getting a major break when a Bennett Jackson interception was taken off the board by a suspect pass interference penalty.

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5. With plenty still to play for, it’s back to the basics for Notre Dame. 

The message was clear after the football game. Regardless of missed calls or tough breaks, the focus was internal for the Irish, and Brian Kelly will spend the next week getting back to the basic fundamentals that turned Notre Dame into an unlikely twelve-game winner last season.

“We have to play smarter and more disciplined,” Kelly said after the game. “I told our football team, losing is losing. But we’re going to go back to work on Tuesday with the emphasis in practice on a more disciplined approach to everything. We have to tighten up everything. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And they understand what I mean.”

There will be time for breaking down tape and analyzing what exactly went wrong. But Kelly sees this loss as an opportunity to refocus a team that didn’t play particularly sharp against Temple and made plenty of mental mistakes in a game where execution was at a premium.

Nobody expected another undefeated regular season. But with a calendar that features a handful of Saturdays where the Irish will have to play their best football to win, refocusing a group that had everything go right last fall is the team’s biggest challenge.

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.