PurdueDrum

And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s the first of the rivalry trophy games for Notre Dame, with Purdue and the Irish set to battle for the Shillelagh Trophy. (Not to be confused with the Jeweled Shillelagh…) With a new head coach and a new program direction in West Lafeyette, the college football world will be getting their first close look at new head coach Darrell Hazell, who comes over from Kent State after an eleven win regular season and an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

With us to break down the match-up from Purdue’s perspective is Travis Miller from SBNation website Hammer & Rails. Travis has been kind enough to do this with me for about five seasons running, so we’ve had some great discussions in the past and he’s always done a great job breaking down Purdue.

There’s a ton to learn about a team that’s rebooted its program after saying goodbye to Danny Hope. (Including a great take on the dynamics of the Purdue-Notre Dame relationship.) Before we head to Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend and get a look at the World’s largest bass drum, let’s here what Travis has to say about the Boilermakers’ chances this weekend.

I asked, he answered. We all enjoyed and learned:

1) It’s been a rocky start to the Darrell Hazell era, but let’s not get to the on-field product just yet. After a tough run with Danny Hope, assess Hazell’s work as a program builder / salesman.

I have been a big fan of Hazell so far, at least in terms of everything off the field. He has gotten four recruits that look like excellent pieces to build around in Drue Tranquill (whom Notre Dame is after), Gelen Robinson (the brother of Michigan basketball player Glenn Robinson and son of the one-time Purdue great), David Blough (Elite 11 QB out of Texas that is suspiciously like Drew Brees), and Denzel Ward (monster offensive tackle). Hazell has also preached accountability and discipline, which were both lacking under the Hope regime.

I always felt people turned on Hope a little too quickly. His first season Purdue was 5-7, but they were legitimately a handful of plays and stupid mistakes from being 10-2. Unfortunately, those mistakes were never fixed and Purdue never grew beyond that point. It got to the point where people forgot the good of that year because the team never grew.

So far, Hazell has said and done all the right things in the buildup to the season. Unfortunately, the play on the field has been pretty bad.

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2) Now for the on-field product. It’s been pretty ugly, with Cincinnati sticking it to the Boilermakers followed up with Purdue just sliding by Indiana State. Talk me through the first two games and what you’ve seen. 

I think what is more disturbing about Cincinnati is that they blew out Purdue, then lost by 24 points to an Illinois team that has looked far worse for the past two seasons. Against the Bearcats Purdue tied it 7-7 just before halftime, then gave up a late first half drive for a TD. Cincinnati used halftime effective as a defensive stop and scored on the opening drive of the second half thanks to a huge 3rd and 9 conversion that went for 40 yards and changed the entire complexion of the game. Suddenly it was 21-7 and Purdue had had the ball for one play, a kneel down. The offense then went three-and-out, the defense got a stop, but Rob Henry threw a pick six. Effectively, in five offensive plays for Purdue they went from being tied to down three touchdowns.

Against Indiana State the offense was just awful. The Sycamores stuffed a first half 4th and 1 near midfield, then stuffed Purdue three times on first and goal from the 1 to hold for a field goal. Late in the half Purdue against got a first and goal from the one and was again stuffed three times, only ran out of time to get the field goal unit on the field.

Things are very, very bad when an FCS stuffs you seven times in a row when you need one yard. The defense looked far better, but the offense continued to be out of sync and showed nothing of the power run game we expected. I fear we are Michigan State without the benefit of having an excellent defense. Purdue’s defense can be good, but it is not good enough to save the offense being as bad as it is right now.

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3) Rob Henry is a guy that’s been in and out of the lineup for what seems like forever. What have you seen from him in the first two weeks of the season?

I think he is losing confidence because the offensive line in front of him has been pretty bad. Against Cincinnati he was running for his life all day. Against Indiana State he was better, but still not great. In John Shoop’s offense there is not a lot of room for improvisation and Henry is a more mobile quarterback. He won the job, however, straight up over two very talented freshmen that are probably better fits for a pro-style offense, so I am willing to give him some more time. If the offense continues to flounder on Saturday night you might see redshirt freshman Austin Appleby.

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4) There’s talent back on the defense with Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston, and Ricardo Allen anchoring the unit. What kind of changes were made to the defense in the coaching transition? How stout of a challenge are the Irish in for on Saturday?

I think the defense can be a very good unit and for most of the Indiana State game it was pitching a shutout. I was pleased with the way Joe Gilliam played in the middle even though the linebackers are still a large question (and why we’re so excited for Tranquill and Robinson in next year’s class). Purdue also lost starting safety Landon Feichter to a broken leg against Indiana State, moving sophomore Anthony Brown tot hat spot.

For Purdue to have a shot the defensive line needs to be as successful as it was last year at disrupting the Irish offense. They need to be able to get into the backfield as well as contain the run because the linebackers are still suspect.

Unfortunately, with as bad as the offense has been playing and as strong as Notre Dame’s front seven is, they may have to pitch a shutout to give us a chance.

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5) Last week, we wasted a whole bunch of time talking about rivalries, scheduling priorities, and just about everything else that’s a product of college football’s realignment. As a Purdue fan, how do you view Notre Dame? How do you look at the delicate dance that Jack Swarbrick manages with ACC commitments and too many Big Ten obligations?

We view Notre Dame as our biggest football rival, quite honestly. It is always a bigger game because no matter where it is played, it is a guaranteed chance to be on national TV against a “name” team. With Indiana’s program being historically inept (Purdue leads that series 72-37-6) most Purdue fans simply expect to win vs. the Hoosiers. Against Notre Dame any victory raises eyebrows. Even Purdue’s last win, in 2007, drew attention because the Irish were in the midst of a historically bad season.

It also helps that it is an in-state rivalry that has been played every year since 1946. When you combine that with the perception of reversible jacket fans in Indiana (Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football fans) it just feels more natural. I know Notre Dame fans don’t view Purdue as much of a rival because of the historical dominance, but there is a history there of Purdue pulling of some shockers. Twice Purdue has beaten Notre Dame when they have been ranked No. 1 and once when they were No. 2.

It will be interesting to see what Morgan Burke, not Jack Swarbrick does going forward. The shift to a nine game Big Ten schedule in 2016 means that as of now, Purdue would alternate with six home games in even numbered years and 8 home games in odd numbers years because of the Notre Dame series and the alternating Big Ten schedule. Another shift, to Indiana hosting the Old Oaken Bucket games in the same years that Purdue goes to Notre Dame, could also be a factor.

Purdue is not giving up a guaranteed two home games in the non-conference season, so does it choose to keep Notre Dame and a pair of MAC-level teams or does it drop the Irish in favor of other home-and-home deals? As it looks right now, Purdue only has six home games in 2016 when it comes to South Bend (four Big Ten games, Cincinnati, and Nevada) and seven in 2017 (Five Big Ten, Notre Dame, Eastern Kentucky) with an open date. If Burke and Swarbrick can agree to switch years that teams host the series can likely go on for awhile, but who blinks and agrees to play two straight road games? Or, do they agree to a one-year (say 2016 or 2017) neutral-site game at Lucas Oil Stadium like the 1984 game at the old Hoosier Dome?

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6) On paper, this game doesn’t look kind for the Boilermakers. Yet they played the Irish tough last season and don’t seem to be that much worse on paper than last season. (Am I wrong?) What needs to change for Purdue to be victorious?

The offense has to show signs of being able to actually move the football. We expected a strong running game because of what Hazell ran at Kent State, where Dri Archer and Trayion Durham each rushed for over 1,200 yards last year. Purdue has two almost identical players in Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom. Cottom has been strangely missing from the offense and Hunt has been contained because the offensive line is struggling so much in front of him.

Yes, the defense gave up 42 points (really 35 because of the pick-6) at Cincinnati, but that was more the game getting out of hand than them being dominated from the start. They were much better against Indiana State, but they should have been given the competition. I think the defense can play well enough to keep Purdue in it, but the offense has to show a complete turnaround from what it has shown so far. If it continues to struggle as it has in the first two weeks (and struggling against an FCS opponent is not a good sign) Notre Dame wins easily.

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You can find more from Travis at the excellent Hammer & Rails site and from him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

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.