Jackson Russell

Mailbag: Purdue (and Michigan aftermath)

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Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons is dead. What’s there left to dream about?

Oh, a BCS appearance? Another run back into the Top Ten? Wins over a schedule that’ll still be one of the toughest in the country? So there’s that.

Let’s get onto the questions, which were a bit more prickly.

@Okerland: Now that Reesus fell for the first time, will he follow the stations and fall two more times?

I really like what you’re doing here. Gold star for Okerland. As for Reesus, falling two more times is pretty possible, especially considering the schedule he faces.

But I do think this team is really talented and we’re probably all a little bit too down on the boys in blue and gold, though a disheartening loss to Michigan will do that for you.

Irishlee10: Why is Kelly so hesitant to put in Greg Bryant? GAIII isn’t getting it done. We need all-around backs that can catch passes. Kelly needs to give GB some opportunities before he takes his talents back to South Beach

@dlkall01: Who do you expect to see play this weekend that we didn’t see at Michigan?

I’m going to now embark on the Greg Bryant (or other underused running backs) section of questioning. Maybe 20 percent of the questions received had some variation of “Why isn’t Greg Bryant playing?” “Won’t he get mad and transfer?” “Why won’t Brian Kelly play freshman?”

I do think Greg Bryant gets a few series this weekend, especially if the Irish offense gets on a roll. But everybody needs to pump the brakes on the uproar/worries about a freshman five-star player not seeing the field much in the first eight quarters of the season, especially on a team with a pretty talented backfield that includes a guy with a career rushing average around 7-yards a pop and a USC transfer.

For every Todd Gurley and Duke Johnson, there are plenty more guys like Lache Seastrunk, who take a few years to figure it out and still turn into the all-world talents they appear to be. Let’s not heap a bunch of focus on Bryant and his rumored (and I have heard ZERO rumors on this front) unhappiness, or you’ll just be contributing to a scenario that could turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

@CristIsRisen: Do you think we’ll see Wulfeck punting soon? Brindza’s a champ but handling all kicking duties has to be a killer.

I don’t think we’ll see anybody but Brindza until he proves he can’t handle the work. Brindza’s performance at Michigan was mighty impressive, and it’s not like we’re asking this guy to do heart surgery, fix a torn ACL and do Lasik surgery.

Irishaggie: Besides the x’s and o’s I noticed that the players don’t look very loose out there, especially the defense. Do you think they get caught up thinking about the “process” too much that they forget to just go out and play football?

No offense Irishaggie, but I’m having a hard time with your assumption here? Feels a lot like those Octobers watching baseball when broadcasters would fawn all over Derek Jeter, talking about how much he loved baseball and how clutch he was.

If you’ve found a coach that has done a better job of getting more out of his players over the past 5-6 years than Brian Kelly, I’d like to meet him. Prior to last Saturday, only Oregon and Alabama had done better in their last 25 games. That’s not a team that I think is too weighed down with process.

bb90grad: Could lack of results from Nix and Tuitt (besides ST’s weight gain) be from neither being named captain? I know no one tanks it on purpose, but if one were a projected All American and high draft pick and then not named, I would think one would be less inclined to assume leadership when needed, especially when someone else was anointed.

That theory feels like it’d work on an episode of Gossip Girl, but I don’t think it applies here. We tend to forget that Tuitt and Nix’s performances aren’t always seen on the stat sheet, so before we start killing these two for their performances or insinuate someone is tanking because they didn’t get a C on their jersey, you have to remember that sacks can come in bunches and the game tape has affirmed what many people know: Both these guys are really, really good.

@EnderWillSave: With the bad news coming out today about Alabama putting a blemish on the SEC, while Mack Brown and Lane Kiffin are melting down week by week, do you see ND possibly gaining more ground and influence in recruiting battles against all these schools?

I don’t see ND going head to head with Alabama and Texas all that often in recruiting, though guys like Cole Luke come to mind. As for USC, if things don’t straighten up in a hurry, it could be open season on Southern California, though Jim Mora has proven to be a guy that can pull his fair share of talent.

Bad news lasts only as long as the media cycle keeps it alive, and you could tell this week that Nick Saban wasn’t about to let that happen. Color me skeptical that the NCAA will be able to do much to take down a Crimson Tide program that’s a multi-million dollar industry.

@DBrammeier34: Will BK ever make the guys go hard for 4 quarters even against a weaker team? Regardless of score?

Did you forget about the 41-3 beat down the Irish put on Miami last season when the No. 2 offense marched down and got a late touchdown? I think Saturday night will be a good time to get some of the frustration out, if they’re at all able to do it.

@Irishfootball11: Who would win in a 3 way Hell in a cell match between @TheSubwayDomer vs @OneFootDown vs @herloyalsons? #blogwar

Wow. That’s a lot to analyze there. It feels a little unfair for Subway, who feels a lot like a one man army, though he’s certainly got a little crazy to him. Whiskey over at OFD is a guy that you could mistake for Captain America and I’ve spent some time with the crew from HLS, too.

My guess is that you’d put them in a cell and they’d just start telling jokes about Lane Kiffin.

@BobbyReed25: Seemed like our QB pressure has been a step late thus far. Speed or a timing issue? More stunts by DL?

Two words: Devin Gardner.

@Dascenzo: Hendrix time yet?

No.

Steincj36: A Tale of Two Kellys…. Chip brings his high power, fast paced Oregon O to the Eagles, and they pick it up and thrive with it in week 1. Brian’s fast paced spread offense never made it to South Bend, even though he’s been talking about it for 4 years.Where’s this offense we’ve been promised?

You’re really still waiting? I don’t think Brian Kelly ever promised that. Blame us, the writers and media guys that tried to guess what ND would look like after watching three Cincinnati games.

Kelly has been pretty consistent in what he’d do: Play with the personnel he has. Chip sure looked exciting on Monday night, but Michael Vick appeared to be gasping for air and limping like an old man. (As a Vick owner, I’m a bit worried…)

For everybody that loves the up-tempo offense, look what Doug Marrone did last weekend with his Buffalo Bills. Refused to run any time off the clock and gave Tom Brady one more chance to win the game, which he did.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Is there any buzz in inner circles that Tuitt’s weight gain has been a negative?

You mean other than on every Notre Dame message board everywhere?

Scottatnd: Why does BK go through all the trouble to recruit these great running backs when he has proven that he is a “spread out and throw it” coach?

Did you want last season? That looked like a running back friendly offense.

blackirish23: During our painfully long off-season, you mention Robinson as a potential red zone threat. What are the chances we start to see a bit more of him in those situations against Purdue?

Well, they need a few more chances in the red zone, first. But I’d guess maybe this weekend? (Not ready to make another call, but I’d like to see a short-side fade route to Robinson while Ricardo Allen mans up on the other side of the field with TJ Jones or DaVaris Daniels.

blackirish23: Also, what are your thoughts about using Hendrix similar to how Florida used Tim Tebow during the Chris Leak era, i.e. Bring him in as a run only QB at goal line situations in the pistol formation? Just a thought.

I am not one to trust Hendrix’s decision making skills down at the goal line. His one zone read attempt in the red zone ended with him handing the ball to Tarean Folston when the keeper was wide open.

ndcanuck: Given how he was picked on last week – is the “C” on Bennett Jackson’s jersey a distraction for him? Clearly some on the field leadership is called for on that side of the ball, but is Bennett the right guy to fill that role when maybe he should be working on his game?

I thought they picked on KeiVarae Russell more than Jackson, but I don’t think giving up some passes is a product of the C, but rather playing a pretty tough position. And there really isn’t that much more heaped on Jackson’s plate other than helping to decide heads or tails at away games.

Jackson is going to have a nice career playing on Sundays. Last Saturday probably wasn’t one of his best games, but he’ll help out more often than not.

It’s a long season.

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.

***

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.