DaVaris Daniels, Ricardo Allen

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

50 Comments

It was one bizarre Saturday of football, but in the end Notre Dame boarded the bus and headed back up Highway 31 with a 2-1 record, beating a game Purdue team that brought their best to the annual battle with the Irish.

Let’s get down to business and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Saturday night’s 31-24 victory.

THE GOOD

DaVaris Daniels. The best game of a young career for Daniels, who showed himself to be a deep threat as well as dangerous weapon crossing the middle of an opponent’s defense. After a relatively quiet first half, Daniels broke the game open with Rees, targeting him eight times in the second half, connecting for 130 yards and two touchdowns.

Jarrett Grace. He’s nowhere near the cover man that Manti Te’o was last season, but Grace was certainly active Saturday night, doubling up the next closest teammate making ten tackles on the evening as he starts to work his way into the three man rotation at inside linebacker.

Tommy Rees… and the deep ball?!? No, that’s not a typo. Rees was deadly throwing down the field against Purdue, making the Boilermakers pay when he pushed the ball vertically down the field. Rees threw a perfect pass to Chris Brown late in the first half to open up the deep throwing, then on a play that most will forget from the second quarter, Rees was flushed from the pocket and rolled to his left when he spotted Corey Robinson one-on-one deep down the field. Rees heaved it to Robinson, who was interfered with as he tried to come back and make the play. It’s the type of play that’s very difficult for a defensive back to make and credit Rees for giving Robinson a chance to make a play, and turn nothing into 15 yards and a first down.

After throwing for only 94 yards in the first half on just over 50 percent passing, Rees righted the ship while also taking shots down the field. First, he extended a drive by hitting TJ Jones for a clutch 19-yard gain on 3rd and 9. Next he took a 50-50 shot on a back-shoulder throw to Jones who made a spectacular catch inside the one-yard line. But the best throw and connection of the night came from Rees with just under 13 minutes left, hitting Daniels in stride against Purdue’s best cover corner. The 82-yard completion was the ninth longest pass completion in school history. (Let the record show that Rees threw that ball about 50-yards in the air for a perfect strike.)

In the second half, Rees had incompletions that included a throw away, a ball that Daniels caught JUST out of bounds after a perfect throw rolling left, and one where Daniels stepped out before making the catch. (Two red zone incompletions hit Daniels and Jones in the hands, but were just dropped on tough catches.) After rewatching the tape, it was a really impressive second half by Rees, who had the offense on point.

Cam McDaniel. You aren’t going to look at his numbers and see a dominant performance, but never did 3.5 yards per carry look so good. After getting his head split open before half, McDaniel was the back who had his number called to finish the football game, with ten carries on the Irish’s final drive, milking the last 7:22 off the clock.

McDaniel also looks to have taken the role of goal line back, the runner of choice when the Irish had first and goal inside the one. While most called for Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston to get a shot running the ball it was McDaniel who took charge of the position battle after being largely forgotten against Michigan. (As a bonus, he went out and made a tackle on special teams on the ensuing kickoff.)

Sheldon Day. The sophomore defensive lineman was all over the field, a nuisance lined up both inside and out along the line. Day had four tackles, including one for a loss. He was all over Rob Henry, and while he didn’t get a sack, he caused numerous throw aways.

Bennett Jackson. Hard to ignore Jackson’s game-changing pick six. A confident play by the guy that needs to lead the secondary, undercutting a crossing route and taking it in for the touchdown.

THE BAD

Early Drops. You can count four early drops that go against Tommy Rees’ stat ledger, and need to be had by Notre Dame receivers.

Ugly First Quarter. This one isn’t all on the offense, but still — the Irish had just one first down in the first quarter, gaining just 29 yards while letting Purdue possess the ball for over ten minutes. That’s two weeks in a row on the road that the Irish offense didn’t get off to a good start, and with Michigan State and the No. 1 defense in the country coming to down, that’s not a feeling that gives you the warm fuzzies.

Punting. Kyle Brindza certainly didn’t have his best night, averaging just 36.3 yards a kick and failing to get any of his kicks inside the Purdue 20 yard line. After claiming he was an option for two weeks, Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck kicked one time for 38 yards, but did pin Purdue inside their 20.

The run blocking. Whether the credit is deserved by Purdue’s aggressive front or not, there just wasn’t much there for the Irish in the run game, with Purdue defenders all over the place. While the second half showed that the Irish can make a defense pay by taking the ball over the top, expect opponents to copy Greg Hudson’s formula for pressuring the Irish offense.

The Irish’s Zone Defense. A season after using a zone defense that allowed Manti Te’o to nearly lead the country in interceptions, Rob Henry found quite a few holes in the Irish zone.

Henry finished 25 of 40 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. That’s 100 yards better than he did against Indiana State, and the career best game Henry played. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Irish pass defense.

Kickoff coverage. There was too much there for Purdue, who took advantage of a nice wrinkle by faking a reverse on just about every return.

Missed tackles. It’s tough to watch film of this defense after seeing last year’s team seek and destroy just about everything (minus Alabama). Matthias Farley had an ugly missed tackle on Purdue’s first drive of the second half, letting Purdue retake the lead. Throw in some other misses by guys like Cole Luke, Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, and it’s clear this defense needs to continue stressing the fundamentals.

Not turning and looking for the ball. Both Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley fail to look back as Rob Henry heaved a prayed down the field. While the Purdue receiver adjusted for the ball, neither Jackson nor Farley did, and it ended up putting the Boilermakers in a position to score again.

THE UGLY

A tough win. Perhaps George Atkinson’s night best encapsulated the Irish’s win. On paper, you’d think the junior running back had a nice night, averaging 5.4 yards per carry again on his five runs and chipping in 11 yards on his one reception, a quick shovel from Rees. But Atkinson still has a really difficult time making defenders miss, and for a 220-pound running back with home run speed, he sure goes down mighty easy, with broken tackles few and far between.

But after watching a crazy Saturday of football, which included one of the worst officiated late game sequences I’ve ever seen, courtesy of a Pac-12 officiating crew in the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, it’s good to escape West Lafayette with a win.

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)
1 Comment

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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
22 Comments

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
11 Comments

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.