Jeff Whittingham, Kyle Friend, Louis Nix III

Irish need to improve up the middle

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A baseball team is often judged by its strength up the middle. Look at any great ball club and you’ll usually find a strong catcher behind the plate, a shortstop with range and a centerfielder that can run down just about anything.

When you look at the uneven performance coming from the Irish football team through three games, my head wanders back to my baseball days, riding the pines and chewing bubble gum at Eck Stadium. Strength up the middle is paramount for an elite baseball team. And that’s where this football team needs to find its focus as well.

There’s no better anchor point to build from than Louis Nix. While it’s hard for a nose guard to fill a stat sheet, Nix has looked the part of everybody’s All-American this season, constantly double-teamed as he takes on the interior of an offensive line. But if you’re wondering why this defense doesn’t look like the one that was on the field last season, keep looking up the middle, where two position groups are still in the middle of getting sorted.

Inside linebacker seems to be improving, though many hoped Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox would flourish when given the chance to play next to each other. The jury is still out, but neither Fox nor Calabrese look like the player they were when playing next to Te’o last season. Joining them in the rotation has been Jarrett Grace, who has looked like a guy getting heavy snaps for the first time in his career.

A season after being dominant against screen passes and short underneath throws thanks to Manti Te’o’s instincts, this defense is getting beat underneath too often. Call it dinking and dunking, but more accurately it’s called moving the chains, and the Irish are having a hard time getting off the field. Add to that struggles in the red zone after being so dominant there a season ago, and that’s why this group sits at No. 57 in scoring defense after playing two teams ranked outside the Top 100 in scoring offense.

Part of that comes from the instability at safety. Many assumed Matthias Farley was ready to step in and be a dominant player in the back end of the defense. That hasn’t been the case, with the former wide receiver still looking like a player growing into his position. After hoping that Elijah Shumate was going to step in and use his athleticism to effect the game at safety, the sophomore hasn’t been heard from, except when getting beat in pass coverage. Austin Collinsworth seems to be a guy the coaching staff can trust, but he hasn’t been a game changer. And the Irish’s most dynamic option, freshman Max Redfield, seems to be in the middle of a learning curve that still hasn’t gotten him onto the field.

The up the middle struggles aren’t just on defense. After having two running backs that knew exactly what was asked of them, the Irish ground game seems to be stuck in neutral. How much of that is on the guys toting the rock remains to be seen, but if you watched Brian Kelly’s interactions with the running backs, there are cutback lanes and alleys that haven’t been hit in the Irish’s zone blocking scheme.

Up the middle of the field, just about everybody is new. A five-headed running back monster where guys are learning on the job. A quarterback that took reps as a situational reliever last season. A new center. A trio of linebackers trying to replace the national defensive player of the year. And two safeties, one who sat out all last season with an injury.

There’s a reason Kelly continues to preach patience, and with a four game stretch that’ll likely define the season, now is the time to make sure the pieces come together.

“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” Kelly said.

Well with the No. 1 defensive in the country coming to town and ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State squads before USC, time is of the essence.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”