TJ Jones, Taylor Richards

Michigan State mailbag

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Another week, another mailbag.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie in the comments section. It’s starting to feel like our big, dysfunction, happy family is starting to get along. Maybe 12-win regular seasons really help the spirits!

As usual, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Feel free to correct me in the comments (also as usual).

@dickasman: Will Tuitt and Nix breakout this game? How’s MSU OL?

Ah, Dicky. A football question! So nice of you. I think this is one of the more interesting match-ups going because the offensive line for the Spartans has been pretty shaky. Just a quick glance through their depth chart and you’ll see five underclassmen in their two deep, including starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle.

So if there’s a game for the Irish to get some pressure on a young quarterback who up until last week was 12 for 27 for 74 yards, this might be the game.

@JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.

 

@JCirba: Does Tuitt, Shembo, or anybody reach double digit sacks this year?

Can I tell you after Saturday? I think you’ve obviously hit on the two guys that can do it. But we’ve yet to see Shembo get on track, even though he was mighty close to three or four sacks against Temple. (That said, his sacks come in bunches.)

This weekend looks like it could be a favorable match-up for both guys, but you might see a bunch of max protect looks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Before the season started, I thought both Tuitt and Shembo could get to double digits. We’ll know better after this weekend.

@mfmitchell88: Do you think it would be beneficial for Kelly & co. to eval. their own tendencies? We seem to be very predictable/scouted.

Every coaching staff self scouts. Brian Kelly’s does too. (Bill Belichick came in during the offseason and did some evaluation of how the Irish systems ran, so it’s not for lack of brain power.)

That said, I think the one criticism that’s been valid so far of the offense is that it’s been a bit predictable with some of it’s formational looks. Now Oregon is mighty predictable with its formations and tendencies, too. Stopping it is another story.

The offense will likely continue to add wrinkles as the season progresses. They did against Michigan and opened things up in the second half against Purdue. But yeah — I get that when you see Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas spread wide with TJ Jones in the slot that the Irish are likely throwing a screen to Jones. And the Irish’s screen offense wasn’t all that effective against Purdue. So a few change-ups are probably necessary.

don74: Of the following what group is most likely to “break out” this week: The coaching staff (BK, CM, BD), the ILB’s, the secondary or the RB’s? OL not mentioned, if the RB’s break out they did their job.

I’m going to say that the inside linebackers could have a nice Saturday. It’s going to be a physical match-up between the front sevens, and I think Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace should log quite a few tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on: Connor Cook. He’s an elusive kid and that’s given this defense some pains. A big play free secondary performance would also be very nice, and could spell victory for the Irish.

BlackIrish23: Looking beyond Daniels and Jones, who else do you see as having the potential to create additional match up problems from all these teams daring Rees to beat them with his arm?

I think this is the best personnel Notre Dame has had at wide receiver since the early Weis days, and probably much deeper. Forcing any team to look past their best two receivers is a mixed bag, but I think ND feels confident that a guy like Chris Brown can do some damage against defenses, especially as a third option. And just because we haven’t seen much of him yet, Corey Robinson is a guy that’ll be a real headache to defensive coordinators.

What about Troy Niklas? A 6-7, 270-pound Thor lookalike doesn’t seem all that fun to cover. And we’ve seen James Onwualu and Will Fuller get their chances as well. And CJ Prosise had a big catch after having a nice spring in the slot.

If Michigan State tries putting their secondary on an island with the Irish receivers, it could be a long day if Tommy Rees is accurate.

(Speaking of Tommy…)

@dudeacow: Tommy Rees would have passed 1000 yards already if not for a few drops. If he plays like he’s been playing for the rest of the season, his stat line will look like this: 4200 yards, 61%, 28-8 td/int. too early to include in an all-America conversation?

I believe the stat I saw this week is that Rees is leading all quarterbacks in the country in yardage against FBS teams. Project out those numbers for a full season and indeed — Rees will be having a very nice senior season, though I think it’s too early to talk about things like All-American awards.

I’m cutting this answer short until after this weekend. Then we can take another look.

andy44teg: How much stock do you seriously put into MSU having the top ranked D in the country this early in the year? Before last week Alabama had like the 115th ranked offense and we all saw how they spanked TAMU’s D.

Ah, good old sample size questions. Of course, there’s a big grain of salt along with that stat, but it sure sounds good. (Kind of like beating Michigan State when they were a “top ten” team last year.) No, they haven’t played anyone. But they’ve got really talented personnel and the defense has scored almost more points than the offense.

So underestimate them at your own peril.

@mtflsmitty: Based on your experience reading posts from the characters over the years, please write a short, fictional bio for:
– Historian
– Bern
– Dick
– Nude

I am staying so far away from this question it’s ridiculous. But I’d probably end up asking my mom for the answer to this one, as she spends quite a bit of time reading through the comments, asking me about the crew and worrying about all of you when skirmishes erupt and naughty things are said.

(Perhaps I’ll put her on the job and get back to you guys next week. But don’t get your hopes up, she’s a busy lady!)

I only step in once in a while. Most writers stay out of the comments section for their own mental health. And because, well — we’re writing the articles.

sm29irish: I know Prince and Ishaq are ahead of him but do you think Romeo Okwara could be used situationally to put more pressure on qb haven’t seen much of him this year? Also, what happened to the leprecat formation where Slaughter was successful. I think Shumate or Jaylon would really flourish in that position if it was implemented again at times.

This question was right on the brink of being too long to answer. But here goes: I don’t think Okwara is necessarily the answer as a situational pass rusher. He’s always the guy that swings over to the field side, which says more about his athleticism than his pass rush abilities.

What the leprecat Slaughter? I thought that was ND’s version of the Wildcat, which was used sparsely early in the Kelly era. What you’re likely thinking of is when Slaughter dropped down to play outside linebacker, taking over for Prince Shembo when he was at the Drop position. This was more of a product of personnel deficiencies, and Jaylon Smith is the answer there.

Smith’s been put in that spot already and done a nice job. As for Shumate, I think he’s finding life a bit more complicated than last season, where he covered slot receivers and let his athleticism take over. Don’t give up on him yet though. At this point in Harrison Smith’s career, Irish fans were ready to run him out of town.

sweetnd: 1) How much longer will Kiffin be coach at U$C? Forever (I hope). Or if he loses four games this season, until about December 1, after they get beat by UCLA again.
2) Why does Zahm suck? Why is the sky blue? (Love dorm rivalry questions…)
3) If Tommy throws for 4,000 yards and 28 td’s will he get drafted? If so what round? Good question. I don’t think so, but he’ll find his way to a training camp.
4) what’s your prediction? Will ND cover the spread? Predictions aren’t my thing. But if the past two seasons are any indication, this game will feel closer than the score is.

onward2victory: Coach Kelly won’t come out and say it, but do you think TJ Jones is healthy? He got banged up against Michigan and didn’t seem like himself against Purdue.

He looked pretty healthy making that circus catch near the pylon last week. I think Jones is fine, though he was a little banged up after the Michigan game. (I spoke with him then and he said he was fine, only that he got a pretty bad stinger, something he hasn’t had since high school.)

If Jones ISN’T healthy, you’ll probably see him come off punt return first. And if it’s an upper body issue, that’s far better than an ankle tweak or a sore knee. Let’s remember, Jones only hit 50 catches in a season for the first time last year. He’s already got 19 catches through three games.

lambda02750: Do you anticipate an increase in carries for the freshman backs this weekend?

Not really. But if one of the guys gets hot, they’ll keep getting the rock. But I just don’t think this is the type of game where you go out and force a ball into the least experienced guy on the team’s hands.

Let’s not turn this into another one of those only-at-Notre-Dame self-fulfilling prophesies, where fans get so upset that it turns Greg Bryant upset, and he starts looking around for better opportunities. We routinely saw Charlie Weis’s teams wilt down the stretch when the negativity just overwhelmed them.

(That and a lack of a defensive front…)

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.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.