Tulsa  v Oklahoma

And in that corner… The Oklahoma Sooners

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Oklahoma heads to South Bend for the first time since Bob Stoops’ debut season in Norman this weekend. A year after losing to Notre Dame in the comfy confines of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, the Sooners head to South Bend hoping to return the favor, with a prestige non-conference victory likely bringing some luster back to a program that’s won a lot of football games, but been outside the BCS for the past three years.

With a talented roster that’s yet to leave home or play a team with a winning record, this is the first big test for Stoops’ Sooners. And to get us prepared for the match-up, Oklahoman beat writer Jason Kersey took some time to answer a few questions.

Enjoy.

1) Walk us through what is going on at quarterback. From the outside, it seemed like a shocking decision to name Trevor Knight the starting quarterback out of camp, with Blake Bell all but assumed to be the heir apparent to Landry Jones. 

After some uneven appearances by Knight, the job looks to be Bell’s now, especially after passing for 400+ against Tulsa . Is it? After only knowing about the Belldozer, what’s in store for the Irish defense this weekend?

It’s safe to say that Trevor Knight’s rise in the quarterback derby was a pretty big surprise to everyone. Knight earned the job by displaying impressive flashes of athleticism throughout fall camp and the scrimmages, but when it came to game time, it was often apparent that he might not have been quite ready for this stage. He struggled mightily in the passing game, which is obviously really important in Oklahoma ’s offense.

Knight’s knee was injured late in the first half of the Sooners’ second game against West Virginia, but he still played the third quarter and threw two interceptions. So at the beginning of the fourth, they made the switch to Bell .

To answer your question, yes, the job is Bell’s, and unless he plays really, really bad against Notre Dame or gets hurt, there’s no reason to believe it won’t stay Bell’s for the foreseeable future.

I think there’s probably still a place for the Belldozer package in OU’s offense, but I would be shocked if it’s used much. Now that he’s the guy, they don’t want him taking those big hits.

2) The Notre Dame defense has been a different unit than the group that powered the Irish to the BCS National Championship game. Particularly, the secondary has struggled early this season. Is this an area the Sooners can exploit? On paper, this group looks really deep. Jalen Saunders is back after a big game against the Irish last season. Who are the dangerous skill players that the Irish will have to account for?

Judging from the Sooners’ most recent game, I would expect they’ll try to take advantage of a relatively weak Notre Dame secondary with the passing game. But I really expect them to work hard at establishing the run. OU has really been “persistent” — as Bob Stoops said Monday — in the run game, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

The Sooners rushed for 300 yards in their first two games, and they’ve got a strong group of backs that are capable of carrying the load, and the offensive line has beefed up and is playing much more physical than it did a year ago, when Notre Dame held OU to 15 rushing yards.

The skill guys Notre Dame will need to account for are Jalen Saunders, Sterling Shepard, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch.

3) Mike Stoops has installed a 3-3-5 defense. You wrote earlier this week about a leadership void last season. There were worries about the defensive front. What do we know about this group through three games?

The defensive line was a major area of concern entering the season, but that unit has really played well through three games. But OU obviously hasn’t faced a team like Notre Dame yet, so this will be a tremendous challenge for the defensive line.

The linebackers were an area of concern this year because of how badly they were used a year ago. Late in the season against high-powered spread attacks of Baylor, West Virginia , Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, Mike Stoops experimented with linebacker-less schemes to disastrous results.

But this year, the linebackers are a major part of the defense. Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon are among the defense’s best playmakers, which really is striking considering how they were used in 2012.

Nelson talked about a lack of leadership on defense last year, which I thought was a pretty interesting — and somewhat startling — confession. That doesn’t seem to be a problem so far in 2013.

4) Bob Stoops just got a new two-year extension, paying him a tremendous sum of money. After a dominant start in Norman, it’s been three years since the Sooners last BCS appearance. Stoops’ reputation seems to have taken a bit of a hit these past few years, especially since he started losing some of the big games he built his reputation on winning. Is he a victim of his own success? How do Sooner fans feel about their head coach, who will likely become the program’s all-time winningest coach this season?

I’d say Oklahoma fans, on the whole, are still appreciative of the job Bob Stoops has done with the Sooners. Those who aren’t probably need a reminder of the shape OU was in when Stoops arrived.

But it’s also fair to say that many fans are frustrated by some of the big-game struggles of the past few seasons. I think Bob, though, is also pretty frustrated by it, which is why he’s fired four assistant coaches in the past two seasons.

5) Last year, most were shocked when Notre Dame came into Norman and pulled away for a convincing win. Is this a weekend that’s been circled on the calendars for quite some time? Last weekend, we heard from Mark Dantonio how the game was important, but it was a non-conference game. How are the Sooners treating this Saturday?

Among fans and maybe some players, yes, I think the game has probably been circled for a while. Bob Stoops gave a similar answer when asked about the game’s importance, saying that it’s not a conference game and the season won’t be made or broken by Saturday’s result. I don’t necessarily buy that, though. I think this game is critical for a program that many have started to label as overrated. Oklahoma needs this win badly to boost its national reputation.

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To read more from Jason, check out his work at The Oklahoman and follow him on Twitter @JasonKersey.

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.”

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.