Oklahoma v Notre Dame

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

145 Comments

Usually losing for the second time in the season’s opening month calls for greater introspection. But upon the second viewing of Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the results were quite clear: Early turnovers sunk the Irish on Saturday.

Those turnovers ultimately fall on quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior leader of the Irish offense once again played a subpar football game, completing just nine of 24 throws for 104 yards, passing for two touchdowns but throwing three first half interceptions.

Brian Kelly talked Sunday about the options at quarterback, and for those asking for a change, they’ll be disappointed. Kelly publicly supported Rees as the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix supplementing him.

“He certainly is,” Kelly said of Rees as the team’s QB1 moving forward. “With the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there’s no question that the quarterback that’s going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”

With the inmates restless and the Irish needing to move on quickly and prepare for Arizona State, let’s clean out the notebook and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma.

***

***

THE GOOD

George Atkinson. It was a great day at the office for Atkinson, who ran for a career-best 148 rushing yards against Oklahoma. Given a chance to establish some rhythm, Atkinson rewarded the staff with his best effort.

As the Irish prepare to play an Arizona State team that looks a lot more beatable when its offense is on the sideline, they’re going to need that commitment from the ground game, and Atkinson also gives them a threat to take it the distance as well.

Carlo Calabrese. We don’t usually see a Notre Dame linebacker making double-digit tackles not named Te’o. The fifth-year linebacker was stout on defense, filling the stat sheet with ten tackles.

Jaylon Smith & Elijah Shumate: The youngsters on defense both contributed seven tackles against the Sooners, a dynamic opponent that challenges you in a variety of ways.

Tarean Folston. A very impressive run by Folston around the left side of the offensive line set up an early Notre Dame touchdown. He didn’t get many more opportunities after Atkinson started to pick up steam, but Folston showed himself to be an explosive option.

Speaking of freshman running backs, more rumors have spread across the internet about Greg Bryant. Palm Beach Post reporter Jeff Greer said that Bryant’s father mentioned the plan to redshirt Bryant.

On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t willing to go that far, but acknowledged that Bryant wasn’t available because of a knee injury.

“He didn’t play this week because of a knee injury,” Kelly said. “But you know, when you start talking about medical redshirts and you talk about redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line.  We have got to slow down a little bit here.”

Saving a year of eligibility would be a nice perk for Bryant, and a nice bit of roster management for the Irish, especially with Elijah Hood decommitting from the recruiting class.

An offensive identity forming. It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t going to run the table by spreading an offense out and beating them with one-on-one passing match-ups. That type of game plan seems to work if your quarterback’s playing on Sunday, and mostly if their last names are Manning (only Peyton) or Brady.

Kelly talked about getting back to the basics, and setting a goal of 200 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving.

“From an identity standpoint, we ran for 200 yards,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to run for 200 and throw for 200 and that’s the identity we want to have as an offense.”

***

***

THE BAD

Tommy Rees’s accuracy. Notre Dame can’t win completing less than 40% of their passes. And Rees just hasn’t been as accurate as the Irish need him to be the past few weeks.

“I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.”

While Kelly did commit to playing more of Andrew Hendrix, he also revealed his season-long plan to keep a redshirt on Malik Zaire, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you start to think about the roster management needed after losing Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel unexpectedly.

“My guess is right now, unless we have an injury, you’re not going to see Malik, unless we get into an injury situation,” Kelly said. “We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go.  But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”

Rushing Defense. After a really stingy performance two seasons ago, the Irish just gave up too much on the ground against Oklahoma. The Sooners ran for five yards a carry, allowing Oklahoma to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes.

A season after not giving up a gain of over seven yards on the ground, the Sooners had five people with carries of over seven yards, including four ball carriers that had runs of twelve yards or more.

Ben Councell’s ejection. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was ejected from the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay. The hit ended Councell’s afternoon early, and will likely cost him the first 30 minutes of the game against Arizona State, unless the Irish win their appeal.

“We don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said.  “There was no intent, he was trying to make a play on the ball. We’ll obviously discuss it with the commissioner of the ACC and we’ll make our case that in video as we’ve looked at it, we clearly don’t see any intent for him to lead and intentionally try to strike with his helmet.”

If Councell isn’t back, the Irish will be in a bit of a pinch from a personnel perspective. Romeo Okwara could slide over to the field-side, or the Irish could slide a safety down in the box, perhaps a bigger body like John Turner.

Back-breaking slant for a touchdown. With 12:35 on the clock and the Irish down six points, Notre Dame could’ve gotten off the field with a third down stop and taking the ball back. But the Sooners lined up in a tight bunch formation, with Notre Dame looking to be in man coverage.

The Irish sent Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox off the short-side in a blitz, while Ishaq Williams dropped back into coverage. Sterling Shepard got a free release at the line of scrimmage and rant a quick slant across the middle, beating Jarrett Grace underneath before outrunning Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth to the end zone.

The blitz didn’t get there against the quick throw and the Sooners essentially clinched the victory.

QUICK HITS: 

* Bennett Jackson filled the stat sheet as a tackler, making seven stops and two behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s got to do a better job in coverage. Much is expected from the guy wearing a C on his chest.

* Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to put the blown blitz pick-up on one guy. But between Tommy Rees, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they’ve got to pick that one up.

* In a passing game that relies on precision, the young wide receiving corps isn’t necessarily doing their job. In the same breath that Kelly talked about Rees’s need to be more accurate against man coverage, he also talked about the receivers needing to do their job better as well.

“We have got some young receivers out there that are not precise quite frankly in their route running,” Kelly said.

THE UGLY

A terrible start. You couldn’t script a worse beginning for Notre Dame. The perfect recipe to not just lose a football game, but to also take the crowd out of it.

Terrible turnovers. Notre Dame isn’t going to beat anyone with a -3 turnover differential. And they certainly aren’t going to do it against a good team like Oklahoma, who turned those three into 21 points. Let’s run through the three crucial mistakes, just for posterity’s sake.

* Turnover One: Interesting that Brian Kelly won’t call this an interception even though it’s in the books as a pick. Rees was hit as (or just before) he was hit, and it flies right into the linebacker’s arms. Pick Six to start the game.

* Turnover Two: This one is on Rees, who threw the slant early to a spot and missed. Cornerback Aaron Colvin batted the pass into the air, it was intercepted and a handful of plays later the Sooners were up 14-0.

* Turnover Three: Not a great design, especially when DaVaris Daniels ran an incorrect route. Still, the quarterback has to make a decision that’s better than that, and it was thrown either behind Daniels or into traffic if it was heading to Jones.

Terrible September. Irish fans might have forgotten that these are the perils of a Notre Dame schedule. While some teams start with a cream-puff non-conference slate, the Irish have battled one mediocre squad and then played three Big Ten teams and Oklahoma.

While any BCS National title dreams are gone, the Irish could still find a BCS bowl if they run the table or finish with three losses. But after watching Arizona State put the finishing touches on the Lane Kiffin era, the focus should only extend to the Sun Devils.

 

 

 

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)
1 Comment

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)
7 Comments

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.