George Atkinson III

Against Sun Devil defense, run game is key

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It doesn’t take a very deep dive into Arizona State to understand there are some areas to attack. The last three games the Sun Devils have played have resulted in some ugly numbers in rushing defense, counterintuitive when you consider Will Sutton is considered Louis Nix’s equal when talking about elite defensive tackles.

Of course, allowing big games on the ground to Wisconsin, Stanford and USC hardly means your front seven are playing on roller skates. But looking at the numbers put up by that trio is pretty astounding. While the Sun Devils went 2-1 against the three teams, they gave up over 230 yards of rushing to all three opponents on better than six-yards a carry.

Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham talked at length about the team’s run defense and had some interesting things to say about it.

“Obviously, we aren’t doing very well in that regard. I think the inside running game we have made vast improvement,” Graham said. “Most of it has been alignment issues on the perimeter. Most of the yards they are making are on perimeter runs. Most of it, we can fix. We have played good people, but still we are giving up plays where we are absolutely misaligned. We had right at 15 plays last week where we were misaligned.”

Inside runs being well defended are likely a product of Sutton being a very good football player. But alignment issues and getting beat on the outside are issues that Notre Dame can exploit, especially if George Atkinson plays the way he did against Oklahoma.

Brian Kelly talked about Atkinson’s strong play on Saturday, and how it was one of the lone positive takeaways he got from the offense.

“One of the highlights offensively was watching George continue to get better at the position,” Kelly said. “Running through tackles, really using good vision, and continuously, for us, making better and better decisions.  There’s still some room for growth there.  We feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there, but as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the development of a young man like George Atkinson, and we saw that against Oklahoma.”

Atkinson has the speed and ability to run outside, taking a crease in the defense and turning it into a very big gain. While watching Arizona State make big play after big play offensively, the Sun Devil defense is the group that just hasn’t been able to stop opponents from creating yards in chunks.

“Big play runs have been our nemesis, Graham said on Monday. “We have had a couple big passes given up, but the concerning thing for me is in this last game our big plays of 10-plus yards have gone from six to eight to 20. That was way too many. We have made some adjustments and that is what we are going to do.”

Against an offense like ASU’s, Notre Dame might do well to take a page out of Stanford’s playbook, riding the run game to an early lead and keeping the ball away from a Sun Devil offense that can score points in a hurry (the Cardinal defense gave up three touchdowns in eight minutes in the fourth quarter to make things look competitive).

Stanford held onto the football for 35 minutes in the game (over 19 minutes in the second half) taking advantage of their offensive line’s command to coast to a victory. In the first half, they ran 33 plays and only 12 of them were passes. (Interestingly, on Stanford’s only three-and-out in the first half, all three plays were passes.) Scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter, two more and a safety in the second, a halftime lead of 29-0 was all David Shaw’s troops needed to coast in.

One way to remedy the slow starts that have plagued Notre Dame is have early success running the football. After having success with the passing game until playing Michigan State and Oklahoma, running the football will help open up the playaction pass game, and allow Tommy Rees some time to find TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas.

“Offensively, we have yet to find the balance that we’re looking for,” Kelly said Tuesday. “If we rewind here, we were talking about how well we were throwing the football and how poorly we were running it.  Now we’re talking about how well we’re running the ball and how poorly we’re throwing the ball.

“We’ve got to get ourselves where we have enough balance offensively to run the ball and throw the ball effectively.”

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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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
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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.

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.