USC v Arizona State

And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

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Forgive Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for feeling comfortable at a job. For the first time in a few years, Graham might actually put down some roots, quickly reinvigorating the Sun Devil football program with a new approach after Dennis Erickson failed to return the program to its glory days.

Graham took over the Sun Devils and won eight games last year, blowing out Navy in the Kraft Hunger bowl to finish the season on a three game winning streak after a four-game slide nearly derailed a 5-1 start. The expectations were raised heading into the season, with the Sun Devil offense looking the part of an Pac-12 dark horse and Graham’s reputation as a defensive guru helping to erase some concerns up front.

The team’s decisive loss to Stanford made it clear that the Sun Devils weren’t quite ready to run among the elite of the Pac-12, but Graham’s knockout blow of USC will likely be something that carries this program forward — with Lane Kiffin’s proverbial kill shot the envy of fans everywhere, and something that clearly put ASU back on the national map.

To get us ready for Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game, I swapped questions with Cody Ulm of House of Sparky. I did my best to answer his questions over there while he took the time to answer some of mine here.

Hope you enjoy.

1) First things first: Where did that second half explosion come from and were there signs it was coming?

In no way did anyone see that coming. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor had two huge turnovers that gave the Sun Devils the ball with premium field position late in the first half and they had to settle for field goals. Then, the Trojans came out of the locker room looking unstoppable with a 46-second drive to retake the lead. So the timing of USC’s implosion and Arizona State’s finest hour couldn’t have been more odd.

In a way though, that’s what makes Arizona State such a scary proposition for opponents. No, 28-7 third quarter runs aren’t going to happen on a regular basis because I doubt any team could face plant quite in the same way as the Trojans did. But in that quarter, the Sun Devils had three scoring drives of under 1:20 and the fourth score was a Darby pick-six. On both sides of the ball, ASU is opportunistic and aggressive. And when you factor in that Arizona State’s tempo is Oregon-esque when they execute properly, those type of outbursts are always a palpable possibility.

2) Notre Dame might not face a better quarterback than Taylor Kelly this season. He seems like quite a story as well, a little known two-star prospect that might be the best QB in the Pac-12. An accurate passer also looked like a potentially lethal dual-threat player as well. How well suited is he for Todd Graham’s offense?

Depending on how you feel about Kevin Hogan, I think that first statement just might be dead-on. But to answer your question, there isn’t a more ideal quarterback for Graham’s system. Coach Graham loves to put the pedal to the metal with his “high octane” offense. And to accomplish that, he needs a quarterback who consistently makes quick decisions and always makes the most of what the defense gives him. That’s precisely what Kelly does.

In a perfect world, Graham would probably like his quarterback to have a bit more arm strength. That said, I can’t remember I time that Kelly’s arm has actually cost ASU a game. And now that Arizona State has given him a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Jaelen Strong this season, he’s now finally the type of quarterback who can carry his team to victories. The Devils are only four games in to the 2013 season but the Kelly-Strong connection is already one of the most deadly combinations in the nation. The duo has the back shoulder pass down on lock, which allows the offense something to fall back on when all else fails.

The biggest knock on Kelly has been his play away from Sun Devil Stadium. For whatever reason, he just never seems to be in his comfort zone on the road. He’s always less aggressive, more prone to mistakes and it takes him far longer to get into a rhythm. So that’s certainly something to watch for this weekend. Also, the “dual-threat” moniker hasn’t held true this season before the USC game. While he’s never had blazing speed, he’s always at least been an instinctive runner who makes the right reads. This year, he has chosen to display that less often. He’s keeping far less read options and relying on his progressions instead of tucking and taking off. Of course, his rushing hot streak could carry over into this week because, as you touched on, Notre Dame has been burned by quarterbacks on the ground this season.

3) Speaking of the Sun Devils head coach, how have ASU fans warmed to Graham? He came to Tempe with a “unique” reputation, especially in Pittsburgh. What are the early returns?

Plain and simple, this fan base has fallen in love with Graham. He’s already being labeled as the savior of Arizona State football and it’s not just because of his product on the field. He’s infused tradition into a program sorely lacking a identity. Just by doing little things like throwing the game ball into the stands and reestablishing the beloved Camp Tontozona, he’s gotten each and every Sun Devil firmly in his corner. And the fanbase is reciprocating. Just last week against USC, Graham admitted that he had to change the way his defense got their calls because the student section was so loud.

Don’t get me wrong, no one is claiming the man walks on water. Graham’s propensity to burn timeouts on defense has become a running joke among ASU fans. And he still makes some baffling decisions from time-to-time (like that pooch-punt against Stanford). But those are minor gripes when you factor in all he’s done for the program in just under two years. He certainly earned his extension in my eyes.

4) The two best defensive tackles in the country might be on the same field this weekend. How has Will Sutton dealt with the high expectations heaped on him entering the season? What’s your assessment of the defense as a whole this year? Is the run defense this team’s achilles heel?

Entering last week’s game, I had been beginning to hear some unfair assessments of Sutton’s play. Some pundits were claiming that when he worked so hard to bulk up to 300 pounds this offseason, he put on “bad weight.” If I had to guess, those folks were just looking at the box scores.

Before last week’s two tackle for loss, one sack performance, the numbers weren’t exactly there for Sutton. But if these critics would have been watching the games, it would have been painfully obvious that Sutton was being double-teamed on probably 90% of his snaps (if not more). And when you factor in some of the individual All-American caliber talent along the offensive lines of Stanford, USC and Wisconsin, that certainly saying something.

As the nation saw last week, Arizona State’s defense can make some plays when Sutton gets rolling. But until they fix that run defense, they’re not going to be able to hang with the big boys. Honestly though, on a play-by-play basis, the run defense hasn’t been entirely awful. But just when you think they’re doing a good job limiting the damage, they’ll allow a huge 25-yard gain off the edge. And then another. And another.

I thought entering the season that the defensive line depth had improved but compounding injuries quickly sapped that theory. Arizona State will likely be missing their second best space eater in Jaxon Hood (hamstring) this weekend once again so expect Notre Dame to have no problem running wild. Yet as I said, this defense is opportunistic in every sense of the word. So if the offense gives them a big lead to work with or the turnovers begin to pile up, you can be sure they’ll take full advantage.

5) This offense looks dangerous. They move quickly, they put up points in a hurry, and when things are clicking, you see coaches get fired at airports. Juco transfer Jaelen Strong has gone over 100 yards in three straight games. Marion Grice had a dozen touchdowns in September. Do you think this weekend turns into a shootout?

Well, it takes two to tango, so it will be a shootout if Notre Dame is able to keep pace. And at this point, I don’t see that happens. From what I’ve seen, the Irish just aren’t built to compete that way. If they’re going to hang with Arizona State, they’ll have to get them out of their high-speed comfort zone early and force some three-and-outs.

I’d say stopping the run is key for Notre Dame but so far, we’ve seen Arizona State succeed despite not hitting their ideal yard-per-carry. I know this may be strange to hear considering his statistics but outside of the red zone, Grice isn’t actually living up to expectations. After averaging 6.6 yards per carry last season, he’s down to 3.9. Even though some poor blocking is to blame, Grice’s unparalleled vision just hasn’t consistently been there this year. Last week against USC, the run blocking was the best it has been and Grice took full advantage. Now, it’s just about carrying that over to Notre Dame. And I have my doubts that Dr. Disruptive, a.k.a Louis Nix, allows them to get that same push.

6) Lie Detector Test: What’d you think of the last minute referee work in the Wisconsin game? 

I wrote as soon as it happened that it was irresponsibly unacceptable on the part of the officiating crew to allow that to happen and I still firmly believe that. Their lack of urgency was embarrassing and Wisconsin fans had every right to be livid. That said, Arizona State played the better game and deserved to win. But as all sports fans know, just because you play the better game doesn’t mean you always win. The Badgers were primed to the steal that one due to Arizona State’s lackadaisical defense allowing a late drive with 1:36 left.

But what most didn’t factor in during all the commotion is that a walk-off field goal was far from a guarantee. The Badgers’ kicking game has been atrocious this season and Arizona State can certainly get some interior push from time-to-time with Sutton paving the way. And from the feedback I heard, Wisconsin fans definitely understood that. There are always going to be those rabid fanatics who say they got robbed in these type of situations but I’d like to compliment the Badger fanbase as a whole for handling it with so much class. We had a substantial amount of Wisconsin fans come over to our site to congratulate Arizona State fans and share their perspectives. Not to bag on Sun Devil fans but I’m not sure they would have handled it similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.

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For more good stuff on the Sun Devils and the run up to the Shamrock Series, check out House of Sparky, @HouseofSparky and @CodyUlm

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)
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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.

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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)
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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
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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.