Jarron Jones, Stephon Tuitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

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What a difference a win makes.

With the Irish back in South Bend with a week off before needing to prepare for Southern Cal, Notre Dame can look to the second half of the season, where the schedule could stack up nicely for a late season showdown against Stanford, who survived a scare from Washington late last night.

In a game that swung back and forth quite a few times, the Irish made the plays they needed to make to get the win, all while reminding us that this team is still a work in progress. Let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s wild 37-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman linebacker led the Irish in tackles, making nine stops, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Playing his best game in a Notre Dame uniform, Smith’s growing before our eyes, something that Brian Kelly talked about Sunday in his weekly conference call.

“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game‑to‑game basis,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest improvement is that he’s learning football and how he’s being attacked at his position week‑in and week‑out.”

Matched up with a set of very quick receivers and a mobile quarterback, Smith was up to the task, while still learning on the job. Crack back blocks, containment on the edge, and different pass coverage responsibilities are all part of what he’ll need to master. But Smith’s got the opportunity to do a lot of great things, many that we noticed Saturday night.

Prince Shembo. He was a man on a mission, playing primarily with his hand on the ground. Shembo reminded Irish fans — and opposing coaching staffs — why the quick passing game might be mandatory, as he was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Stephon Tuitt. Another really impressive football game for Tuitt, who is playing a ridiculous amount of snaps and doing a really nice job. Tuitt had a key strip sack and was a step away from a couple others, forcing Kelly to run for his life on a a few occasions.

Kelly talked about Tuitt’s recovery from offseason surgery, and his plans for Tuitt’s week off, a break desperately needed for the 6-6 defensive end.

“He needs rest,” Kelly said. “The surgery that he had has affected his back, it’s affected his hip flexors… Some people dismiss it and say, well, you know, you just had minor surgery.  Well, it’s affected a lot of things.  This is a big man, and you know, he’s really struggled all week with back tightness.”

Tuitt answered the bell, playing a key role for the Irish and playing at a high level for much of the evening.

TJ Jones. In my final thoughts before kickoff, I had Jones tabbed as the team’s most important offensive player. He did more than that, contributing a big return on special teams as well as he led the offense with a rock solid performance.

Against a defense that played basically man to man all evening, Jones and Tommy Rees being in lock-step was essential.

“I think really Tommy feels comfortable knowing where he’s going to be getting in and out of his breaks,” Kelly said. “You know, some of the younger guys, at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily.”

Dan Fox. After losing his starting job, Fox came back in and played a ton of good football after Jarrett Grace went down. Fox made seven tackles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

A great job by a veteran that’s going to be counted on down the stretch.

Cam McDaniel. Heckuva job by the Texan who ran for the tough yards down the stretch. After suffering what looked like a stinger on a violent head-to-head collision, McDaniel came right back in and continued carrying the load.

Ben Koyack. He’s been a punching bag more than a few times in his three seasons in South Bend, but Koyack came through in the clutch with a big touchdown and some solid blocking, playing the role of a fullback more than a few times.

The Pass Protection. Facing a relentless blitzing defense, Harry Hiestand’s crew did their jobs immaculately, not giving up a sack of Tommy Rees. On the year, the pass blocking as been rock solid, giving up just four sacks on over 200 throws.

THE BAD

Tough injuries to Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith. Nobody wants to lose a guy for the season, and on Saturday night the Irish lost two. Grace spent the night in Dallas, getting a rod inserted in his fibula. Smith has a fracture in his ankle that’ll end his career playing for Notre Dame.

Kelly talked about the loss of both, with Grace being the biggest blow on the field and Smith being a tough one to stomach in the locker room.

“Jarrett had surgery this morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly explained. “He’ll spend the next couple of nights there.  Just talked to him, got off the phone.  His spirits are good.  You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months.  But obviously a big loss for us.”

Kelly also talked about the loss of Smith, whose injury became an emotional moment during halftime.

“I usually don’t use a win‑one‑for‑the‑Gipper talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked about losing Danny and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame.  He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Giving up big third and fourth down conversions. For as well as the Irish defense played, they gave up two critical conversions on third and fourth down. The Sun Devils converted a clutch fourth down beating Austin Collinsworth in man coverage, and then found a hole in Notre Dame’s zone defense on third and 20, especially back-breaking considering that the Irish called a timeout to get on the same page before the play, and ASU tied the game later on that drive.

Add in some uneven play by both Collinsworth and Matthias Farley and there’s still plenty of work to be done by the back end of the defense. As many wondered, Kelly was asked about the progress of Max Redfield, wondering what could be taking so long for the young freshman.

“He’s getting closer and closer,” Kelly said of Redfield. “There’s so many calls, so many things going on out there. It’s a quarterback position when you’re out there at that safety position.  It’s not just dropping into cover two.”

Nick Martin’s struggles. With multiple snap infraction calls and some confusion on another false start call, it appears that his match-up with Will Sutton kept Martin’s attention divided.

It wasn’t all bad for Martin. Sutton made just three tackles on the night, with one coming on TJ Jones’ punt return.

THE UGLY

Other than Kyle Brindza’s snap-hook mulligan on his first field goal attempt, that he more than made up for with his clutch kicking the rest of the game, the ugly category is going to stay deservedly empty.

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.

***

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.