Utupo

Depth starting to show itself in easy Irish victory

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There was one revealing moment in Brian Kelly‘s postgame press conference that told you everything you want to know about the relationship between the Irish head coach and his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Kelly looked directly at Swarbrick when asked a question about comfortable games that allow the coach to plug in some of his young prospects.

“I’d like to have these guys in week one or week two, to be honest,” Kelly said, before peeking at Swarbrick and sharing a chuckle with the room.  “You’d like to get these kinds of opportunities for these young guys early, because it obviously builds their confidence.

“They’re a really confident group. So to get them involved, especially these young guys, it’s so important to their development.”

We saw that development first hand on Saturday, when a host of young talent saw the field and thrived against Air Force. Receivers Corey Robinson and Will Fuller stated very obviously the potential they have, as did cornerback Cole Luke, who showed a physicality that should step right into the starting lineup after Bennett Jackson departs.

It was easy to see the contributions on offense, with Robinson and Fuller joined by Tarean Folston as top performers. But on the defensive side of the ball, Kelly was particularly complimentary about the play of Luke and Isaac Rochell, who played a key role on Saturday after Ishaq Williams was lost in the first few series and Sheldon Day tweaked his ankle.

“I thought, in particular, you’re looking for me Cole Luke played the edge of our defense very well.  I thought Isaac Rochell had a key play on third down.  I thought he played well,” Kelly said. “I think when you look at the true freshmen that are playing a lot of football for us on both sides of the ball, I think defensively those are the two guys that have made some plays for us that stood out.”

If you are looking for a datapoint that shows the progress of this roster, a glance back at the box score from the Irish’s 59-33 dismantling of Air Force in ’11 gives you a clear picture of the progress on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish gave up a whopping 565 yards of offense that afternoon, many coming in the second half as Kelly tried to develop the bottom half of his roster. On Saturday, with unproven backups like Kendall Moore, Romeo Okwara, Joe Schmidt and Justin Utupo playing a lot of football, the defense gave up nothing.

“Those are the kind of games that gives you an opportunity to see some of your younger players, gives them confidence, gives you an opportunity to get some reps off of your veterans that have played so much football,” Kelly said.

It’s all part of a plan that’s very much on schedule, even after two disappointing September losses. The Irish didn’t take a step back when Louis Nix didn’t make the trip, or Ishaq Williams went down, or the offensive line played a significant portion of the game without three starters from last week.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ve made some significant progress in terms of the depth,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll get close to being where we want to be after this next cycle.  I think we’ll be at 85 scholarships.  We’ll continue to develop the depth within our program.  It’s going to be that part of consistency and winning.  These guys can now step on the field and continue to help you win.”

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.

 

 

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.”