Moshood Adeniji, Stephon Tuitt

Final thoughts before kickoff

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With injuries piled up and a bye week on the horizon, the Irish face a crossroad they’ve been at before. Beat Pittsburgh and take a week to recover, allowing key contributors like Ishaq Williams and Kona Schwenke a chance to heal before dealing with BYU at home. 

The Irish may be battered and bruised, but they also seem to distance themselves from teams past, with the mental toughness needed to push forward when physical limitation strike. That toughness will be tested tonight, with Pitt hoping to settle the score after nearly toppling Notre Dame’s undefeated season last year. 

Let’s go over some final thoughts before kickoff. 

How will the running back position evolve? It looked like the Irish found a featured running back in Tarean Folston, but Brian Kelly did his best to downplay any separation. We’ll see how the carries shake out and if Folston can continue to run with confidence and power, doing so against a tougher defense than the Midshipmen. 

Can Tommy Rees attack Pitt downfield? Throwing the football in November at night in Pittsburgh isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially in an offense that relies on precision. With the wind set to pickup in the evening and temperatures dipping into the mid-40s, Rees will need to have a good day from the pocket if the Irish offense wants to continue moving forward. 

This Pitt secondary hasn’t always held up this year, and the emergence of Ben Koyack has added another weapon for defenses to think about. TJ Jones is on a touchdown streak that’s inching closer to the school’s record, and he’ll likely be targeted early and often tonight. 

How will the defensive line hold up? Expect Louis Nix to make his presence felt almost immediately, matched up with Aaron Donald in a game that’ll feature two of college football’s best defensive tackles. Nix and Donald’s games aren’t all that similar, but expect the two weeks off to do Big Lou some good and for him to come out fired up. 

Stephon Tuitt could have a field day tonight against a Pitt offensive line that’s had trouble holding up. Tuitt playing big could lessen the importance of Sheldon Day, who will once again be less than 100 percent as his balky ankle limits his explosiveness. 

Even with limitations, the Irish will be at their best up front with Tuitt, Nix and Day. But it’ll be interesting to follow the rotation Mike Elston relies on, and see who that next man is between Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo or Tyler Stockton. 

How many snaps will the starting linebackers take? It’s going to be a long night for Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo and Jaylon Smith. Don’t expect a lot of time off for a group that’s going to need to bring a hard hat to work tonight. 

Pitt’s going to try their best to establish the run and it’ll be up to these four to play physical at the point of attack and be sure tacklers. If you watched Trick Shot Monday carefully, you saw a small cast on linebacker Joe Schmidt’s thumb. Kendall Moore seems to have earned the staff’s confidence and could be utilized, but after him and Romeo Okwara, the depth drops off quite a bit. 

Prince Shembo has been a feast or famine pass rusher all season. He could eat quite well tonight. 

Can the Irish find their mojo on special teams? Kickoff coverage has struggled. A nice punt return was called back. After nearly winning the game on special teams against Michigan State, the Irish nearly lost one last week. 

If the Irish get into a slugfest Saturday night, they can’t have their third unit let down the offense and the defense. With injuries taking first tier players like Ben Councell off kick units, guys like James Onwualu are going to need to make plays. 

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.