Tommy Rees, Aaron Donald, Darryl Render

Bye week brings opportunity to answer legitimate questions

123 Comments

With Notre Dame’s team plane not arriving back in South Bend until the wee morning hours, Brian Kelly didn’t have his usual Sunday teleconference. If he did, he would’ve likely needed to answer some tough questions about a game plan that was just as erratic as the players executing it.

Twenty-four hours have passed since Notre Dame’s ugly 28-21 loss to Pitt. That means players and coaches have likely turned the page after one of the more distressing losses of the Kelly era. But with a bye week allowing for further introspection, it might be okay to let this lost linger for a bit inside the Gug, as some tough lessons might turn into a good reminder for the future.

For as long as there is football, there will be football players making mistakes. But perhaps most distressing about this loss was that it showed a potential crack in the foundation of Kelly’s core philosophies, something the head coach addressed in his postgame comments.

“I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November,” Kelly said. “We’re 10 games into the season. There’s really, for me, no reason why, and I take full responsibility for this as the head coach, that there’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level that we should in November, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

In the past, the coaching staff has used the off-week as an internal audit. With two regular season games to go and recruiting in full swing, resources will likely be allocated differently. But if there are game-plan deficiencies that need to be reassessed, on Saturday night Kelly certainly provided what essentially amounted to the greatest hits for his detractors.

ABANDONING THE RUNNING GAME

You’d have thought Pitt had stuffed the run game when you look at the six carries the Irish had in the second half, for an equally poor 10 total yards. But the ground game started out strong with 128 yards on 18 first half carries, with both George Atkinson and TJ Jones hitting big gainers.

Probably the most frustrating part of the lack of ground success was the fact that the previous week it was the running game that cemented the victory. But the toxic combination of abandoning the run without protecting a beat-up defense, ended up as one of the true head-scratchers of the evening.

PUTTING THE GAME ON TOMMY REES’ SHOULDERS

I’ll continue to make the argument that Tommy Rees gives the Irish their best chance to win. But that doesn’t mean the game needs to be thrown on the senior quarterback’s shoulders. Developing consistency at running back isn’t easy when you are trying to get four backs touches. But it’s especially difficult when you force the quarterback to be the cog of the offense and hope a back can get into a rhythm in five carries or less.

But back to the quarterback play. In Eric Hansen’s terrific analysis in the South Bend Tribune, he notes that Rees is 11-0 as a starter when he commits zero turnovers. That number plummets to 10-7 when he commits one or more. Last year, the Irish adopted a conservative, limit-turnovers-at-all-costs approach that played out nearly perfectly. This year they’ve gone back to traditional spread concepts and in all three of Notre Dame’s losses, Rees has thrown multiple interceptions.

Kelly is still looking for some type of consistency in the red zone, with Rees’ end zone interception the sixth that he’s thrown beyond the goal line in his career. That stat alone leads you to believe that changes need to be made schematically if the Irish are going to get more efficient in the seasons to come.

NOT ALL GAME PLANS ARE CREATED EQUAL

Throwing 40 times in early September isn’t the same thing as throwing 40 times in November. Kelly talked about the challenges of playing at night in Pittsburgh, a notoriously weather-effected stadium that has the rocket-armed Ben Roethlisberger cutting spirals through the river-fueled winds.

But Kelly’s offensive game plan heaped a ton of pressure onto the shoulders of Rees, and it was clear from the start that the quarterback was struggling with accuracy on an evening where temperatures were in the 40s and wind was swirling.

Making things more confusing was the decision to continue throwing the football, especially with the need to protect a beleaguered defense, gutted of its best player when Stephon Tuitt was ejected early in the second quarter.

One loss in November certainly isn’t an indictment of a coach who’s had more success in the season’s final month than just about every coaching titans in the college game. But after letting the dust settle, the blame for Saturday’s loss — just as Kelly acknowledged — falls on players and coaches equally.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
Getty
1 Comment

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)
5 Comments

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)
Getty
9 Comments

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)
Getty
2 Comments

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.”