Bob Diaco hat

Bye-week Six Pack: Enjoy the rest

74 Comments

The week off couldn’t be coming at a better time for Notre Dame (and its fans). Brian Kelly gave his team a break from practice this week, letting bodies mend before a very important date with BYU. It also gives everybody else a chance to catch their breath and enjoy a weekend of stress-free football.

The point of our headline is two-fold. Enjoy the week off. And enjoy the rest of the season. Because we’re inching closer to the abyss, when we’ll have nine long months to talk about what next season will look like.

With that, here’s your bye week six pack.

Time to get healthy. 

Nobody wants to complain about injuries. But the reality of any critique of Bob Diaco’s defense should include the fact that Diaco has been without some key contributors for much of the year.

If the off-week is kind to the Irish, getting back Kona Schwenke and Ishaq Williams would be a huge help to a front seven that’s going to need to bring a hardhat next weekend against BYU. It’ll give Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day a much needed (and productive) back-up in Schwenke, and allow Williams to take some of the crossover snaps at defensive end and Cat linebacker.

Can this team get off the mat like Brian Kelly’s first three?

It’s hard for some to remember just how dark it was before Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season. The loss to Florida State kicked off a toxic offseason where even the most sensible Irish fans started to wonder if Brian Kelly was the right guy for the job.

A Herculean schedule awaited. An unproven quarterback was thrust into play. And a group that disappointed the previous season galvanized and put together one of the most unexpected seasons in Notre Dame history.

There is a mental toughness that’s been instilled in Kelly’s first three seasons. We saw it early, when the Irish rallied after a heartbreaking loss to Tulsa and came out of a bye week to stomp No. 14 Utah 28-3. We’ve seen in the past few seasons, spearheaded by leaders like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert.

Will this team take the emotions of Senior Day and channel them towards putting together a complete performance?

Will a leader emerge on the field in these final three games?

The Irish are in desperate need of a leader to carry this team on their shoulders. That’s not to say that the three captains on this team, Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson, aren’t carrying their weight in the locker room, but this team is in desperate need of a leading man. 

TJ Jones has played the best football of his career these past few weeks, catching touchdowns in last seven games. But Jones wasn’t sharp against Pitt (even if he was prolific), opening the game up with a drop on a screen pass, then fumbling a ball deep in the Pitt red zone.

Martin’s play along the offensive line has been what it always has: rock solid. But the unit hasn’t carried the offense the way they’re needed to, especially late in the year when a running game is at a premium.

Jackson has had an up-and-down season. He’s been exposed some in coverage while missing some tackles after a very physical and clean-tackling year. Part of that is playing in a secondary with safeties still learning their jobs, but taking away the football is at a premium this time of year and the Irish are the only ones doing the giving.

These three guys should have the best opportunity to lead, but if the Irish want to turn this season into something more than just average, a dominant performer will need to emerge on both sides of the ball. It could be a veteran (Tommy Rees, Prince Shembo) or a newcomer (Tarean Folston, Jaylon Smith). Whoever it is, they’ll need to step up.

With the week off, the Irish staff gets a jump-start on the final push to recruiting. 

A nice benefit to the off-week is the ability to hit the recruiting trail. Irish coaches have scattered across the country, checking in on prospects new and old, and extending some offers at positions that still seem like needs for next year’s roster.

Mike Denbrock hit the West Coast. Kerry Cooks was in Texas. Our friends over at Irish Illustrated have the scoop on a busy week, but expect to see some moves sooner than later on the Big Board.

While it might not be possible to watch BYU, get an early peek at Stanford this weekend. 

There’s not much to learn this weekend from BYU, who will be battling Idaho State, a FCS team with a 1-6 record in the Big Sky conference. But last weekend gave a good blue-print for beating the Cougars, as Gary Andersen’s Wisconsin Badgers beat BYU 27-17 in a game that wasn’t really that close.

But if you’re looking for another chance to watch Stanford, they’ve got an intriguing matchup with USC slated for prime time Saturday evening. A week after storming out and dominating Oregon, then holding on for dear life, it’ll be an interesting test for David Shaw’s team against a USC squad that’s got plenty of talent, but more than a few deficiencies.

Enjoy the weekend. 

After a few stressful football Saturdays, forgive one writer for getting away from the keyboard this weekend. (Unless something big happens, of course.) With Thanksgiving around the corner and the season coming to a close, it’s a good reminder that this crazy game we all follow is a lot of fun, but can be a bit too all consuming.

As I finalize my trip to South Bend for the final home game of the year, it’d be great to get started on an Inside the Irish meet-up, with a few friendly watering holes in South Bend likely to welcome any/all of us for a few cold ones.

So if anybody plans on being in South Bend next weekend, drop a note in the comments or hit me up on Twitter and we’ll find a place for Friday evening.

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)
Getty
Leave a comment

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
22 Comments

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
11 Comments

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
Getty
6 Comments

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.