Senior Day

Pregame Six Pack: Going out on a high note

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If the major concern heading into Senior Day was dealing with the team’s heightened emotions, a dash of reality set in on Thursday evening when the news of Louis Nix’s season-ending surgery sunk in. 

Working through emotions is one thing. Playing without the team’s 350-pound tip of the spear is quite another.

 

As the Irish prepare to take on BYU’s up-tempo, power-running attack, they’ll do so without Nix at the center of the defense. As Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated pointed out on Twitter, the Irish will go their final ten games of the season getting just 23 snaps out of the starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Nix and Sheldon Day, a case of perpetual snakebite after a season that felt kissed by the gods. 

Still, there’s a game to play on Saturday afternoon and the Irish need to win it, sending their seniors out on a high note.

Let’s get into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Cougars at 3:30pm ET on NBC.

***

It won’t just be another Saturday for the guys running out of the tunnel. 

We’ll spend some more time later discussing the senior class. But for a 31 players, this might be the last time they run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame. That’s a factor that Brian Kelly has talked about.

“It’s always a concern,” said Kelly. “The emotional impact is always measured because you certainly don’t want your players playing emotionally. You want enthusiasm.

“We’ll be talking about that balance between the emotions of the last game and the enthusiasm of playing in your last game. We have to make sure we balance it because we’ve got quite a few seniors like BYU.”

On his weekly chat with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook radio show, Kelly revealed that the team spent some time this week savoring the moment, with the hopes that the emotion wouldn’t all pour out on Saturday. We’ll see how that plays out early on Saturday afternoon.

***

With the loss of Nix, slowing down Taysom Hill will be key. 

If there’s an immediate concern without Nix, it’s the health of the front seven. The guys backing up Nix aren’t in the best of shape either.

Kona Schwenke will try and give it a go after a high ankle injury of his own. He’ll slide back inside and try to take snaps at nose guard, even though he’s not fully healed. Jarron Jones will be out of his ankle boot, forced to take important snaps at the point of attack as well, along with Tyler Stockton.

Kelly updated Schwenke’s heath situation on Thursday evening, with the Hawaiian also playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium.

“He’s not 100 percent,” Kelly said of Schwenke. “Jarron Jones will have to play a lot in there. Jarron’s had a great week. Really pleased with his practice. Kona is going to give it all he has. He really wants to play. It’s important to him. He’s going to play. How much do we get out of him, we’ll see.”

Whoever ends up taking snaps, slowing down Hill is going to be key. The sophomore quarterback is second in the country with 44 rushes of 10-yards or more. With an arm (and wide receiver) that’s able to more than keep you honest, the Irish are going to have to play great fundamental football to shut down Hill.

“The first thing is to try and keep the ball away from Taysom Hill,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If you put this kid on the field and give him an opportunity to run 85, 90 plays, they’re going to score too many points.”

***

Look to last year’s game plan for hints at Saturday’s attack. 

The Irish haven’t been able to effectively establish the run like they did last season. And no Saturday last year did the ground game play more importantly than in the Irish’s 17-14 victory over the Cougars.

The Irish ran for 270 yards against BYU, throwing just three times in the second half. With the weather looking like it could be a winter wonderland with temperatures below freezing, it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be a game won in the trenches.

Kelly talked a little bit about using the running game not just to move the chains, but to also establish the playaction passing game.

“Carving out the running game is the first thing we’re going to try to do,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If we can’t do that, the ball has got  to get down the field. Pushing it vertically and trying to make those big chunk plays is the next job at hand.”

While they haven’t been as stingy, Kelly compared Bronco Mendenhall’s defense to Michigan State’s, with the secondary bunched within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If the Irish are going to score points, they’re going to need to hit the Cougars over the top when that happens.

“Once the safeties start making plays near the line of scrimmage, the ball has got to get down the field,” Kelly explained. (Safety Daniel) Sorensen, when he starts making plays near the line of scrimmage, what we have to do with Tommy is that you can’t read him, you’ve got to be able to throw and run your play action game.”

***

On a Saturday that’ll likely tug at your heart strings, Jaylon Smith will honor his mentor Danny Spond in a classy tribute. 

If you don’t see No. 9 out on the edge of the defense wreaking havoc, don’t worry. Jaylon Smith will be there, he’ll just be doing it in teammate Danny Spond’s jersey.

 

Smith’s star turn as a freshman came out of necessity, with the five-star freshman thrust into the starting lineup after Spond was forced to retire because of debilitating migraine headaches. Spond then turned into a student-coach, working with Smith and junior Ben Councell on the ins and outs of a position that has been one of the toughest to fill in the Irish’s defensive system.

As a thank you for the tutelage, pupil will honor master by swapping No. 9 for No. 13.

“Jaylon Smith is going to be wearing Danny Spond’s number on Saturday in a manner to thank him for his mentorship this year,” Kelly announced on Thursday evening.

***

Entering the final home game of the regular season, Brian Kelly finally came clean about the quarterback position.

Expect a nice ovation for quarterback Tommy Rees on Saturday. The much maligned quarterback will be playing his final home game in front of his family and 80,000-plus friends, who will thank Rees for his four seasons in South Bend, an improbable run that’s pushed a guy many thought would only be a backup into the school record books.

While Kelly was effusive with his praise for Rees in his radio show comments with Jack Nolan, he finally came clean about his quarterback plans on the season, acknowledging that there was never any interest in getting Malik Zaire on the field this season.

“Quite honestly, without sugar-coating it and cutting through it, I wanted to redshirt him,” Kelly said. “I wanted a quarterback that was going to be a fifth-year guy. Throughout it all, we wanted that more than anything else, and we’re going to get that with Malik.”

Kelly briefly touched on the plans for next year, with spring opening a competition between returning quarterback Everett Golson and Zaire. He also acknowledged the decision on whether Andrew Hendrix will return or not hasn’t been made.

***

Nobody feels sorry for Notre Dame. But a look at what injuries have done to this roster is pretty staggering. 

Every football team is beat up this time of year. But a look at what’s happened this year gives you a better appreciation of just how decimated this roster has become.

As we look back on the senior class, what better time to look back at what’s happened to this roster. While not all of these subtractions are because of injury, the snapshot of where this roster has gotten hit gives you an idea of why this team is struggling to do something of the ordinary things well.

Wonder why the Front Seven play has been subpar? Consider that injuries have hit Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell.

Roster attrition also struck hard, with Everett Golson gone, Eddie Vanderdoes staying home and Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson transferring. Injuries robbed Tate Nichols, Brad Carrico and Cam Roberson of a career.

It was a lost season for Springmann, Hounshell, Torii Hunter Jr., Nicky Baratti and Danny Spond. Injuries ended the year for Daniel Smith, Will Mahone, Ben Councell, Greg Bryant and Jarrett Grace. Elijah Shumate missed multiple games as well.

Subtract out redshirting freshmen and Brian Kelly doesn’t need to snoop around an NFL program to know what it feels like to play with a 53 man roster.

Kelly maneuvered his way around injuries on Thursday while acknowledging there are some more that’ll be attended to after the season as well.

“There’s a number of guys. I couldn’t tell you who they are,” Kelly said, likely substituting the word couldn’t for won’t. “We’re going to have probably two or three shoulder guys. We’re going to have a couple of guys get scoped. It’s normal, end of the year, those surgeries that you have.”

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.