Tyler Gaffney, Hayes Pullard

And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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The regular season finale takes Notre Dame to Northern California on Saturday, where they’ll face No. 8 Stanford, a program that’s spent the past four seasons in rarified air. With the opportunity to win ten games for the fourth straight season, David Shaw’s Cardinal already have their ticket booked for the Pac-12 Championship game. But to finish off their season, they’ll look to settle a score from last year’s 20-13 overtime loss.

The storylines for the game are endless. Two excellent universities, among the elite football playing institutions in the country, with plenty in common. Players, coaches and administrators, the connectivity between both schools exists on all levels.

To get us up to speed on Saturday’s game is the San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner. Jon has covered college football and basketball for almost 20 years and has had a front row seat watching the revival of the Stanford football program.

On a busy holiday week I threw Jon some questions and he sent back some really interesting answers.

Enjoy.

It’s another impressive season for Stanford, back in control of their Rose Bowl destiny thanks to Arizona’s upset of Oregon. But at this point, are people starting to wonder about the Cardinal’s losses? The loss to Utah stands out as baffling, and the loss to Washington last year looks worse in retrospect. Is this kind of criticism merely a product of continued success?

People are wondering about the loss to Utah, for sure. At the time, it didn’t seem so bad: Utah was 4-2 and outplayed the Cardinal that day. Since then, the Utes have collapsed (largely because of injuries and erratic QB play). I’m not sure the Washington loss has anything to do with anything, frankly. That was 14 months ago and Stanford has a different quarterback – it was a close road loss to a team that finished 7-6.

The bottom line is that Stanford’s approach lends itself to close games. The Cardinal play it old school: ball control, power running, huddles, and stout defense. Down-to-the-wire games are, with a few exceptions, a weekly event, and the Cardinal wins far more than it loses.

Staying on that theme, we’re now three years into the David Shaw era. He obviously inherited a great program (and quarterback) from Jim Harbaugh, but is it too early to include Shaw among the elite head coaches at the college level? Have you seen any weaknesses in his three seasons as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football?

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, I think you have to include him among the elite coaches, although that depends in part on how you define elite. He hasn’t won at multiple schools like a Saban or Meyer, which doesn’t mean he couldn’t. But based on what he has done with what he has where he is, he’s obviously pretty darn good. The list of back-to-back coach of the year winners in the Pac-12 is short, and he’s on it.

As for weakness, I haven’t seen any. Stanford fans occasionally get frustrated with the conservative approach, but that’s how Stanford is built and – bottom line – that’s how it must be built in order to succeed at the highest level. If Stanford tried to be like Oregon or Baylor, you can forget about conference titles and BCS berths.

Another year, another impressive defensive performance. Trent Murphy is having a monster season. Shane Skov as well. How good is this unit top to bottom? Are there any weaknesses?

It’s one of the top five or 10 defenses in the country. If there are any weaknesses, it’s probably speed at linebacker. But that’s splitting hairs. The Cardinal is a slab of granite against the run, relentless in its pass rushing and very good on the back line. In fact, the secondary has been the most improved unit over the past two or three years – it’s much more athletic, much better in man-to-man coverage and much better at tackling in the open field, as we’ve seen the last two years against Oregon

Irish fans are envious of Kevin Hogan, a guy with a ton of family connections to Notre Dame, but a QB the Irish staff slow played in recruiting. He pilots an offense with some dangerous weapons, namely Tyler Gaffney and Ty Montgomery, who should be a special teams weapon as well. Stanford can beat you in a number of ways. But who is Enemy No. 1 for the Notre Dame defense on Saturday?

Tommy Rees. The last thing a Louis Nix-less Notre Dame defense needs against Stanford’s power game is to have to defend short fields. That means Rees and the rest of the offense must protect the ball. Three-and-outs aren’t going to lose the game. Turnovers on the wrong half of the 50 will lose the game.

In addition to Montgomery and Gaffney, the Irish should be concerned with quarterback Kevin Hogan’s mobility, especially on third down. He has a knack for keeping drives alive.

How important is the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry to the Cardinal? It’s been a priority for ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Stanford AD Bernard Muir spent six years at Notre Dame. As both these football programs stay among the elite, is this a game that grows in importance for Stanford and its fans?

It’s important for Stanford, although perhaps not to the degree that the Cal and USC games are important from an emotional standpoint and the Oregon game is important from a division title standpoint. It’s a good game for Notre Dame because of the west coast exposure, and there are tons of connections for Stanford above and beyond Hogan’s ties. (Cornerback Alex Carter’s dad, Tom, played for the Irish.) The schools compete against each other for recruits, especially those in the Midwest.

Last year’s game ended in dramatic (and controversial) fashion. How do you see things playing out this Saturday?

Stanford is better. If the Cardinal loses focus – if it’s looking ahead to the Pac-12 title game, for instance – then I think it could go down to the wire. But if Stanford is fully locked in, it should win by 10 or 14 points. Of course, one or two mistakes could change that. If Nix were playing, I might feel differently. But I expect Stanford’s defense to stop the Irish more often than the Irish defense stops Stanford.

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Check out more of Jon’s work at the Mercury News and give him a follow on Twitter @WilnerHotline

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.

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.