Tarean Folston

Pregame Six Pack: Send off at Stanford

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The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.

While we may hear plenty of talk about revenge for Stanford after last season’s 20-13 overtime defeat, Cardinal head coach David Shaw talked about the missed opportunities more than any controversies.

“In the end, the opportunities that were there for us to make, we didn’t make, the opportunities for Notre Dame to make, they made,” Shaw said. “And besides that last play of the game, that was the real difference in the game.”

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect game for the Irish, either. Everett Golson turned the ball over three times on fumbles (matching this season’s total), with one turning into Stanford’s only touchdown. But after Golson went out of the game after a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit, Tommy Rees rallied the Irish, completing all four passing attempts, including the game winner in overtime.

There will be no margin for error for the Irish this weekend, with two starters missing from the offensive line and Louis Nix watching from the sideline. But that’s why they play the game.

Let’s get to this weekend’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Saturday evening’s Notre Dame-Stanford game.

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Never considered a tough place to play, heading to The Farm is no walk in the park anymore. 

If the Irish are going to knock off Stanford, they’ll be doing it in one of the toughest places to win in college football. The Cardinal have lost twice this season, but not on their home turf, with Stanford’s 15-game home winning streak the second longest in college football, one game behind South Carolina.

Since the Irish beat the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium as two mediocre three-win teams battled in 2007, Stanford has won 36 of 39 home games since then. Those wins aren’t just coming against cupcakes either.

Stanford is 12-1 at home against ranked opponents, including 4-1 against teams in the top ten. Their last home loss to a ranked team came against No. 6 Oregon in 2011.

***

After pitching a shutout against some pretty impressive competition, fifth-year left tackle Zack Martin has one more tough assignment this weekend. 

When Martin takes the field against Stanford, he’ll become the all-time leader for most career starts at Notre Dame, a record that won’t likely be beat any time soon. But for as impressive as Martin’s iron man streak is, his play this season has been just as good.

In this week’s game notes, the Notre Dame sports information department points out some of the very impressive talent the Irish have faced this year. Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Aaron Donald (Pitt), Shilique Calhoun (MSU), Leonard Williams (USC) and Frank Clark (Michigan) have combined for 77 TFLs and 31 sacks this season. Matched up against Martin, they’ve had just three TFLs and zero sacks.

Saturday, Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy brings another sizable challenge to the table, the nation’s leading quarterback sacker with 13. Last year, Murphy was dominant. While he might not be matched up with Martin all game, keeping Murphy in check with be key for the Irish.

Just how tough is Murphy? Well, he might just come from a long line of giants. His 52-year-old dad can still rep 225 pounds 25 times on the bench press. He wrestled a 400-pound steer calf for fun in high school. The fifth-year veterans will be ones to watch on Saturday.

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One season after giving up the sport for professional baseball, the Irish will have to slow down running back Tyler Gaffney. 

Stuck behind Stephan Taylor for the past few seasons, Tyler Gaffney started for three seasons as an outfield for Stanford’s nationally-ranked baseball program. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round, Gaffney said goodbye to his senior season of football, leaving the program for the minor leagues, where he put together an impressive 2012 season, hitting .297, with a .483 OBP in low-A State College.

But Gaffney came back to the football program, taking an unique redshirt season before putting his baseball career on hold as he returned in the spring to compete for the starting running back job.

“I weighed out my options down to the smallest details,” Gaffney told SI.com. “Getting your degree, being part of this team, being able to play football, is outweighing staying on the baseball team. It pretty much opens up three options rather than just one.”

Those options have only gotten more impressive, as Gaffney has been dominant this season, running for 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns while going over 100 yards seven times this season, including a Herculean effort against Oregon, where he carried the ball 45 times.

Matched up against a really thin Irish defensive front, Gaffney will likely be the weapon of choice for David Shaw, and it’ll be up to the Irish front seven to limit the Doak Walker Award semifinalist.

***

After saying goodbye to some elite tight end talent, the Irish duo of Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned in impressive seasons. 

For two programs that have produced a ton of good tight end talent lately, that Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned into the most productive duo in college football certainly is a positive development this season for Notre Dame. 

After wondering how Notre Dame was going to replace All-American and Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert, the Irish have shown exactly how. Take a look at the numbers over the past two seasons through 11 games:

Tyler Eifert: 40 catches for 555 yards (13.9 avg.) and 4 TDs
Troy Niklas/Ben Koyack
: 35 catches for 556 yards (15.9 avg.) and 8 TDs

Not since 1958, when Monty Stickles, Gary Meyers, Dick Royer and Bob Wetoska caught 10 touchdowns have the Irish tight ends scored more touchdowns than this season. With Niklas, Koyack and potentially Alex Welch returning next season, there’s plenty to look forward to at the position.

***

With another season finale in California, Notre Dame’s commitment to the West coast is critical. 

With scheduling dynamics forever changed because of Notre Dame’s commitment to five ACC games moving forward, two sets of games the Irish aren’t interested in losing are the series with USC and Stanford.

The Irish have committed to finishing their season in California, alternating years between USC and Stanford, a nice Thanksgiving trip away from South Bend. But it’s also a great way to continue building a roster that depends on California talent. The Irish played three games against the Pac-12 this year, the most since 2009.

Eleven members of the Irish, including seven scholarship players, are California natives. And finishing the season on the West Coast allows the Irish coaching staff to recruit the state before heading back, giving Mike Denbrock a chance to drop in on prospects like Tyler Luatua.

With Stanford, USC and UCLA all playing good football, it’s tough mining a state that’s one of the most talent-rich in the country. But it’s a commitment the Irish staff have made and continue to cash in on, with 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett the latest.

***

Injuries on defense have forced the depth chart to improve. 

Entering the season finale, 17 different players have started a game for the Irish. While injuries have decimated the team, they’ve also forced a lot of different people to see action. Let’s take a look at the 24 different players on the Irish roster to make at least 10 tackles this season (with that number potentially growing on Saturday).

Carlo Calabrese – 76
Dan Fox – 75
Jaylon Smith – 56
Bennett Jackson – 56
KeiVarae Russell – 47
Stephon Tuitt – 42
Matthias Farley – 41
Jarrett Grace – 41
Prince Shembo – 40
Austin Collinsworth – 28
Sheldon Day 27
Louis Nix – 27
Eilar Hardy – 25
Elijah Shumate – 23
Kona Schwenke – 20
Ben Councell – 15
Cole Luke – 15
Joe Schmidt – 14
Kendall Moore – 14
Jarron Jones – 14
Ishaq Williams – 13
Romeo Okwara – 13
Isaac Rochell – 10
Max Redfield – 10

Notre Dame hasn’t reached that milestone in over 50 years, when 29 different tacklers made 10 stops or more in 1962. These numbers are a product of some serious damage done to the two-deep depth chart, with 11 different players that opened the year in the two-deep having missed at least two games. (Those numbers don’t count guys like Danny Spond, Tony Springmann or Chase Hounshell, either.)

A stat like this is a big reason the Irish might not pull out a victory on Saturday evening, especially if the Stanford ground game finds its rhythm. But this season’s bad luck could be helpful in the future, with next year’s defense building experience early.

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)
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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.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

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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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.