Santa

Holiday Mailbag: Answers and Presents

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here’s hoping you’re all spending these next few days finishing up work and getting closer to friends and family.

And as teased, we’re doing our first ever Holiday giveaway, thanks to LCP and Skybox Press. It’s the Official Illustrated History of Fighting Irish Football.  The book features 20 essays from former Notre Dame greats like Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Dave Casper, Brady Quinn, Ken MacAfee, Ross Browner, Tony Rice and John Huarte.

It’s perfect for a coffee table and features over 300 photos. My niece Sydney picked the winner (don’t blame me!) but all of our readers are able to get the book on sale here, using the promo code “ND230” to cut the price from $75 to $39.95, which includes free shipping.

Here’s the mailbag. Sydney’s pick for the free book is at the bottom.

@Ontario_Bill: What is the greater loss with Diaco leaving…..schematics or recruiting? BD seemed to really connect with high school kids…

Bill, I’m going with “none of the above.” While I think Diaco was excellent as both a schemer and recruiter, his presence and energy in the locker room will be missed the most. We tend to forget that he took over a defense that wasn’t just mediocre, it was horrible. Probably even worse was the morale of the group, players that had seen coaches and systems come and go.

Diaco rebuilt the psyche of this group, starting with a “B.I.A.” chant (Best In America) that people started by chuckling at, but ended up almost achieving in 2012.

@DanFree5: can you explain the “Pot of Gold” craze? I think I managed to figure it out. Wondering where it started and the point.

During the recruiting quiet period, Notre Dame has managed to build momentum with the remaining recruits on the board. A smart initiative by the recruiting office and football staff, and it’s helped build an awareness during a usually slow period, and allowed Kelly to focus on prepping the team for the bowl game and vetting candidates for his coaching staff.

@IrishPhog: who are you hearing about for coordinators? Simply Cooks and Denbrock?

As you’d expect, there’s a pretty tight lid on this search. Talking to people inside the program, they’ve got no clue either. If I had to guess, I think Denbrock gets a promotion and a QB coach is brought in. Cooks might share the title with Mike Elston, but this is the one place where Kelly might bring in someone new to a leadership position.

I put together a pretty comprehensive look at this last night, working into the wee hours of the morning reading about coaching buyouts and contracts.

notthatconfused: Do you think Kelly will continue as quarterbacks coach, or will he hire someone (George Whitfield) to perform those duties?

George Whitfield isn’t coming to South Bend. He’s doing what he wants to do and he’s got a pretty good gig living close to the beach in San Diego and working with quarterbacks from all around the country.

tonyricemajorharris: Besides 5th year seniors, who else might be transferring?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely comfortable speculating on who plans on leaving the program, but I think the biggest group will be graduated players with immediate eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see if these guys go join one of four coaches they had a connection with: Charlie Weis at Kansas, Charley Molnar at UMass, Chuck Martin and Miami or Bob Diaco at UConn.

I do think you have to look at guys buried on the depth chart and wonder if they’ll stick with it. The running back and safety depth chart is pretty daunting. Some veteran cornerbacks have been passed as well.

newmexicoirish: Keith this week has been a pretty good one for Irish recruiting. Of the remaining top targets for Notre Dame (Matt Elam, JuJu Smith, Michiah Quick, Terry Godwin) who do think the Irish have a realistic chance of signing? Is there room for Dalton Schultz or do you think we’re pretty well stocked at tight end?

In the next two years, Alex Welch, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack will all depart. Does that mean Notre Dame will take three tight ends? I don’t know. But I expect them to take a full class and if they can fit Schultz, maybe they’ll take him.

NotreDan: We bounced it around a bunch this year, but in your opinion; how damaging was lack of leadership in the absence of Teo and Kappy, and who are the emerging team leaders for next year?

I don’t know that leadership was the reason this defense regressed. I think we probably overvalued the team’s personnel, and the loss of Danny Spond, the early season injury to Stephon Tuitt and Dan Fox, and some struggles in the secondary did it.

That Te’o was able to be a tackling machine and a turnover creator is really astounding. Many people forgot about the season he had because of the catfishing. But there’s a reason he was the most highly decorated defensive player in the modern era.

irishdodger: can you please lend your perspective as to where ND stands now in the CFB landscape versus the post Holtz era. With the Texas coaching search, it really puts into perspective how important it is for any school to make the right hire. Just thinking back to the Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis eras makes me glad ND finally got it right w/ Kelly.

I think the coaching search at a place like USC ends the idea that prestigious programs can just pluck an elite coach from another top-level program. Notre Dame fans would have rioted if the Irish hired Sark, a guy that only now just won eight games.

Looking back, Notre Dame got caught institutionally napping at the worst time in college football history. It’s never good when you’re the last to realize the arms race has begun, and hiring Bob Davie has to go down as an all-timer. A big-time hire there and it would’ve been a very different 20 years.

bernhtp: Will we see an article titled “Tribute to Tommy” at the end of the season?

I think we’ve written about Tommy quite a bit. Let’s wait until after the season to take a closer look at all the departing seniors.

chadwalters425: How does Greg Bryant participating in bowl game practice not violate his medical redshirt?

You can practice. You just can’t play.

mediocrebob: How has Zaire’s growth and development gone thus far? I remember during spring ball people mentioning that he was very eager to learn. Has he gained weight? Is there a big difference between when he arrived last winter and now?

Bob, if someone in the media can tell you how Zaire is progressing, he’s got a secret view into practice that most of us don’t. He’s likely gained weight, gotten stronger and learned the playbook. We’ll get a better idea come spring ball, when an updated roster is released and a closer look at the team.

One thing I haven’t liked? Zaire’s propensity to get on Twitter and speak his feelings. Kelly already put the young quarterback on notice when he let it slip he was battling mono. But Zaire’s initial reaction to Chuck Martin’s hiring at Miami was hardly the type of response you want from the potential face of the Irish offense.

Still, these past few weeks have been a great opportunity for Zaire. He’s had a ton of one-on-one time with Kelly, and if there’s a way to jump start his career, this is it. With Tommy Rees departing, and Andrew Henrix quite possibly as well, Zaire’s gotten more time than he could dream of with his head coach during preparations for the Pinstripe Bowl.

jcodaniels: first time commenter, long time reader of your work. Love it. Well it looks as though I will again be depending on Amazon to get my wife’s Christmas gift to my house on time this year as I am terrible at getting something ahead of time. My question to you is, do you think it is OK that I got her something Notre Dame which is basically for me. Last year it was an electronic that was basically for me as well that had an ND background on it when she opened it. I think my love for Notre Dame is taking affect on my marriage. 

That’s why there’s Amazon Prime! But on a serious note, this offseason can’t come soon enough for you. Take a couple months away from it and come back refreshed in the fall. Don’t forget Bobby D’s poem.

chejoe: It seems to me that Kelly has been snake-bit by quarterbacks during his entire time at ND: first, Clausen graduates early, rather than play for him; next, Crist was not as good as we all thought (neither was Hendrix) and Dayne was injury prone; then, Kiel decides to transfer *right before* Golson gets kicked out of school. While Rees did all he could, and it was better than most (including me) give him credit for, he was obviously thrust into this role (repeatedly) despite simply not being the right man for the job. As we head into Rees’ final game in an ND uniform, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the ND offense. The one year that Kelly had as least *most* of his wishes at QB the Irish played for the title. How do you see it playing out?

I’m not sure there’s a question there, but I think you’re on to something. It’s worth noting that for the first time, Kelly will have a depth chart of quarterbacks that he recruited.

rocket1988: Alright here are some questions Mr. Arnold
Better beach: Hermosa or Manhattan? — Manhattan, of course.
Steak or Sushi? — Why not both. But I could eat sushi seven nights a week.
Ducks or Kings? — Gimme the Canucks. Lotta ND blood in the front office.
Favorite ND athlete of the past, present, or future? — Too hard. I’m partially to the CDH Raiders: Rashon Powers-Neal, Ryan Harris, Marcus Freeman, Michael Floyd, James Onwualu, and hell — baseball legend J.P. Gagne.
And last, your dream venue to cover and ND game? Dublin was pretty slick. But Fenway should be cool, too.

irishpuma: Seriously who are your favorite posters and who are your least likely to read or have a drink with.

You are each like my own — eh, special children.

ndfenian: For Keith or anybody that has a thought: why didn’t we see the offense employ screen passes to the running backs this year? Does Kelly not believe in the screen game to backs?

There were plenty of screen passes in this offense, but I agree, I’d like to see more running back screens. I’ll dig into this during the offseason.

dudeacow: Flashback: back when Kelly was hired, was this where you envisioned the program would be four years in? Include specifics (i.e., recruiting, offensive/defensive production, team speed, etc.)

That’s a pretty impossible question to answer. But to see the team make it to the BCS National Championship Game in their third season, and to see the defense rebuilt and an offense come together with such young, promising talent, there are on track.

Nudeman:  Many here and elsewhere have scratched their heads this year at the play calling. Too pass-happy for most of us. I could cite specific examples, but it’s not necessary. Personally I’ve never been 100% convinced that BK isn’t still calling the plays, but can’t prove that. Some have surmised it’s Rees audibling into passes; some have blamed Martin.

With a new OC next year and a new QB who doesn’t audible everything, not to mention Folston & Bryant being a year older and stronger, to what degree does this problem go away?

What a wonderfully loaded question. The bottom line is that Kelly’s offense can’t run optimally if the quarterback can’t run the ball. I tackled this a few days ago if you want to read more.

goirish3590: A phrase we frequently heard in reference to Bob Diaco’s style of defense was, “bend, don’t break,” and 2012′s defensive unit came to embody that sentiment. My question is this: do you think we’ll see a philosophical shift to perhaps a more aggressive defense, or do you think Kelly sticks closer to the idea of avoiding big plays?

That phrase was assigned by fans. The phrase that Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco used was “limit points.” And they did a very good job of that. While I think the defense needs to do a better job of taking away the football, avoiding big plays is pretty much the only proven way to keep scoring down.

THE WINNER:

TonyRiceMajorHarris. Congratulations on your Christmas present. Please send me an email with your mailing address (through the link) and we’ll get you a book.

 

 

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.