Brian Kelly

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Rutgers 16

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So many parts of Notre Dame’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers were forgettable. The sloppy turf inside Yankee Stadium, the special teams mistakes and the missed opportunities. But in the end, Brian Kelly’s Irish pulled away from Rutgers, winning a ninth game of the season, putting an appropriately frustrating bow on a difficult season.

At times, Notre Dame looked like a great football team. Moving the ball impressively between the 20s, limiting Rutgers offense to just 236 yards, and forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback. Yet forced to kick five field goals, the Irish did their best to keep the Scarlet Knights in the game, getting precious little out of their 494 yards.

With the 2013 season in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers.

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1. No matter how ugly it was, heading into the offseason with nine wins and a bowl victory is better than the alternative. 

There will be no style points awarded for Notre Dame’s victory in Yankee Stadium. But walking away with a 29-16 victory was mandatory, and give credit to the Irish for at least doing that. While Notre Dame didn’t make it easy on themselves, the team gutted out a win by putting together a few clutch drives late, and forcing four turnovers against a Rutgers team that made a habit of giving the ball away.

On a slippery track that made more tackles than any one player, the Irish outside ground game was shut down and players on both sides of the ball were slipping and sliding. But even in a game that played every bit as ugly as any other this season, the Irish took home a victory.

Sending out the seniors in style was important. But so was taking some momentum into next season. With Everett Golson returning for spring practice and a young skill position depth chart taking shape, this offense will have the burden of great expectations. Exactly the type of fuel you’d prefer over the long offseason months.

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2. It wasn’t the going away party the Irish would’ve liked for captains TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson.

Against a suspect passing defense, TJ Jones had the chance to do some damage, possibly pushing his way up the Notre Dame record books with a monster game against the Scarlet Knights. But Jones’ afternoon got started on the wrong foot, when a low punt clanked off his shoulder pads, a killer turnover that gave Rutgers three easy points.

But that was hardly the worst of it for Jones. The senior receiver also got banged up on his eight-yard touchdown run, when he took a nasty hit reaching the football across the goal line. Jones wasn’t the same player after that hit, missing a few plays before coming back into the game.

Jones made five catches for 66 yards, but dropped an easy touchdown pass and struggled to keep his footing on the sloppy Yankee Stadium surface. Incorporated into the game plan as a rusher, receiver and special teams threat, Jones didn’t play his best during the Irish’s 29-16 victory, but he battled through a painful injury to help the Irish win.

The Irish’s defensive captain didn’t fair much better on Saturday. Bennett Jackson had a touch time with Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman, getting beat for a 51-yarder over the top and a 14-yard touchdown. Jackson also had a 15-yard pass interference penalty, making it a finale to forget for the cornerback playing in front of family and friends.

It wasn’t all bad for Jackson. He made an aggressive play on a short pass that helped Kendall Moore come up with an interception and a nice stop on special teams late in the game. Those are the type of plays that’ll determine whether or not Jackson makes a living playing on Sundays, as the one-time special teams dynamo and former running back/receiver/return man will need to keep his Swiss Army skills sharp to make it in the NFL.

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3. Even though it looks like Kerry Cooks won’t get the defensive coordinator job, his group did a nice job on Saturday afternoon. 

Brian Kelly revealed after the game that he has decided on an outside hire to be his next defensive coordinator. While he wasn’t ready to name Bob Diaco’s replacement, it looks as if it won’t be Kerry Cooks. If this is it for Cooks as the defensive coordinator, he’s got to be happy with his unit’s performance.

The Irish racked up four sacks and also had four interceptions against Rutgers while holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 yards. Put in tough situations with shoddy special teams play, the Irish limited Rutgers to just 16 points and only three of 12 third down conversions.

The Irish struggled at times defending quarterback Chas Dodd, who surprised with some impressive scrambles and runs. But Rutgers completed just 10 of 28 passes against the Irish, and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Nice work by a defense still playing well short of full strength.

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4. In the end, Tommy Rees was what we all thought he was. And Saturday he went out a winner. 

It was a hot and cold Saturday for Rees, who completed 27 of 47 passes for the Irish, throwing for 317 yards. Unwilling to give up the ball over the top, Rutgers was content to let Rees pick away at the underneath throws, which Rees did effectively, picking up 20 passing first downs and converting seven of 16 third downs.

But the Irish passing game just wasn’t able to get on track with throws down field, with Will Fuller, Jones and Davaris Daniels all unable to pull in catches that could’ve resulted in touchdowns.

Those kind of misses, especially in the red zone, help explain why the Irish scored just 29 points while gaining 494 yards. And Rees was hardly immune to mistakes, making a few bad decisions as he forced the football down field into coverage. But the Irish won another game when Rees didn’t commit a turnover, holding true on a datapoint that is four years in the making.

Saturday’s game made apparent the limitations the Irish have with Rees running the offense. That Rees’s quarterback sneak and two-yard scramble were just the second and third positive rushing play on the season for the quarterback show you just how difficult it is to run Brian Kelly’s offense without a mobile quarterback. But Kelly had nothing but good things to say about Rees as the veteran quarterback played his final game for the Irish.

“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said after the game.

5. With the game on the line, Zack Martin and the offensive line powered the Irish running game to a clinching score. 

With the Irish clinging to a three point lead, Brian Kelly turned to his offensive line to win the game. And for senior Zack Martin, it was one final opportunity to dominate an opponent. With the help of Troy Niklas’s clutch 28-yard catch up the seam, the ground game did the job and Martin earned the game’s MVP trophy.

After holding the Irish to meager gains during the first half, the Irish did damage on the ground after halftime, with Martin leading the way for Notre Dame. Taking the ball with under nine minutes left, the Irish marched 10 plays in over five minutes with Tarean Folston gaining 37 yards on six carries to seal the victory.

The play of the offensive line was a bright spot all season. That a group that lost three starters could continue to protect Rees so well when it mattered is a credit to Harry Hiestand and Martin, who was the binding agent on a line that had to break in four first-year starters.

There will be other offensive tackles taken before Martin in the upcoming NFL Draft, but Kelly was unequivocal in his praise for his four-year left tackle.

“He’s the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached,” Kelly said.

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.