Tuitt Nix

Even with Tuitt gone, Notre Dame defense can evolve and improve

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Stephon Tuitt is gone. With the siren song of the NFL, and the ability to provide for his family and play football at the game’s highest level, too alluring to turn away. Tuitt will go early in the NFL Draft. How early? That likely depends on the work Tuitt does between now and the NFL Scouting Combine, where the 6-foot-6, 322-pound physical specimen will have the opportunity to show off his natural talents for all 32 teams to see.

Notre Dame is likely to produce two first round defensive linemen, something unheard of in South Bend. The only tragedy in all of it is the lack of production the Irish got out of Tuitt and Louis Nix in 2013, with Tuitt hampered throughout the beginning of the season and Nix lost for most of the end.

It’ll be a fresh start on defense. The architect of the past four units is gone, with Bob Diaco now leading the UConn football program. And while Brian VanGorder‘s job isn’t yet official, perhaps his time in South Bend comes at the perfect moment, as this is a group that’s going to need a fresh start.

Notre Dame headed to Camp Shiloh to open 2013 looking for a fresh start. Heading into spring practice, they’ll certainly have one. Of the team’s starting front seven, only defensive end Sheldon Day remains. Yet things are hardly as dire as that statement might seem.

The Irish have recruited well along the defensive front, in preparation for the departure of Nix and Tuitt. While they haven’t found a true nose guard (the closest thing they had wanted to stay closer to his grandma), they’ve added a multitude of bodies that can get the job done.

As difficult as it might be to replace Tuitt and Nix’s talent, it might not be as hard to replace their production. After putting up 12 sacks as a sophomore, Tuitt dropped to 7.5 this season, with 1.5 coming against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Nix’s numbers were fairly pedestrian as well, with the nose guard’s eight game totals checking in at a shade over three tackles a game. 

In addition to personnel changes, there are likely schematic tweaks in store. We shouldn’t expect to see Brian Kelly do a 180 in his core defensive philosophies, but bringing in VanGorder signals a different direction after Diaco’s emphasis on core competency and conservative play. With an offense that’ll likely be more explosive next season, expect a defense that’s willing to be more aggressive. How that plays into personnel on the field will be one of the fun reveals of spring practice.

Here’s what we (think we) know:

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at nose guard. We saw Jarron Jones step to the forefront during the season’s final month. Lost at defensive end, the jumbo sized Jones found comfort over the nose, his job simplified as he lined up over the football. 

Joining him there should be Tony Springmann. An ACL tear and infection during the healing process slowed down his timeline, but Springmann should be a more than competent player. Let’s set the floor at a more productive Kona Schwenke.

If the Irish shift to a four-man front, sliding Day inside could be a legitimate option. At 6-foot-2, 290, Day has the type of size Trevor Laws or Ian Williams had, and earns rave reviews for his block destruction talents. In VanGorder’s attacking defensive front, Day could be the type of guy that wreaks havoc on the interior, playing more of an Aaron Donald role than the two-gapping block-eater that Nix mastered.

Of course, Day’s shift inside would open up another defensive end job. Does that mean Ishaq Williams slides down and plays there? Or does the staff believe Isaac Rochell can do the job? While he looked like a numbers crunch, perhaps VanGorder can get something out of Justin Utupo, a man without a position in Diaco’s system. Chase Hounshell has an open path to the starting lineup if his balky shoulders let him stay healthy.

At linebacker, things look promising. Jarrett Grace needs to keep rehabbing after breaking his leg against Arizona State, to anchor the inside linebackers. His progress won’t truly be known until August. But Jaylon Smith is a star in the making, with the outside linebacker perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of a system change. Guys like Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt will battle Michael Deeb for reps, while outside backers like Williams, Romeo Okwara and Anthony Rabasa have the first shot at the Cat linebacker job before the freshmen enroll.

If there’s a wild card in all of this it’s the incoming freshman. The Irish will welcome 10 players into the front seven, with an interesting mix of hybrid players, high upside developmental projects and athletes that should immediately infuse speed into the defense.

Up front, any one of Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Jonathan Bonner or Matt Dickerson could see the field. Likewise, we won’t know where guys like Grant Blankenship or Jhonathon Williams play until they get to campus. Nyles Morgan and Richard Yeargin certainly looked the part at the Army All-American Bowl. But there’s also a reason why Greer Martini was one of the Irish coaching staff’s first inside linebacker targets. Add in intriguing athletes like Kolin Hill and Nile Sykes and the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s what makes the next few months so exciting. After feeling like the deck was stacked against Notre Dame for much of 2013, there’s reason for guarded optimism. Brian Kelly will need to replace key contributors on both sides of the ball, but has a depth chart stacked with hand picked recruits to fill their shoes.

Saying goodbye isn’t always easy. Especially to defensive linemen like Nix and Tuitt. But as the Irish coaching staff moves forward replacing two coordinators, the team on the field will replace leaders and contributors. There was a time when Louis Nix was an unknown quantity, just working his way into shape so he could see the field. Before Stephon Tuitt was being compared to Bain, he was just another freshman doing his best to get on the field.

The pieces, while certainly unproven, appear to be there. Now it’s time for the defense to evolve, pushing a new fleet of contributors to the forefront.

The time for rebuilding is over. After four seasons, we’ll see if the Irish defense can reload.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

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.