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Kelly on the recruits: Front Seven

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One of the more impressive hauls in this year’s recruiting class was the work Brian Kelly and his staff did on the front seven. Needing to replace starters at every position with the exception of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, the group was key in rebuilding the team’s depth chart.

Considering Notre Dame needed to replace their defensive coordinator (who also served as the linebackers coach) and transition in Brian VanGorder during the home stretch of the process, it’s hard to be too tough on this group.

Let’s walk through the signees, with Kelly’s comments from his introductory press conference:

BK on Grant Blankenship

“He just continues to grow.  He’s about 265 pounds.  We loved him in camp.  We had a hard time with anybody blocking him.  He was a guy that just stood out right away for us when we saw him in our summer camp working out.  Had a great senior year, and again, a guy that continued to just grow.  I think he’s just starting to hit his potential level, and it’s only going to get better and better.

“Grant is going to be really a solid player for us with great size, somebody that’s really going to grow into that position at the defensive line.”

BK on Jonathan Bonner

“We really project him to be an outside player for us, an edge player, rush player, a guy that gets after the quarterback, and really was impressed with Jonathan, his personality, his character.

“Has a bit of a connection here with Notre Dame, as well.  When you talk about the right fit to Notre Dame, Jonathan possessed all of the right characteristics, academics, socially, and then as a football player. When he came up here, again, a lot of these guys we see firsthand, so our evaluations in a lot of these young men, we got a chance to see them.  Jonathan really impressed us in all of those areas.”

BK on Daniel Cage

“This guy is a ferocious player.  He’s an inside player, and we love the way he got off the ball.  His strength, lower body strength, he’s a guy that’s going to play the shade, he can play the nose.  He’s a guy that’s very disruptive inside.

“As you know, it was not a long recruiting process. We told Daniel, the circumstances, because of losing a player and then having a couple of guys go early, we had to recruit him in a shorter window, but we were able to show him why we thought Notre Dame was the right fit for him, and he got a chance to see Notre Dame, and he signed with us today.  Daniel Cage, we’re excited about having him at Notre Dame, as well.”

BK on Jay Hayes

“One thing I’ll say about Jay is that he has been probably one of our, I would say best recruiters in a sense from day one.  He’s talked about Notre Dame and why you make a decision to come to Notre Dame.  I remember one of his quotes when I was with him was, Coach, some of these guys don’t get it.  They don’t really understand why you would come to Notre Dame.  And he’s such a thoughtful kid at his age that he understands why he would come to Notre Dame for all the right reasons, getting a degree and opening up doors for him for the rest of his life.

“Having said that, he’s a heck of a football player.  Long, and he’s long.  He’s 6’4″, long arms, about 275 pounds.  He’s got multi‑position capabilities.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  Really like the way he plays the game, ferocious attacking player and a guy that we have a lot of trust in their head coach.  He’s a defensive line coach by trade, and he’s one of the best he’s ever had.  Really excited about Jay Hayes coming into our program.”

BK on Kolin Hill

“Colin was a young man that we offered when he didn’t have a lot of action, but we saw a young man that we thought we could develop into just an outstanding football player.  First of all, we loved him as a person.  Again, a right fit for Notre Dame, character, high energy, yes, sir, no, sir, had all those things that we really liked.  He was engaging.  Really impressed our admissions people.  He had all the things that we were looking for as well as somebody that we felt we could develop.

“After we offered him, of course then he got a million offers after that.  Another kid from Texas that was offered by Texas, but he saw the reasons that he chose Notre Dame and fought through that late recruitment.  Again, I thought Kerry did a great job of recruiting Colin and getting him here to Notre Dame.

“Here’s a guy that really will continue to just develop.  He has not even seen his ceiling yet.”

BK on Greer Martini

“Greer Martini is one of the smarter defensive players we signed.  We got a chance to spend some time with him here on campus.  His leadership skills, his ability to recognize and really‑‑ you have to have leaders.  He’s a really good player, and he’s a really good leader, and he’ll be a very good linebacker for us here at Notre Dame and will also be a guy that makes others around him better.

“He’s a good size at 6’3″, 225.  He’s only going to get bigger and stronger while he’s here.  He’ll be an inside linebacker for us, and again, a position of need for us moving forward.”

BK on Pete Mokwuah

“Pete was a great fit for us, and looking for to augment our defensive line position, we wanted to find the right profile young man.  He’s Nigerian.  We’ve had a great Nigerian connection here, Romeo Okwara, Prince Shembo, just to name a few, and then Pete was able to connect Catholic institution, goes to a Catholic school.  That profile fit very well for us.  A kid that’s serious about his academics here at Notre Dame.  All very good profiling for us in terms of the right fit here at Notre Dame and a 6’4”, 315‑pound defensive lineman, pretty good fit there, too.

“So all of those things together, we really liked his personality.  His mom got a chance to come up with him and see Notre Dame.  He’s got a couple of sisters, one at UConn, one at St.John’s, so the family really understands about college and getting a great education and so it was a really good fit in getting Peter here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nyles Morgan

“One thing that stands out about Nyles is his thirst for knowledge of the game.  Every time I’m with him, he just wants to talk about football, and he’s a good student, and his mom and dad want him to just talk about academics, and he’s a good student and he recognizes the value of getting a degree at Notre Dame.  A couple of his choices were Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, so he understands that clearly, but every time he’s with me he just wants to talk about football.  He is a student of the game.

“He couldn’t wait for today because after today he gets to talk a lot more football, and on a daily basis he’s going to be talking about football.

“Just got a great nose for the football, plays downhill, plays fast, great instincts, and when he arrives, he arrives with a bad attitude when he gets to the football.  He’s just that kind of player.  Very, very talented.  You know, I think from our standpoint, an inside guy that certainly has the physical tools to be an exceptional player here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nile Sykes

“Just a great addition to our class.  Really like Nile and his personality.  He’s got a great family.  Mom and dad, really excited about being a part of the Notre Dame family.  Listen, that matters, too.  We want people that want to be part of Notre Dame and be part of our family, and to bring Nile and his family in, he’s a versatile player.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  He is a physical player.  He’s got very good ball skills, instincts, and again, another versatile player in our front seven that’s going to add to the depth of our football team.”

BK on Andrew Trumbetti

“The thing that I would say about Andrew, the thing that really put him over the top for us is when we were watching his film, he was returning kickoffs in high school, and not many times do you see a defensive lineman returning kickoffs.

“We knew about his athletic ability right away, and certainly we loved the fact that he was a multisport player, was a track athlete, and when we got a chance, when Coach Diaco was here before he moved on to Connecticut, got a chance to see him in track practice and got a chance to see his footwork and his quickness and all those things, and that started the recruiting process for us, and then obviously getting a chance to see him up on campus in our summer camps.”

BK on Jhonathon Williams

“Here’s a young man that just started play the game, 6’6”, 230 pounds, and who knows what his future is going to be.  There’s no ceiling on Jhonny Williams’s future.  He’s an engaging young man.  He just recognizes that he’s got a great opportunity at Notre Dame, and we’re excited to provide him that opportunity.

“You know, he’s one of the top players in the state of Michigan, and I think from our perspective, we’ve got one of those guys that if you call him a sleeper or whatever you want to call it, he didn’t play great competition, but he’s going to get an opportunity to play against the very best competition here.  But we’ll take that any time with his athletic skill set.

“At his size, his athletic ability, we’re really excited about developing Jhonny Williams.  He’s the kind of guy that you want to have on your team because of his personality, who he is, his story, his family background, and then a guy that you feel like you can develop down the road.”

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.