Brian Kelly

Academic casualties proof that foundation at Notre Dame remains

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Earlier this week, freshman basketball player Demetrius Jackson didn’t play against Clemson, causing Irish basketball fans heart palpitations. The highest profile basketball recruit in recent memory has started his Irish career slowly, and Jackson’s mysterious absence had many believing that the future star and coach Mike Brey were on the road to a messy break-up.

But Brey reported after the game that Jackson was taking some time away from basketball to get his academics in order. The South Bend native was just the latest in a run of high profile student-athletes to have their obligations as students get in the way of their starring roles athletes.

Before Jackson it was senior guard and leading scorer Jerian Grant. Notre Dame’s hockey program lost its top defenseman Robbie Russo. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is spending the semester at home, with his academic affairs out of order. And nobody has forgotten Everett Golson, an academic blow from which the 2013 football season never recovered.

Five high profile athletes — arguably among the most important on campus — have been toppled over by the always delicate balance of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame over the past 12 months. Whether acknowledged or not, it’s created a ripple effect across college sports.

Right now, it’s been seen mostly on the recruiting trail. The departure of Golson and Daniels was fodder for opponents, very visible data-points used by some to present the narrative that Notre Dame struggles to protect its own.

In good times, Notre Dame’s academic rigors are used as a beacon for what’s right about college sports. During the Irish’s run to the BCS title game, Notre Dame had the No. 1 ranked football team and the No. 1 rated graduation rate, a double-double likely never before pulled off. That this fact was only a fractional piece of media coverage heading into the Irish’s game with Alabama tells you something.

Of course, those wondering if things are crumbling beneath the Golden Dome are also missing the big picture. Notre Dame’s academic support system, the very same one that rightfully received kudos for the work of its small, but dedicated staff, remains unchanged.

That 18-to-21 year olds falter in the classroom and make short-sighted decisions is an evergreen problem. It’s a universal coaching point that can never be overstressed to every kid in the dorms, not just the ones in monogram jackets. In times like this, while tomatoes fly in from the cheap seats, those working are best to just keep their heads down and stay the course.

So if you are looking for an address from the athletic department or a change in the process, it isn’t likely. But in essence, Brian Kelly took on the topic on Signing Day, reaffirming his commitment to the virtues of a four-year degree from Notre Dame, one of the most valuable undergraduate diplomas in the country.

It wasn’t exactly President Andrew Shepherd, but it wasn’t too far off:

 

“When we’re on the road recruiting, we were talking about 8,000 students here at Notre Dame.  We were talking about a faith‑based education.  We were talking about a competitive academic environment.  We were talking about community and living, residential life.  We were talking about all those things, and at the same time being able to talk about winning a National Championship. So both of those things are important, as well as a 40‑year decision, not a four‑year decision.

“When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship.  If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree.  I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a National Championship, and be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft.  That’s what I want, if that’s what they want.

“So that was our charge going out is looking for guys that wanted a degree from Notre Dame, help Notre Dame win a National Championship, and then if they wanted to go to the NFL, that they would play on one of the greatest platforms in college football.  They’d play at Notre Dame.  They’d be on NBC.  They’d be on national television.  They’d be under one of the great opportunities to be seen on a day‑to‑day basis.

“So when you look at the list of guys, we vetted them out just like they vetted us out.  So recruiting is a two‑way street.  A lot of times our fans ask why didn’t they recruit this guy or they recruited this guy; it’s a two‑way street when it comes to the recruiting process.  So we are really, really pleased with the work that our coaches have done, our recruiting staff.”

For those thinking that the struggles of Jackson, Grant, Russo, Daniels and Golson are fractures in the system, Notre Dame would likely argue that it’s proof that the foundation still stands strong.

That all of these athletes have pledged to come back and compete again with their teammates and represent their university, deserves appreciation, the road less traveled compared to a transfer or scramble for higher ground.

One of the biggest worries about Brian Kelly heading to Notre Dame was that he might not be able to deal with the culture of the university and the concerns that an outsider might not be willing to embrace Notre Dame’s charge of being different. While some bumps in the road have been painful, it’s pretty clear that Kelly’s resolve, and the pledges of the student-athletes facing adversity, represents the opposite.

No coach ever won a recruiting battle by telling an athlete it’d be easy.

Now more than ever, it seems Notre Dame accepts and embraces it.

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.