Mailbag: Transfers, death of the 3-4, and more

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Let’s get down to the Friday Mailbag. (That’s what the kids are calling it, anyway.) The questions are much appreciated.

sfnd: Ty Isaac?

First, kudos for the brevity. It’s a skill (believe me, one I’m still working on, too).

If we’re to take BK’s comments from yesterday at face value, you’ve got to think this was basically saying, “Yes, we want Ty Isaac. We wish you signed with us to begin with.”

Here’s what he had to say while talking to the media assembled at the Irish Legends golf fundraiser.

“For a traditional transfer, my preference is they have three years of eligibility and they’re the right academic fit and of course positionally, it makes sense,” Kelly told JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. “There’s not a backlog of players at that particular position.”

Let’s check the boxes:

* Three years left of eligibility for Isaac, who played as a true freshman for the Trojans.
* Notre Dame finished bridesmaids for Isaac in his original recruitment.
* With Cam McDaniel departing and running back a need in this recruiting class, here’s no backlog — especially for a big back.

It wasn’t certain that Isaac would consider Notre Dame, or that USC would allow him to transfer to their rivals. But this Tweet seems to make both things a possibility.

The decision will come quickly, with Isaac needing to be in summer school and conditioning at whatever program he chooses.

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@HayesBean: How many recruits will we take this cycle? Thought it was fewer this year, if so it seems like were settling, other than top 3.

I’d guess the Irish take a class in the high-teens. But it’ll also depend on who comes back for a fifth year. Here’s a quick breakdown of who is eligible to return:

Everett Golson
Amir Carlisle
DaVaris Daniels
Nick Martin
Conor Hanratty
Matt Hegarty
Chase Hounshell
Tony Springmann
Ben Councell
Anthony Rabasa
Jarrett Grace
Joe Schmidt
Jalen Brown
Eilar Hardy
Matthias Farley

Who stays? Who goes? At this point, who knows — though I think it’s a really important year for the heralded recruiting class of 2011.

But I’m not sure I’d agree with you on the Irish “settling,” especially with Kelly’s track record on early identification of prospects. Barnett is a national QB target that just about every program wants. Tillery and Hoge look like they’ll be top linemen at their respective positions. Fertitta is a bit off profile, but ND has kicked the tires on him more than once, and the other skill players are guys who I trust the staff’s evaluation tools better than any website.

The short answer: My guess is 18. But how they get there will be interesting.

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irishdog80: Which of the ND player that were drafted, other than Zack Martin, will have the longest and most productive career in the NFL?

Which undrafted FA from ND this year will have the longest and most productive career…if any?

Good questions. I’d aim at one of the offensive guys, just because I think playing along the defensive line makes for a pretty short shelf life.

Troy Niklas is a guy that — if he stays healthy — has the body and skillset to last forever in the NFL. I also could see TJ Jones carving out a niche as a slot guy, someone who is that No. 3 receiver with punt return skills who sticks around a decade in the league.

As for undrafted free agents, I’m going to go with Dan Fox. I think his ability to run as an inside linebacker will make him valuable to a team as the league because more of a passing, spread-it-out game.

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mediocrebob: Any word on Springmann and Grace recoveries?

Expect Springmann to be good to go for summer workouts. Grace isn’t quite figured out, but I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for him to be ready for the start of the season, if at all.

Kelly gave a mini-update on Grace yesterday, which was essentially no update. He said that he and head trainer Rob Hunt were going to get together to discuss Grace’s healing sometime next week, in advance of summer school and workouts beginning in June.

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shaunodame: Your best guess at a LB Depth Chart (both 4-3 and 3-4) w/ Mike Sam and Will or Cat Dog Mike and Will, and a Wide Receiver Depth Chart w/ X, Z and Slot.

I’m honestly going to punt on this question, at least from the linebackers perspective. Right now, I think Jaylon Smith is going to play every snap at Will. Joe Schmidt will be the team’s primary Mike, though there’s hope that Grace could be ready and obviously Nyles Morgan is coming in this summer.

But then how this staff decides to use guys like Ben Councell, John Turner, Michael Deeb, Kendall Moore or any of the other freshmen is just too hard to figure out.

If the Irish are playing a 3-4, I think you’ll be seeing heft in the lineup, with a guy like Moore or Councell in there to go toe-to-toe with an opponent, but again — I don’t know how realistic that is, or how often that will be.

At receiver, I think the breakdown is already starting to happen:

Outside receivers: DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown
Slot: Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise
Guys in the mix: Torii Hunter, maybe freshman Justin Brent or Corey Holmes.

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steincj36: Does the fact that BK will be calling plays scare anyone else besides me? Am I just apprehensive to this because of the Weis era?

I think Kelly has proven himself to be a true head coach. Charlie Weis was a long-time coordinator thrust into his first head job when he was at ND.

But outside of 2007, what year did you have a problem with the offense? Sure, the running game wasn’t very explosive, but Weis’ offense didn’t struggle to put up points, it was his defense that let him down, especially in his last two seasons.

Kelly had the tag of being an offensive innovator, but that was never one that he gave himself. But he’s got the personnel he wants to run his system this year and knows that style of offense better than anyone else on staff. I think the arrangement will work quite well.

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ndlv: Based on what Coach Kelly has accomplished at ND, where does he rank relative to earlier coaches at ND? Where do you think he ranks relative to other coaches currently in college football? Is he in the top 10?

He’s automatically behind anybody that’s won a national title. And he’s the best coach the Irish have had since Lou Holtz. Outside of that evaluation, I’m not a good enough historian of ND football to place him anywhere else.

As for his place in college football’s elite, I think he’s squarely in the top 10. He’s probably hovering right around the top 5, falling behind guys like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and maybe Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier?

(The Sporting News has been doing this exercise for quite some time and has Kelly ranked fifth.)

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kmic000: When ND is in the 3-4 this year, who do you think the DLine and linebackers will be?

I’ve already punted on the linebackers, but here’s how I’d expect a 3-4 look to play out.

Sheldon Day
Jarron Jones
Ishaq Williams/Tony Springmann

Romeo Okwara
Joe Schmidt
Jaylon Smith
Ben Councell (big) / John Turner (little)

Again, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be correct — nor do I think you’ll see Notre Dame with a legit three-man front too often. But I think it’ll be dependent on guys like Springmann and Hounshell to recover from their injuries and give legitimate reps.

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.

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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.