Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - Navy v Arizona State

Post-Spring Update: Arizona State

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Last year, Notre Dame’s most impressive win might have been its neutral site victory over Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. Limiting the Sun Devils possessions while playing extremely efficient football, the Irish beat a team that won the Pac-12 South in Todd Graham’s second season in the desert.

This year, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for a big non-conference showdown, continuing a rivalry between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham that had the Sun Devils’ coach spring an upset with Tulsa in 2010, lose a close game at Pitt in 2011, and fall short last year.

To get us up to speed with the state of Arizona State’s football program, Nick Krueger managing editor of the House of Sparky, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Sun Devils.

 

Todd Graham was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after winning the South division and 10 games. Can you assess the state of the program with Graham heading into his third season? How is Graham viewed by Sun Devil faithful, considering his hiring wasn’t a consensus home run at the time.

If Todd Graham ran for mayor of Tempe, he would probably win right now. Despite the bowl loss last season, fans are incredibly pleased with what Graham has done so far. He’s very focused on the character and attitude of his players (he calls it “speaking victory”) and brings a passion to the ASU football program that hadn’t been seen around here in awhile. It’s evidenced by former players coming back to support the program in a big way which didn’t really happen before Graham arrived.

It’s no secret that Graham’s goals for this program are a Rose Bowl and National Championship victory and he’s not going to settle for anything less. Almost everyday talking with media after practice he’ll evaluate whether or not the team put in a, “championship effort.” He even put a sticker of the Pac-12 championship trophy on the back of each player’s practice helmet as a consistent reminder about the goal.

The Sun Devils have also continued to strengthen their recruiting class reaching deeper into SEC country for more talented players while also convincing more local players to stay put.

The one thing that really convinced me that he is committed to this program was when former athletic director Steve Patterson left for more money at the University of Texas. Graham is from Texas and contract details aside, he could have jumped ship for what many believed was his dream job. Graham elected to stay put stating he wants to become the winningest coach in ASU history.

 

Offensively, the Sun Devils are expected to score a bunch of points again. The engine that drives it is quarterback Taylor Kelly. Is there a more under-the-radar player in college football? Irish fans saw him last season, but what makes him so perfect for Graham’s offense?

One of the biggest storylines coming into this upcoming season will be whether or not Kelly can make the jump from solid starting Division I quarterback to a true Heisman Trophy contender.

Todd Graham is very defensive minded and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is in charge of running the offense and shaping Taylor Kelly as a quarterback. It is tough to find such a talented player in a power six conference as off-the-map as Kelly but it’s not in his nature or personality to soak up the spotlight. He’s just a kid from Idaho trying to improve as much as he can.

What makes him such a great fit for Norvell’s up-tempo zone read offense is his instinctual ability to read the edge rusher and make a quick decision whether to pass or run. The ability that Kelly has to make plays with his feet is incredibly underrated too. Unfortunately for Kelly, the zone-read lives and dies with the play of the offensive line, which struggled against Notre Dame last season.

 

It’s almost a complete reboot on the defensive side of the football. The Sun Devils return just two starters — the biggest overhaul of any squad in the preseason Top 25. Did spring help answer some questions? What needs to be solved before the Sun Devils kick off 2014? What are the biggest challenges for Keith Patterson’s defense?

The defense is a big mystery right now and the Sun Devils have a lot of pieces to put together as you said. The one huge standout in the Spring was early-enrollee freshman DJ Calhoun, a four-star linebacker out of California. He ball hawked really well and made some outstanding plays in practice. he definitely turned heads and has a starting spot as it stands right now.

Rashad Wadood, who would have most likely started at cornerback, left the program last week which only added to the Sun Devils issues. The biggest problem will probably be at the cornerback and safety positions where ASU didn’t recruit as strongly as they did at linebacker or defensive line.

The good thing for the Sun Devils is that they got some impressive junior college commitments such as Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell on the defensive line to help with the inexperience. Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren are also three names to remember as true freshmen who could help in the trenches.

 

Last year, the Irish held off the Sun Devils in AT&T Stadium despite big games from Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Do you expect more of the same from the ASU offense, or will new game-changers emerge? Is the formula for victory the same this year as last?

There are certainly some new players that could come out of the woodwork. The offensive line returns almost all of the starters from last season and adds Christian Westerman who was a four-star recruit and transferred from Auburn. Taylor Kelly should have some more weapons to play with as well. Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster return but the Sun Devils also have high expectations for incoming wide receivers Eric Lauderdale, a four-star JUCO transfer, and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson who showed a lot of potential in spring practice.

The formula for victory comes down to the Sun Devils being more balanced. ASU only had 51 rushing yards against Notre Dame last season so they will have to find more success there. Taylor Kelly also has to limit turnovers. He threw two interceptions against the Fighting Irish last season and the stat that everybody at ASU loves to cite is that Kelly is 6-8 in games when he throws an interception and 12-1 when he doesn’t.

 

Where do you set the bar for the 2014 season? A veteran quarterback and a big-time offense return. But questions on defense and a solid Pac-12 slate is in front of the Sun Devils. Do you expect ASU to challenge for the South title again? What’s your definition of a good season?

As you touched on, the uncertainty on defense makes this difficult to gauge. The Sun Devils will certainly be involved in some high-scoring affairs next season. With Brett Hundley and Myles Jack returning to UCLA, I would put them as favorites to win the Pac-12 South but I wouldn’t put ASU too far behind them. The Sun Devils have potential for a better defense than many might expect. Given that the Pac-12 is only getting tougher, I’ll say anything less than eight wins would be a disappointment next year.

 

Notre Dame’s visit to Tempe was one that former athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep. How highly anticipated is the Irish’s visit to Sun Devil Stadium?

I can’t speak for everyone at ASU but I believe there is still a sense of bitterness in Tempe about that whole situation that the Sun Devils will probably try to use as motivation.

The chance that both ASU and Notre Dame could be ranked in the top- 25 when the game rolls around and the “rematch” aspect definitely adds to the local excitement about this matchup.

Mizzou and Wisconsin came to town in 2011 and 2013 respectively but as far as out of conference traditional football powerhouses visiting ASU is concerned, this game is in my opinion the most anticipated out of conference home game for the Sun Devils since Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green and No. 3 Georgia came to Sun Devil Stadium in 2008.

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Check out more from Nick at House of Sparky or on Twitter @NickPKrueger.

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. 

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.