Jack Swarbrick,Kevin Plank

For Swarbrick, Independence helps tell the Notre Dame story

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With fall right around the corner and the university beginning classes in less than a month, Notre Dame football — and all fall sports — are right around the corner. That means that summer break is over (if there was one), for athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

The man in charge of Notre Dame sports was on SiriusXM radio’s College Sports Nation with former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy and Taylor Zarzour. While there was nothing particularly news breaking, Swarbrick gave a nice rundown of the state of Notre Dame football, as the Irish enter their first year of scheduling with the ACC.

When asked to step back and look at the changes of the past few years, Swarbrick feels good about where Notre Dame ended up: Independent in football (though with an affiliation with the ACC) and a full member in all other sports.

“It was always our goal to maintain football independence, but in a world that was pretty unsettled about a year ago, to find a home for our other sports that made great sense, and the ACC certainly does that,” Swarbrick told SiriusXM. “Georgraphically, it works for us. Culturally, it’s a great fit for us… And competitively, it’s been great for our kids.”

While football has been the primary driver of all things college sports, Notre Dame’s finish in the Capital One Cup, where the men won for the first time, was impressive. Notre Dame finished third in the Director’s Cup, the highest finish in school history in the 20-sport mens and womens competition. Notre Dame’s inclusion in the ACC, a conference top-to-bottom stronger than the Big East was, was certainly a driver for achievement.

From there, Swarbrick talked a little bit about some of the big picture items that the athletic director has discussed countless times over the past few years. While nothing in his comments were particularly new, a few of the talking points were worth repeating.

(Just because you’ve heard every song the Boss sings 100 times, doesn’t make the concert any less popular…)

Here’s Swarbrick on the school’s continued push to play a national schedule and pursue and align with big-time partners (Under Armour, NBC) as Notre Dame continues to cherish its independence and national reach.

“A brilliant guy, our first full-time coach here, Jesse Harper, really set the model for us back in 1913, when he decided that Notre Dame would be the first team to schedule nationally. He really saw it as an opportunity to talk about Notre Dame, to promote the university, so that’s always been our model.

“The importance of the NBC partnership, the football independence, or Under Armour, it’s nothing to do with any direct or immediate impact, but has to do with the platform that it gives us to run the university. We couldn’t be more excited about Under Armour as a partner in that regard. They’re growing like crazy, they have a special place with the younger demographic in this country, and they help us tell the Notre Dame story.”

Here, Swarbrick talks about the continued 6-5-1 scheduling model, which allows Notre Dame to play in 12 of the 13 biggest cities in America over a five year period.

“Our model every year is to make sure we are home for six and to take one game to a neutral site, and we’ve been fortunate,” Swarbrick said. “We’re also fortunate that our opponents help us get to some of those places. Our games against Syracuse are going to be in the Meadowlands, Navy takes us all around the country. Those games are great for us. In a five year period, we will play in 12 of the 13 largest cities in the United States. And again, that’s really good for us to be able to talk about Notre Dame.”

Here’s his take on where conference realignment currently sits. With TV contracts and the playoff set for the next decade, things seem fairly stable. But that doesn’t mean Notre Dame’s going to remain independent at all costs.

“Fortunately, I think that world has settled down. I think we went through a period where there was sort of wholesale movements. I think we’re probably going to go through about a decade here… I think that’s going to produce a real period of stability. Our goal is to maintain independence. But you never say never. It’s not that we prefer to ever pursue an alternative, but you could imagine further changes down the road, as people project further consolidation of conferences. I don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not during my professional career, but that’s the only way we’d do it.

“It has nothing to do with football. We’d have a lot easier route to the national championship through a conference and  becoming a conference champion, but that just doesn’t do for the university what we’re committed to do for it. So right now, that’s the balance we strike and it works well for us.”

Swarbrick’s belief in the College Football Playoff is strong. As someone whose fingerprints are all over it, that’s not surprising. He also believes in the selection committee, and understands that for Notre Dame to make the four-team playoff, they need to play an elite schedule.

“I have great faith in the selection process that’s been set up. It’s an extraordinary committee. Having been part of the management committee for the College Football Playoff, I’ve gotten to help shape that process and have enormous confidence in it. But it’s incumbent on me the AD, that our schedule, if we navigate it, ensures that we’re in that discussion. Not having the conference championship game, having one less game, places a premium on making our schedule as challenging as we can.”

Lastly, it wouldn’t be an interview without a Brian Kelly to the NFL question. Here’s where Swarbrick came out on that. A healthy response to be sure.

“We couldn’t be happier with Brian. Brian had a special challenge when he came here. Our program was broken. So it wasn’t about just bringing in another coach who ran a different offense, we had to rebuild it from the ground up. Strength and conditioning, nutrition, recruiting. And he has built that. So now we’re operating off a much more stable platform as a really good program. There’s a much bigger problem than having a coach who attracts interest from the NFL, it’s having a coach who doesn’t attract interest from the NFL. So I’ll take that success problem every day.”

Good stuff from Zarzour and McElroy, who professed a great appreciation of Notre Dame football, attending a game as a youngster and loving the movie Rudy. (Of course he does…)

 

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.