USC v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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After presenting our first five players on the countdown, we move on to another group of players with high expectations. And while four others will certainly draw attention, we come to our annual exercise on evaluating the promise of Ishaq Williams.

Some (including quite a few of you in the comments below) have given up on Williams, the former five-star recruit who has yet to make an impact in the Irish defense. Others believe his senior season finally gives him a true opportunity to own a job and play a position where he’s a natural fit. However you come out on it, Williams is ranked lower today than he was in 2012, about what you’d expect after three seasons of data pointing to an underwhelming career (thus far) in South Bend.

Besides Williams, two sophomores make the list here, both coming off promising — though far from statistically dominant — seasons. It’s also time for the first running back to come off the board, with the panel all feeling pretty much the same way about the Irish’s leading returning rusher.

Counting down the Irish continues.

2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)

 

20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.): That Williams enters his senior season without making a true impact on Notre Dame’s roster is one of the few disappointments of the Brian Kelly era (at least of the players that stuck around). But before we shovel what’s left of the dirt onto Williams’ coffin, let’s finish the book.

No player had a tougher road into the starting lineup. Stuck behind NFL draft picks Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, Williams saw the field right away as a freshman, forced to learn how to play linebacker after chasing down quarterbacks for much of his prep career in urban New York, not exactly a football haven.

Williams has all the physical tools you’d want and an NFL body. He’s also almost the perfect prototype for a strongside defensive end, and at 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, he’s a monster. But we’re out of excuses, with Williams’ final shot at redemption allowing him to play every down in a defense that desperately needs him to perform well.

Count me among the few that hasn’t given up on him. Having erased the “five stars” that came next to his recruiting profile the moment he stepped on campus, if Williams has a productive final season in South Bend he’ll have a career on Sundays in front of him.

Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.): That Luke is rated so highly speaks to the promise he showed briefly as a freshman, playing in all 13 games of his freshman year and holding up just fine in coverage. But with Bennett Jackson gone to the NFL, Luke will need to prove he’s ready for a full-time job as a starting cornerback.

Playing in Brian VanGorder’s system will give us a much better idea of Luke’s top-end skills, playing a ton of man coverage after playing primarily zone under Bob Diaco. That’ll put Luke’s feet to the fire, and give us a true understanding as to whether Luke’s a solid Cover 2 cornerback or a guy that can lock down a receiver.

It’s too early in Luke’s career for this to be a make-or-break year. But players on the cusp — with a handful of unproven, but talented defenders on the Irish roster just like Luke — will determine whether the Notre Dame defense can hold up or fall short of expectations.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked: (two ballots).

 

18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.): The first running back listed in our rankings, McDaniel is the Irish’s leading returning rusher. And while the senior has likely be passed in the depth chart by both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, McDaniel doesn’t seem likely to give up any carries in his final year of eligibility easily.source: Getty Images

With an up-tempo offense and a quarterback who can run the zone-read, there should be carries for everyone to share. And if we’ve seen anything from McDaniel over his three seasons in South Bend, it’s that you should count him out at your own risk.

Last year, there wasn’t much explosiveness displayed when McDaniel carried the football. Now that he’s less likely to be carrying the load in short yardage or goal line situations, perhaps we can see some big play potential return to the native Texan.

McDaniel hasn’t been the weapon in the passing game that many expected early in his career. But if he’s a capable pass protector and can show solid hands, perhaps McDaniel can carve out his niche on third downs.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).

 

17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.): With about half the 2013 season remaining, Jones was working his way towards the bottom of the Irish roster, not into the Top 25. But a ravaged depth chart gave Jones the opportunity to slide into the nose guard job and resurrect his career. From November on, the Rochester-native went from near-forgotten man to centerpiece of the future, a credit to Jones acknowledging the lightbulb going on.

Jones looks the part of a massive run-stuffer on the interior, a big, strong and sturdy player who held his own while learning on the fly in place of an injured Louis Nix. While he’ll be the tip of the spear when the Irish go to three down linemen, Jones will spend most of his time next to Sheldon Day, taking on a single blocker and dominating a single gap.

Looking every bit the 315 pounds he’s listed at, Jones will play a key role in the Irish defense, freeing up Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt to get to the ball carrier and make plays. He’ll also have an opportunity to take advantage of his knack for making a big play, an impressive skill considering his relative lack of experience on the field.

Entering his junior season (though he has a fifth year of eligibility), Jones is the type of first-time starter you want in the trenches.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

source: AP

16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.): That Robinson ranks ahead of both classmate Will Fuller and junior Chris Brown says quite a bit about the promise the lanky, velcro-handed wide receiver showed in his first season in South Bend. Robinson saw action in all 13 of Notre Dame’s games last year, starting three, with his best performance a three catch, 54 yard effort against the Big Ten Champs Michigan State.

A relatively modest season total of nine catches for 157 yards and a touchdown make this ranking more about upside potential than what Robinson’s already accomplished. But entering his sophomore season, we’ve seen plenty of instances — even if they were only in UND.com practice videos — of Robinson making circus catches that make defensive backs look silly, something the 6-foot-5 receiver can do pretty easily.

He’ll need to show the ability to beat press coverage and get into his routes quickly. And Robinson also needs to take a step forward as a red zone threat, with a puzzling lack of opportunities presented in 2013 for jump balls. But the sky is the limit for the young receiver, and we’ve yet to hear a bad word about Robinson on or off the field during his time in South Bend.

The Irish coaching staff plucked Robinson out of relative obscurity when they offered the San Antonio native a scholarship. He’ll reward that projection in 2014 with a potentially big season on the horizon.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

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.