UTEP v Rice

And in that corner… The Rice Owls

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Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake.

Head coach David Bailiff has slowly built up his program, with 2013 the high-water mark. The Owls won their conference and 10 games, relying on a strong ground game, an inventive offense and a stingy defense.

To get us ready for the Owls, the Houston Chronicle‘s Joseph Duarte was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Rice. With just 10 starters back, the Owls will certainly look different than they did last season, though they’ve got some returning weapons that make for a good challenge.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Q: Coming off a 10-win season and a Conference USA title, Rice is the type of opening game opponent that might not draw headlines, but certainly deserves some respect. For those of us getting our first look at the Owls, tell us about head coach David Bailiff and the work he’s done building this program.

After a 10-win campaign in Bailiff’s second season – fueled by one of the nation’s top pass-catch combos in Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard – the Owls went 2-10, 4-8 and 4-8 and there were rumblings about his job security. But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: the Owls got hot during the second half of the 2012 season, becoming bowl eligible on the final day, and have been on a roll ever since.

Rice has won 15 of its last 19 games, matching the best two-year stretch in the 102-year history of the football, and is coming off a second straight bowl appearance. With his Texas roots, Bailiff has proven to be the right fit for the academic-first Owls program and is well-respected and liked by his players. He received a new five-year contract this offseason.

 

Q: Driphus Jackson takes over at quarterback after playing a supporting role in 2012 and 2013. All reports show a very capable athlete. Is he the type of quarterback that can break open a game with his legs? Will he be able to take advantage of some very solid wide receiver depth the Owls return?

Jackson isn’t your typical first-year starter, having received plenty of meaningful snaps the last two seasons as an injury replacement for former starter Taylor McHargue (graduation). He’s pulled off two big rallies in his brief career, a second-half comeback to beat Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl and against Kansas in 2013. McHargue was a running threat, and that will continue with Jackson.

While the coaching staff knows Jackson can take off at any moment the big test early on will be how he develops a comfort level in the pocket and takes advantage of what should be a deep receiving corps, led by Jordan Taylor (55 receptions, 848 yards, 8 TDs) and Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards, 3 TDs). One injury-related note out of camp: starting tight end Connor Cella will be out 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured rib.

 

Q: It looks like Rice has a star along the defensive line in Christian Covington, and then it gets pretty dicey. After a solid defense propelled the Owls last season, the ability to reload is in question. With a lack of size up front, do you expect Notre Dame’s large offensive line to try and win a power game?

The defensive line is the Owls’ biggest concern. Covington is on most of the major preseason awards lists and could become a rarity at Rice and leave for the NFL a year early as a projected first-rounder. Rice had counted on a formidable inside combo of Covington and Stuart Mouchantaf, but those plans were derailed when Mouchantaf suffered a knee injury in the offseason. The Owls also went through camp without Derek Brown, who was expected to start but has been absent due to an undisclosed reason. Even so, the Owls will break in a pair of new inexperienced players at defensive end (junior Brian Nordstrom and senior Zach Patt).

 

Q: For Notre Dame fans getting their first look at the Owls, who are the playmakers on both sides of the ball that could be primed for big games?

On offense, Jordan Taylor has a knack for making big catches. He sat out most of the last week of camp with a sore foot but that was as a precaution and he is expected to be fine for the season opener. He is a big part of the offense and a regular target for Jackson.

On defense, keep an eye on senior cornerback Bryce Callahan. Last year the Owls had Phillip Gaines, considered the best cornerback in school history who was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs. Teams rarely threw in Gaines’ direction – a strategy that will likely be the case with Callahan, who has 11 career interceptions and needs four more to tie the school record.

 

Q: What’s the recipe for a Rice victory? Will the Owls try and overwhelm a young Irish defense that could be getting younger without KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams? Is the run game capable of limiting Notre Dame’s touches? What’s your take on the Owls’ best way to win, especially early in the season?

The Owls led Conference USA in rushing (227.4 yards) last season and have regularly been among the nation leaders in time of possession – just the type of grinding, time-consuming style that they will need to have a chance against the Irish. They must replace 1,200-yard rusher Charles Ross and will do so with a backfield that is five deep with Jowan Davis, who had 476 yards in a strong freshman season; C-USA title game MVP Luke Turner, a former high school quarterback who works out of the Wild Owl formation; Darik Dillard, the younger brother of former Rice All-American receiver Jarett Dillard; and Brandon Hamilton, considered the bruiser of the bunch who redshirt with an injury last season. The Owls won’t be scared to pull a few surprises with the deep pass, but expect them to try and establish the run game early.

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For more from Joe in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, you can find his work here or follow his Rice coverage on Twitter @Chronicle_Owls

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.