Rice v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

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The last stormy, humid season opener at Notre Dame Stadium found an infamous place in the Irish history books. Saturday afternoon’s 48-17 drubbing of Rice will be remembered in a much better light.

That’s because the return of Everett Golson took a page out of a Marvel movie’s script. After missing 600 days of football, Golson put on his cape and did his best to make up for lost time, playing a near perfect game as he put up five touchdowns in a breakthrough offensive performance for Notre Dame.

By foot, Golson kept the Owls at bay, scrambling to keep plays alive while single-handedly solving the team’s red zone woes with three rushing touchdowns. Those rushing totals have only been matched by Jarious Jackson and some guy named Hornung, whose stiff-arming trophy sits proudly on display in the football office.

By air Golson was even more impressive, rarely missing a throw as his 14 completions covered 295 yards. Five different Irish receivers caught passes of 25 yards or more, with Golson averaging a hearty 21 yards a completion.

Playing on a new FieldTurf track that favors teams built for speed, the Irish offense paced the attack while Brian VanGorder’s young defense held its own. With an easy victory in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 48-17 win over Rice.

 

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After two weeks of nothing but distractions, Brian Kelly’s young Irish team took care of business. 

When head coach Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback 17 days ago, he thought he was eliminating the last big storyline of fall camp. Little did he know, but just 48 hours later the Irish football program would be under seige, with four (and now five) players wrapped up in an academic investigation that had some people wondering if the Golden Dome was burning.

The loss of three front-line starters was a blow, with DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams all expected to play critical roles on the field. But Saturday afternoon the Irish showed no signs of blinking, following their head coach’s mantra of “Next Man In” and taking care of business.

“I was really proud of them today,” Kelly said. “I said before we get into talking about the win, I just want to tell you that I’m proud of the way you’ve handled yourself. And that means a lot moving forward. When your locker room has got that kind of resolve, good things are going to happen to you.”

If the academic mess was mostly self-inflicted, the other obstacles faced this preseason haven’t been. Prostate cancer surgery kept offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from attending the start of training camp. Graduate assistant (and former Irish captain) Kyle McCarthy is also undergoing chemotherapy while still trying to work with the team.

Add in a knee injury to captain and starting safety Austin Collinsworth suffered on Thursday and you’ve got two chaotic weeks that the Irish not just survived, but won in convincing style.

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Brian Kelly is a pretty good head coach when he’s got Everett Golson at quarterback. 

It’s worth pointing out: With Everett Golson playing, Brian Kelly is 12-1. Without him, Kelly’s 26-14. That’s the difference between getting a statue and hiring a realtor.

With Golson, the Irish offense became the aggressive, downfield, big play attack that Kelly had quietly been advertising since the offseason. And all credit goes to the quarterback who put aside the distraction of returning to the big stage and simply played excellent football.

Golson barely missed a ball if you take away his throw aways and a few drops, one from C.J. Prosise that cost him an even gaudier stat line. But that’s the magic of what Golson does for the Irish offense, a dual-threat runner with a preference to pass.

Put Rice head coach David Bailiff down as a believer.

“Golson’s just an amazing, amazing quarterback,” Bailiff said after the game. “He was a dynamic player a year ago… He’s taken that year off and you can tell he’s matured. You can tell he’s studied the game.”

Of course, doing it against Rice is a lot different than doing it against Michigan, who comes to South Bend next weekend. But on a rainy Saturday, Brian Kelly showed how efficient his offense is when he’s got Everett Golson behind center.

 

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After a year of getting beaten up, Notre Dame’s special teams were special. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, you couldn’t have blamed the coaching staff from removing any mention of the word special when dealing with Scott Booker’s special teams unit. On Saturday, the Irish return game looked impressive, with both Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant breaking big returns in the punt game and Amir Carlisle breaking a 36-yard kickoff return.

The Irish racked up 80 yards on five punt returns. Last year, the Irish managed just 106 yards all season — surprisingly the best cumulative total of the Kelly era to date.

While Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt and caught a funky hop on his first kickoff that bounced started Rice on the 35, the rest of the rebuilt unit was rock solid, including James Onwualu stuffing Rice’s fake punt attempt short.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be the punt returns by Riggs and Bryant, with three nice returns flipping the field and starting the Irish off with great field position. After a season of getting killed in the “Hidden Yards” ledger, Kelly had perhaps the best special teams day of his career in South Bend.

 

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Notre Dame’s ground game looks like the engine to drive the offense. 

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock found the perfect mix for the running game, and all three backs played great football, even with limited attempts. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all averaged at least five yards a carry, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

The Irish’s 281 rushing yards were their most since the 2012 Shamrock Series victory over Miami. Their 42 rushing attempts showed a willingness to commit to a balanced offense, as the ground game powered the Irish to the finish.

“We don’t have an exact science,” Kelly said for splitting carries. “I wish I could be that smart. But we are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”

With Conor Hanratty getting the surprise start over Matt Hegarty at left guard, the Irish offensive line put a new twist on what Harry Hiestand’s troops would look like up front in life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt. And while Nick Martin got called for two snap infractions (Kelly put those on Golson, not Martin), it was a strong performance by the running game.

 

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For one Saturday, the kids on defense were all right.

Sure, there were breakdowns. Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti might turn red during Sunday’s tape session after seeing their coverage mistakes turn into six points. But the Irish’s rebuilt defense played well on Saturday, holding Rice to 367 total yards, and holding up surprisingly well against the run.

Powered by a ground game that led Conference USA last season, Rice ran 41 times on Saturday, but only managed to gain 141 yards with Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell playing well while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day excelled in the trenches.

“I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon (Smith) were outstanding,” Kelly said. You’ve got those six guys, if they can hold up against the run, we’re going to be in pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.”

 

Perhaps even better, the Irish broke in a ton of young players. One look at the participation chart forced even the most die-hard fans to occasionally check the roster.

Freshman Drue Tranquill played major minutes. So did Daniel Cage up front. Greer Martini played significant snaps. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship found their way onto the stat sheet.

Also playing their first minutes were Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins, while seldom-used veterans like Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa saw action.

With little tape to study, Bailiff sounded impressed by the work of VanGorder’s new unit.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down,” Bailiff siad. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing.

“I thought they did a good job and didn’t make a lot of mistakes today. Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Two breakdowns in the secondary cost the Irish 14 points. Ultimately it didn’t matter on Saturday. But come next weekend when Michigan is in town, the Irish will need to play much cleaner on the back end.

 

 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

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.