Rice v Notre Dame

The good, bad and ugly: Notre Dame vs. Rice

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Upon second viewing, quarterback Everett Golson’s 2014 debut is just as impressive. The senior quarterback, playing his first game in 600 days, didn’t seem to miss a beat, leading Notre Dame with five total touchdowns on the way to a 48-17 victory over Rice.

With Golson behind center, the offense did everything a little bit better. The run game blossomed. The passing game became explosive. Those red zone woes? The Irish converted six of six, with four touchdowns.

Golson’s five total touchdowns capped off one of the week’s best performances. Let’s take a look at the rest of the team before turning the page to Michigan in this week’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Golson. We already said it. It just needed to be said again.

Looking at his 14 of 22 throwing performance, he probably deserved to have at least 55 more yards and a touchdown if C.J. Prosise didn’t do his best Featherstone impression from Necessary Roughness. Then again, Will Fuller didn’t help out when Golson put a perfect deep ball off his hands that Fuller didn’t squeeze right before.

My favorite throw of the afternoon: Golson rolling left with the pocket moving with him, and hitting Amir Carlisle on a deep flag, in stride over underneath coverage.

That was an NFL throw.

The run game. That’s the way Notre Dame should run the ball this season against an undermanned defensive front. Outside of Christian Covington (who managed just two tackles against Christian Lombard and the interior of the line), Rice wasn’t able to hang with the big boys up front, nor the backs who looked decisive and quick.

Cam McDaniel looked good in his eight carries. Tarean Folston looked as smooth as ever with 12 carries, leading the backs. But Greg Bryant showed the type of explosive burst that makes him tough to keep on the sideline (though mishaps on the goal line is the best way I can think of to keep him off the field).

Obviously, rolling through Rice for big yardage isn’t the same as doing it against Michigan and Greg Mattison. But it’s a great start for the ground game, with Golson also playing very effectively as a runner.

Field Position: Notre Dame dominated the field position battle, averaging over plus-10 in starting field position in each quarter. The Irish’s third quarter was pretty impressive, starting at the 47 and converting 4 of 5 third downs.

Joe Schmidt. Making his first start, Schmidt led the Irish with eight tackles, playing physical and looking active in both the run and pass game. Kelly said Schmidt graded out as the team’s best performer, though thought this was only the beginning for him.

“He was pretty good yesterday. He probably was our best player defensively,” Kelly said. “He’s got some things that he’s got to get better at. But I thought as a true first‑time starter, he was the best player for us.”

Sheldon Day. The defensive tackle finished second on the team with six tackles, a pretty productive day for the junior anchor of the defensive line. He had one TFL and came close to making a few more.

Brian VanGorder’s Run Defense. Credit to the front seven for holding up pretty well against Rice’s run game.

If you had told Notre Dame fans that a front playing Day, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo, Isaac Rochell, Grant Blankenship, Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage and Romeo Okwara would’ve given up 3.5 yards a carry and only one explosive play, they’d have taken it every day of the year.

The Return Game. Cody Riggs, Greg Bryant and Amir Carlisle did a great job being decisive. And credit to the punt return team for —what a concept– holding their blocks and letting their playmakers make plays.

(Don’t worry Cam, I’m going to forget that I noticed you blocking nobody on the return where Carlisle got stuffed short.)

The Red Zone Offense. Maybe Brian Kelly wasn’t kidding around about a mobile quarterback in tight quarters helping out. Six of six is nice, and four touchdowns is even better. (But another look at the tape will have the Irish feeling like they left one or two TDs out there.)

Matthias Farley. I may have already used it here, but Farley is the Tommy Rees of the Irish defense. Perfect? No. Makes mistakes? Oh, you’ve noticed?

But in one series, Farley basically turned the momentum of the football game completely around, making a tackle, collecting half a sack, and making a really athletic interception with next to no time left in the first half.

Then Golson and C.J. Prosise put the dagger in the Owls’ chest, turning a manageable game into a 28-10 halftime lead. The Irish scored 14 points in the final 153 seconds of the first half. Coffee is for closers, and there was Folgers waiting in the locker room.)

Playing a nickel back role that he’s only playing because of KeiVarae Russell’s suspension and Austin Collinsworth’s injury, Farley had the game’s biggest defensive series.

Quick Hits: 

* He wasn’t overly noticed out there, but for a first game at outside linebacker James Onwualu did a nice job in space. And on the fake punt.

* Nice job, slot receivers. Amir Carlisle looks pretty natural at wide receiver. Outside of his drop, C.J. Prosise is a pretty dangerous guy in space… especially at 220 pounds.

Jarron Jones showed up in a good way.

* That didn’t look like a freshman making the big hit when Andrew Trumbetti came off the edge.

* Welcome to college football Malik Zaire. I liked everything about that run except for that high step.

* All the kids played. (Except Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner). But what a great way to get the young guys some experience.

* Before all of you guys start complaining about Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts, note that Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini both played major minutes on defense. Both were three-star guys with less than impressive offer lists. Maybe defer to the coaching staff on talent evaluation.

 

THE BAD

Communication in the secondary. Rice’s two touchdowns came on blown coverage on the back end, first by Elijah Shumate and the second by Nicky Baratti, a rude awakening for a guy coming back after some bad luck with his shoulders.

With Austin Collinsworth going down on Thursday afternoon, some mishaps were to be expected. But here’s how Kelly recapped the issues on his Sunday teleconference, putting the onus on Max Redfield and Shumate to do a better job working together.

“We got into a very unique situation where we had 24 hours really to get them communicating more effectively,” Kelly said. “We gave up five explosive plays — four passes — three of them directly related to poor communication.”

When asked if Farley was the answer at safety, Kelly feels that Shumate is still the guy best suited for strong safety.

“We can get that corrected. Both those guys are the kind of skill players we want back there. We have to address that issue, which we will this week.”

Slow Starts. It might be nit-picky, but Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first two possessions, something that can’t happen against Michigan next weekend. On second inspection, it looked like a combination of missed blocks in the run game and a bit of hesitancy by Golson on a few passes.

(I also think after seeing McDaniel get the start on the first series, it should be shifted around with Folston and Bryant getting early snaps.)

The Drops. Come on now, C.J. Prosise. Don’t drop gift-wrapped touchdowns. (But nice job working back into the play after Golson broke into a scramble.)

Will Fuller also needs to catch that deep ball if he wants to continue putting up monster yards-per-catch numbers. Not to mention the drop by Ben Koyack. That’s a habit I had hoped Koyack shed when turning into a senior leader.

Diagnosing Route concepts. Hang with me here. When Notre Dame’s defense got burnt on a few passes, it was a product of not seeing the passing concept in time.

The first crossing route that Rice hit the Irish on, Notre Dame had freshman defensive end Andrew Trumbetti standing up in coverage. In his first collegiate game, I can’t truly blame the kid for not seeing a receiver dragging back across to him.

The Irish got lucky when an illegal formation penalty robbed the Owls of another big gainer on a similar concept. But cornerback Cole Luke and Shumate didn’t do a great job communicating on the wheel route that Luke Turner and Driphus Jackson hit on.

As a wise man named GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle.” And against Doug Nussmeier and Michigan’s new offense, you can bet the Wolverines will try and bait the Irish secondary into making some mistakes.

Quick Hits: 

* No breakfast balls, Kyle Brindza. This isn’t No. 1 on the Warren Course. Brindza snap-hooked his first field goal attempt left and put his first kickoff out of bounds before righting the ship.

* I’m not putting Jaylon Smith in the bad category, but statistically his three tackles were well below the floor I had set for his box score impact on the game. He was close to turning at least one of those three tackles into another TFL, and his head coach’s comments Sunday afternoon were interesting.

“He played with great effort. Had some mental mistakes. I think he’s still learning the position. But he plays with great effort and great enthusiasm,” Kelly said. “When it comes to Jaylon, he takes his work very seriously. I would expect that you’re going to see significant improvement from Jaylon from week one to week two.”

* Hey Special Teamers: On pooch punts, look up for the football, don’t just go to the returner pretending to fair catch the ball. Kyle Brindza got robbed on two punts that could’ve been downed inside the five yard line.

Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley got beat with some speed moves — Elmer on the Owls’ sack of Golson and Stanley when defensive end Brian Nordstrom knifed inside of him. Nordstrom produced 1.5 TFLs.

 

THE UGLY

An easy opening victory after months without football? Especially after watching dynasty-in-the-making programs like Florida State and Alabama sweat wins out?

Enjoy the Rice victory and get ready for Michigan week.

 

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.

***

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.