Chris Milton, Will Fuller

Former Irish players ready for their NFL closeup

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Combine-mania is upon us. The annual meat market is the perfect marriage of football, with proud college fans watching their recently departed stars chase their professional dreams, as rabid NFL fans hope rookie X or Y will be the difference between 9-7 and the Super Bowl.

Notre Dame has 10 former players getting poked and prodded in Indianapolis, with Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley and C.J. Prosise the first to go on Wednesday. And with some of the most intriguing prospects in the draft pool, let’s get up to speed on public perception heading into the underwear olympics.

Jaylon Smith might be in the first phase of his knee recovery, but he hasn’t lost any fans. ESPN’s Mel Kiper said he could be the draft’s best player if healthy. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock echoed those sentiments, per CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz.

“This kid is so good that if his medicals are good, you have to take a big-picture look at him; by that I mean two years from now. You might have one of the two, three, four best linebackers in football. You might have to wait a half-season for him. I’m sure every team is going to have a different answer to that… But if he has a clean medical and it says you’re going to get him for a half-season and then he’s going to be fine, then yeah, I think you pull the trigger on a kid like that.”

Ronnie Stanley has his share of fans, and will likely only add to him when he displays his athleticism this week. The NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks has Stanley ranked only behind Ole Miss’s Laremy Tunsil at offensive tackle, comparing him to All-Pro Ryan Clady.

Here are Stanley’s strengths, according to Brooks:

Big, athletic offensive tackle with light feet and exceptional movement skills. Stanley not only has the requisite physical tools to shine as a pro, but he has a combination of size, length and athleticism few offensive tackles can match on the perimeter. Measuring 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Stanley is a natural left tackle with the balance, body control and lateral quickness to mirror shifty rushes on the edges. He displays one of the best kick-slides you’ll see from a young player, which allows him to neutralize pass rushers with explosive first-step quickness. Stanley shows exceptional strength and anchor ability stopping rushers on bull-rush attempts. As a run blocker, Stanley is an athletic “people mover” at the point of attack. He knocks defenders off the ball and displays the competitive grit coaches covet when finishing blocks. Considering Stanley’s experience on both edges (26 starts at left tackle; 13 starts at right tackle) and his high football IQ, the Notre Dame standout is a transcendent top-five talent capable of earning honors early in his career.

Meanwhile, Will Fuller might be the biggest wildcard at the combine. Predicted by some to be the fastest man in Indy, it takes just one team to fall in love with Fuller to boost the range of predictions that have him being drafted anywhere from the second to fourth rounds.

The fashionable comp this week has been comparing Fuller to Carolina’s Ted Ginn. The former Ohio State speedster was a top-ten pick out of Ohio State, but has struggled at the NFL level with inconsistency (hands, effort, etc). Yes, Fuller’s drops have been well documented—especially here. But for me, the apples to apples comparisons end here.

(Plus, I don’t remember a big game where Fuller ran out of bounds instead of fighting for yardage, like Ginn did in the Super Bowl.)

While Smith and KeiVarae Russell aren’t participating in workouts, C.J. Prosise is back in action after injuries ruined the second half of his season. Prosise will likely open some eyes with his speed this week, and depending on the evaluator is somewhere between a mid-to-late round pick and perhaps something earlier.

Mel Kiper’s a believer.

Mike Mayock thinks there’s a fit just north in Detroit, where Prosise would potentially join a backfield with former Irish teammate Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah.

 

Quick Hits: 

Expect Chris Brown to light things up at the combine. Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver is a perfect fit for the testing environment, and should blaze in the 40-yard dash.

Even if Sheldon Day doesn’t have a “breakout” combine, the game tape he put together in 2015 is just too good for Day to slide deep into the draft. He finished the season as PFF_College’s No. 1 interior defensive lineman in a 4-3 scheme.

I’m excited to see the reaction to teams meeting KeiVarae Russell. You’ve got to expect someone will fall in love with him after sitting down to chat. Russell is a third rounder according to a way-too-early mock draft at NFL.com.

Nick Martin has a chance to be the first or second center off the board. He also benefits from the early success of not just his brother, All-Pro guard Zack Martin of the Cowboys, but the early success of Chris Watt in San Diego. Harry Hiestand’s finger prints and Martin’s pedigree—not to mention being a two-time captain—are all things trending in his direction.

Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate will certainly “look the part” in Indianapolis. I’m interested to see how heavy Shumate is when he hits the scale, likely shedding weight to get his 40-yard dash time as fast as possible.

Rotoworld’s Josh Norris had this to say about Okwara when chatting with Stankevitz to preview the Irish’s draft prospects.

“He’s kind of everything that you want walking off the bus. If you want to talk him up that way, at that edge rusher spot, you want someone that’s long and looks athletic and toned. To me, he just didn’t do much with it, or didn’t know what he was doing in terms of using that length to his advantage or the hand use or anything like that.”

 

 

 

 

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters.