Keith Arnold

Sheldon Day, John Fadule
AP

All eyes on Day at Senior Bowl

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When Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick headed to Indianapolis and sold Sheldon Day on returning for his senior season, they did so knowing that Day’s NFL career would hinge on a few key details. First, an impressive senior season. And second, Day’s ability to put up eye-opening numbers during the postseason meat market leading up to the NFL Draft.

Day’s first objective is complete—Notre Dame’s lineman of the year had one of the most impressive seasons in the country for an interior defensive lineman. His second? That journey begins today, as Day begins his work at the Senior Bowl, where a slew of NFL scouts will see if he’s worthy of an early round selection.

 

Everybody in South Bend knew that Day wasn’t going to win the eyeball test. That was confirmed Tuesday when heights and weights were taken, with Day measuring a shade under 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 286 pounds with a 32-and-7/8th-inch wingspan. Those numbers might turn certain teams away as Day struggles to fit in some schemes. Then again, Notre Dame’s last undersized star at the senior Bowl, All-Pro guard Zack Martin, took less than a season to let his play dispel any worries teams might have had.

 

Day’s stellar game-tape has gotten him this far, and allows him to be in the discussion of defenders capable of a first-round grade. Notre Dame’s staff is also confident that the speed and strength numbers Day puts up with have teams seeing an explosive and versatile defensive lineman. Here’s PFF’s breakdown of Day heading into Senior Bowl week, reminding all of us that Day was one of the country’s most productive defensive tackles, along with Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins.

 

Rankins is similar to Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day from a size standpoint, and both players went head to head all season in our grading. Day finished strong to grade at +59.0, second-best among all interior defensive linemen. He can shoot gaps or win with his hands, equally proficient as a pass rusher (+31.4) as he was against the run (+28.7). He has a chance to solidify his status as a potential first round pick this week.

Joined by fellow captain Nick Martin (who measured in at 6-foot-4, 296 pounds) in Alabama, both Day and Martin will have a week of full workouts to let teams evaluate them before their next stop at the NFL Scouting Combine. That’ll go a long way towards silencing or fortifying the questions about their size, giving both the chance to climb up draft boards with teams capable of potentially plugging both in as future starters as soon as next year.

Reports: Tyler Luatua set to transfer to BYU

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Tyler Luatua plans to transfer, per multiple reports. The rising junior who has played sporadically over the past two seasons will likely look to reboot his football career at BYU.

In two seasons with the Irish Luatua hasn’t caught a pass. The 255-pound tight end served mostly as a blocking option, playing 10 games during his freshman campaign, his most significant action coming against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Of the 211 snaps Luatua took in 2015, 145 of those were run plays, with Luatua serving as additional bulk in the trenches.

Neither Notre Dame nor Luatua have made the news official yet, but reports have Luatua asking for his release and Notre Dame granting it. Rumors surfaced right after the new year that Luatua was looking to move on, the first report coming from BYU reporter Terrell Williams.

Notre Dame’s tight end depth chart returns senior Durham Smythe, junior Nic Wishar and sophomore Alizé Jones. (Chase Hounshell is also eligible for a sixth year.) While the Irish don’t have a tight end commit in the 2016 recruiting class, they’ve already locked down two top prospects in the 2017 group in Cole Kmet and Brock Wright.

Luatua picked Notre Dame out of Southern California, a three-star prospect who had an offer to join his brother at Alabama playing for Nick Saban. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Luatua will sit out next year before returning to the field in 2017.

 

 

Last look: Secondary

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for John Christopher #7 of the Temple Owls in the fourth quarter on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s achilles heel looked like an area of strength heading into the season. That the Irish season would falter because the back end of the defense couldn’t hold up certainly didn’t seem like a possibility when accessing the personnel in first-year assistant Todd Lyght’s secondary.

KeiVarae Russell was back. Many assumed the Irish had an All-American-caliber cornerback returning from a year-long academic suspension. He’d join Cole Luke as one of the better (on paper) tandems in the country, with Luke coming off of a great 2014 season against a scheduled filled with NFL receivers.

At safety, the prognosticators were betting on Max Redfield, with Phil Steele naming him a preseason first-team All-American. Senior Elijah Shumate was a perfect battering ram at strong safety.

The depth was also there. Complementary parts like Drue Tranquill and graduate transfer Avery Sebastian looked like perfect pieces for Brian VanGorder’s sub-packages. Matthias Farley’s versatility was already well known, and now the Irish had freshmen Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman making preseason noise as potential contributors.

On paper, the stats don’t show a disappointing season. The Irish finished 26th in the country giving up 195 yards per game in the air, while quarterbacks completed just 55 percent of their passes.

But as injuries stripped the depth chart, inconsistencies plagued the entire unit. And a group that started the season with high hopes saw their CFB Playoff chances go up in smoke when Stanford’s Kevin Hogan shredded the secondary in less than 30 seconds, allowing the Cardinal to kick a game-winning field goal that eliminated the Irish from consideration.

Shumate, Russell and Farley are gone, forcing the secondary will rebuild. So before we turn our focus to those efforts, let’s take a look at the final statistics and hand out some awards.

Secondary

 

 

MVP: KeiVarae Russell. Was it a great season? Probably not. Russell’s reputation—essentially hand-crafted by the loquacious cornerback—was that of a lock down coverman. That wasn’t the type of football he played, with Russell giving up completions at a far less stingy clip than Cole Luke.

But Russell was the rare playmaker in Notre Dame’s secondary. His clutch interceptions against USC and Temple were probably the two biggest plays made by the defense on the season. He was also an able tackler, unafraid to stick his nose in, as evidenced by his 60 tackles and two forced fumbles, the second the final play of his season when he suffered a fracture in his leg.

Would Russell have likely improved his draft stock had he stuck around for 2016? Yes. But with an NCAA appeal undetermined and a significant injury needing rehabilitation, Russell was ready to move on, accomplishing his goal of returning to Notre Dame for his degree and playing out his senior season with his classmates.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Drue Tranquill’s tough luck. Brian VanGorder might have a perfect weapon in safety Drue Tranquill. But we’ll never know because Tranquill’s bad injury luck keeps taking away one of the secondary’s best playmakers.

As a two-deep cover safety, Tranquill isn’t likely to be a huge asset. But as a third-down weapon and option specialist, Tranquill gives the Irish a versatile piece, capable of covering, blitzing or chasing down the pitch man, whatever his assignment may be.

The loss of Tranquill essentially robbed the Irish of any third-down flexibility, especially with their nickel back plan already foiled with the loss of Shaun Crawford in preseason camp. No Tranquill or Crawford meant keeping Joe Schmidt in the middle of the field on passing downs, a role that Jaylon Smith could’ve played had Tranquill been available after his freak knee injury.

With a second ACL injury in less than a year, the Indiana native is in the middle of another grueling rehabilitation. But Tranquill attacked the last detour with a conviction Brian Kelly had never seen. So expect to see Tranquill on the field pushing himself this spring again, even if they’ll keep him out of the action until fall camp.

 

Silver Lining: An energized Nick Watkins. Notre Dame’s last piece of injury bad luck hit just days before the Irish were set to take on Ohio State. And when junior backup Devin Butler suffered a broken foot that sidelined the Irish’s first two options at cornerback, sophomore Nick Watkins was thrown into action.

It was the first start for the once-highly touted cornerback recruit. And it was a matchup against one of the most talented teams in the country. Yet Watkins held his own in the Fiesta Bowl, playing all 86 snaps against the Buckeyes and possibly jump-starting his career at the same time.

Notre Dame needs Watkins to be a significant contributor in 2016. After competing his way into the mix last spring and during fall camp, Watkins suffered an August slide, falling behind Butler and spending his second straight season mostly relegated to special teams duty. Young cornerback Nick Coleman will do his best to challenge Watkins, as will Butler when he’s healed. But after holding up against a team filled with NFL talent, Watkins should understand the urgency of a career half finished and step into the spotlight.

 

 

Waiting for the Lightbulb: Max Redfield. An up-and-down season ended on a disappointing note for Redfield, with the junior starter sent home from Scottsdale after violating team rules. That type of mistake is understandable from a freshman like Jerry Tillery, but Redfield’s ouster left a lot of people inside the program scratching their head.

Physically, there’s no doubting Redfield’s impressive skill-set. But the Southern California native has never performed like a 5-star prospect, a recruiting designation that forced some considerable expectations on him. A thumb injury early this season might have contributed to some of this season’s highs and lows, but mental mistakes earned Redfield a few quick hooks, especially against run-heavy opponents.

With just a year left, Redfield’s most recent social media declaration has him intent on returning for his final season in South Bend. In a secondary badly needing a playmaking safety to emerge, its most obvious candidate needs to step forward before it’s too late.

Brown, Okwara and Shumate to play in Shrine Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14:  Romeo Okwara #45 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leaps through the air to sack John Wolford #10 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Graduated seniors Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are all participating in the East-West Shrine Game on Saturday afternoon, hoping to impress NFL scouts and put themselves in position to be drafted. The game takes place at 4 p.m. ET, televised on the NFL Network from Tropicana Field.

Brown was the team’s second leading receiver this season, catching 48 passes for 597 yards and four touchdowns. Okwara led the Irish in sacks while Shumate’s 70 tackles paced the secondary. All three will play on an East roster coached by Charlie Weis, with former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn serving as Weis’ QB coach. (Jon Bon Jovi is also hanging around the East squad, a perk of being buddies with the former head coach.)

Shumate, who is keeping a draft diary for the South Bend Tribune’s NDInsider page, said Notre Dame’s former head coach had plenty of fun with the Irish alums.

My head coach for the East team is Charlie Weis, who used to be the head coach at Notre Dame before I got there.

I had never met him before this week, but he’s riding the Notre Dame players — Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and me — really hard. In fact, we had a meeting after the first practice, and he made the three of us sing the Notre Dame fight song in front of everybody.

(Don’t ever change, Charlie…)

All three were weighed in and measured at the Shrine game. Brown checked in at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. Okwara came in at an impressive 6-foot-4.5 and 266 pounds, while Shumate measured in at six-foot, 210 pounds.

Sheldon Day and Nick Martin begin their Senior Bowl experience early next week in Mobile, Alabama. It’s one of the key evaluation weeks for NFL teams as they look at top-tier draft candidates. Day could fight his way into the late first-round conversation with a strong evaluation season.  Martin will make his bid to be viewed as one of the best centers in the draft.

 

After major detour, Mahone’s life back on track

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Former Irish running back Will Mahone left the Notre Dame and the football program after an incident with Youngstown police resulted in an arrest and multiple criminal charges filed against him. It was the type of event that could’ve been life defining—Mahone not only lost his scholarship at Notre Dame, he stared down significant jail time.

But Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com has a wonderful update on Mahone, and the former running back has turned his life around, spending a year in the Teen Challenge program, a faith-based residential living facility that helps young men rebuild their lives.

Now Mahone’s life is back on track. He’s living healthy, enrolled in classes at Youngstown State, and maybe even rebooting his football career after leaving the Irish program in 2014.

“I am just eager to kind of finish up with school, but I am taking it one moment at time and enjoying being at school and having the opportunity to further my education,” Mahone told Irish Sports Daily. “I am seeing it more as an opportunity to do good in life and how it can help me with jobs. For my sake, I want to get my education.

“When I was at Notre Dame, I used to think just because I would graduate from Notre Dame, I could do anything I wanted. You have to know your craft even though you might have a degree in something.”

Do yourself a favor and head over to ISD and read the entire story.

Mahone will be talking with Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini after Signing Day to see if there’s a role for him in the program. It’d be a great finish to a college experience that took a major detour but came out okay on the other side.