Kelly reiterates stance on staying put at Notre Dame

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In what is fast becoming an annual rite of winter, Brian Kelly has once again explained why he’s not interested in going to the NFL. Notre Dame’s head football coach, who just wrapped up his sixth season in South Bend, was asked the inevitable question about coaching at the game’s highest level.

Irish 247’s Nick Ironside caught Kelly’s comments on a Monday afternoon SportsCenter where Notre Dame’s head coach once again explained why he plans on staying in the college game.

“I really feel like I’m at the level,” Kelly said, according to Irish247. “I know the NFL gets that notoriety because it’s professional sports, but it doesn’t mean necessarily it has it right in all facets. I think college football has it right for me, because for me it’s coach centric where I control the scholarships. I control the roster. Not that I’m a control freak, but this is my 25th year as a head coach.

“So doing it for so long, I like to be able to know what’s going on in the front office. Those are my biggest concerns sometimes. There’s so much turnover in the NFL. There’s the lack of continuity. In every great business there has to be some change, but continuity is important and I’ve always liked the continuity. And at Notre Dame we’ve got great structure. Great continuity. Great athletic director. Great president. So that’s why there’s no need to go chase anything else. I’m in a great situation at Notre Dame.”

Kelly’s comments are similar to the ones he made in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl—and closely mirror what Urban Meyer said during the same time period when Ohio State’s head coach acknowledged receiving a phone call from an interested NFL team but said no thanks. It’s also a reflection on the realities of today’s coaching world, where the money, power and autonomy in college sports is second to none.

Kelly’s declaration won’t please everybody who still think back to the head coach’s conversations with the Philadelphia Eagles after the Irish played for the BCS title. But they do likely eliminates any questions about the relationship between Kelly and his bosses.

For as long as Notre Dame has had a head football coach, there’s been rumblings about his relationship with the athletic director or the university president. With Rev. John Jenkins engaged (and part of the ongoing battle to support the amateur model in college athletics) and Jack Swarbrick among the best in the business, Notre Dame may not have some of the advantages that come at football-first schools like Alabama, but Kelly certainly has support from above that didn’t always exist the last few decades.

Irish finish No. 11 in final AP poll

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The final AP poll was released on Tuesday morning and Notre Dame finished the season No. 11. Coming off of a Fiesta Bowl loss and a 10-3 season, the Irish slipped outside of the Top 10, but had losses to three of the four top teams in the country, falling to No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Stanford and No. 4 Ohio State by a total of 20 points.

Notre Dame had one win over a team ranked in the final poll, with only Navy (at 11-2) finishing in the rankings at No. 18. The Irish were the second highest ranked three-loss team, falling below Ole Miss (No. 10), who beat Alabama during the regular season and cruised in the Sugar Bowl to a 48-20 win over Oklahoma State.

The top ten also included Alabama (No. 1), Oklahoma (No. 5), Michigan State (No. 6), TCU (No. 7), Houston (No. 8) and Iowa (No. 9), the Sooners, Spartans and Hawkeyes all ending the season with a loss.

Last Look: Receiving Corps

Will Fuller
AP
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Even with a first-time starter at quarterback, Notre Dame’s passing attack was impressive. While Mike Sanford’s work with DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire deserves a significant amount of credit, the personnel in charge of reeling in the catches made things pretty easy on the quarterback.

Will Fuller leaves Notre Dame will the best two-year statistical run of any receiver in school history. Fuller’s 29 touchdown catches are the most of any receiver in football over the last two seasons. His ability to stretch a defense—or more appropriately, to get behind it—opened up plenty of other options for his teammates.

While Fuller paced the offense, he had a strong supporting cast. In his final season in South Bend, Chris Brown emerged as a bonafide No. 2 receiver, his 48 catches, 597 yards and four touchdowns all career bests. Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter picked up the slack in the slot, combining for 60 catches and nearly 700 receiving yards as well.

There’s a rebuilding job that needs starting this offseason. Fuller is gone. So are Brown and Carlisle, the latter a sneaky contributor the last two seasons. There’s no shortage of talent to move forward with, so let’s take a last look at the season that was and do some projecting as we move forward.

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MVP: Will Fuller. We probably won’t realize how badly Fuller is missed until he’s not out there on the edge of the field, wreaking havoc with the opposing defensive coordinator’s game plan. Fuller made the running game look better, he helped his other receivers get open, and he spread a defense to the widest part of the field—things that you hardly give him credit for when he’s scoring 14 touchdowns and catching deep balls.

You can hardly blame Fuller for taking his talents to the NFL. He had nothing left to prove at this level, and his biggest knock (size) can’t be corrected with another year of torching college defenses. (Maybe his hands could, but I digress.)

As a big play receiver, there’s no rival to Fuller in my time watching Notre Dame football. That he was able to top his production from 2014 with A) a larger emphasis on the running game, B) A new two-deep at quarterback and C) Everybody in the country knowing who he was is a credit to just how great Fuller is at beating cornerbacks into submission.

I just wish we got to see how he’d have done against Clemson without a monsoon.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Corey Robinson‘s star-crossed season. Robinson took a step back after a nice sophomore season. While he had a nice Fiesta Bowl (or a a nice series in the Fiesta Bowl), his season was defined by the plays he didn’t make—not a great thing for a receiver (or anybody).

Robinson battled some under-the-radar injuries for much of the year. A knee that pulled him from the lineup against Georgia Tech lingered. So did confidence issues. Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated broke some news ($) that Robinson was weighing some options that could take him off the field next season, with opportunities to earn a Fulbright or Rhodes Scholarship maybe more important than football. But Sampson reports that Robinson is “all in” for his senior season.

That’s a good thing because there’s nobody else left to lead this position group. And while it’s a talented group, they’ll need Robinson to lead, giving him an opportunity to make his final season in college football a big one.

 

Biggest Surprise: Chris Brown’s dependability. Notre Dame will miss Chris Brown. A career that for too long was defined by a deep ball reception against Oklahoma finished on a long, consistent, high note, with Brown putting together a very solid senior season that could allow him to continue his career on Sundays.

Brown has long been called one of the team’s best practice players. He’s an elite track athlete with a long frame, good hands and major leaping ability. But after struggling to take practice field domination into Saturdays, Brown put together a great season as a senior. He did it all, making clutch catches, moving the chains and also leading the blocking charge downfield.

 

Brightest Future: Equanimeous St. BrownWe didn’t see much in the single eight-yard completion that served as Brown’s only catch of the year. But we did hear plenty of raving about St. Brown’s speed, length and ability to go get the football from Brian Kelly, who doesn’t usually spend time blowing smoke.

Brown’s biggest play of the year was a punt block that the Irish returned for a score. And while he was kept off the field because he had the unlucky job of serving as Will Fuller’s backup, a shoulder injury late in the year robbed St. Brown of valuable practice time during bowl prep.

Hopefully he’ll be healed for spring ball, where he’ll likely slide into Fuller’s job on the field-side of the formation. From there, he’s positioned to make a big leap from anonymous freshman to prominent performer as a sophomore. He’d be following Fuller’s footsteps there, too.

 

Jaylon Smith declares for NFL Draft

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A major knee injury won’t stop Jaylon Smith from heading to the NFL. Notre Dame’s consensus All-American and Butkus Award-winning linebacker declared for the draft on Monday, deciding to turn professional even after surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL ligament.

Smith made the announcement via social media, confirming a decision most expected regardless of the injury status.

Smith received a first-round draft grade from the advisory committee before his injury, a grade revealed in the days before the Fiesta Bowl. While the injury may impact how high in the draft he goes, Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him should he slide out of the first round.

“It’s really just perseverance from here, with the adversity that I’m going through right now and dealing with the knee injury,” Smith said during the low-key video announcement. “I have the same vision, it’s just a different path.”

Smith ends his three-year career at Notre Dame with two 100+ tackle seasons, the team-leader each of the past two years. He was a three-year starter for the Irish and their first consensus All-American on defense since Manti Te’o in 2012.

Kevin Stepherson begins ND career as early enrollee

Kevin StephersonTWITTER
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Five members of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class are getting a jump start on college. The latest to make it official is wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. The Florida native arrived in South Bend over the weekend, set to begin classes this Monday.

ND Football’s official Twitter handle made the news official this weekend:

Stepherson is a three-star prospect who camped at Notre Dame over the summer. Shortly after that he committed to the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Miami, North Carolina, Florida and a dozen others. Stepherson was one of Jacksonville’s top players, a Super 11 pick from the Times-Union before his senior season.

Multiple publications have Stepherson listed at 6-foot-3, a lanky receiver with a long stride. While that may have an inch (or two) of fluff, he dominated on the camp circuit this summer, has an incredible highlight reel (see below), and was an early target by the Irish staff.

Stepherson will join classmates Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Spencer Perry, and Devin Studstill as early enrollees.