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.”

 

 

 

 

Re-Stocking the roster: Defensive Line

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26:  Isaac Rochell #90 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Sekai Lindsay #35 of the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s 2015 plans up front all but went down the drain in August, when Jarron Jones got rolled up in a practice drill during fall camp. But that didn’t stop Sheldon Day from having one of the most productive seasons in the country, the senior captain earning All-American honors for a tremendous season in the trenches. Nor did it stop Romeo Okwara from putting together an impressive season as a pass rusher, an unlikely eight-sack season for the two-time team leader.

But both Day and Okwara are gone, leaving very large holes in a defensive front. While Day’s production and leadership will be missed from the moment the team takes the field without him, all is not lost in the trenches. Though it’s been built mostly through anonymous recruits (at least from Notre Dame’s standards) and converted offensive linemen (Jerry Tillery, and whispers of John Montelus cross-training), Keith Gilmore has a whole lot of talented depth available to fill the void.

Depth may be a strength but overlooking the returning starters is a mistake. Isaac Rochell will soon be recognized as a national talent. Jarron Jones’ return for a fifth-year likely wouldn’t have happened had he been healthy enough to play in 2015. Both can be impactful, standout players. With Jones down, Tillery and Daniel Cage earned valuable reps, snaps that’ll have them ready to take the next step in their game come late August.

Gone are the days when the Irish struggled to field a two-deep up front. There’ll be no less than 15 defensive linemen huddled around Gilmore during spring drills, a young core that only has Jones and Rochell playing their final season of eligibility.

Before spring practice, let’s finish up our roster reload series by looking at one of the most well-stocked positions on the roster.

 

DEPARTURES
Sheldon Day (45 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 4 sacks)
Romeo Okwara (48 tackles 12.5 TFLs, 8 sacks)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Micah Dew-Treadway*

Elijah Taylor*
Brandon Tiassum*
Jerry Tillery
Khalid Kareem
Julian Okwara
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Daelin Hayes

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Isaac Rochell
, Sr.
Jarron Jones, Grad Student
Jerry Tillery, Soph.
Andrew Trumbetti, Jr.

Daniel Cage, Jr.
Grant Blankenship, Jr.
Jay Hayes, Jr.*
Jonathan Bonner, Jr.*
Jacob Matuska, Sr.*
Peter Mokwuah, Jr.*
Micah Dew Treadway, Soph.*
Brandon Tiassum, Soph.*
Elijah Taylor, Soph.*
Khalid Kareem, Fr.
Daelin Hayes, Fr.

*Fifth-year of eligibility remaining

 

ANALYSIS
Outside of Jerry Tillery, we’ve seen next to nothing from these two recruiting classes. And that’s fine when it comes to power players like Dew-Treadway, Taylor and Tiassum, who’ll enter spring football hoping to find a spot in a rotation. Come fall, we’ll get our first clue as to if this group is capable of playing above their recruiting profile. The trio were early targets (and commits) to Brian VanGorder, and each have legitimate size and length (all between 6-3 and 6-4 and 285 and 302 pounds). After a year of learning with Keith Gilmore, getting some productive snaps shouldn’t be too much to ask.

If the 2015 cycle focused on heft, the recent group should be looked at as the speed component. Early enrollees Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes both have the look of premium defensive ends. Hayes might still be limited with a shoulder issue—and could still be a linebacker—but Kareem will have the spring to convince Gilmore and VanGorder that he can help be part of the solution as the Irish continue to try and build a four-down pass rush.

Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji are also speed recruits. Both need some time in the weight room, but each have a raw ability that had Notre Dame’s staff believing that they’ll be capable of coming off the edge and applying pressure. Okwara’s pass rush skills are already more natural than his brother’s—that’s decent praise considering he was the team’s sack leader the past two seasons. And Ogundeji has the type of wing span and body type that could be molded into a monster, though he’ll have to put in serious work to get there.

Perhaps the most underrated part of this defensive line is the depth that’s been accumulated over the past two years. Some of that comes from stealth moves like the sophomore redshirt Jay Hayes wore, keeping him off the field kept and in line with classmate Jonathan Bonner. That’s two sophomores (eligibility wise) who can help take the pressure off of Tillery and Jones and have the positional flexibility to add something to the pass rush as well.

Finding a way to get production from weak side defensive end is still a big question mark. But most hope Andrew Trumbetti gets a bump from his late-season opportunities—and finds plenty of time for the weight room this offseason. With some key building blocks, talented back-ups and the ability to extend a rotation that got mighty thin last season, this line won’t have Day and Okwara, but it should have a lot of ability.

Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.

A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.

No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.

 

DEPARTURES
Jaylon Smith
, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs)
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs)
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Barajas*
Asmar Bilal*
Te’von Coney
Daelin Hayes
Jonathan Jones
Jamir Jones

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

Greer Martini
Josh Barajas
Asmar Bilal
Daelin Hayes

 

ANALYSIS
Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.

It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.

On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.

The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.

But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.

Heisman winner Johnny Lattner’s legacy appreciated

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 30:  Former Heisman Trophy winner John Lattner (C) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish stands next to quarterback Brady Quinn #10 during the captain's meeting against the Purdue Boilermakers September 30, 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won 35-21. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner passed away last week at the age of 83. The best player in the country in 1953, Lattner was one of Notre Dame’s record seven Heisman Trophy winners, and is the third of that group to have deceased, joining Angelo Bertelli and Leon Hart.

Lattner once quipped he spent the majority of his playing career in head coach Frank Leahy’s doghouse. But it’s hard to understand how that was possible, considering Lattner was one of the last football players to spent 60 minutes a game on the football field, a “one-platoon” player in an era where specialization took hold.

ESPN’s Ivan Maisel wrote about Lattner’s impact on the college game—something today’s numbers-driven era might have struggled to notice.

You can’t measure Lattner’s statistics against today’s game. In three seasons for Notre Dame, Lattner rushed for a total of 1,724 yards and 20 touchdowns. He caught 39 passes. But here’s where Lattner’s talent can begin to be understood — he also returned kicks and punts and, as a defensive back, intercepted 13 passes.

For nearly a quarter century, from the start of World War II into the early 1960s, the keepers of the NCAA football rulebook argued over whether the game should be played by the same 11 men whether a team had the ball or not. Loosening the limits on substitutions began during the war, and a good segment of coaches wanted to keep them loose after the troops came home and returned to college.

By 1952, nearly every coach had shifted to two-platoon football. Yet Leahy still played Lattner both ways. That’s how good he was, or at least could be.

UND.com had some wonderful features on Lattner after his passing. Check them out here.  If you’re in need of a history lesson (I know I was), take some time and give them a read.

Lattner’s life will be celebrated at a visitation this Friday at Fenwick High School, where he starred as a Chicagoland prep player. The funeral is Saturday at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest, Illinois.

Re-Stocking the roster: Secondary

Michigan v Notre Dame
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For those asking big questions about Notre Dame’s struggle in the secondary, the Irish coaching staff provided their answer on Signing Day. That’s when Notre Dame added seven new DBs, bringing in a large group to continue the overhaul of a unit that underperformed in 2015.

There are reasons for those struggles. The Irish staff was candid about them, talking about the lack of personnel—some due to injury circumstances, other due to scheme changes. And while cross-training a receiver like Torii Hunter Jr. was a short-term option, investing in the position group was the more prudent choice.

We’ll see that investment first hand, when almost 15 percent of the scholarship roster is dedicated to first- and second-year defensive backs. They come in all shapes and sizes, from pint-sized corner Shaun Crawford to jumbo safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry.

The defense welcomes back key building blocks Cole Luke and Max Redfield, with Luke capable of being a front-line college cornerback and Redfield possessing a similar skill set. As Drue Tranquill and Devin Butler return from injuries and Nick Watkins builds on a strong bowl season, there’s reason to believe this doesn’t need to be a complete gut-job renovation.

So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions as we lead into spring practice.

 

DEPARTURES
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, SS
Matthias Farley, DB
John Turner, S*
Nicky Baratti, S*

*Unclear on return for fifth year. 

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Nick Coleman, CB
Shaun Crawford*, CB
Nicco Ferita, S
Ashton White*, DB
Mykelti Williams*, S
Jalen Elliott, S
Julian Love, DB
D.J. Morgan, S
Spencer Perry, S
Troy Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S
Donte Vaughn, CB

*Have fifth-year of eligibility

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Watkins, CB
Max Redfield, S
Avery Sebastian, S

Nick Coleman, CB
Shaun Crawford, CB
Drue Tranquill, S
Mykelti Williams, S
Ashton White, DB
Spencer Perry, S
Devin Studstill, S
John Turner, S
Nicky Baratti, S

*Turner & Baratti’s fifth-year status is unclear. 

 

ANALYSIS
Gone is the zone scheme that Bob Diaco deployed. Here is Brian VanGorder’s cover and pressure-based system that requires the ability to play man-to-man and hold your own in space.

The early returns on the 2015 group are mostly incomplete. Shaun Crawford, who was penciled into the lineup from Day One, tore his ACL in August and missed the season. While Nicco Fertitta took some special teams reps, the only other DB from the group to see the field was Nick Coleman, who the staff believes will contribute, but just needs some seasoning (he mostly played running back in high school).

This year’s group brought some length and physicality to the roster. Jumbo-sized DBs like D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Donte Vaughn all look and play differently than the guys on the current roster.  Jalen Elliott could be a contributor from the day he steps onto campus. Somebody needs to be ready to lineup next to Max Redfield, perhaps redshirt Mykelti Williams is ready after a season watching and learning. Or Drue Tranquill’s knees finally allow him to become a key contributor.

Talent isn’t necessarily the issue. Comprehension might be—thousands of words have been spent evaluating whether or not VanGorder’s scheme is too complex for athletes to read and react instinctively. That same analysis is going on in The Gug as well.

Ultimately, Notre Dame’s biggest handicap last season wasn’t the talent on the field, it was the inability to put more of it out there. You can’t win in college football without a large pool of defenders, and the Irish just lacked the ability to mix and match in the back end, a flaw that proved fatal in the regular season’s final 30 seconds.

Spring will be a big first step for Todd Lyght and his secondary, before reinforcements arrive this summer.