Sheldon Day, John Fadule

Last Look: Front Seven


With Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day playing at All-American levels, Notre Dame’s front seven featured two of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Smith’s junior campaign may have ended in heartbreak, but he made 114 tackles, easily pacing the team. Day’s senior season finally unlocked the potential we’d heard about for three years, with the veteran leading the team with 15.5 TFLs, making it through all 13 games healthy.

Four pieces of the front seven were essentially every-down players: Smith, Day, Joe Schmidt and Isaac Rochell. Per PFF College, Schmidt led the defense in snaps played at 873. Rochell led the defensive line with 816 snaps, while Smith finished with 801 and Day had 786.

Senior Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks, finishing with 12.5 TFLs about eight official sacks. It was the type of breakout senior that the Irish desperately needed from a pass rusher.

Some of the defense’s inconsistencies are also revealed in these statistics. From a productivity standpoint, Schmidt’s 78 tackles may be second on the team, but he graded out as Notre Dame’s worst regular in PFF’s rating system. Some of that may be on Schmidt’s physical limitations. Some of it is on the defensive tackles playing in front of him.

Without Jarron Jones, Notre Dame was forced to play Daniel Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery. While that duo’s future looks bright, Tillery made just 12 total tackles while Cage was slightly more productive with 18 stops. Compare that with the 40 tackles and 7.5 TFLs Jones had in his first season starting and you start to see some of the effects of losing a 330-pound run-stuffer who also protects your middle linebacker.

Notre Dame’s front seven will be rebuilt this offseason. While Rochell returns, the Irish will need to replace their Smith, Schmidt, Okwara, Day and Jarrett Grace. Before we turn our focus to the future, let’s hand out some year-end rankings.

Front Seven












MVP: Jaylon Smith. Smith’s elite skill-set makes this feel like a no-brainer, but Sheldon Day’s value to this front seven made this a much harder decision than you may have thought. But Notre Dame’s latest Butkus winner did so much for this defense, especially in a linebacking corps that so heavily relied on him.

Without Smith, Notre Dame’s linebackers would’ve been beyond ordinary. While most of the focus this offseason will be on his recovery from knee surgery, Smith’s ability to drop and cover, read and react and — maybe most importantly — cover for mistakes with speed and athleticism, allowed him to erase plays. That will be missed.


Co-MVP: Sheldon Day. These are my awards, so I get to make one up for the season Day had. For years we’ve heard Aaron Donald referenced as a comp for Day. Finally in 2015, Day made that reference not seem laughable.

No, he won’t likely become one of the NFL’s most dominant interior players. But Day’s senior season has him popping up in the first round of some mock drafts, a credit to the dominance Day displayed this season—not always evident in the stat line he put up.

How good was Day? Consider PFF College’s grading system. Day doubled Smith’s overall grade, earning a +59.0 to Smith’s +29.4. Day ranked as PFF’s No. 1 defensive tackle this season, while Smith finished as the No. 5 OLB.

Paired with two young players with next to no experience, Day still managed to dictate terms in the trenches. While we can only wonder what this group would’ve done with Jones by his side, it was a special season.


Biggest Disappointment: Nyles Morgan’s disappearance. Joe Schmidt’s value to this defense was made clear anytime reporters asked Brian Kelly or Brian VanGorder why Morgan couldn’t get on the field. But even if Schmidt’s acumen and ability to direct the unit will forever go under-appreciated by fans, you can’t help but wonder what a sophomore season spent playing special teams did to Morgan’s development schedule.

Let’s be clear: Morgan’s freshman season—or even his ceiling as a linebacker—aren’t based on anything we’ve seen with our eyes. But you still would’ve liked to find some snaps where Morgan could’ve contributed situationally. That he didn’t doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on player or coach solely. But it puts the onus on the rising junior to have a big spring practice, hopefully stepping into both the middle linebacker job and a leadership role.



Brightest Future: Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s freshman defensive tackle ended the season on a sour note, suspended for a rules violation in Scottsdale that forced Notre Dame’s only healthy defensive tackle to watch the Fiesta Bowl from the sidelines. But Tillery’s going to be a key piece of the defensive puzzle in 2016, asked to fill the role of his travel roommate and (try to) replace Day’s production.

A starting front-four of Tillery and Jones on the inside surrounded by Rochell and Trumbetti should be able to hold up in the trenches. Now it’s time for Tillery to take the sting of missing the bowl game and carry that into spring football, where he’ll no longer be an overachieving freshman and will be asked to take the type of leap Stephon Tuitt did in his second season.


Williams gets his long-awaited NFL audition

USC v Notre Dame

Ishaq Williams found himself in an unfamiliar place these past few days. After a two-year hiatus, he was back on a football field.

The one-time 5-star recruit had his chance to breathe life into his football career this week, down in Texas participating in the College Gridiron Showcase. It’s the first time Williams will have played in a competitive football game since the Pinstripe Bowl, the last two seasons ruined by the academic dishonesty probe that froze the football careers of five Irish players.

Williams spoke with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen to talk about the opportunity to audition for potential employers. He also discussed the road he’s traveled the last two years, finding his way back to Notre Dame and on track to earn his degree in May.

“I’m a totally different person,” Williams told Hansen. “I’m positive, hard-working, have a passion for stuff. This situation has changed my life for the better.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire article. It’s a testament to the work Williams put in to even give himself this chance.

Williams’ football career essentially ended in August of 2014, when Notre Dame pulled he and four of his teammates from participation while the university worked through an investigation into improper academic activity. The drawn-out results of that investigation led to a two-semester ban from school for Williams, KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Davis Daniels. Only Russell returned to Notre Dame to play football in 2015.

Williams was free to return to the university after the suspension. His eligibility was a different story. Details remain murky to this day, but Williams’ appeal to play in 2015 was denied by the NCAA, who also ruled that Williams couldn’t even participate as a scout team player.

While he could lift weights in the Gug and spent time with his former teammates in the locker room, he needed to find a way to prepare for his potential football future. That led Williams to former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley, who spent the fall semester working with him at Sharpley’s training facility in Elkhart.

The work paid off. Williams has slimmed down, now carrying around 260 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He’s also cleared his head of any negativity that could carryover from the entire incident—two seasons of football lost for an academic mistake.

“I watched every Notre Dame football game this year, but never at the stadium, always from home,” he said. “Those guys welcomed me into the locker room, welcomed me to work out at the Gug (ND’s football facility). They never gave up on me. So how could I give up on myself?

Williams, a philosophy major, is familiar with the famous quote “It’s never too late to become who you might have been.”

But it’s no longer about justifying that old five-star recruiting tag. It’s about new beginnings, wherever they take him.

“I can’t put into words what it’s like to have this chance to overcome,” Williams said. “It means everything to me. There are so many people to thank, however and wherever it ends.”

Williams will be back at Notre Dame this spring, when he’ll audition for scouts at the Irish Pro Day. There’s no question his size and athleticism will draw some interest from a league where teams covet untapped potential.

Credit goes to Williams for doing his best to get back on track.


Kelly reiterates stance on staying put at Notre Dame


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


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

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.












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.