Despite blowout loss, Notre Dame here to stay

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Despite blowout loss, Notre Dame here to stay

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Braxston Cave had a simple declaration to make as Notre Dame players came to grips with a 42-14 drubbing at the hands of Alabama.

"Notre Dame's back," Cave said. "Not how we wanted to (play) tonight, but we're back."

Being back doesn't mean being on Alabama's level, though. Plenty of Irish coaches and players talked about the gap between themselves and Alabama, which won its third championship in four seasons Monday night.

Auburn was the only team to break Alabama's stranglehold on the Coaches' Trophy since 2009. But two years after coaching Auburn to a BCS Championship win over Oregon, Gene Chizik was fired. After a meteoric rise, his program came crashing back to earth without its transcendent quarterback in Cam Newton.

That's one way to build a program, one which succeeds on the back of a star player. That's not how Brian Kelly has built Notre Dame. This is a program built to last, to succeed well into the future.

"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here."

Manti Te'o is done at Notre Dame, as is the case for Cave, Tyler Eifert, Kapron Lewis-Moore and potentially Cierre Wood, who will decided whether to return for his senior season in a few days.

But Notre Dame has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class entering the program this year, a group stocked with the kind of "big skill" guys coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have targeted. Plus, Notre Dame will return plenty of talent, led by guys like offensive lineman Zack Martin, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and defensive tackle Louis Nix.

"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here. That's the goal, no doubt, at Notre Dame."

And, if you're looking for a positive from the BCS Championship, Everett Golson held serve, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown against a defense that completely took away the threat of Notre Dame's running game.

"We got a lot of guys returning, a lot of guys who didn't play this year who can play," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, who caught six passes for 115 yards against Alabama, said. "The future looks bright for us."

The clock is now ticking on the current BCS format, which will go away after next year's championship game. It'll be replaced by a four-team playoff, while Notre Dame has a tie-in with the Orange Bowl and a partnership with the ACC that'll assure the program won't be left behind. For all the consternation over Notre Dame's relevancy half a year ago, there's no questioning it now.

"When you start winning around here, you start to see what it does to the community, what it does to the fans and how it rejuvenates college football, and you realize that this program, this university means so much more," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "And when Notre Dame's on top, college football's better."

For now, though, Notre Dame will go back to the drawing board. They now have a first-hand look at what the best college football program in the nation looks like -- and even before Monday's game, Kelly talked about getting Notre Dame to Alabama's level.

"Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model," Kelly said. "I concede to that. It's where we want to be."

No other team is there, though. Alabama is alone atop college football in terms of success as a program. Oregon is closer than anyone else, but Notre Dame is getting there.

Notre Dame couldn't make the giant leap to Alabama's level in South Florida. It'll take plenty of small steps, but this program is confident they'll get to that point.

"Obviously we didn't finish the way we wanted," Cave said, "but these guys coming back are going to be here to take the next step and finish the right way next year."

Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

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Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

The speculation about Jaylon Smith won’t end until he finally sets foot on an NFL field and proves that his knee has fully healed. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith with the 34th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Friday with the expectation he’ll have a lengthy, successful career in the NFL (

). 

Smith is in relatively uncharted territory when it comes to the damage to the stretched peroneal nerve in his left knee. But universally, Smith’s coaches and former teammates expressed optimism about his recovery and gushed about the elite abilities possessed by the 2015 Butkus Award winner. 

“His traits of explosion and speed and all the physical traits we talk about, they’re top-line,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But the big thing with him is he’s a pro. He can walk in any pro locker room, any pro meeting room — he’s incredible in the meeting room — and he’ll talk better football than a lot of those guys that are already there. He’s very knowledgeable. Worked at it hard. Wanted to see the big picture of football. 

“So he’s NFL ready the minute he walks into a meeting room. Incredible note-taker. He’s just — if I were still in the pros and I drafted him, I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had any rookie come in that would be where he is. He’s just so far ahead. So far ahead.”

VanGorder has a keen knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a linebacker in the NFL, too, having spent four years as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator and single seasons as the linebackers’ coach for the Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. 

“He’s gonna have a hell of a career, he is one heck of a football player and it’s very, very important to him,” VanGorder said. “He’s a champion. He has a champion attitude. He’ll be good.”

While Smith’s trophy-winning junior season certainly was extraordinary, that he still totaled 114 tackles in 2014 was impressive in a different way. That year, Smith was learning a new position — Will inside linebacker in VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme — and was frequently caught out of position, especially after talismanic middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury against Navy. 

But even though Smith struggled with the move inside, his athleticism took over to generate that triple-digit tackle total. Seeing Smith glide from the field to the boundary to make a tackle on an opposing running back was a somewhat common occurrence. 

“Jaylon was a production man,” Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “He made everybody else around him better because he was gonna make up for you. You got reached as a defensive tackle? He was gonna get to the ball and make the tackle. It didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what happens in front of him. Jaylon made up for a lot of things. He was productive.”

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace offered a different perspective on what made Smith such a good player. 

“If he wasn’t in class, I don’t know if he’d instantly transport and just be right here in the (Guglielmino Athletics Complex), in the film room, just wanting more and more and more,” Grace said. “Because he didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait, God-given and something he’s worked toward as well. 

“But what makes these guys great players is their instincts on the field and they’re able to direct that to the ball, to the play, understanding the game as well. That’s just taking it to the next level. There’s plenty of tremendous athletes out there, you’ll see guys pop up all the time with these crazy numbers, jumping like this. But Jaylon has that and the other side.”

Coach Brian Kelly found himself publicly politicking for Smith over the past few weeks, trying to convey what impressed him so much about his former linebacker to an NFL audience. All Smith needed was a chance, according to Kelly, and he’d prove to be the kind of linebacker he was at Notre Dame — and maybe a better one, too. 

The Dallas Cowboys, on Friday, gave Smith that chance. 

“He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does, he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” Kelly said. “He has that kind of ability. … Jaylon is somebody that has an incredible, positive attitude. 

“Look, he’s not a gamble. He’s a smart business decision.”

Jaylon Smith taken No. 34 in NFL Draft by Dallas Cowboys

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Jaylon Smith taken No. 34 in NFL Draft by Dallas Cowboys

Where Jaylon Smith would land was one of the biggest questions heading into the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, which began Friday night in Chicago. 

We didn't have to wait long for an answer.

The Dallas Cowboys took Smith with the 34th overall pick, just three selections into the second round. Smith, who won the Butkus Award in 2015, isn't likely to play in 2016 after suffering a torn ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl that also contained damage to the nerve in his knee. 

Prior to his injury, and the revelations of nerve damage, Smith was widely projected to be a top-10 pick. A former five-star recruit (and winner of the high school Butkus Award, too), Smith asserted himself as one of the most talented players to ever come through Notre Dame during his three seasons in South Bend. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native totaled 292 tackles and 19 tackles for a loss in his college career, in which he was moved from outside linebacker in Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme to "Will" inside linebacker in Brian VanGorder's 4-3 defense. 

Smith took out an insurance policy last year, which reportedly paid him $700,000 for not being a first-round pick $100,000 for each pick after the end of the first round he wasn't selected, so he'll received $900,000 from it. 

With Dallas, Smith will be re-united with his brother, Rod, who's a running back for the Cowboys. 

Smith's former teammates and coaches rushed to Twitter to celebrate. There wasn't a consensus on when Smith would be drafted, with projections ranging between the second and fourth founds. 

Ronnie Stanley becomes highest-picked Notre Dame player since 1994

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Ronnie Stanley becomes highest-picked Notre Dame player since 1994

Notre Dame hadn’t had a player selected in the first 10 picks of the NFL Draft since 1994 until the Baltimore Ravens took offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley with the No. 6 pick in NFL Draft Thursday night.

And later in the evening, the Houston Texasn selected wide receiver Will Fuller with the 21st pick, giving Notre Dame two players selected in the first round for the first time since 2012 (Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith). 

The 6-foot-6, 312 pound Stanley starred in his three seasons as a starter at Notre Dame, in which he started all 39 games and was the anchor for one of college football’s best offensive lines in 2015.

Notre Dame’s last top-10 pick was defensive tackle Bryant Young (No. 7 in 1994). While rumors swirled Thursday morning about Stanley possibly going as high as the third overall pick, the last top-five Irish pick was quarterback Rick Mirer (No. 2 in 1993). Stanley is Notre Dame’s first first-round pick since the Dallas Cowboys selected offensive lineman Zack Martin with the 16th selection in 2014’s NFL Draft.

For Stanley, being picked in the top 10 stands as a strong vindication of his decision to return to Notre Dame following his junior year. Had Stanley left Notre Dame after the 2014 season, he likely would’ve been picked somewhere in the middle of the first round, not the top third.

Stanley, who is represented by Roc Nation, is on track to graduate from Notre Dame with a degree from the university’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business in May.

Fuller developed into a dynamic offensive threat, totaling 138 catches, 2,352 yards and 29 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons. The Philadelphia native declared for the NFL Draft following the conclusion of his junior season in January. 

A complete list of years in which Notre Dame had multiple players become first-round picks:

Two first round picks

2012: WR Michael Floyd (13), S Harrison Smith (29)

1994: DT Bryant Young (7), OG Aaron Taylor (16), S Jeff Burris (27)

1993: QB Rick Mirer (2), JRB drome Bettis (10), CB Tom Carter (17), TE Irv Smith (20)

1978: TE Ken McAfee (7), DE Ross Browner (8), DB Luther Bradley  (11)

1972: DE Walt Patulski (1), DB Clarence Ellis (15), DT Mike Kadish (25)

1969: T George Kunz (2), E Jim Seymour (10)

1967: G Tom Seiler (12), DT Alan Page (15), G Tom Regner (23)

1960: QB George Izo (2), E Monty Sickles (11)

1955: QB Ralph Guglielmi (3), T Frank Varrichione (6), B Joe Heap (8)

1954: T Art Hunter (3), B John Lattner (7), B Neil Worden (9)

1951: B Bob Williams (2), C Jerry Groom (6)

1949: QB Frank Tripucka (9), G Bill Fischer (10)

1946: QB Frank Dancewicz (1), QB John Lujack (4), T George Connor (5), B Emil Sitko (10)

1945: B Frank Szymanski (6), E John Yonakor (9)

1944: QB Angelo Bertelli (1), B Creighton Miller (3)