Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

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Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's taken what feels like eons, but Notre Dame will play its first football game since Nov. 24 tonight. Wrapping up a few notes from the week in South Florida:
How much progress has Golson made?
Everett Golson has the respect of an Alabama defense that knows what it's like to be stung by a mobile quarterback. He's nowhere near the level of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, but from a basic standpoint Alabama wants to do to him what they couldn't do against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
The unknown here, at least for those outside of Notre Dame's players and coaches, is how much Golson has improved in these last six weeks. After guiding Notre Dame to a win at Oklahoma in late October, Golson's confidence -- and his team's confidence in him -- took off. It didn't hurt, either, that he faced a string of below-average defenses after OU.
At the least, Golson's done a good job taking care of the football this year. But he'll have to do more than that against Alabama, and may even be tasked with winning the game for Notre Dame.
Whatever improvements Golson has made -- namely, in the ability to run an expanded playbook, with plenty of looks Alabama hasn't seen on tape -- may be key if Notre Dame has a shot at winning tonight.
A chance to show off for Wood
Cierre Wood's goal is to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, since he hardly gets the consistent carries he's pined for all season. If this is Wood's final game in a Notre Dame uniform -- he said he'll decide whether to enter the NFL Draft after the BCS Championship -- he could certainly help his stock with a few gouging runs against Alabama's defense.
This is as prominent of a stage as he'll get. And not only could he show off for NFL teams, he could leave plenty of analysts scratching their heads as to why Wood didn't get more carries during the season.
Wood's a confident guy, whose swagger only grows every time he touches the ball. This is the same Wood who said of Manti Te'o earlier in the season: "He thinks he can guard me, but he cant. I dont care how good he is, he cant guard me."
Against Alabama, that same level of bravado could be a mental edge for whenever he touches the ball.
"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood previously boasted. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest."
One last hurrah for Te'o
Te'o graduated last month and has one more game left in his collegiate career before his next journey begins. He's been as transcendent a player as Notre Dame has seen in a long time, someone whose tenure in South Bend will be remembered fondly whether or not the Irish win tonight.
Back in August on the outset of the 2012 season, coach Brian Kelly said Te'o "has unfinished business as it relates to this football team." Nobody figured that unfinished business would've been a trip to South Florida for the National Championship, but here we are. A Notre Dame win tonight would cement Te'o among the most legendary players in program history, a legacy few have had the chance to attain.
"I hope my legacy is just a guy who gave Notre Dame his all, a guy who really committed himself to the school, and I really feel fortunate to play under the Golden Dome and receive an education there," Te'o said Friday, selling himself short. "Just one who really gave everything he had."
A final thought
Notre Dame's secondary has done a fine job of limiting big plays this year, but it hasn't been all by their own doing. Consider this: The first -- and maybe only, save one deep ball to Marqise Lee -- team to really gouge Notre Dame's secondary was Miami. The problem was Philip Dorsett dropped two sure-fire touchdowns, setting the tone for a sloppy effort by the 'Canes in a 41-6 loss.
If A.J. McCarron and, say, Amari Cooper get the same chance Stephen Morris and Dorsett did, Notre Dame may not be so lucky. The Irish have successfully turned most every opposing offense they've faced into a one-dimensional unit, and this is a defense good enough to stop the run or pass as long as the threat of the other isn't there.
On the flip side, Alabama's defense looked beatable against two elite offenses in Georgia and Texas A&M. Those games have received plenty of focus in the last few weeks, but it's worth noting Alabama shut down two other solid offenses in Tennessee (13 points) and Michigan (14 points). Notre Dame is closer to those two offenses than Georgia and Texas A&M, although the Irish offense may need to play as well as the Bulldogs or Aggies to have a chance tonight.

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)

Jaylon Smith says there's 'no doubt' he'll be back to 100 percent

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Jaylon Smith says there's 'no doubt' he'll be back to 100 percent

Whether or not Jaylon Smith gets picked in the first or second round, or later than that, is one of this week's most intriguing NFL Draft storylines. The former Notre Dame linebacker and 2015 Butkus Award winner was on track to be one of the 10 or 15 best players in this year's draft class, but a severe knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State has made him one of this year's starkest high-risk, high-reward players.

If and when the peroneal nerve in Smith's knee wakes up is at the heart of the debates about the Fort Wayne, Ind., native's future in the NFL. But Smith, speaking Wednesday at the NFL Shop at Draft on Michigan Ave., reiterated his confidence that he'll continue to grow from the kind of player he was at Notre Dame.

"It’s no doubt in my mind," Smith said, "I’m going to be better than that player, physically. It’s just a matter of time."

Despite Smith's cloudy recovery status, Rotoworld's Josh Norris ranked him as the 18th-best player in the NFL Draft.

But Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and NFL.com all don't have Smith as a first-round pick. Fox Sports pegged Smith as a late second-round pick.

Smith relayed the pitch he's given to NFL teams about the kind of player he is, even if it might take a little while for him to get to that level again.

"It’s just watching the film, understanding what type of player I am, looking at the progress that I’ve had, the tremendous progress that I’ve had in only three and a half months," Smith said. "I’ve been running for three weeks now, I’m leg pressing over 700 pounds, I'm squatting over 500 pounds. It’s just a tremendous amount of work that I’ve put in. And then from there it’s just one team that has to believe in me. We’ll find out soon."

Ex-Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace hopes to get his shot at the NFL

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Ex-Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace hopes to get his shot at the NFL

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two-hundred and fifty-three players will hear their name called from the start of the NFL Draft Thursday night to the end of it Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame is expected to have a strong showing in Chicago, with Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller possible first-round picks and potentially a total of 10 players drafted. 

Jarrett Grace probably won’t be one of them. Nearly every player who doesn't get an invitation to the NFL Combine -- as was the case with Grace -- goes undrafted. But that doesn’t mean the former Irish linebacker is ready to give up a football career he worked so hard to get back. 

“To me, this is a dream,” Grace said after Notre Dame’s pro day last month. “As a little kid, I wore a Dan Marino jersey for probably three Halloweens in a row, then I transitioned to a Ricky Williams jersey for a couple years and then I became a Bengals fan. I actually have a (Tyler) Eifert jersey in my closet right now. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, just to have the opportunity.”

Grace was forced to work out with Notre Dame’s defensive backs at pro day given he was the only healthy linebacker participating in it (Jaylon Smith, of course, did not participate in on-field drills). The Cincinnati native joked after pro day that he’d be willing to play safety — “I’ll channel my inner John Lynch or Harrison Smith,” he said — or, really, anywhere on the field if it meant he got a shot in the NFL. 

“Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t say no. I’d play left guard,” Grace said. “I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”

To understand Grace’s desire to continue playing football, one has to go back to the debilitating broken leg he suffered Oct. 5, 2013 against Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Texas. The guy who was Manti Te’o’s heir apparent in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme — and who was starting to play better right before his injury — underwent two surgeries on his leg in the following six months. 

Watching Grace awkwardly amble around Notre Dame’s practice fields in August of 2014 was difficult to watch; he had to completely re-learn his foot strike when it came to running. When jogging, he moved like one of his legs was shorter than the other. He remained sidelined for the entire 2014 season. 

When Grace was cleared to play again, he no longer had a starting spot in Notre Dame’s defense, which shifted to Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme during his absence. Joe Schmidt was too important a player to take off the field, so Grace had to compete with Nyles Morgan for backup reps. 

Where Grace did make an impact in 2015 was in an October game against Navy. With the Mids’ fullbacks gouging the Irish defense in the first half, Notre Dame inserted Grace for the final two quarters and, thanks to his physical, downhill presence, largely shut down Navy’s triple option in a 41-24 win. 

Grace got one final chance at the college level in the Fiesta Bowl, though it came at the expense of Smith, who suffered that devastating ACL and LCL tear that came with the added blow of nerve damage, which seems to have scared most NFL teams away from using an early-round pick on the once-promising linebacker. After Smith’s replacement, Te’von Coney, suffered a shoulder injury, Grace got the call off the bench to slide in at Will linebacker, a position he hadn’t previously played a whole lot. 

As much as Grace wanted it, a sixth year of eligibility was never an option under the NCAA’s rules. So there Grace was at pro day, working with Notre Dame’s defensive backs and hoping to impress an NFL team enough to bring him in, either as an undrafted free agent or for a tryout. 

Grace feels like he still has a lot of football left to be played after losing one and a half years to that broken leg. Even if he’s running through drills during a rookie minicamp or gets a shot at training camp come the summer, he’s going to relish and take full advantage of the opportunities provided to him. 

“As long as I have my health and can do it, I love it,” Grace said. “To be honest, I catch myself just smiling — like, what the heck, get this grin off my face — because, it may sound so silly, but I really just feel like a big puppy dog running around out there. I love it. 

“A lot of my buddies, they call me Wild Man Grace because I love the game. Just running around and especially seeing your brothers compete and succeed, that to me, that’s what it’s all about. Taking yourself to a place where it’s uncomfortable and where you can do special things. I love being a part of that. If I’m not the one doing it, just being a proponent for other people to do it. That’s what drives me.”