Catching up with… Pat Haden

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Pat Haden and Notre Dame football are improbably intermixed. That an award-winning quarterback at USC becomes a prominent part of Notre Dame football is undoubtedly odd, but Haden has become a staple of the Notre Dame broadcasts along with partner Tom Hammond.

In his own right, Haden is a fascinating character. He was a part of three Rose Bowl teams, a member of two national championship squads, and played professional football from 1975-1981. He was also one of the more distinguished scholar-athletes in college football’s history, winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which he pursued during the offseason of his professional football career.

After a solid professional career, Haden made a career in broadcasting, and 22 years ago started a private equity firm that has been one of the more respected in the industry. Many question Haden’s choice as a play-by-play man by NBC, yet after catching him on the phone during a layover in a busy terminal at LAX, it’s clear that Haden is as smart, thoughtful, and as insightful as they come.

(Who knew USC made guys like that?)

I hope you all enjoy “Catching up… with Pat Haden.

On what he made of the performance against Nevada:

I just think they have pretty good players that they haven’t had in a long time. I think that was my biggest observation, they were a deeper, faster, team. I thought they played brilliant on both sides of the ball. Jimmy Clausen was awesome and the blitzing defense of Jon Tenuta caused all sorts of problems against a pretty dangerous offensive team in Nevada.

On “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and an early judgment on the state of this team:

All I would say is, what’s the rush to judge this team just yet? Having said that, in Nevada, I thought this was a dangerous team for the Irish. I thought Nevada would score points. I didn’t know if Nevada could stop Notre Dame, but I thought they could score points, because they did against just about everyone last year. They averaged 37 points a game.

We were telling people to curb your enthusiasm if you will, but I think there’s a lot to look forward to, but I just don’t think we should judge the team just yet. Let’s wait a few more weeks. If they can beat Michigan, and I think if they can beat Michigan State in week three, then there’s some hope for the Irish faithful.

Michigan State is a little like Notre Dame in my mind, because Coach Dantonio has recruited a lot better than they have in the past, and they have some good young players there. Maybe they aren’t as highly thought of as Notre Dame’s, but they have a different style than what we’ve seen. It’ll be tough for the defensive coordinator for the Irish, because they play a different style team nearly every week. Spread teams the first couple weeks, then a pound ’em team like the Spartans, then a balanced team like USC, then an option team like Navy. It’s a tough task for a defensive coordinator.

On the dynamic of defensive coordinators Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta:

I think Charlie Weis wanted Jon Tenuta as the defensive coordinator. And Corwin Brown is a good enough guy and secure enough in his role that he’s not worried about his title. Corwin told me Friday that in 20 years, nobody is going to remember the titles, they’ll just remember if we had a successful season or not.

On becoming the lead analyst for Notre Dame football, after being a USC Trojan:

I had been in broadcasting for about 15 years before NBC called me. I had first worked college football for CBS after I retired from the Rams. For 8 or 9 years I did college football, then did pro football for Turner Sports. When Turner lost the NFL contract, NBC called me to see if I’d be interested in doing Notre Dame broadcasts.

I get asked this question a lot, but NBC hires the announcers, not Notre Dame. They have a national broadcast, and they don’t want any appearance of bias, I think. I give NBC a lot of credit for doing it. I was an experienced broadcaster, and it was a great opportunity for me, as I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Notre Dame. And quite honestly, the six game schedule, it really kind of fit into my business life. This is my 9th or 10th year, which is a lot longer than I thought I’d do, but I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. It’s been fun.

On balancing a successful career with broadcasting:

I work full-time with my business, including when I’m at Notre Dame on Fridays. Usually I have several conference calls or whatever I need to do with work. Broadcasting is a hobby for me. I’m a partner in my investment firm, Riordan, Lewis & Haden, which I’ve been doing for 22 years now. We’ve had a long, successful track record at my investment firm that we’re very proud of.

On his life during an average Notre Dame home football weekend:

I arrive in South Bend on Thursday nights. We have a production meeting and dinner with Tom Hammond, our producers and director. By the time we get there though, we’ve already done a lot of homework. The first game is probably the most prep for me, as I don’t know as much about ND as I do after the first game. On Fridays, we usually watch game tape from 8:30 to 10:00. At ten, we meet with Coach Weis for about 45 minutes to an hour, then we meet with Corwin Brown for about 25 minutes or so, then meet with some players. Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd, Kyle McCarthy, Sam Young. We meet 4, 5, 6 players each week, hear a little about the game plan, what’s going on with their life, with school, and then get some stories that don’t have anything to do with football.

The Nevada came in Friday afternoon, we watched them walk through practice, talked to their head coach, quarterback, and a few other guys, but we’d already had a conference call with them on Wednesday for about an hour and a half. And then we do the game. By on Sunday on my flight back, I’ve already spent four hours working on Michigan State. I’ve already read about 30-40 articles on them. And Monday I’m back in the office, I’m back to work. I try to read an article or watch some tape every morning while I’m on the treadmill to prepare for the next game.

On mixing professional football and the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship:

I was drafted by the Rams, but I had received the Rhodes Scholarship. The World League allowed me the opportunity to play 6 or 7 games and then still go to Oxford. So that’s why I didn’t sign with the Rams. I signed in the World League, played 7 games, then went to Oxford. The next two years of my Rhodes Scholarship, I actually played for the Rams for six months, then went to school for six months in Oxford. I did my scholarship over three years, and I played football for all three years. They wouldn’t let me do that now. And then I came back and went to law school, and they probably wouldn’t have let me do that either.

On how this ND team will handle adversity?

I asked Jimmy Clausen the same thing. I said, “Jimmy, why should anybody expect you guys to play better when you’ve got basically the same team?” He told me, “we’ve been together for three years now. We’ve suffered the highs and lows together, and we refuse to have as many lows. We’ve got great upperclassmen and leadership.”

That really resonated with me. This year, JImmy has a different aura around him. I’ve talked to Jimmy a lot of times, but Jimmy had a different feel about him, a different vibe about him. That was the most encouraging sign.

On if this team’s psyche is finally repaired?

I think it is. There’s a whole different kind of spirited leadership. Brian Smith is a solid leader. Jimmy Clausen appears to really be developing as
a leader. Kyle McCarthy is
a good leader and Scott Smith is the captain of special teams, and a really solid guy. There’s going to be some adversity, it’s going to happen to every team every season. I mean look at Florida, they’ve never gone undefeated in the years they won the national championship. You’re going to have those moments, and how you respond to adversity really tells you about the quality of the people and the quality of the team.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against 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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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)