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.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.