Catching up with… Shane Walton

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One of my favorite Irish football players past or present is Shane Walton. Walton’s story has been well documented. Recruited as a soccer player to Notre Dame, Shane was given the chance to walk-on during spring practice. After a handful of practices, coach Bob Davie and the defensive staff knew they had someone special, and the rest is history. Shane was named a consensus All-American cornerback during the magical 2002 season, the Irish’s first consensus All-American since Bobby Taylor in 1994. His 2001 season included two interceptions, one a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown against Purdue quarterback Drew Brees.

It was great catching up with a former classmate, who now lives and works back in his hometown of San Diego. Here’s more from Shane Walton.

ON BEING RECRUITED TO NOTRE DAME:

I wasn’t recruited really at all to play football. My only offer was to play wide receiver at Fresno State. It was actually my soccer coach, Mike Berticelli, who got me my tryout. He originally wanted me to play soccer for two years, and I’d play spring football for my freshman and sophomore years, and make a decision on what I wanted to do then. I don’t know if he thought I’d be a good football player or not, but he was actually the guy who spoke to Coach Davie and the staff, and got me a tryout with the football team in the spring. After three or four practices in the spring, Coach Davie saw that I could play, and he offered me a scholarship.

ON THE TRANSITION FROM SOCCER TO FOOTBALL:

There were parallels between the sports, but I basically had to reprogram my entire body. I went from being able to run fast for a long duration of time to having to add 25 pounds of muscle and being built more for quick bursts. That process took about a year to really transform. That was the toughest challenge. The parallels from soccer to football were tremendous, especially as a cornerback. Being able to read plays and what’s developing, and the balance it takes to play soccer, that’s incredible. The body control really helped me to be a good corner.

ON HIS MAGICAL SENIOR SEASON:

There are three types of people that play sports. There are people who don’t mind losing. There are people who don’t like losing. And then there are people like me, who hate and despise losing. I always expected to win, so when I lost, or when the team lost, I was devastated. That was the mentality of the entire defense. We never expected to lose. We didn’t care what the situation was. I think that mindset permeated throughout the entire team.

ON BEING NAMED AN ALL-AMERICAN:

To be honest, it didn’t really hit me until I was at the All-American things with all the other big time players. It’s actually crazy, I never had a chance to sit back and look at what I accomplished until I was done playing football. I remember my mother and my friends being so proud of me, and I was like “what’s the big deal, this is just what I do.”  You know, you write for NBC, other people go to work and climb telephone polls, and we all just try to do the best that we can. And that’s what I did. It just so happens that what society likes is athletics, so I’m in the limelight. It never really dawned on me. I never changed who I was, it just was something that I happened to do, and I was blessed to have a skillset that made me a decent corner.

ON TAKING DREW BREES TO THE HOUSE:

I used to love playing against Purdue, because that’s when the DBs and corners had the most chance to succeed and shine. We knew coming into the game that Purdue was going to put the ball up 30-35 times. That was always a game I marked in the calendar that was fun.

As for the play, we were in man coverage, and my guy just ran basically a four to five yard cross. The inside linebacker made him bump over the top of him and that gave me the chance to get in front of him, and I just hopped in front of the pass. I don’t think Brees ever even saw me. I just stepped in front of it and took it to the house.

ON GOING IN THE 5TH ROUND OF THE NFL DRAFT:

NFL coaches are egomaniacs. They feel like they can’t coach you to run a 4.3 forty, to bench press whatever, to jump out of the stadium, but they feel they can make you into a player. That’s why you hear of guys who have never done anything in college and they become great players, but you also hear of guys who were supposed to be great, got drafted high, but they never do anything. The NFL drafts on potential. They don’t draft on what matters. They don’t draft on heart, intelligence, because there’s no real way to measure those. They draft off stuff that they can see. But what I had was heart, desire, intellect, and instincts, but there’s no way to measure any of that.

ON A CAREER CUT SHORT:

I hurt my back in preseason. I just kept trying to fight through it. I was probably never over 80 percent at any time in my NFL career. I just remember playing against the Raiders, and I really tweaked my back, and I just kept fighting. They say, “You can’t make the club from the tub.” I was told to fight, to push through the injuries, that is was just sore and tightness. Then I remember we were playing Atlanta, and I couldn’t feel my left leg. I was running down the field and I had no control of my left leg. It was hitting up against my right leg. I remember getting yelled at for not sprinting down the field. They finally determined I was having back issues so they gave me epidurals in the back at the doctor, until I finally flew out to see a surgeon in Los Angeles. He told me I needed surgery 3 months ago. It was just bad business all the way around, and one of the reasons I’m happy I’m not in the NFL right now.

I had a ruptured disc. My disc exploded and spinal fluid leaked onto my nerves, damaging and almost killing my nerves that went to my left leg. I couldn’t lift my foot, couldn’t do a heal raise. If you pinched my left leg I couldn’t feel it. The leg shrunk an inch-and-a-half around. It was miserable. I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, couldn’t sit down for more than two minutes, all I could really do was lay down in bed.

I got put on IR for the rest of the season. I rehabbed back home and was trying to come back in St. Louis during the offseason, but still wasn’t healthy. They released me, then Pittsburgh picked me up for camp. I was out there for a couple weeks, and hurt my back again. I knew right there it was tough to bounce back. I had never had an injury that I couldn’t bounce back from, but this was the one that I couldn’t overcome.

ON DEALING WITH HIS CAREER BEING OVER:

It was tough for one reason. I would have rather been not good enough. I would’ve rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I was 80 percent and I still made an NFL team. That’s what kills me. In my heart and in my mind, I was picking up the game. I really thought that I was going to be one of the best playmakers in the NFL. That’s me having confidence in myself, because that’s what I thought I could do. Never knowing because of the injury is what’s tough. It’s like when a movie ends but they don’t tell you the ending. I’d have rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough, it’d be easier looking in the mirror.

ON THIS YEAR’S IRISH:

I follow them faithfully. As much as I hate saying this word, there’s potential. I feel like they have the guys there, they have the talent, they have the speed, they have the depth, but I don’t think they’re living up to their potential right now.

ON PLAYING WITHOUT MICHAEL FLOYD:

First off, I think Floyd is amazing. He’s a special player that only comes around every so often. But I do think, and I will always think this, it is still
Notre Dame and we still have
some of the greatest players to play college football on that team right now. So somebody needs to step up. If Rhema McKnight doesn’t go down and get hurt, we never know about Jeff Samardzija. Same thing now. The talent is there, and someone needs to step up and become a man.

ON CHOOSING NOTRE DAME:

There were three things I was looking for. I wanted to go to a great
academic institution. I wanted to go to a school with a great sports
program as well. I’m a competitor and I like to be able to compete at
the highest level. The third thing kind of tipped things in Notre
Dame’s favor. I’m a fan of history and tradition of schools, and Notre
Dame outweighed everyone else. I was basically down to Stanford and
Notre Dame. My mindset has always been that I played for my teammates
that were here in the huddle with me, but I also played with all the
people who wore the jersey before me. I don’t think you can say that
with a lot of schools, but at Notre Dame, that means something. 

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
rivals.com
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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…)