And in that corner… the Washington Huskies

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Notre Dame’s game with Washington this Saturday got infinitely more interesting when the Huskies pulled off the upset of this young season and beat the USC Trojans in Husky Stadium. Steve Sarkisian’s victory over his mentor Pete Carroll marked a remarkable turnaround from the winless Husky’s of a season before.

Nobody follows the Washington program closer than the Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta. The award-winning writer was kind enough to trade a few emails with me as I tried to get a closer glimspe to the program that’s made quite a turnaround.

Inside the Irish: Having been around the program, what’s been the difference between Willingham’s Huskies and Sarkisian’s Huskies?

Bob Condotta: Just about everything. The most notable to outsiders are their
approaches to public relations — Willingham closed practices to media
and most fans while Sarkisian immediately re-opened them during the
spring and fall camp to just about anyone who wanted to come, which got
a lot of people enthused about the program again. Players seemed to
like the new approach, as well. Sarkisian is a young, energetic guy who
seems genuinely excited to have this chance. Willingham, some thought,
may not have had the passion for it anymore by the time he got here.
The words you hear over and over again from those who watch practice
are energy, tempo and enthusiasm, and you’ve seen that in the way the
team has played, especially the first three games.

ITI: How do Husky fans view Ty Willingham the man and Ty Willingham the
coach? Is there a resentment against him like the one that exists among
Notre Dame fans?

BC: He had definitely worn out his welcome by the time he was fired. I
think many fans appreciated much of what he stood for — after having
had some troubles with the NCAA, many thought a guy with a reputation’s
like Willingham’s was needed to “clean up the program” so to speak.
Whether he really did that is a subject for debate. But Willingham did
talk about doing things the right way, and many fans appreciated that
early on and still respected that approach even once it became apparent
it wasn’t working on the field. He hurt his image a bit with the way
the last year went — he seemed to imply often that the talent wasn’t
very good and that UW was “downtrodden” when he took it over. But I
don’t think the resentment against him is quite what it is at Notre
Dame, maybe because by the time he was fired it was so evident that
change was needed that there was never really the heated debate about
it the way there was at Notre Dame.

ITI: As someone who has seen Jake Locker throughout his time in college,
what do you think of him as a player and as a leader. Are all the
superlatives true? What does he have to do to become a complete player?

BC: One of the key things to keep in mind on Locker is that he has still
started just 20 games in his career — it has taken a lot of QBs
longer than that to really come into their own. And I think any fair
judgment of his career would keep in mind that he was pretty darn good
as a freshman — he was named the conference’s freshman of the year by
the coaches and set a record for rushing yards by a QB. The talent has
always been evident. Some have questioned his leadership since the team
hasn’t won much during his time, but I think the last drive against USC
answered most of those. The biggest issue about him has always been his
passing accuracy. He remains a work in progress there, as the game
against Stanford showed. But he has improved immensely in that area as
evidenced by the 60 percent completion percentage in the first three
games.

ITI: Can you maybe tell us about some of the other people the Irish should be worried about?

BC: On offense, a couple of real early standouts have been redshirt
freshman Chris Polk, whose play has been better than his numbers might
indicate — he has run really hard and picked up lots of yards after
contact; and true freshman WR James Johnson, who caught TDs in each of
the first two games and played beyond his years in emerging as Locker’s
most dependable target.

On defense, the best player so far has
been MLB Donald Butler, who had a monster game against USC. Another
really solid player is DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a senior who has been
bottled up at times this season as opponents focus on him, but who is
the team’s most consistent player up front. Another name people may
recognize is freshman CB Desmond Trufant, who is the younger brother of
Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks.

ITI: What needs to happen for the Huskies to win on Saturday?

BC: The Huskies have to play a lot better on both lines. They were exposed
quite a bit there against Stanford, especially on defense where they
have some young players who really had trouble holding up against the
Cardinal’s physical play. They also have to figure out a way to get a
consistent running game going.

Locker has to play better than he did — he threw two interceptions against Stanford that really turned the game.

And
the special teams has to be better as UW allowed an opening kickoff
return against Stanford and had poor field position all game.

UW
also simply has to not be intimidated by the environment. UW has a lot
of young players and hasn’t won a road game in almost two years, so
they have to forget about where they are and just go play.

To check out more of Bob’s writing, check out his Husky Football Blog at the Seattle Times.

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

Notre Dame v Florida State
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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

***

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars*, T
Colin McGovern*, G/T
Mark Harrell*, C/G
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.