And in that corner… the Washington State Cougars

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It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know
the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal,
63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable
injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all
played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has
been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But
the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation
when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a
weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go
wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge
blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002,
WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the
conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s
tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what
happened next – Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still
unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide…..but the problem was leaving
the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down,
Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and
Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human
being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the
head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal
issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had
been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man
to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to
really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting
targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8
scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25
arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So
back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left
in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate
the backstory of Paul Wulff.
He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late
80’s.  He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and
was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw
talent.  He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many
believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU.  H
e
has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age
to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day
he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his
life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable
amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at
a fairly young age.


Wulff is regarded as a man of high character,
and he has gone to great lengths to 
install  a tough, structured, disciplined
program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players
are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good
recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of
building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can
put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason
play on a yearly basis.


That said, there is a contingent that believes
this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was
successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a few
  conference titles as well as coach of the
year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the
BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been
absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.


Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated
on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff should
shoulder much of
the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final
stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of
Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to
help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10. 
Go to
Martinstadium.org for more!  Operators are standing by.  :) 
But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the
losses on the field
combined
with a brutal economy 
haven’t exactly helped the fundraising
cause off the field.


The true measure of Wulff will be what the team
does in 2011. By then, his first two
 recruiting classes will be
upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach.
But we just aren’t there yet.

ITI: The Irish have done a very nice job
making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same?
What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?

SH: Jeff
Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at
QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with
an impressive combo of mobility and a
strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and
combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by
the end of September.


As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still
hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs.
USC, 2) a di
sasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make
it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and
finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with
two Td’s and zero turnovers.


A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some
major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up
front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal
last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven
Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able
to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the
ball to the right players at the right time.


As to his weapons, well,
they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong
sophomore we
hope will turn
into
Jeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino
Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging
as
one  of
Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada
who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target.
He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous
68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of
wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.


ITI:
Is this game a
big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the
needle for fans and players or is this just another game?

SH: Absolutely
moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV
against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest
to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will
definitely be JACKED for this one!

ITI: If you were playing the probability
game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner?

SH: Slim to none. Sure,
it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year
(sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend
to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more
times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too
often?

ITI: What’s the recipe for an upset?

SH: Turnovers and a fast start
would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the
takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in
interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one
they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first
quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to
when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona
, 11/8/08).

I
think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two
early, combined with some Irish mistakes
  giving WSU some confidence. And Notre
Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year
olds are going to do on a weekly basis. 
It’s probably easy to
assume
Notre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who
knows.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate… I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
AP
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: