Friday notes: Coaches, Recruiting, and Enemies

8 Comments

Brian Kelly had a large press gathering today to officially introduce his coaching staff, and we’ll cover that extensively over the weekend, but before that I wanted to get out a few interesting notes that accumulated over the week.

* I’m a sucker for stuff like this, only because I can just picture the writers sitting in the room and discussing it, but Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was named the the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Decade football team. He’s one of two linebackers on the squad — the other former Hawaii linebacker Blaze Soares — and one of two players from Punahou high school to be listed. I know next to nothing about Hawaiian high school football, but I’m guessing Kahuku is a pretty legit program, as 12 of the 29 people on the roster were part of the football program.

(Complete aside, but remember when Julius Jones was named to Athlon’s NFL All-Decade football team, when they projected the 2000s? Think they probably missed on that one…)

* Former defensive line coach Randy Hart, who spent only one season at Notre Dame after two decades at Washington, joined Brian Polian on the staff at Stanford. That’s two Irish assistant coaches joining Harbaugh in Palo Alto, and Hart will be there just in time for heralded recruit Blake Leuders to take his official visit. Hart is a guy with a lot of roots on the West Coast, and I’d never fault anybody for taking a job at a university like Stanford, but Irish fans are hoping he doesn’t persuade Leuders to join him.

* Speaking of recruiting, it’s time for our weekly update on Seantrel Henderson, the gargantuan left tackle prospect who is still considering the Irish. The Columbus Dispatch spoke with Tom Lemming, who will telecast Henderson’s decision on his Signing Day television show, and he seems to think Pete Carroll’s defection puts Ohio State firmly in the lead for his signature.

Talking with someone close to both Henderson and the proceedings at the All-American game, Henderson spent much of his time in San Antonio hanging out with Trojan recruits. While Ohio State probably does have the lead with Henderson, there has yet to be a big-time recruit from Cretin-Derham Hall end up in Columbus, and that hasn’t been for lack of effort by the Buckeyes. As I’ve said before, I think Brian Kelly and Mr. Michael Floyd are the two biggest factors in Irish recruiting.

* While it isn’t directly related to Notre Dame football, Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno submitted a letter to the editor at the State College newspaper and had plenty to say about the coaching carousel that kicked off when Pete Carroll decided to leave USC. He decried the state of his profession, citing the uselessness of contracts and the propensity for broken promises.

Here’s a taste:

A year ago The University of Tennessee took a shot at a young coach
who had been fired following a 5-15 stint with the Oakland Raiders.
That coach, Lane Kiffin, rewarded Tennessee for its hiring of him by
bolting after one 7-6 season for the vacancy created at USC.

The University of Tennessee paid out more than $5 million in
coaching salaries (not to mention several million dollars to buy out
the previous coach’s contract). At a time when universities are cutting
staff and faculty, Tennessee spent more than $7 million to win seven
games. A year later it is right back where it started.

This profession has lost touch with the reality of the world around
us, and some coaches have lost touch with what the mission of our
profession should be.

It wasn’t too long ago that we saw head coaches’ salaries go past
the $1 million dollar mark — they have now surpassed the $5 million
mark with no sign of slowing down. We are starting to look as arrogant
as the Wall Street bankers raking in seven-figure bonuses.

The astronomical explosion in coaching salaries continues at a time
of 10 percent unemployment in America and exploding tuition costs
burdening working class families.

I am not saying that every coach should take a vow of poverty or
stay at his school for three decades, but we must remember what has
made ours a noble profession. It is the mission of our profession: the
use of sport to help young men transition from high school and prepare
them for the world that awaits them after college.

Coaches walk into a recruit’s home and talk about how they will look
out for that young man’s future. When the parents or guardians pass
their boy on to college, they put his welfare into that coach’s hands.
The expectation is that the coach will help to guide him through a very
formative time.

I tend to think people should be paid what the market dictates, but as long as the NCAA continues to hide behind the shield of amateurism when it’s convenient, I think collegiate leadership should find a creative way to keep coaches in their jobs. It’s not Lane Kiffin’s fault that he was offered his “dream job,” nor is it Brian Kelly’s fault that the system allows — forces — him to leave his job with a bowl game still left on the schedule.

* BlueandGold.com is reporting that Chris Stewart, Darrin Walls, and Dan Wenger are all returning for a fifth year at Notre Dame. They’ve also heard that Barry Gallup Jr. will be receiving a fifth year, which is a little bit bigger surprise, though something I wondered when I heard that Brian Kelly was taking over the program. I think Gallup is one of the players that with benefit the most from the coaching change, and he’ll be a perfect guy to use in Kelly’s offensive attack, with his experience running, receiving, and returning.

* Finally, I’ve gotten a lot of emails regarding the coaching change at Southern Cal, and I thought I’d just give my opinion on the move. (I’ve already done this over at CFT, but I’ll make it short and quick here.) I think it’s a great short-term move for the Trojans, and it’ll likely rescue their small, but star-studded recruiting class. That said, I think the worm has officially turned on the public perception of the program. Chris Huston, better known as the Heisman Pundit, spent years working in the Sports Information department at USC, and helped orchestrate three successful Heisman campaigns. He’s still incredibly connected to the football program and its athletic department.

Here’s what he had to say on the hiring, which he called “suicide:”

My criticism of this move by USC doesn’t touch upon the horrible football decision that has been made. It doesn’t touch upon his failings as a head coach or his lack of qualifications as a head football coach or his lack of qualificiations for a prestigious job like USC’s. It doesn’t even touch upon his shoddy interpersonal skills, his numerous closeted skeletons that have yet to emerge or his unjustified rise through the coaching ranks that has been aided and abetted by his father, Monte Kiffin, and his godfather, Pete Carroll…

Kiffin was able to convince USC that he was that guy. But the reality is that by hiring Kiffin, USC is sticking a fat middle finger in the face of the NCAA, the media and its fellow institutions. With probation pending, it has hired as its coach a man who is a walking, talking, living, breathing NCAA violation… USC might as well have invited a permanent microscope upon itself at a time when it should be battening down the hatches and fixing its issues. Rather than making a clean break from the anything-goes Carroll Era, it has chose to continue it.

Huston, talks more about the NCAA case against the Trojans, and its pretty enlightening stuff. I’ve heard people say that Armageddeon was coming to Heritage Hall and that a slap in the wrist is all there will be. Either way, it’s interesting that the Trojan leadership — some say joined by influential power-brokers like NBC announcer and former Trojan quarterback Pat Haden — took the ultimate decision out of AD Mike Garrett’s hands, and assembled a staff around Kiffin, the new face.

It’ll be an interesting few months in Los Angeles, and while the Trojan dynasty may have breathed its last breath, the talent they still have within the program means they’ll likely be back for more. But if Ed Orgeron’s actions in the hours after Kiffin resigned at Tennessee are any indicator, it’s still business as usual…

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)
Getty Images
25 Comments

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
30 Comments

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)
Getty Images
39 Comments

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)
Getty Images
41 Comments

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…)