Friday notes: Coaches, Recruiting, and Enemies

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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…

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

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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.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas