Catching up with… Mike Karwoski

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Consider this a special off-season version of Catching Up. Monday marked the first day of training table meals for Irish athletics, the pilot program kicking off with a football team only dinner hosted weeknights in the Gug. The training table initiative, along with several other plans that are in the works, are being administer by Mike Karwoski, an associate athletics director at the university, who heads the Athlete/Sport Performance Program.

Mike was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the training table pilot plan, and the new Athlete Performance Program.

ITI: What was the impetus for starting the Athlete Performance Program?

Mike Karwoski: The impetus for us to review the concept of implementing an Athlete (or Sport) Performance Program was the arrival of Jack Swarbrick as athletics director in 2008. Jack’s background and experience over the years included extensive involvement in both professional and Olympic/amateur sports. He has been exposed to and involved with many different sport organizations and different models in the areas of sports performance. As such, over the course of Jack’s first 12 months he evaluated the things we were doing with regard to strength and conditioning, athletic training, sports medicine, nutrition, sports psychology and came away with the thought that we could benefit our student-athletes and coaches by trying to create a system in which all of these units reported through the same structure which would enhance our communication and the sharing of ideas to improve the overall performance of our student-athletes. The thought is to create a more scientific approach to the way we test, train, treat, rehab our student-athletes using the latest techniques and protocols. By creating a single unit encompassing all of these critical units the thought is that ideas and sharing of ideas and data will ultimately provide our student-athletes with innovative and cutting edge opportunities for performance enhancement. Generally speaking, we want to ask ourselves are we providing our student-athletes and coaches the best opportunity for peak performance.

ITI: Training table has been a hot-button issue, and the decision to start a specialized meal plan for athletes was a big step, especially in light of the weight-loss issues during last football season. Why has it been so challenging to get student-athletes to eat properly?

MK: First, it is important that I mention that the perception of training table is widely misunderstood. By having a training table, that does not mean that student-athletes are provided 3 meals ever day separate from the general student population. NCAA rules allow institutions to provide only one training table meal to student-athletes each day. In addition, NCAA rules state that partial and non-scholarship student-athletes may only participate in training table meals if they pay the cost difference between a regular dining hall meal and a training table meal. Clearly, those are important factors to consider for any institution that has a training table. What we know though is that nutrition and rest are two of the more critical issues affecting an athlete’s on-field/on-court performance. The issues with nutrition and rest are not just a student-athlete issue but impact all college students. These problems exist on every college campus. Although we may not be able to completely impact the rest aspect of performance except by providing student-athletes with more time effective and efficient practices and training sessions and by educating them about the need for rest we can have a fairly significant impact on nutrition. We moved in that direction a few years ago by adding a full-time sports dietitian to our strength and conditioning staff. Currently, Erika Whitman is in that position and she makes every effort to meet with as many student-athletes as possible to discuss eating habits and making the proper dietary choices for those individual student-athletes. This is a huge challenge because the dietary needs of a 300 lb. offensive lineman are going to be different than those of a distance runner on the cross country team which will be different from the point-guard on the basketball team and the starting shortstop on the softball team. Body type, genetics and activity level all impact the dietary and calorie needs of individual student-athletes. We have been discussing the issue of training table for some time. First and foremost, because of Notre Dame’s residential nature with the majority of students (and student-athletes) living on campus and having a meal plan to eat in institutional dining facilities, the creation of a separate training table just for student-athletes has bot been something that was widely embraced institutionally. Through education and data, I believe we have been able to show the need for a different nutritional model for student-athletes. By having a training table, the meal can be mandatory and monitored by both coaches and out sports dietitian. The issue with overall eating habits is typically (from what student-athletes tell us) a time management problem. With heavy class schedules, study needs, practice obligations and opportunities/activities associated with being a college student, decisions on what you do and what you “skip” need to be made every day. Unfortunately, rest and eating are usually two areas that do not get prioritized to the top of the list.

ITI: Each athletic program at Notre Dame has high expectations. What are some of the things this program does to help individuals and teams reach their goals?

MK: At this point, we are still developing the plan for our Athlete/Sports Performance Program. Generally, our focus has been on communication in terms of sharing data and ideas amongst our sports. We have great coaches and support staff in the areas of sports medicine, strength and conditioning, athletic training, etc. What we need to do is look at the services we are providing and ask if we are doing everything we can to help our student-athletes be successful. Further, we need to look at our specific sport training programs and determine if we are meeting needs properly. We want to make our training programs more individualized by sport and student-athlete because the needs are different. In addition, we want to try to introduce a more scientific approach in terms of screening/testing our student-athletes. We still have some work to do on the plan and certainly the implementation of things will be a long-term process. When a student-athlete graduates from Notre Dame, our goal would be for them to say that Notre Dame provided them every opportunity to be successful in their chosen sport and that we helped them improve.

ITI: In your research, did you find certain universities implementing programs like this successfully?

MK: There are a number of institutions who have some variation of a sports performance program. A small number have fairly advanced programs. Whether it be larger institutions with a hospital or medical school affiliation or institutions with an exercise physiology, sports science or athletic training educational program those places are generally a bit ahead of the curve. Resources associated with the hospitals and medical schools as well as access to research personnel has given these institutions a head start on others. The overall concept of sports performance and incorporating this type of program is fairly new to the college athletics landscape, but it is gaining traction. For the most part though, sports performance is about having all of the units impacting a student-athlete’s performance working together to achieve the best results. There are also several private, for-profit models that exist and we have visited or communicated with some of those facilities as well and have an idea of what they are doing.

ITI: For the Athlete Performance Program to be a success, what goals do you need to achieve? 

MK: First and
foremost, leadership from t
he athletics director and athletics administration is key. To our benefit, the implementation of our sports performance program is one of Jack’s key strategic initiatives and he has communicated that widely within the campus community. Second, coach and support staff acceptance and participation will be critical. We have outstanding coaches and staff who have great experience, expertise and ideas in their areas of focus. Tapping into those resources has been extremely beneficial for me as I have researched what directions we should focus on both short term and long term. At the end of the day though, what we implement first as part of the sports performance program must show measurable results. Whether that be a modification of services currently provided, alterations to the training programs for student-athletes or the implementation of more scientific testing/screening protocols. If we do not show results in some measurable way early, you run the risk of losing interest/traction with the overall program.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

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

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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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.