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.

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)
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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
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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: