The thing about Jimmy…

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Over the next 50 days, both Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford will somehow see opinions on their quarterbacking play seesaw back and forth without ever taking a snap. That’s what happens in the days before the NFL Draft, a season in and of itself that’s powered by television viewers. The consensus top two quarterbacks in a draft that before the season started looked heavy on quarterbacks, will be flogged by pundits on television and radio on whether either truly deserves to be picked at the top of the first round.

This is a Notre Dame blog, so I’m going to skip the analysis of Sam Bradford. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve seen enough of him play to make a true judgment on his ability to lead an NFL football team. (Not that something like that should stop someone in the media from expressing an opinion…) That being said, Bradford’s sophomore season was one of the most impressive statistical seasons I can remember. If people simply compare apples to apples and look at Bradford’s body of work against the other top quarterbacks drafted in the past few years, I’ll take Bradford every time. The injury that derailed his final season in Norman is an understandable cause for concern. But the case against Jimmy Clausen is much more complex.

There is no easy narrative with Jimmy Clausen. Statistically, his junior numbers are far more impressive than Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez, two quarterbacks taken in the top five last year. His junior season was a triumphant finale to three seasons that followed an impressive career arc. His ability to play at a high level even after suffering a foot injury that robbed him of his mobility did plenty to show his toughness to teammates, opponents, coaches, and most importantly, NFL scouts. As a pure specimen, he’s adequate athletically, he’s got enough size to handle the physical nature of the NFL, and his arm strength and accuracy are already well above average.

Yet Clausen will forever be plagued by an image problem, and for plenty of good reasons. Our first impressions of Jimmy Clausen seemed to be managed by PR handlers, handlers that should’ve been fired for the job they did. Clausen was never just a blue-chip high school quarterback, he was the “LeBron James of high school football.” He wasn’t just adored by the recruiting websites, he was adoringly profiled by magazines like Sports Illustrated. Here’s a snippet from the nation’s introduction to Clausen by SI’s Kelli Anderson:

But Clausen throws enough to both impress and depress opposing coaches. “He is as technically perfect as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Carpinteria coach John Hazelton, whose team lost 48–10 against the Lions on Oct.
28. “He has every ball. He can throw a 50-yard ball on target to the
corner of the end zone. He can throw a rocket up a seam between
safeties. He has the deep ball over the top, with a perfect touch on
it, very accurate. And he has great, great feet. He is beautifully
coached. I’m sure he could play at some Division I colleges right now.”

In fact, no one can think of many flaws Clausen needs to correct, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t continuing to work to improve. In addition to the time he spends with Clarkson –at least 10 hours a week in the off-season, less during the season– Clausen
watches an hour of film every night, and he talks with his brothers
almost daily. “What amazes me is his ability to keep things in
perspective,” says Clarkson.
“He knows people are there to watch him, but he is able to shrug that
off and play. People don’t think he can live up to the hype, but in
most cases he exceeds it.”

It was all too much even before his notorious press conference announcing his commitment to Notre Dame. The ridiculous pomp and circumstance, the infamous Hummer stretch limo and  College Football Hall of Fame announcement, still memorialized as the first image in a google search for the quarterback. Frozen in time, a high school junior smirks as he flashes his championship rings. From what, exactly?

In many ways, Clausen could never live down the horrible first impression he made. While his collegiate career could hardly be considered a failure, he’ll never go down in history as one of the greats at Notre Dame. He’ll never deliver on the stated goal of “four national championship rings,” that he mentioned during that introductory press conference. (He never even managed to lead the team to a .500 record, though hardly a fault of Jimmy’s.) Unlike many of the greats to play at Notre Dame, Jimmy Clausen will never be defined by his time in South Bend. He always felt like a hired gun, a quarterback merely working as an apprentice before moving on to the NFL. It never felt like Clausen bought into the Notre Dame experience, at the very best it was a short-term rental. (Or possibly just a quick real-estate flip, like the house purchased by his father for Jimmy’s South Bend years.)

Clausen hit the Combine unable to workout, yet intent on changing his public image. Still, he was predictably dogged with the familiar storylines. Lately, there has been surprisingly little written about Clausen’s actual play on the field. But were there questions about Jimmy Clausen’s leadership ability? The USA Today thought so. So did Sports Illustrated. And ESPN. And Sporting News.

I’ve never sat in a room with Clausen or interviewed him. For the most part, I’m guessing that the people questioning his leadership ability never did either. But I spent some time talking with people that did cover Clausen these past three years and there was surprisingly little fire behind all the smoke. If there was one universal complaint, it was that Clausen never truly opened up. Every answer sounded rehearsed, every statement, cliched. Too many times, Clausen opened with “to tell you the truth,” only to make it seem like he was doing anything but. Clausen’s familiar refrain this season of not considering his NFL future until after his junior season didn’t jive with the fact that he gathered his family on the field for a photo after the devastating UConn loss, the final home game of the season. Walking away with Jimmy’s helmet tucked under his brother’s arm after the Stanford loss certainly isn’t something a player considering another season does either.

There’s something almost refreshingly honest about the football player that uses college football as a vehicle to the NFL, but it’s just not something that happens regularly at Notre Dame. While Clausen may not have admitted it while playing under the Golden Dome, every step of his athletic career was done to put him in the position that he is today. While that may not make him the best dorm-mate or the guy that you sell jerseys of in the bookstore, it makes him an extremely attractive NFL prospect.

It took longer than expected, but Clausen’s teammates eventually grew to respect him as a leader. They wouldn’t have named him a junior captain if they didn’t. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Clausen that NFL teams have the same preconceived notions that just about everyone else does. But once they see past the antics of a hot-shot high-schooler enabled by his family and handlers, they should look carefully at the quarterback that absolutely carved defenses apart, all while playing on one good foot.

Clausen may have blown his first chance at being the face of a franchise, but he was never intent on making his name in college. Whether it’s the Rams or another team at the top of the draft, somebody is going to get a quarterback that’s as close to NFL ready as any prospect in years. And if he learns from the mistakes he made his first time around, he’ll enjoy making teams pay for the mistake of not picking him for the next 10 to 15 years.

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)
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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
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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)
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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)
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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…)