Debating Mendoza

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There was some good back and forth over the past week about the performance of Ruben Mendoza’s strength and conditioning program, started by a nice article written by Blue & Gold’s Ryan O’Leary. O’Leary touched on the common phenomenon of blasting the departing staff and touting the incoming guys, just as it happens at nearly every major sports program that replaces a head coach.

While many Irish fans have surely forgotten, O’Leary points out that both previous Irish head coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, won national coach of the year awards. O’Leary also went on to support the work of Ruben Mendoza, Weis’ man in charge of strength and conditioning. He largely used the performances from the four Irish players that worked out at the NFL Scouting Combine as support:

From O’Leary:

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen
didn’t work out at all because of his toe injury, but four other former
Irish players showed the scouts their stuff at the annual meat market,
and their results were pretty impressive:




Kyle McCarthy didn’t blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time, but he was first
among the 23 safeties – and sixth among all combine participants,
trailing only two receivers and three cornerbacks – with a time of
11.13 seconds in the 60-yard shuttle run. McCarthy was also second
among safeties in the 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds) and the three-cone
drill (6.74 seconds).




Offensive linemen Eric Olsen and Sam Young
tied for ninth among 46 players at their position group in vertical
jump, with each getting 29.5 inches of separation from the ground.
Young was also 10th among linemen in the standing broad jump (8 feet, 8
inches), while Olsen was tied for fourth in the three-cone (7.50
seconds).




Receiver Golden Tate
didn’t surprise a lot of people with his excellent time of 4.42 seconds
in the 40, which ranked fourth among 44 wideouts, or his 10-foot broad
jump, which tied for 10th at the position. But while Tate performed as
expected in the speed and agility drills, he also impressed with his 17
reps on the 225-pound bench press, the lone strength measurable at the
combine.




Tate’s number ranked him seventh among receivers, and he wasn’t alone –
each of the Notre Dame players placed in the top 10 at their position
group on the bench press. McCarthy tied for second among safeties with
24 reps (or one more than Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy). Young tied for 10th among offensive linemen with 29 reps, while Olsen tied for third with 35.




Perhaps these guys were forced to do some work in the weight room all this time after all.


O’Leary combined this year’s combine work with the impressive workouts that both Trevor Laws and Brady Qu
inn had at the combine, and drew a fairly reasonable conclusion that Mendoza certainly shouldn’t be blamed for the team’s downfall. Pretty logical thought process, right?

Over at Irish blog HerLoyalSons.com, The Biscuit took exception:

I have 2 main issues with the crux of his argument.

First, he uses the performance of a few players at the combine, in particular categories, to evaluate an entire program.

Yes, ND guys put up some good numbers at the combine. In some
places, our guys finished in the top 5 or top 10 at their position. But
in other exercises, which Ryan conveniently leaves out, our guys didn’t
finish in the top 5 or 10. So I could’ve just used those stats, and
written an article on how BAD Mendoza was. So he’s really only telling
part of the story. I mean, if I just use Olsen’s bench numbers (#5 of
all those in the combine) to make the argument, that’d pretty much be
the same thing. Because he picked the measures where our guys did best
and said “Hey, hey, look how great they’re doing! Mendoza was really
good”. But what about all the places where they didn’t do great? Those
numbers are just as valid.

Speaking of numbers, ND has 5 guys at the Combine. 1 of them,
Clausen, isn’t even working out. So we’re looking at 4 guys on a roster
that’s HUGE. So now these 4 guys represent the entire report card on
Mendoza? Last I looked we had 11 guys playing offense, 11 D, plus ST’s,
on the field. And we’re going to use our 4 best/most athletic guys as
the barometer for how well Mendoza did? Seems a bit skewed.

My 2nd beef with the argument is that he puts a bunch of emphasis on
a few meat-market-ish tests designed for NFL Scouts to pick and prod
top athletes for the pros. This isn’t necessarily what translates into
a program-wide result of fitness. For example, ND’s issues in the
latter half of the season in ’09 and ’08 were clearly
endurance-related. The ability to keep going, for a full-game, non-stop
and 100%. ND dropped long, hard-fought games to teams like Pitt and
UCONN, and they faded late in the year 2 years in a row. There’s no
2-mile run at the combine, so there’s no metric for how well Mendoza
taught and enforced a discipline that would lead to stamina and
endurance in the face of adversity.

I fall somewhere in the middle on this one. O’Leary’s main point — that outgoing staffs take way too much heat — is spot on. His best example was that of former ND strength coach Mickey Marotti, who was butchered for the training he did under Bob Davie, but has lead Urban Meyer’s strength and conditioning program at Florida to unprecedented heights.

That said, The Biscuit is spot on with his two beefs. Five guys is hardly an accurate assessment. And while the combine numbers of some Irish players have been impressive, one of the best players developed in the Mendoza program was Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Harris, who hardly set the combine on fire with his strength numbers.

For whatever reason, second half results were an issue for Weis’ last three seasons, and the Irish wore down as games went on this year. That could be a result of Mendoza’s training philosophies, a lack of leadership by Weis and the coaches, players not eating right, and just about anything else.

As the Irish begin their transformation under Brian Kelly and his hand-picked strength coach Paul Longo, it’ll all come down to one thing: Results on the field. 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover