The battle for independence

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During the dredges of the offseason, the smallest quotes often times make the biggest news. And when Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick spoke to a small assembly of media and mentioned that Notre Dame could one day be forced to join a conference in college football, it created quite a stir.

“I believe we’re at a point right now where the changes could be relatively small or they could be seismic,” Swarbrick said. “The landscape could look completely different. What I have to do along with Father Jenkins is try and figure out where those pieces are falling and how the landscape is changing.”

With that, the debate begins.

I spent much of yesterday thinking about the issue and reading the rapid reactions that covered the internet. If anything, it proved that Notre Dame will forever be a lightning rod in college football.

The idea of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten has been around for a very long time. The closest the Irish ever got was in 1999, when the school rejected an offer to become the 12th member of the league. At the time, the Big Ten needed the Irish far more than Notre Dame needed them. We can’t necessarily say that right now.

The dollar amount that NBC pays Notre Dame to broadcast their football games has been thrown around quite a bit. Even working for the network, I’ve got no idea what it is, but the very high-end of estimates put the price tag at $15 million. With the inception of the Big Ten Network, conference schools are earning $22 million annually from TV revenues. That’s 47 percent more per team than Notre Dame makes from NBC. That’s a lot of money that can go toward academic progress, scholarships, non-revenue earning sports programs, or to an endowment that took a pretty big hit in the last year.

Still, the relinquishing of independence shouldn’t be over a seven-figure dollar amounts. To paraphrase the influential blog NDNation.com, the argument against joining a conference comes down to three key words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.

Quoting (in paraphrases) from NDNation:

Geography: Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the [Big Ten]’s geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame’s brand was built based on national appeal. There’s a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame’s pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in… any number of other cities. You don’t waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested. But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end
up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic
footprint against other teams from that same footprint?

Diversity: Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre
Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the [Big Ten] factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre
Dame’s graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95
percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates
for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright
embarrassing. When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few… Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions.

Differentiation: When a recruit comes to Notre Dame’s campus, aside from being presented
with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different
from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a
national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors,
the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and
Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston
College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will
appear on future Notre Dame schedules?

I don’t hold dear the thought of independence the way Mike Coffey and the guys at NDNation do, and as a fellow Notre Dame graduate, I can safely say my pride in my alma mater has nothing to do with avoiding membership in a football conference. Just to play devil’s advocate to Coffey’s persuasive piece, here are a few quick retorts to his arguments:

Geography: To think Notre Dame will lose national appeal because it joins a conference is a stretch. To claim that the Irish won’t receive coverage in Florida because it plays 9 of its 12 games in the same geographic footprint makes little sense because — for the most part — the Irish already do that. For the past 10 years, the Irish have played a schedule that falls within those confines, especially when you consider Pitt, a common Irish foe, is well within the reach of the Big Ten conferences reach with the addition of Penn State.

Diversity: If you just get done arguing the reach of the university, and the limitations of the Big Ten, you might consider the limitations of the conference Notre Dame actually belongs to: The Big East. Schools like DePaul, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, and Villanova hardly bring to mind a national feel. Schools like West Virginia, South Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, and UConn are gigantic public schools that share little culturally or academically with Notre Dame. The affiliation with the Big East hasn’t done anything to harm the academic reputation of the school, and while it has a better mix of public and private universities than the Big Ten, I think it’s hard to just assume that Notre Dame will be forced onto the wrong side of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Athletically, the Irish have much more in common with the Big Ten than any other conference in the country. That should be a big reason why you join an athletic conference. 

Differentiation: My biggest argument lies here. If you’re already arguing that Notre Dame is scholastically and spiritually different than just about any school it’d partner with, what’s the fear? If you’re claiming that a conference alignment would take away a chance to play nationally, you should take a look at what the Irish have done the past dozen years?

Since 1998, Notre Dame’s schedule has hardly been as national as we’d all like to believe. There have been traditional West Coast opponents — Southern Cal and Stanford — Traditional East Coast opponents — Pitt, Boston College, Navy — Big East teams — Syracuse, Rutgers, West Virginia — and a large selection of Big Ten teams.

In the last 12 years, the only truly national away games have been match-ups against teams like North Carolina, Washington, UCLA, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Air Force, BYU, Maryland, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida State, or roughly one national game per season. Those final three games haven’t been on the Irish schedule since ’04, and are likely not to be on in the future as long as Notre Dame clings to the 7-4-1 scheduling format. Joining the Big Ten, or any other conference, would hardly limit the Irish from doing that.

Any other claim of differentiation likely has roots in Notre Dame’s hallowed place in college football’s history, a claim that contributes to Notre Dame’s contentious place in today’s college football landscape. As the years continue to grow since the last dominant stretch of Notre Dame football, the stubborn claim to cling to football independence wreaks more of elitist entitlement than being for the actually good of the university.  

In the end, it bears mentioning that a change by Swarbrick and Jenkins isn’t any more likely today than it was last year.

“We start that process with a clear preference,” Swarbrick said. “We just have to pay attention and stay on top of the game and talk to people. That’s what I’m spending 50 percent of my time doing right now. I’ve been in and around this business for 29 years now. This is as unstable as I’ve seen it.”

As the rumors continue about a potential game of high-stakes musical chairs that could transform college football, it should be comforting that the current administration at least understands how the game is played.

The last one sitting always loses.

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
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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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: