Friday notes: Saracino, Bubba, Expansion, etc.

6 Comments

With just days remaining until Irish athletes report for summer school and begin unofficial preparations for the upcoming season, football news should begin to pick up. Until then, you’ll have to consider Steve Filer jumping out of a pool newsworthy.

(Might have to get Notre Dame Film & TV department to help with the video preparation, but Filer’s ability to jump out of the pool — and to have the common sense to put a towel down to curb the chances that he’ll hurt himself — remind us that Filer is an elite athlete ready to explode on the scene, not to mention has a solid head on his shoulders.)

I’ve got a small announcement coming up about some exciting posts for next week, but until then, let’s run through a few interesting notes I saw this week.

*****

My column on the departure of Notre Dame admissions czar Dan Saracino brought in quite a bit of feedback. Some of it was anti-Saracino, some in support. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with former Irish assistant and recruiting coordinator Bob Chmiel, who was center stage for the recruitment of T.J. Duckett.

Chmiel is a wonderful man, continues to love Notre Dame, and still lives and breathes Irish football. Let’s just say Chmiel’s characterization of Duckett’s recruitment doesn’t quite jive with that of Duckett’s fathers, as portrayed by Sports Illustrated. For as much grief as Saracino received for the Duckett recruitment and the SI article, Chmiel had nothing but positive things to say about Saracino’s treatment of Duckett or any recruit. He also believes that the Irish didn’t have much of a shot to begin with, as Duckett had all but packed his bags and made the decision to be a Spartan.

I’ll say it again, Saracino has one of the hardest jobs in college sports, and I’ve heard from many that he only has the best intentions of student athletes and the university when dealing with the often subjective process of undergraduate admissions (athletes or not). While the university might have been late to the party, Notre Dame has changed their philosophy on recruiting and scholarship offers quite a bit from Holtz/Davie years.

Here’s a quote from an article on Saracino back in 2005:

“If you’re not interested in being a student-athlete (after looking at
the academic requirements), then Notre Dame is not a good match for
you,” Saracino said. “We are who we are, and we’re proud of it. (The
academic requirements are) not a hindrance to the program, it’s to want
the young man not to be used for just his athletic abilities.”

News reports over the last five years said that talented players like
Randy Moss, Carson Palmer and T.J. Duckett could not get into Notre
Dame for academic reasons, and Saracino admits that Notre Dame will not
be able to admit every top athlete in the country.

“Are there going to be young men who are great athletes who we cannot
admit? Sure,” Saracino said. “Of the top 100 (recruits), maybe there
will be 50 that we can’t sign. I don’t know whether that number is 20,
30, 40, 60, I don’t know. All we know is we just need 20 (recruits) each
year who academically can make it through Notre Dame and athletically
can help us.”

For as long as Notre Dame plays football, there’ll be student athletes that don’t fit the profile of the university. The key, as Saracino points out, is to get the ones that do.

Final thought: Whoever ends up taking the place of Saracino should run and hide if a photographer from a magazine wants to take a shot of them with their arms folded in a menacing pose.

*****

Blue-chip quarterback Bubba Starling will be on campus again this weekend, and this time he’s bringing his mom with him. That’s a very good sign for Irish fans, and Pete Sampson over at IrishIllustrated.com writes that the Irish might be receiving a much needed commitment from an elite quarterback.

“This trip is about seeing the same stuff, but it will be different
because this will be my mom’s first time at Notre Dame,” said Starling,
who’ll arrive on campus Friday night and leave Saturday afternoon.
“She’s going to be a big role in my decision. She wants the best for me
and I like her opinion. I’m sure she’ll love it up there.”

Coincidentally, Starling has been in touch with quarterback
Dayne Crist, who wanted to pull the trigger for Notre Dame during his
own spring visit three years ago but held off because his mom wasn’t on
the trip.

“I was just telling Dayne that if I’m feeling it and I like it
up there that I could commit,” Starling said. “You never know.”

Starling has a tentative visit scheduled for Nebraska in two
weeks but admitted his decision might be made by then.

Sampson reported earlier in the week that Starling ran a forty-yard dash timed electronically in the 4.3s, which is absolutely preposterous speed for a quarterback. I’ve come to trust 40 times as much as I do those email forwards promising you money if you send it to seven of your friends, but Starling would be a great get even if he runs the 40 half a second slower. (Basically, what Robby Paris ran on his Pro Day.)

Now Irish fans have to talk Major League Baseball scouts into thinking that Starling and his 95-mile-per-hour fastball want nothing to do with professional baseball.

*****

Yesterday, news broke that the Pac-10 was making a run at six Big 12 teams — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado, and for the first time in a while, there might actually be some substance behind the rumors.

“We’re led to believe that that may be the case, but, again, there are so many different reports and different dialogues and different developments within our league and outside our league that prevents me from being able to predict what will happen,” Colorado AD Mike Bohn said.

Big 12 commission Dan Beebe canceled a news conference that was set for yesterday and is pushing it until later today, but if this happens, the Big Ten will likely do their best to respond, and then we could have one of those Armageddon scenarios everybody loves to talk about. 

(Although I refuse to fan the flames until something real actually exists.)

For as much heat as the Big East has taken, the Big 12 wasn’t necessarily all that rock solid either, and the potential fracture of six teams, including crown jewels Texas and Oklahoma, proves this. News today from the Columbus Dispatch has emails exchanged between Big Ten commish Jim Delany and Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee, taking about the other apple in their eye: Texas.

Texas president athletic director DeLoss Dodds didn’t do much to quell the rumors either.

“You’ve known me for very long; I am not hanging back,” Dodds said,
according to the Associated
Press. “I’m not waiting to see what other people are going to do. I’m
going to know what our
options are, so that’s not going to change. My hope is that the Big 12
survives and you and I
retire knowing it’s a great conference. It’s been very viable, and if it
stays in place, it will
continue to be very viable.

“If we need to finish it, we’ll finish it,” he said. “We’re going to
be a player in whatever
happens.”

Expect a long weekend of rumors, rhetoric, and reactionary measures by the Big Ten, who might have missed their chance at manifest destiny with these potential moves by new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott.

If anyone sees Jim Delany standing outside Father Jenkins window tonight, holding a boombox over his head and playing Pete Gabriel’s Your Eyes, don’t be alarmed.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

os-notre-dame-ad-pleased-acc-move-20140513-001
Getty
11 Comments

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)
AP
72 Comments

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
Leave a comment

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: