Friday notes: Saracino, Bubba, Expansion, etc.

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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.

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.