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Integrity a two-way street

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There is nothing straightforward about the circumstances surrounding the death of St. Mary’s freshman Lizzy Seeberg, who committed suicide nine days after accusing an Irish football player of sexual assault. That accusation was first reported by the Chicago Tribune, who has been the paper of record on this story since initially reporting it for its Sunday edition on November 21st, a day after the Irish defeated Army in Yankee Stadium 28-3.

Again, there’s little that seems straightforward about this story. That Notre Dame and its independent police force have shared little information with the Seeberg family (or the Tribune) hasn’t helped the University’s case in the court of public opinion. That the 19-year-old Seeberg had long suffered serious bouts of depression, taken antidepressants, and battled thoughts of suicide before her accusations don’t make things easier for the family or the prosecution. And while St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak declined to file any charges after spending a month reviewing a “voluminous report” turned over by Notre Dame to the county prosecutors, the story has already been framed, not just by the Tribune’s one-sided reporting, but some horrific editorializing, turning a tragic story with no winners into a melodrama that positioned the Tribune to play the role of scrappy underdog against the monolithic and conspiratorial Notre Dame. It might be an excellent angle to sell papers, but it’s a great disservice to all parties involved.

That the Tribune’s reporting on the incident has been one-sided shouldn’t be all that surprising — only one-side of the story is talking about the incident. But the fact that the Tribune has published three different opinion pieces on the tragedy, all sharing the same viewpoint, is a major cause for concern.

In between columns name-checking guys like Rahm Emmanuel and Geraldo Rivera, and tongue-and-cheek exposes on revolving-door “ride poachers,” Tribune columnist John Kass took Notre Dame to task for failing to live up to its name when dealing with the Declan Sullivan and Seeberg tragedies.

Kass points out that the Virgin Mary, who Notre Dame was named after, “wasn’t much for spin. She didn’t lawyer up. She didn’t hide behind bureaucratic walls.” Kass failed to mention that the Virgin Mary didn’t completely avoid the other side of the story either.

While Kass chooses to label Notre Dame’s responses “public relations spin and bureaucratic shielding of liability,” he conveniently leaves out Father John Jenkins’ statement of responsibility for the death of Sullivan. He also conveniently ignores the multiple releases from the University explaining how and why they’ve handled the Seeberg investigation the way they have, and all but calling the initial Tribune report false and misleading.

While schlocky writing isn’t necessarily mediocre journalism, another Tribune columnist, David Haugh, took his second swipe today at the University over the Seeberg tragedy. While his first column was filled with righteous indignation that only subtly abused the truth, his most recent work raised the bar by misappropriating a Brian Kelly quote to help fit his column better.

In a column entitled “Integrity is wrong word in school’s handling of Seeberg case,” Haugh opened his column with this (bold lettering added by me for emphasis):

Curious to see in person how the most visible leader at Notre Dame defended the most famous college football program in America from charges of hypocrisy — and worse — I came Friday to hear coach Brian Kelly.

And was astonished by what I heard.

I shouldn’t have been.

Kelly used the word “integrity” four times in 30 seconds while answering a question about support for a player accused of sexually attacking a St. Mary’s College student who killed herself 10 days later.

If you don’t have integrity, what else do you have?” Kelly began. “I’ve got a family to raise. I’ve got kids. I have a football family here. If there’s no integrity in what you do … I’d have been in a different business a long time ago.

“Integrity is probably, for me, the only thing that keeps me going in this business. Sometimes misinformation and not having the right facts drives you crazy. So you have to have something that you hang your hat on. It’s always, for me, been doing the right thing. And integrity.”

As the Notre Dame coach invoked all that was wholesome and good about the guys in gold helmets, the cyber hunt to identify the player and poke into his past continued. The Tribune is not naming the player because he was not charged with a crime.

In what has become a habitual exercise in framing the narrative, Haugh turned Kelly’s comments about integrity into something that would help his column, not into the response of the question he actually asked.

Here’s the question that Kelly was actually asked:

“Your program obviously is scrutinized, and my newspaper has been critical of the way things have been handled, other people may be as well, do you feel just as strongly now than you did a month ago in terms of defending the type of player that you recruit, and the type of process for situations like this?”

And here’s the response Kelly gave:

“If you don’t have integrity, what else do you have? I’ve got a family to raise, I’ve got kids, I have a football family here. If there’s no integrity in what you do, then I’d have been in a different business a long time ago. So, integrity is probably for me the only thing that keeps me going in this business. Because sometimes misinformation, and not having the right facts drives you crazy. You have to have something to hang your hat on. And it’s always for me been doing the right thing and integrity.”

Kelly’s answer reads quite differently when you consider it a response to what Haugh actually asked him, not as an act of support for the accused player. Maybe the most disappointing part of Haugh’s column wasn’t what he wrote, but what he didn’t, leaving out Kelly’s response to his final question, when the reporter asked the head coach if he felt “vindicated” that the prosecutor decided not to file charges.

“Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a vindication in such a very unfortunate time,” Kelly said. “A young girl lost her life. I can’t imagine how tough that is on the parents. I don’t think there were ever those feelings as much as completing the process, and I’m committed to the way the University handles the process. They’re thorough and we’re all part of that process.”

Kelly’s comments are probably the best encapsulation of what’s actually transpired in the days since Lizzy Seeberg took her own life. There are no winners here. Not the Seeberg family, who grieve the loss of a daughter and struggle to find answers in a process that’s guarded by laws that protect both sides of a sexual accusation. Not Notre Dame, who deals with their second high-profile tragedy of the football season. And not the Chicago Tribune, who had to sacrifice their journalistic ethics to get the most out of a story, where only one-side openly cooperated.

Two days after the Tribune broke their initial story, Janet M. Botz, Vice President in the Office of Public Affairs and Communications had this to say in a statement released to all faculty, staff, and students at the University.

“It is and always will be a central tenet of Notre Dame’s mission to learn the truth and to act in accordance with it. As you read stories about any matter that involves our careful and thorough process, I urge you not to arrive at any conclusions until all the facts are known. Only through a serious, informed and fair process can justice be served. Such a process will always be our focus.”

That process means staying quiet while the Tribune continues to throw rocks at the Golden Dome, even if it means taking the bumps and bruises associated.

Funny, that sounds an awful lot like integrity.

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…)