Friday notes: Swarbrick, Russ, recruiting and more

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If you’re looking for some insight into the mind of athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the internet has got you covered, as both Eric Hansen and Tim Prister have very good Q&As with the man himself. They are both very much worth the read, but I’ll give you my favorite exchange from each of them:

We’ll start with Eric Hansen’s interview, which covered a wide variety of topics from the official death of 7-4-1 scheduling to Irish envy for the Yankee Stadium Jumbotron.

But here are Swarbrick’s comments on what the new Longhorn Network means for Notre Dame’s future.

Q: Can Notre Dame do the same thing? Will Notre Dame do the same thing at some point?

A: It’s really important for us to expand our media presence. There’s no question. And so I don’t know what form that will take yet.

Texas has geography going for it that Notre Dame doesn’t. So you can sell that into a geograhic region to cable providers, and it works well. We don’t have geography in that sense, so our approach will have to be a little different. But we’re  very excited about exploring ways to do that.

All of the emerging technologies are going to help us. What we have is probably the largest national following, but it’s dispersed. So we’re going to need robust broadband solutions and new forms of deliver of digital media, some of which don’t exist yet but are clearly coming.”

To me, this is absolutely fascinating, and is another great example of how much Swarbrick truly gets the business engine that powers collegiate athletics. Even in-house, Notre Dame has taken huge strides on their online platform, with the work the team at UND.com has done to give all of us better access behind the scenes and at press conferences. But as many of us have talked about, there is a huge opportunity to create a central Notre Dame home online, and from the sounds of it, it’s coming sooner than later.

Prister hasn’t tackled Notre Dame football in his epic three-part interview with Swarbrick, but here’s an exchange I enjoyed.

TP: You didn’t want to be the guy that was AD at Notre Dame when it lost its independence, did you, whether you were painted in the corner or not.

JS: (laughing) I know you won’t believe this, but it’s a little like when I hired Brian (Kelly). People were saying during that process, ‘This hire will define Swarbrick’s legacy.’ The same thing was said about independence.

I’m pretty secure in what I’ve done and what my relationship is here. If the best result for Notre Dame as a university – not as an athletics department but as a university – took us elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had any trouble with that. You just have to look at this from the broad perspective of the university.

People would be amazed that as we were talking internally how little time we spent on an athletics approach to it. Why are we independent? What is the value of independence to us beyond the traditional value? Its principle value is to the broader university, promoting Notre Dame, playing all around the country.

For anybody who was in New York this year at that (Army) game, that’s the power of Notre Dame. Those are the reasons to keep (our independence) because we still think it plays a really important role in the university.

Both guys did a great job and if you’ve got a spare hour or so, dig right in.

***

After 25 years in the training room, Notre Dame legend Jim Russ is moving from taping ankles to a newly created role in the athletic department: Director of Athletic Training and Rehabilitative Services. Here’s more from ND’s official release:

“As we look to create greater structure for the sports performance area, we had a great interest in creating a position that would provide oversight, direction and expertise for our delivery of athletic training and rehabilitative services to our student-athletes,” said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Jim is as well-respected as anyone in the country in his field, with nearly 35 years in the business, so he was a natural for this role. While we will miss Jim’s day-to-day focus on football, this move will enable him to apply his background, expertise and professionalism to provide improved guidance for all of our other sports – and Jim will play a critical role in the continuing integration of the various areas that comprise our sports performance division.”

Eleven years ago, I had plenty of opportunities to have my balky right elbow wrapped with ice by Jim and last summer he was right were I found him over decade earlier, this time willing to look at an ankle that didn’t feel quite up to running around in football cleats and full pads.

Notre Dame will look to replace Russ and find a new head football athletic trainer immediately, allowing Kelly to bring in a new — incredibly important — lieutenant to the football program. After a season that saw multiple players plagued with balky hamstrings, I’m guessing the interview process will include a long session on discussing the best way to keep Irish skill players on the field with two healthy legs.

***

Four-star running back Savon Huggins just announced his intent to stay home and play for Greg Schiano’s Rutgers squad, taking one of the final names the Irish are chasing off the big board. (Unless Bob Diaco ends up sitting as Huggins’ kitchen table tomorrow morning before dawn.) As we discussed yesterday, Los Angeles Times lineman of the year Troy Niklas is arriving on campus today, and will make his final decision between USC and Notre Dame by Signing Day.

Niklas would obviously be icing on the cake for a pretty historic front-seven class for the Irish, something Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples dug into in an article today. While his article talked about the proportion of defensive linemen that hail from the Deep South, it isn’t hard to see why what Notre Dame did pulling guys like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt out of the area, (not to mention Louis Nix last season) was such an astounding feat.

In related SI news, Stewart Mandel took a look at the glass ceiling that keeps elite kickers rated artificially low in the five-star model that has taken over big-time recruiting.

Four years ago, Auburn signed a top 10 recruiting class that included many of the players who wound up starring for last season’s national championship team: defensive linemen Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter, linebacker Josh Bynes and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh. No player, however, was rated higher at his position than Wes Byrum, Rivals.com’s No. 2 kicker.

Yet the same guy rated so highly in his position group — the same guy who wound up hitting four game-winning field goals during his time at Auburn, including in the BCS title game — was essentially dead weight when it came to the Tigers’ class ranking. Because Byrum was just a three-star recruit in Rivals’ eyes, his mere presence dragged down the average rating for a class with 10 four- and five-star prospects.

Wondering why I’m including this tidbit in today’s links? Well consider this little nugget, something I’ve been wondering since the focus has turned to recruiting rankings.

No one is suggesting that Kyle Brindza, Scout.com’s top-ranked kicker this year, should be rated the No. 1 player in the country, as Henderson was last year. Heck, the Notre Dame commit doesn’t even need to be ranked 100th.

But it would be nice if Brindza at least got that fourth star so that Brian Kelly’s class — currently ranked seventh with a 3.57 star average — isn’t penalized for signing the best player in the country at his position.

Brindza is Kelly’s only two-star recruit according to Rivals, pulling down their overall ranking quite a bit. Take that into consideration when you measure ND’s class against others.

***

Speaking of recruiting, for all those that still were wondering about the whirlwind battle for Stephon Tuitt, here’s where he stands as of yesterday, according to Irish Illustrated.

The five-star defensive end from Monroe, Ga., remains committed to Notre Dame and on Thursday denied a report that he planned to postpone signing his letter-of-intent by a couple days.

To the contrary, Tuitt plans to send his paperwork to South Bend from Austin, Texas, where he will participate in the USA vs. The World game along with fellow Irish commits Josh Atkinson, George Atkinson III, Matt Hegarty and Anthony Rabasa.

“I’m very excited,” Tuitt said. “I get to do it with my future teammates.”

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound prospect put the finishing touches on his commitment during a meeting earlier in the week with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Among the topics discussed was a potential spring trip back to campus.

“It went well,” Tuitt said. “I got a chance to see about going up to the spring game. A game or a practice. I don’t know which one I’d go to. But I got a chance to talk to (Diaco) about that and see how that was gonna go. Then (we talked) about really how to do the signing and everything.”

I think the Irish coaching staff will breath a huge sigh of relief when Tuitt’s fax comes through The Gug. (Good to see somebody still uses fax machines…)

***

Bonus Jack Swarbrick quote, courtesy of Eric Hansen, who asked about putting field turf into Notre Dame Stadium, after another dreadful season of field conditions on Notre Dame’s natural grass.

“I think there are two issues there. One is I was disappointed in our field this year. It wasn’t where it needed to be and, frankly, that was without any real weather challenges.

“So we’ve got to make sure we get the field to a quality that makes sense. The other is, as the university considers doing more things in the stadium, we have to make sure we keep a natural grass field in the shape we want it to be, graduation being an example. That’s where graduation is held now, in the stadium.

“So it’s a little like Jumbotron, video boards if you will, nothing imminent. But as the use of the stadium evolves – it’s like so many things about this – we’ve got to stay open to new ideas, but maintain the tradition of Notre Dame.”

It’s refreshing to see that the man in charge of Notre Dame athletics acknowledges that the surface in the stadium has been bad. When they ever do anything about it, that’ll be worth following.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

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

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.