Jack Swarbrick

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.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.