IBG: Struggling to focus on football

20 Comments

It’s been a weird week. Apologies for maybe coming up a little short on columns this week, but I’ve just been transfixed to the situation evolving in Happy Valley. What a sad state of affairs, and it makes it pretty difficult to get excited about a football game when you’re watching a horrific scandal that’s unfolding like this.

Luckily, we’ve got the Irish Blogger Gathering forcing my hand here, with our friends at We Never Graduate putting the questions out there. It’s a good mix of water cooler topics, hypotheticals, football talk and what’s going on in State College.

Here we go:

This year more than most, there seems to be an inordinate amount of attention spent on peripheral topics like the jumbotron, field turf, and apparel. Kelly is responsible in large part because he’s so candid about his take on them during his press conferences, making it perfectly clear his preferences that stoke the NDNation’s ever-burning fire. Do you think he’s going too far to push for these “enhancements” or do you think he’s doing what’s necessary to push Notre Dame’s program into the modern age?

I think a big reason these topics are holding such traction is because we all assumed we’d have a BCS run to talk about. Now, with three early losses, we’ve lost the number one conversation topic thanks to fluky self-inflicted wounds that have taken this season out of the enjoyable place it started.

That said, Brian Kelly certainly is a progressive, something people probably didn’t see coming when the early narrative on Kelly was being written. But if I’m a head coach at a major college program, I’m fighting for everything that’ll get me up to speed — a video board, a playing surface that doesn’t stink, and uniforms that appeal to players and recruits.

Do I think he enjoys tweaking the hard core traditionalists? Not really. I think he understands it doesn’t matter what he says as long as he wins. It’s like the old Crash Davis quote in Bull Durham.

“You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win twenty in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win twnety in the show however, it means you’re a slob.”

Coach Kelly made it clear today in his press conference that he couldn’t care less what you think about the helmets and uniforms…but I care what you think. Give the world your take on the helmets we’ll be wearing this weekend.

I’ve hit this topic pretty hard this week. I’m glad he said what he did, and while it might have come off as a little too definitive, he’s 100 percent right.

Do I like the helmet? Not especially, at least not when it’s by itself looking like a disco ball with a shamrock on it. But could it look cool under the lights with green jerseys? Probably.

That said, I think the process of hiring a world class helmet designer from a different sport makes this cool regardless, just because it shows that Notre Dame has made a decision using a forward-thinking perspective.

That will be all from me on helmets. I promise.

The Irish are starting to incur some injuries that are forcing new players to emerge and contribute. Identify one guy who hasn’t made a big contribution thus far that will show up big over the next three games.

I’m not quite sure what you call a big contribution so I’ll answer this question twice. First and foremost, I think the injuries along the defensive line, and his development over nine games, has freshman Stephon Tuitt primed for a monster home stretch. (I already consider his contribution sizable, but I’m not sure if he’s done enough to qualify for this question.)

While Aaron Lynch was the story of last year’s spring game, I sounded smarter than usual when I  mentioned Tuitt then as a guy that might have a bigger impact this year, and I think we’ll see that come to fruition as November rolls along. (I also pegged George Atkinson as the guy on the offensive side of the ball. So partial credit there, I guess. Just saying.)

Otherwise, I’m expecting Robby Toma to start making a push and getting involved. Toma is the kind of guy that just seems perfect for late season football. He may not have the skillset Theo Riddick does, but there’s just something about him that has me thinking he’ll put up some numbers in these final three regular season games.

There was a short time during the Notre Dame coaching search when it appeared current Maryland head coach Randy Edsall was the front runner. How different would things be for the Irish program right now if he was chosen in front of Kelly?

I think Randy Edsall’s agent would have you believe that there was a time when Randy Edsall was the frontrunner for the Notre Dame job. That said, I don’t think it was ever really that close, and if you stack Edsall’s resume up with Brian Kelly’s, it’s really no comparison.

That said, Edsall is a good football coach, but he’s also the type of hire that would’ve been absolutely crushed by the Notre Dame faithful as not being sexy enough. This is a group that was looking at Hall of Fame coaches as the bar. (A group that earlier today, had someone on a prominent board saying Tom Coughlin should leave the New York Giants and coach the Irish.)

As for trying to guess how things would be if it was Edsall and not Kelly taking the reins? That’s a tough game that I’m not all that comfortable playing, but you’ve got to think that Edsall’s struggles at Maryland after losing some good talent would’ve been a sign for how things would’ve gone with the Irish losing Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, etc.

Let’s briefly step away from South Bend and address the talk of college football right now: the mind-boggling Penn State scandal. What’s your take on the entire situation and what do you think needs to happen moving forward in Happy Valley?

This story haunts me. After reading the Grand Jury findings, I don’t think it can be covered enough. It’s one of the most reprehensible stories that I can think of and I know it’s going to get a whole lot worse, as reporters track this all the way back to 1999, when Jerry Sandusky, then a 54-year-old defensive coordinator coming off being named assistant coach of the year, slipped into “retirement.” That Sandusky decided to walk away during the prime of his coaching career is going to be cross-checked pretty seriously, and I fully expect documents to come out that all but point to the fact that Penn State and Paterno got rid of the coach because of questionable behavior surrounding the initial investigation into his wrongdoings with underage children all the way back then.

If that’s the case, well — this is bad. Really bad. Blow up the program bad. That the leadership of Penn State thought they did enough just to remove him as a coach is egregious. It’s akin to the Catholic Church pulling a child-molesting priest from a parish, slapping him on the wrist,  then reassigning him to somewhere else. That Sandusky brought kids around the program and had unfettered access to facilities and the ability to still run youth camps and profit off his past Penn State glory is just disgusting.

I’ve heard an Albert Einstein quote referenced that’s been pretty appropriate for this situation:

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Jerry Sandusky isn’t guilty of anything yet, but it’s very likely that he’s an evil monster. That said, he’s far from the only one that failed people here. It was the good people at Penn State — something we all thought Paterno was — that brushed this evil under the carpet, and for that, they deserve every bit of hell coming to them, and it won’t be close to enough to make up for the terrible things that happened to those defenseless children.

Lastly, the State College community reaction, at least the vocal portion that shouted questions during last night’s press conference,  the students that cheered in the Paterno’s yard and flipped a news van, was pathetic. It’ll be something that embarrasses that mob for years to come. I don’t think I could ever be so bold while doing it, but Craig Carton said what a lot of people wanted to when undressing a student-journalist from Penn State this morning.

I’ve spent a better part of the week digging into this story, and it’s taken me an hour just to put together 400 words on the subject. It’s just a horrific horrific mess and something that will forever plague Happy Valley.

 

 

 

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

Getty Images
38 Comments

A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

Getty Images
36 Comments

This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

Getty Images
21 Comments

Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

Getty Images
19 Comments

Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”