Weekend notes: Rees, Anzalone, Zaire, and more

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As much as I enjoy reading the 200 odd comments (I’m trying to get figured out the technical bugs) about the arrests of Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese, let’s do our best to get some football discussed on here. First — Let’s put a pin in the Rees discussion (for now), as nothing more — from a material perspective at least — will break until Rees’ court appearance, scheduled for mid-May.

Rees’ arrest makes things even more interesting going into the summer. With four quarterbacks tasked with taking charge during summer workouts to get a firm grasp on the starting job, having one guy potentially facing school suspensions and serious legal issues seems like it could be a mighty distraction. That said, for all the bluster that’s come and gone since late Wednesday night, here are my thoughts on what’s most likely going to happen.

  • Most people continue to compare this to the Michael Floyd DUI situation. As I said before, take the test case of Mike Ragone instead. Ragone’s arrest had many people up in arms after he was stopped on the Indiana Toll Road with marijuana, but the school didn’t impose the draconian punishment that it did on Kyle McAlarney. Instead, Ragone received an undisclosed punishment (most likely meted out during summer school), and was with the team from day one of fall camp.
  • Floyd also had in his favor timing. Getting arrested right before spring ball gave Kelly and the coaching staff the ability to discipline him during the 15-practice spring session. Many made a big deal of Floyd being allowed to work out during voluntary workouts over the summer, but in reality, that voluntary nature likely makes it difficult for the coaching staff to regulate who does and doesn’t work out with the team. I don’t expect Rees to face any limitations during summer workouts, especially after his court date in a few weeks.

From a football perspective, there’s no way that this incident can help Rees win the starting job. Any altercation with police shows bad decision-making in action, and after a season where Tommy made too many on the field, a big one off the field doesn’t help either. Whether it’s an All-American wide receiver or a reserve tight end, Brian Kelly has been consistent with his punishment of players. So while we can all hypothesize about a one or two game suspension for Rees, history has shown we’re far more likely to see him in uniform against Navy than not.

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One of Notre Dame’s top linebacking targets has reopened his commitment after pledging to Ohio State. Alex Anzalone, A Wyomissing, Pennsylvania linebacker with offers from just about every powerhouse program in the country, took back the commitment he made to Urban Meyer during the Buckeyes’ spring game and reopened his recruitment. The Irish had been on Anzalone’s short-list before the commitment and are hoping to get back in on the talented linebacker, a position of need in the 2013 recruiting class.

Anzalone was initially evasive with his reasons for walking away from his commitment, but in an interview with the Reading Eagle, his father, Dr. Sal Anzalone, was more than candid.

“There’s a disconnect between what Alex thought was there and what is actually there,” Dr. Anzalone told the Eagle. “Something’s just not right at Ohio State. It’s not for him.”

The younger Anzalone, pictured here with Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer  after making his commitment (getting the Charlie Weis championship ring treatment), fell immediately for the Ohio State experience. But many are speculating that what happened on that recruiting trip also led to his decision to eliminate the Buckeyes nine months before signing day.

Most point the finger at “super-fan” Eric Waugh, who had built up quite a following on Twitter sending motivational tweets and messages to Buckeye players and recruits. That, in and of itself, tiptoes the line of acceptability. Adding an even creepier element to all of this is Waugh’s past. The Lantern, the Ohio State school newspaper, first reported that Waugh is a registered sex offender, and the school’s compliance department warned student-athletes of Waugh, after multiple photos of Waugh with Buckeye players and recruits had been posted on Waugh’s twitter page.

One photo featured Anzalone with Irish commitment Mike Heuerman, and blue-chip defensive end Joey Bosa, taken over the Scarlett and Gray game weekend.

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That seemed to be all that the Anzalone family needed to turn the bus around and back out from the Buckeye commitment. Per an ESPN Recruiting Nation story, Anzalone was already on shaky ground with his decision, and that experience solidified it.

That was enough to spook Anzalone, who already had experienced some regret about his early college decision, his father said.

“You would think that these kinds of people would be kept at a distance away from recruits,” Sal Anzalone said. “The fact that he got close to recruits was the issue. Keep people like this away from them. I can’t be everywhere.”

Sal Anzalone urged his son to decommit after word began to spread about Waugh.

“Separate yourself,” Sal Anzalone said, “because you don’t want the NCAA thinking that you’re being influenced by this joke.”

Taking the sex-offender angle out of this, communicating with student-athletes and perspective student-athletes via the internet is never a good idea. I’ve said it multiple times before, but it’s an eligibility and NCAA rules-laden minefield, and also a slippery slope that far too often causes more harm than good.

(Irish fans taking shots at Tee Shepard and Aaron Lynch via Twitter and Facebook take note.)

***

Back to the football field, Irish commitment Malik Zaire competed for a spot in the Elite 11, held this year just a few miles from the Inside the Irish HQ in Redondo Beach, California. Zaire was working out in Columbus, where a collection of the Midwest’s best quarterbacks competed for a coveted invite to the finals in California.

Multiple reports have Zaire holding his own, among the three most talented players at the camp along with Ohio State commit Jalin Marshall and Michigan commitment Shane Morris. It was Morris that locked down an invitation to the South Bay yesterday, with Zaire among the final choices. He’ll compete again today.  (Don’t feel bad Irish fans, Morris is at his second camp location, after failing to get an invite earlier in the offseason.)

“I think I came out and I did a pretty good job,” Zaire told Irish Illustrated. “I saw a lot of things I need to work on but at the same time I competed well with Shane and the other guys. I have a little bitter taste in my mouth, but I’ll definitely be back out tomorrow and try to win that spot.”

Without the ability to show-off the running skills that made him one of the best dual-threat prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, Zaire had to earn his keep with his throwing arm and fundamentals, things that he seemed to do just fine.

“I’ve never met him, didn’t even know who he was until today,” wide receiver prospect Jack Wangler told ESPN.com about Zaire. “But I liked the way he threw the ball. I didn’t even know him and I felt like I could’ve played with him all day. I think every receiver felt that way.”

We’ll be tracking down Yogi Roth, who has worked as both a QB coach at the college level and hosts the Elite 11 television coverage for ESPN, to get more on Zaire. But early reports are in that the Irish’s QB recruit seems to be every bit the player Notre Dame fans hoped for.

***

To end this story on a far different note, Coldplay was at the Hollywood Bowl last night, and paid tribute to Adam Yauch, better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys. Thought this was a pretty cool rendition of a classic.

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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.