And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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Expect things to be testy in Bristol this weekend, as Mark May and Lou Holtz actually have something to bicker about. After a massive win in Norman, the Irish return home to South Bend, a place that’s been much tougher on Notre Dame than any opponent’s stadium.

They’ll face a familiar opponent in the Pitt Panthers. Yet there isn’t much too familiar with Pitt. Another season, another head coaching change. After Todd Graham headed to Arizona State after just one season in the Steel City, Paul Chryst has taken over the program, bringing with him a strong offensive reputation after putting together some high-powered seasons in Wisconsin.

It was far from a smooth start for Chryst and company, who lost their debut against Youngstown State and started 0-2 before rallying to get to 4-4 on the season. Getting us up to speed on the state of the Pitt program is the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. Sam is in his first year covering the Panthers’ beat and is no stranger to the Notre Dame program, having covered the Irish for the student-run Observer not too long ago, working the Irish beat in ’09 and serving as managing editor in ’10.

I asked, Sam answered. Let’s all enjoy.

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It seems that Paul Chryst has stabilized the Panthers’ program after a few rocky years. One of the elite offensive coordinators in the game at Wisconsin, he’s brought back to Pittsburgh an offensive philosophy probably more befitting the program’s identity. How do you assess the job Chryst and his coaching staff have done in their first season?

It’s certainly been a little up and down, results-wise. The loss to Youngstown State was pretty much the worst way a coach could imagine starting his first head job, but Pitt has bounced back nicely to win some big games, notably over future ACC rival Virginia Tech. More than just the on the field results, though, Chryst’s job is about providing some program stability. That part of the job won’t happen for a few years, after he has sort of established himself as the head coach and the whirlwind of coaches that came in here is no longer an issue.

I do think Chryst has a bright future at Pitt for a couple of reasons. First, like you mentioned, the style of his offense fits in much better with the identity of the program and city. Todd Graham’s now-infamous “high-octane offense” just never really seemed to mesh. Two, while the program-wide stability may take a couple of years, Chryst is the perfect guy to do it. I’ve never been around a coach who is as consistent day-in, day-out with his approach to things. He’s the same guy after a win or after a loss, and he prepares the same way each week whether they’re playing Notre Dame or Gardner-Webb. That has to rub off and have a positive effect on his team.

In Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers have two really talented runners. It looks like Graham is rounding back into form after a knee injury slowed down one of college football’s most under-the-radar players. And Shell was a prep phenom and looks impressive physically for a young guy. Running against the Irish has been no easy task. Can Pitt do it, especially with an offensive line that’s been up and down?

This is the matchup I keep coming back to when I’m looking at ways Pitt could win this game. I think the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to keep drives going and keep the game close, but I’m not so sure if that’s going to happen. Graham and Shell are very talented (and Shell especially is going to be a monster as his career progresses), but the running game has had some fits and starts over the last few weeks. They couldn’t really get it going against Buffalo two weeks ago, which doesn’t bode well for them this weekend. Having a first-time starter at right guard after losing Ryan Schlieper for the season last week won’t help either. So, in short, Pitt definitely does have a formidable rushing attack, but they haven’t shown me enough consistency this season to have me convinced that they’re going to be able to establish the run against Notre Dame’s defense.

One person really benefiting from the coaching change is quarterback Tino Sunseri. He’s playing the best football of his career in his final season at Pitt. With two really big and physical targets, the Panthers passing attack looks sneaky good. Assess for me what’s been the difference for Sunseri, who Notre Dame fans have seen quite a bit these past few years. And are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best receiving duo Notre Dame will see this season, outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?

I think the biggest difference for Sunseri this season has just been his comfort level in the offense that Chryst runs. He’s being asked to much make fewer on-the-fly reads and decisions than he was last year, and get just get into a rhythm and make his throws. This has directly led to a drastic reduction in turnovers (he hasn’t thrown a pick in five weeks). I think there’s also something to be said for a fifth-year senior just sort of putting everything together in his final year. Bill Stull did it for Pitt in 2009, and Tino’s doing it this year. I said coming into the year that, in Chryst’s offense, Sunseri didn’t need to be a game-breaker quarterback, he just needed to be the equivalent of Scott Tolzien from the 2010 Badgers. So far, he has even exceeded that.

The receivers, too, have played a significant part in Sunseri’s development. Street is enjoying a breakout year as the passing game’s top target. Looking at him, he has always had the physical skills to be an elite receiver and the mental side of the game just seems to have started clicking this year. He also has talked about how he and Tino are on the same page in terms of breaking down coverages on the sideline this season. Shanahan is also important for the passing game, mostly because of his versatility. He mostly plays split wide but, especially with Pitt limited at tight end over the past few weeks, he has also worked inside on some blocking. I don’t know if these are the “best” receivers Notre Dame will face this side of USC, but they’re probably the most physically imposing.

Statistically, the Panthers defense looks decent, holding points down, rushing attacks to just 141 yards a game, and passing offenses to less than 200 yards a game. But they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they lack size at linebacker. Jarred Holley is a playmaker and the team looks strong up the middle. Can Pitt make things hard for Everett Golson and slow down an Irish running game that’s really hitting its stride?

The defense was dealt a huge blow this week with the news that two linebackers — MLB Dan Mason and WLB Manny Williams — will be out for the season. Regulars starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, so he’s questionable as well. If he can’t go, Pitt will likely only have five linebackers to dress for Saturday’s game. I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime coverages Saturday. This will help them match up against Notre Dame’s spread, but also gets their best players on the field. Holley and Jason Hendricks have started at safety, but backups Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal are outstanding players, as well. Pitt will work to get those guys on the field.

This is also one of the areas that will be key for Pitt keeping it close. The run defense has been almost astonishingly inconsistent this season, shutting down Virginia Tech and Temple’s running games, but allowing Cincinnati, Youngstown State and Buffalo to get over 150 yards on the ground. If the good run defense shows up, this one will be close. If the bad run defense does (and those linebacker injuries really concern me), this has a chance to get out of hand like Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Miami.

The Panthers are pretty heavy underdogs heading into Notre Dame Stadium. Who are two people that are going to have to play really big for Pitt if they’re going to pull off the upset? What’s the blueprint for success for Paul Chyst’s squad?

I’m going all-uglies on this one and pointing to two linemen. On offense, center Ryan Turnley is going to have his hands full going up against Louis Nix. He’ll have to at least slow down Nix from getting into the backfield immediately after the snap. On top of that, he’ll be tasked with organizing the offensive line as a whole facing the best defense they’ll play all season, with a first-time starter at right guard. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Pitt’s offensive line to totally contain Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and company, since no one has done that this season. But if they can keep Sunseri relatively clean and generate enough push to get consistent positive yardage on the ground, Pitt has a chance. On defense, I think Aaron Donald really needs to have a game on the line. He’s probably Pitt’s best player, regardless of position, and can be a force. If he can get pressure on Golson and make him scramble around, Golson has shown that he’s still sort of working out the kinks of finding guys on the run. In the Oklahoma game, a lot of times he was just content to throw it away. That said, the rest of the defensive line has to do a good job setting contain on the edge so Golson doesn’t pick up big chunks with his feet.

I think the blueprint overall for a Pitt victory is to run the ball at least reasonably effectively, and hit one or two big plays through the air. They’re going to need to control time of possession and an early score wouldn’t hurt to get the crowd out of the game. On defense, I don’t think they’re quite ready to just shut down Notre Dame’s offense, so the Panthers are going to need a turnover or two, ideally in Notre Dame’s territory to set up some scores. Pitt isn’t going to win this game 38-35 or even 28-25. But if they play their best and Notre Dame’s focus is still in Norman, Pitt could win this game something like 13-9 (the same score they beat then-No. 2 West Virginia by in 2007).

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A special thanks to Sam for taking the time to make us smarter. For more Pitt coverage heading into the big game, check out Sam’s stuff at the Post-Gazette and follow him on Twitter @SWernerPG

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.

Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not

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No matter what the NCAA might say now, the Notre Dame defense held its own in the rain and slop against Stanford on Oct. 13, 2012. Whether und.com already notes the wins as vacated or not (it does), the Irish held Michigan State, Michigan and Miami without touchdowns in the three weeks leading up to that goal line stand. Notre Dame arrived in Miami with 12 wins and no losses that January, an undefeated top-ranked underdog in the national championship.

Vacating those 12 wins, and the nine in the following season, does not matter in any regard.

However, the NCAA established a new precedent Tuesday when it denied Notre Dame’s appeal to retain those wins in its records. That new standard could change how schools across the country handle controversy, allegations and educational fraud. That does matter.

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins made his feelings clear after the NCAA denied the University’s appeal of vacated wins due to academic transgressions by a handful of players in 2012 and 2013. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

In his response to the ruling, Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins distinguished between his University and the NCAA.

“The NCAA is not, of course, an academic association with general responsibility for academic integrity at America’s colleges and universities,” he wrote.

Of course.

As an academic institution with general responsibility for academic integrity within its own buildings, when Notre Dame came across the academic transgressions involving nine student-athletes, it immediately suspended four of those players remaining on the 2014 roster, soon adding a fifth. It launched an internal investigation to gauge the scope of the situation, and handed the NCAA a completed understanding of what transpired largely at the hands of a student-trainer.

Some may argue that was the right thing to do, both on principle and in practice. After all, history showed cooperating institutions were granted some benefit of the doubt from the NCAA, only partly because that cooperation lessened the workload of an overworked, understaffed and fangless NCAA investigation department.

Hindsight does not argue Jenkins’ 2014 public deferral to the NCAA was the right maneuver.

“The University has decided that if the investigation determines that student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated,” he said then.

That was an unnecessary offering, and from a public relations viewpoint, it is now the greatest mistake made by the University in this process. That comment floats amid the internet’s cobwebs to be thrown back in Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’s face four years later. Doing so misses the more pertinent and meaningful pieces of the NCAA’s decision.

The NCAA opted to punish an institution when there was never any indication of involvement from anyone higher up than an undergraduate student. Per Tuesday’s announcement, “The appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules.”

This is neither the space nor the time to launch into a debate regarding amateurism, but it is hard to understand the student-trainer being an employee but the student-athletes — the same ones she aided both illicitly in the classroom and medically in the football facilities — are not employees.

That questionable logic was joined by the NCAA pointing out, “In this case, the university acknowledged the academic misconduct impacted the eligibility of student-athletes and resulted in student-athletes competing while ineligible.”

Yes, Notre Dame did acknowledge that. The University went so far as to correct the past grades, deeming certain players retroactively ineligible. Notre Dame chose to do that. It could have followed the lead of other institutions, most dramatically North Carolina, and never granted the premise of falsehoods or academic missteps. North Carolina never declared any grades or classes fraudulent, and as a result, the NCAA Committee on Infractions deemed such judgements beyond its jurisdiction.

As a result, North Carolina emerged from a six-year investigation essentially unscathed, wins intact along with scholarships, staffers and players. If Notre Dame had not reevaluated ill-gotten grades, then the NCAA would not have, either, and those 21 wins would be safe.

With that in mind, why should any school, be it Notre Dame or North Carolina, Harvard or USC, West Point or Mount Union, “acknowledge” any academic fault in relation to its athletics?

That concerning piece of Tuesday’s appeal ruling did not escape Jenkins’ wrath.

“We are deeply disappointed that the NCAA failed to recognize these critical points,” he wrote. “Yet we are committed to work with partner institutions to introduce NCAA legislation that will lead to more reasonable decisions — decisions that will support rather than discourage institutions that do their best to uncover and respond to academic dishonesty in accord with their respective honor codes.”

The NCAA wants to allow academic institutions autonomy. It is, in fact, inherent to the NCAA’s structure. Apparently the NCAA wants that autonomy to extend so far it grants the governing body willful and blissful ignorance.

That is a dangerous precedent, and if Notre Dame needs to vacate 21 wins, must add an asterisk of a talking point for Irish critics and supposedly diminish the luster of that 2012 undefeated regular season, so be it. That is a worthwhile cost to produce a conversation for consistency and accountability moving forward.

That should be the sought result, too. Unless Notre Dame wants to turn the full complement of its sports into glorified barnstorming exhibitions, it will not be departing the NCAA. It does, though, still have the influence to effect change. That change will not come through a prolonged court case. There is no forward-looking damage to the University to protect against.

The greatest actual damage done to the here-and-now is to a meaningless stat. Notre Dame is now two or three seasons, at least, away from challenging Michigan (or Boise State) for the lead in all-time winning percentage, rather than one game away. That is the most tangible and lasting effect — remember, this investigation resulted in no bowl ban or reduced scholarship allotment — of this fiasco felt by Notre Dame, and it deserves little more than someone reminding me of the sequence of punctuation needed to create that shrug response.

But now we know, next time Notre Dame or Stanford or Michigan or Boise State or University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has an academic issue the NCAA is concerned with, it should filibuster, deny the premise and change the topic. That warrants more than a shrug. It warrants every bit of worry from anyone still wanting to believe college athletics involve just some academics, as Jenkins and Notre Dame do.

NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012

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The NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal to maintain its 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the NCAA announced Tuesday. The ruling stems from the academic violations of nine players during those seasons, eight of them with the assistance of a former student-athletic trainer.

Notre Dame’s argument hinged on there being no university involvement or knowledge of the academic misconduct. The NCAA does not dispute that wholesale, but since the student-trainer was considered a university employee under NCAA rules, that lumps the violations into a category usually resulting in vacated wins.

“We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal …,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said in a statement. “Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics, and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose.”

As the academic violations came to light and were self-reported by Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish suspended five then-current players: DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell. The University also set to recalculating the appropriate grades from years past. In doing so, it rendered certain players retroactively ineligible.

“In the curious logic of the NCAA, however, it is precisely the application of our Honor Code that is the source of the vacation of wins penalty, for the recalculation of grades in 2014 led to three student-athletes being deemed ineligible retroactively,” Jenkins said. “To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head.

“At its best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”

Jenkins claims the ruling by the NCAA is unprecedented since there was no broader institutional involvement or lack of control.

“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising,” Jenkins wrote. “… The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.”

Such a view was actually amended out of the academic misconduct rules in 2016, meaning student-trainers would not be considered institutional representatives.

Vacating the 12 wins from 2012 and the nine from 2013 drops Notre Dame’s all-time win total to 885 from 906 and its all-time winning percentage to .724 from .729. The Irish still stand at No. 2 in winning percentage, behind only Michigan, but that top spot will no longer be at stake in the 2018 season opener against the Wolverines on Sept. 1.

Jenkins’ full statement can be read here.

The NCAA’s announcement denying the appeal can be read here.