Colorado v USC

Max Wittek: “We’re going to win this ballgame”


With senior quarterback Matt Barkley on the sidelines for Saturday’s game, the Trojans will turn to redshirt freshman Max Wittek to pilot their high-powered offense. Having appeared in only three games in his USC career, Wittek is far from a proven commodity. But that hasn’t stopped the young quarterback from calling his shot.

“We’re going to play our offense, whatever Coach Kiffin feels comfortable giving me,” Wittek told ESPN LA 710’s Mark Willard. “It he wants to air it out, let’s air it out. If he wants to pound them on the ground, let’s do that. Like I said, I’m going to go out there, play within myself, within the system, and we’re going to win this ballgame.”

Broadway Joe meet Bulletin Board Max.

Wittek is no stranger to success. Nor is he a stranger to replacing Matt Barkley. At Orange County powerhouse Mater Dei, it was Wittek that replaced Barkley as the quarterback, continuing an incredible stretch of signal-callers that have gone on to star for the Trojans the past decade, joining Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart.

It’s that type of pedigree that helps make Brian Kelly’s job easier, as he can expect an elite skillset on whatever quarterback Lane Kiffin trots out behind center.

“When you get a scholarship to USC, you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Kelly said. “He’s a big, strong, physical kid, he’s got a live arm, he certainly fits into their offensive scheme of things. He’s a perfect fit for what they do.”

In Wittek, USC might just have their prototype. Another quarterbacking creation, Wittek’s family relocated to California to help find better competition in his prep years, after working as a junior high prodigy with noted quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, who flew to Connecticut for multiple training sessions. The Wittek family was introduced to Clarkson by none other than Joe Montana, who is a business associate of Wittek’s father in the commercial real estate field.

Never shy to praise a former student (it was Clarkson who dubbed Jimmy Clausen the “LeBron James of high school football”), Clarkson praised the unique skills Wittek brings to the game, with a country-strong arm and surprisingly agile feet and speed for a quarterback his size.

“What he brings to the table that some other USC quarterbacks have not is a real sense of athleticism,” Clarkson told the LA Times. “In a lot of ways, he has Brett Hundley capability in his foot dynamics.”

It was Hundley that tormented the Trojans defense with his ability to move and create both inside and out of the pocket, something Everett Golson has done fairly well this season. And while Wittek is facing the nation’s top scoring defense this weekend, he’ll be armed with the top receiving duo in the country, Robert Woods and Heisman candidate Marqise Lee.

“We’re going to do what we do, absolutely,” Kelly said. “At this point, for us to go into one game and say, all right, we’re going to do different things to confuse Max is really crazy. This guy has watched football all year, he’s going to be watching film, he knows our defense. We’re going to do what we do, because that’s gotten us to that point. No big changes on our end.”

What that likely means is challenging Wittek and the Trojans to march down the field, giving USC’s receivers the chance to catch underneath passes while the Irish rally to make tackles. And while they won’t dramatically alter their plans, expect Bob Diaco to mix three and four man fronts and bring a few exotic pressure looks to confuse Wittek, who will likely do most of his passing from the confines of the pocket.

For the Irish, the stakes are clear: Win and advance to the national championship.

For Wittek, this could kick-start another era of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry, a series that’s leaned heavily in the Trojan’s favor the past decade.

“His story starts this weekend,” USC receiver Robert Woods said.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.