Kentucky v Notre Dame

A magical time of year


Let me utter a sentence that isn’t often said on the last day of November in northwest Indiana: It’s a great time to be in South Bend.

The Irish await the winner of Alabama-Georgia in the national championship game. Mike Brey’s hoops team dispatched John Calipari’s lastest gang of mercenaries. As the student body galvanizes around its athletic teams — an electric crowd willed the basketball team to victory as Irish football players took turns cleaning the court — life looks mighty fine under the Golden Dome, with hundreds of students storming the court on national television after a dominating upset of Kentucky.

It gets characterized as hocus-pocus or clever marketing by skeptics everywhere, but it was hard not to see the magic of Notre Dame if you watched Mike Brey’s team take down Kentucky’s future NBA roster last night. And when Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale welcomed Manti Te’o to the broadcast, it was hard not to think that the Irish — after a football season that played out like a Madison Avenue marketing campaign for the university and its aspirations — got another ten minute infomercial live on ESPN.

With Te’o as the school’s leading man, Notre Dame is riding a tidal wave of positivity that hasn’t been seen in twenty years. When he wasn’t deftly avoiding recruiting violations, he was talking about a community that just about every prospective student-athlete would love to be a part of.

“They’re our family,” Te’o said of the football team’s relationship with the basketball team. “The only time we’re not together is when they’re on the court or we’re on the field. We’re always together, always talking about our next games and match-ups.”

As most major universities resurrect buildings to keep athletes and student separate, the stands were packed with Irish football players, arm-in-arm with their dormmates. Only Louis Nix was absent from the game, according to Te’o, and he had good reason: He was playing Santa at a cancer fundraiser. Even the biggest Notre Dame haters are going to have a hard time pulling a lump of coal from that stocking.

You’d be hard pressed to find an outcome January 7th that could lessen the impact that this football season has had on the university and its fan base. After almost two decades of consistently wearing it on the chin, it’s a great time to be Irish. You can’t blame the students for storming the court. It was Te’o, of course, that led the charge.

With awards soon to be rightfully showered on Brian Kelly and Manti Te’o, you might as well enjoy six weeks of non-stop talk about Notre Dame and its chances against the mighty SEC. Whatever happens in Miami, it’s amazing to think that one overachieving football team, a group that has risen from the ashes of a disappointing 2011 season, has put a community on its back and turned South Bend into one of the happiest places on earth.



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.