Weekend notes: Awards, Ara, and Swarbrick

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If you didn’t have a chance to catch last night’s college football awards show, you missed two-plus hours of honoring Notre Dame. With Brian Kelly winning the coach of the year, Lou Holtz presenting Ara Parseghian with a lifetime achievement award, and Manti Te’o pulling in even more hardware, Notre Dame’s resurgence was on full display on ESPN, a network that’s enjoyed touting both the highs and lows of recent years.

From one awards show to the next, Notre Dame will hold their annual football awards show Friday night, a celebration that’ll certainly be more joyous as the Irish commemorate an undefeated regular season, instead of back-to-back eight-win years. Tune in for offensive and defensive players of the year, newcomer of the year, scout team players of the year, and guardian of the year. (There might even be some added awards… that’s part of the fun!)

The banquet — streamed live on UND.com — will also be part of a huge recruiting weekend for Notre Dame. A large contingency of the 2013 recruiting class will be in town, many taking their official visits. But the biggest recruit in town will be the lone uncommitted prospect: Five-star running back Greg Bryant.

Bryant will get his first look at South Bend this weekend, taking in the banquet surrounded by close to a dozen committed recruits in his class. He’s already built a fast friendship with position coach Tony Alford, and will walk onto campus with the ability to earn immediate playing time, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both seniors, and Wood looking as if he’ll join Riddick in the NFL next year.

Bryant is the top running back prospect the Irish have been close to landing since James Aldridge, and the powerful back looks like he’s ready-made to step onto a college campus and contribute.

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If you missed last night’s ESPN broadcast, you missed Ara Parseghian‘s emotional acceptance speech after earning an achievement award for his enduring work long after his retirement from coaching football. As someone too young to truly understand Parseghian’s role in Notre Dame’s lore, it was a tremendous look at a man still incredibly vibrant at the age of 89.

With his family joining him in the front row, Parseghian wowed the crowd with a speech that would’ve had just about every locker room ready for battle. With ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi holding the microphone, it was Parseghian that controlled the conversation with ESPN’s king of schmaltz, addressing the players and crowd with passion as he talked about the battle of his lifetime: finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C, a genetic, neurodegenerative disorder that claimed the lives of three of his grandchildren.

Parseghian had the chance to be a true great of the coaching profession, guiding the Irish to multiple national championships before walking away from coaching at the age of 51. In an era where coaches are often hailed as great men for the work they do with their teams on the field, Parseghian appears to be one of the last fine men to be rightfully defined by both his greatness as an on-field tactician, as well as for his philanthropic efforts, raising more than $40 million in research towards finding a cure for an incredibly cruel disorder that cut short the lives of his grandchildren.

Parseghian will likely stay in the headlines for the next month, as football fans look back at his historic 24-23 victory over Bear Bryant’s Alabama team in 1973, a national championship win the year before Parseghian beat Bryant in the Orange Bowl before walking away from the game.

But his work fighting one of life’s truly unfair diseases, and his willingness to walk away from the spotlight of the sidelines to do more with his life is one of the truly great stories associated with Notre Dame.

“One of the most difficult things is when you know the child’s got a terminal disease and you’re trying to find a cure, you’re looking for a silver bullet, and you know each day they’re deteriorating,” Parseghian told Gannett News Services’ Mike Lopresti. “To watch that happen is an agonizing experience. In our lives, nothing compares to that, even the euphoria of a national championship.”

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Talking the subject back to recruiting, it’s interesting to note that after years of hearing Notre Dame fans complain about Rivals.com routinely downgrading the Irish’s recruiting class, this year’s group has actually gotten better with time.

As rankings usually ebb and flow throughout the “evaluation process,” the common complaint was that Notre Dame recruits often times would see their stock downgraded as things got closer and closer to national signing day.

Looking at Notre Dame’s record the last few years, you certainly can’t blame Rivals for downgrading the talent that ultimately underperformed in South Bend for the past decade. Yet this recruiting class, not a group that started super star heavy, has actually seen its stock rise over the past few months.

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Lastly, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was interviewed by Jack Nolan on UND.com and talked about the Irish’s achievement of being No. 1 in the BCS and No. 1 in the Graduation Success Rate (GSR), one of the NCAA’s guiding academic indicators.

It’s a tremendous achievement, and Swarbrick’s position on it was incredibly interesting.

“It’s the way we always wanted to get there,” Swarbrick told Nolan. “I talk often of proof of concept, and we always wanted to prove that when we restored the football program that the cost of doing that wasn’t a lessening of our commitment to education. And we have statistical evidence of that this year.

“To be able to say we’re No. 1 in the BCS and we are No. 1 in the Graduation Success Rate at the same time, and no one has ever done that, and it’s going to be very hard for someone else to do that in the future, is a real milestone.”

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line