Brian Kelly, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz

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.”

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.