Notre Dame at USC

Weekend Notes: Dial, Pac-12 refs, and Russell’s journey

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We’re still 24 long days away from Notre Dame’s date with Alabama in the national title game. While following the daily rumblings on the recruiting trail or coaching carousel has been enjoyable, it’s time to get to the holidays so we can make the calendar move a little bit quicker.

Starting next week, we’re going to look back at the regular season, and take a 30,000 foot view of what we learned from each of the 12 Irish victories. While it’s easy to get swept up in national title game mania, the evolution of this football team is fascinating to look back on.

But before that, here are a few stories that caught my eye:

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File this one under “Shocker!” — Alabama’s Quinton Dial won’t be suspended for his violent hit against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. If you need a refresher, Dial, a 6-foot-6, 304-pound defensive tackle, threw an absolutely vicious block on Murray after an interception, launching himself (and his helmet) into the helmet of the Georgia quarterback, who didn’t see the hit coming.

SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said that Dial’s hit should have been ruled a penalty after the SEC Championship game. He also said that conference commissioner Mike Slive would review whether Dial should be suspended for the flagrant hit, something the SEC has tried to crack down on.

“By rule, you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “What the determination needs to be is was this a defenseless player and was contact initiated above the shoulders? When we go through video review of it, that’s what we’ll have to determine. And then you as you break it down, did he lead with the head or lead with the shoulder? From game action, it was a personal foul regardless of how we break it down frame by frame.”

Shaw was candid in the case of Dial’s hit.

“We missed the call,” Shaw said, who also talked about the decision-making process on a suspension.

“As you’ve noticed, Commissioner has been vigilant on this and he did it (suspend players) when warranted and didn’t when it wasn’t,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “I’m not sure the upcoming opponent is ever a condition in the decision. I think it’s more based on the facts in the play.”

As hard as it is not to chuckle when reading that statement, Yahoo! Sports’ Dr. Saturday blog took a look at two hits that led to one-game suspensions. You be the judge if you think the upcoming opponent and the enormity of the game factored into the decision.

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It was announced that the Pac-12 will supply the officials for the BCS Championship game. On average, Pac-12 officials have thrown more flags than any conference in the country this season.

This from the Press-Register:

Officials from the six automatic-qualifying conferences work BCS bowls on a rotation. The Big 12 officiated last year’s BCS Championship Game so it won’t work any of the five BCS bowls this season. Officials get recommended by their conference coordinator to work bowl games and can’t be assigned to any game involving a team from the conference they represent.

Because of the SEC’s seven-year streak in the national championship game, SEC officials have not worked the title game since USC-Oklahoma in the 2004 season. The SEC will officiate the next championship game not involving the SEC.

Irish fans harbor some resentment against Pac-12 officials way back to David Grimes (non) catch of the century, but they’ve also been the beneficiary of some 50/50 calls, like the contested goalline stand against Stanford.

Alabama is one of the best teams in the country with just 3.85 penalties per game. Notre Dame averages 5.67 a game.

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Notre Dame has finally take the gag off freshman KeiVarae Russell, and the early returns are as expected. The rookie cornerback, who arrived in South Bend expecting to enter the running back depth chart, immediately propelled himself into the conversation for best quote of 2013, as the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc detailed.

Russell, who got beat for a touchdown pass in the season’s opening game against Navy, but played fearlessly against the dynamic duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, grew as much as anybody this season, playing a crucial role in the untested Irish secondary.

More from the Trib:

Russell’s journey began rather ignominiously when he was beaten badly for a touchdown during the Irish’s first game of the ultimately undefeated campaign. The deke to the outside and then deep slant across the middle of the field from Navy receiver Shawn Lynch had left Russell chasing and finally flailing both arms while hitting the turf as Lynch caught the ball cruising into the end zone for a 25-yard scoring strike Sept. 1 in Dublin.

The moments that followed helped shape Russell’s — and the Irish’s — storybook season.

“I was hurting,” Russell recalled. “Bennett (Jackson) came to me and started laughing, saying, ‘Man, pick your head up. We have more football to play.’ Then coach (Kerry) Cooks and Manti Te’o came up to me laughing and said, ‘You have a long season, let’s go. Don’t worry about that one play.’ After that, throughout the season whenever I’d make a mistake or miss a tackle, I’d say, ‘Let’s go, forget it; next play.'”

The sequence began a rapid maturation process for the 19-year-old who not many months earlier was roaming high school football fields in Everett, Wash.

“I wasn’t a freshman after the first game,” Russell said. “I had to grow up real quick. I learned that you can’t use excuses of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. When I first got here I was making excuses during camp. I was like, ‘OK, this is my first year’ but I grew out of that real soon. They offered me a scholarship for a reason. I was one of the best in the country so I had to show why.”

Confidence like that helps build a team. While many Irish fans were worried about inserting a converted running back into a starting corner, Brian Kelly made mention to Russell’s uncanny ability to just perform, and the freshman rewarded his head coach with a tremendous season.

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”