Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Eilar Hardy (R) poses next to the Coaches' Trophy during media day for the 2013 BCS National Championship NCAA football game in Miami, Florida

Media day circus brings out Notre Dame’s best


MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As a reporter heading into Notre Dame’s media session, you needed to prioritize. For the first time in my years covering this team, you had access to everybody on the football team. Everybody. From Manti Te’o, propped up in front of a dozen cameras, to Cam McDaniel, sitting with the non-starters in the bleachers, baking under the sun at Sun Life Stadium.

But the clock was ticking. Sixty minutes. And it goes by way too quickly.

After 40 days of run-up, there are no new stories to tell about Monday night’s National Championship. With hundreds of media members looking to find an angle that hasn’t been trampled, and players on both team’s being more than respectful about their opponents, it’s a heavy burden to try and pry any newsworthy quote from player.

No, Tyler Eifert wasn’t willing to let the world know he’s heading to the NFL next year. An announcement will come after the season. No, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard weren’t all that willing to discuss the success of the Irish offensive line, especially after hearing about the Tide’s heralded front five all month. And even a linebacker like Dan Fox, all but assured a fifth season after playing key minutes the past few years, was only hopeful that he’d get the invitation to return, struggling to look past the tremendous challenge that Alabama’s offense presents on Monday night.

For a Notre Dame fan, Media Day presented an opportunity to chase a quote from guys at the top of the roster, or spend five minutes with people at the bottom. And while it was tough to find even a redshirting freshman that wasn’t only focused on the task at hand, it was a terrific opportunity to talk to guys that will play significant roles in future Irish teams.

More than anything, the personality of this team showed through this afternoon. There was Cierre Wood, kept away from reporters all season, high-stepping down the sidelines, hollering as he made his way towards the Crystal Ball, prominently on display. And there was Te’o, once again surrounded by reporters and cameras, being asked a question about the greatness of fellow Hawaiian and best friend Robby Toma. By Robby Toma.

There’s no getting around the fact that Notre Dame is still decided underdogs against Alabama. With Las Vegas pegging the Tide a ten-point favorite, the Irish walking away from Monday night undefeated is another challenging proposition, not unlike this entire season.

But if there’s one thing worth taking away from this season — other than the national championship — is the camaraderie of this group. This is a team of terrific personalities, a team filled with front page quotes and feature profiles. And watching kids like Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson, and Troy Niklas take in the surreal proceedings of a national championship media day, one year after stumbling to an 8-5 season, is a tremendous experience.

I had only begun to work my way through the bleachers, working my way to guys like Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, when the ten minute warning hit. An impromptu interview session by Kendall Moore and Sheldon Day turned Bob Diaco and I into subjects, and steered me away from any head coaching questions, as the players turned into intrepid reporters.

The ultimate measure of this season will come when the clock hits zero late on Monday night. But after watching this team enjoy the moment and a week-long trip to South Florida, it’s apparent that whatever happens Monday, this team is one for the history books.

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.