Mike DeCicco

Weekend notes: Easter, DeCicco, Swarbrick and more


The Notre Dame football team took a break from spring drills for Easter, practicing on Wednesday before players took the long weekend to head home to their families or catch up on some rest in South Bend.

For Brian Kelly and his staff, the quarter-turn of their fifteen workouts gave an early assessment of the team, and helped give a glimpse into the fall, identifying some early contributors for the 2013 edition of the Irish.

One player Kelly genuinely doesn’t seem worried about is running back Amir Carlisle, who went down for four weeks with a broken collarbone, effectively ending his spring early. With Davonte Neal leaving the program and the slot receiver position wide open, Carlisle could be a key cog in the offense… if he can stay healthy.

While another injury has Irish fans wondering if Carlisle is sturdy enough to carry a significant load, Kelly spoke highly of the USC transfer, who sat out last season after nerve damage slowed down Carlisle’s recovery from a broken ankle.

“Amir has had a great spring,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen what we need to see out of him. He’ll be a very important player for us in the spring.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Kelly also took time to rave about linebacker Jarrett Grace, finally ready to step into the starting lineup with the departure of Manti Te’o. While both fifth year linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are back, it looks as if Grace will be the every down player while Fox and Calabrese continue their platoon.

“Jarrett Grace has obviously done an incredibly job,” Kelly said, while raving about the middle linebacker position. “He’s a really, really good football player. He’s going to be all over the field. Will he have seven interceptions? I’m not going in that direction. In terms of run fits, sideline to sideline, communication, he’s shown himself to be a really good player for us.”

If you’re wondering about the departure of Neal and Ferguson, it appears those concerns have been neutralized by the play of early enrollee freshmen James Onwualu and Corey Robinson. Kelly raved about the young receivers while singling both of them out for their work in practice thus far.

Onwualu likely worked his way into the slot receiver conversation and will probably see the field early.

“I think he’s got a chance. He’s certainly physical enough,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “He’s a smart kid. I’d say he’s a guy that’s probably going to be playing. If he’s a guy that plays a lot on offense, that will kind of take care of itself as we go through preseason camp. But he’s definitely a kid that’s going to be on the field in all of our special teams, he’s got that physical ability.”

While Robinson is certainly doing a lot of learning on the fly, Kelly said he’s been impressive in workouts, “catching everything in the area code.” Having a big-bodied receiver like Robinson will add an element to the offense we haven’t seen recently.

Let’s run through a few other weekend items as things slow down over this Easter weekend:


Notre Dame lost a great man when Mike DeCicco passed away this week of congestive heart failure. He was 85. DeCicco was instrumental in the Irish athletics program, not just for his work with the fencing program, but for starting Notre Dame’s almost unparalleled Academic Services department for student athletes.

The South Bend Tribune caught up with former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps, who praised DiCicco’s behind-the-scenes work on campus.

“When you talk about the mystique and tradition of Notre Dame, Mike is one of the pillars that made Notre Dame what it is with student-athletes,” Phelps told the Tribune. “He was a great and dear friend. He and (wife) Polly were sweet people, and it’s people like them behind the scenes who made Notre Dame work.”

DiCicco coached the school’s fencing program for 34 seasons, compiling a .938 winning percentage. His teams won five national championships.


This isn’t a blog that spends much time talking about other Irish sports, but Notre Dame’s one-and-done in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament resurrected a lot of the grumbling that we’re used to hearing about Mike Brey and the Irish’s NCAA tournament struggles.

While the standard discussion about facilities, resources and recruiting is something I’m thankful I don’t have to tackle in a another sport, UND.com posted a quick sit-down with athletic director Jack Swarbrick, which acted as an attempt to quell any potential uprising.

But more than anything, Swarbrick talked not just about the building of the men’s basketball program, but the state of Irish athletics in general.

I found this to be a pretty impressive statement:

“In the focus on the individual sports, which we all should and do, it’s also important to step back and look at the aggregate,” Swarbrick said. “I believe there’s no school in the country that has posted a better combined won-loss record across football and both basketball teams than we did this year. I think this year we’re winning about 80 percent of the competitions we enter across all sports teams at Notre Dame. Baseball is having a great year. Men’s lacrosse is ranked number one, women’s lacrosse is ranked No. 7. Across the board performance, this is a pretty remarkable period. And as we go through each season and each sport, it’s important to take a moment and step back and say, ‘This is a special time in Notre Dame athletics.'”

Here’s the rest of Swarbrick’s interview with UND.com’s Jack Nolan.



If you’re looking for some good reading this weekend, here are a few links that caught my eye.

* As usual, Blue and Gold’s Lou Somogyi does a great job making sense of the transfers at Notre Dame. The Irish’s “Next-Man-In” policy certainly isn’t anything new.

* At the time of this posting, the Fighting Irish hockey team (my winter squad of choice), is playing in the first round of the NCAA hockey tournament, after winning the final CCHA tournament. Here’s Irish Illustrated Jake Brown‘s look at winger Bryan Rust, who rebounded nicely this year after a underwhelming sophomore season. (Inspiration for Ishaq Williams?)

* The South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James does a good job digging deeper into Notre Dame’s newest recruiting commitment Andrew Trumbetti.

* The guys over at Her Loyal Sons are doing their own little version of March Madness, recapping the best tweets of the year with their #HLSRecap Madness. I’m not telling you to go stuff the ballot box and vote for me, I’m just highly encouraging it.

* This One Foot Down staple deserves a link if only for the hilarious photo it uses.




Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”