Mike DeCicco

Weekend notes: Easter, DeCicco, Swarbrick and more

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.