Prince Shembo

Notre Dame vs. Rutgers: Final thoughts before kickoff


It’s a beautiful day in New York, with the temperatures feeling more like autumn than late December. So any fears that Notre Dame’s final game of 2013 would end up an ice bowl can be forgotten.

Still, it’s hard not to think about the difference a year makes when watching the Irish play a 6-6 Rutgers team. This wasn’t how people saw this season ending. But with no better bowl options, the Irish headed to New York, where Yankees brass have shown plenty of love to Notre Dame, drumming up as much buzz for this game as possible.

Notre Dame just released a statement that juniors George Atkinson and Jalen Brown will not play today due to a violation of team rules. That’s not a great datapoint for Atkinson, whose request for an NFL evaluation coupled with some curious comments from his father, have you thinking there’s some trouble in South Bend brewing.

(CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz has some scoop on Atkinson’s suspension, with a since deleted tweet from Atkinson spelling out a fairly minor incident.)

But trouble at bowl games isn’t anything new. And it’s the time of year where anything can happen.

Let’s walk through some final thoughts before kickoff.

Max Redfield moves into the starting lineup. Social media clued us in to one of the biggest developments of the season’s final month, with Redfield announcing on Instagram that he’s getting the start this afternoon. The freshman safety from Southern California was one of the team’s top recruits in the freshman class, but hasn’t made the immediate impact that Jaylon Smith has this year.

With safety play this season underwhelming, Redfield’s move is welcomed by Irish fans, stacking the back end of the Irish defense will some intriguing subplots heading into next season.

Brian Kelly has talked about the complexities of the safety position in the Irish defense. Let’s see if the extra 10 practices helped Redfield make the mental leap.

Is this goodbye for Stephon Tuitt? It could be the final game in a Notre Dame uniform for Stephon Tuitt. The hulking defensive end has a decision to make in the coming days, with the NFL’s deadline to enter the draft January 15. The second round grade that came back from the NFL’s advisory committee hasn’t changed the mock draft experts thoughts on Tuitt, with just about all of them still viewing Tuitt as a mid-first rounder.

But the microscope will only intensify in the coming months. Tuitt’s return could give him another season of game tape, another year with strength coach Paul Longo, and a critical piece of the puzzle for the 2014 defense.

Adios, Tommy Rees. It’s the final game for the senior quarterback that’s seen a lot of ups and downs. It’s also the end of an offensive era for the Irish, with Everett Golson’s return, and the recruitment of Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Blake Barnett all bringing a dual-threat skill-set to South Bend.

Brian Kelly had plenty of success against Rutgers while at Cincinnati. Rees has had success throwing the ball down the field. Let’s see what the Irish have cooked up for Rees’ final game, likely the last of the slow-down, read, spread passing attack.

Will the Irish run the football effectively? It’s hard to tell if Rutgers has a good rush defense. Stats support that conclusion, but the Scarlet Knights haven’t played a single good rush offense and opponents prefer to pass on their mediocre defense.

Tarean Folston will get the start in the backfield. Cam McDaniel will likely spell him. But can the rebuilt interior of the Irish offensive line handle Darius Hamilton and Marcus Thompson? I tend to think they can.

Finishing Strong. How will the seniors on this team go out? Will we see Prince Shembo unleashed? Can TJ Jones put together a monster game? How will Bennett Jackson match up with jumbo wide receiver Brandon Coleman? On paper, the Irish have much better talent than Rutgers. Can the Irish take care of business and finish this season on a high note?

Will new coordinators put their own stamp on the game plan? Brian Kelly dodged the question of who was calling plays, jokingly crediting the good calls to him and the bad ones to Denbrock. But we’ll see if Denbrock’s influence will be seen this afternoon on offense, with the veteran assistant getting his first opportunity at Notre Dame to coordinate a unit.

The same goes for Cooks, who could bring a different philosophy to defending than Bob Diaco. Rutgers finished 102nd in turnovers lost, so it’ll be interesting to see if Cooks takes a few more chances to try and generate takeaways.



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.




Days before facing Notre Dame, USC coach Steve Sarkisian to take leave of absence


When Notre Dame takes on rival USC on Saturday, they’ll be facing a Trojans team without a head coach. USC athletic director Pat Haden announced today that effective immediately, head coach Steve Sarkisian will be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be interim head coach.

While the details are still coming into focus, multiple reports point to another incident with alcohol. Haden himself said that he made the decision after speaking with Sarkisian.

“I called Steve and talked to him. It was very clear to me that he is not healthy. I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence,” Haden said, according to multiple Los Angeles media reports.

Sarkisian’s decision-making and alcohol use came into the spotlight this August when the head coach made inappropriate statements at a large booster event. Sarkisian addressed the media after the incident, acknowledged mixing medication with alcohol, and vowed to seek help and not to make the same mistake again.

Today’s incident appears to be a relapse, and one that requires immediate attention. Helton ran the team’s practice today and steps back into an interim head coaching role, a job he handled after the Trojans fired Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron left after not being awarded the permanent job.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I have been in this situation before,” Helton said. “Once again, I’m very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here.”

This is the second major sports persona to leave his season to seek treatment in recent weeks. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia left the team to seek treatment for alcohol issues. The Trojans are coming off an upset loss to Washington on Thursday night, losing 17-12 as a 17-point favorite.