Kelly Swarbrick Jenkins

Notre Dame avoiding Big Ten looking better by the day

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Notre Dame had its chances to join the Big Ten. And while Jim Delany’s conference might not admit they were truly after Notre Dame, it’s becoming clear that the Irish’s unwillingness to join one of collegiate sport’s proudest traditional conferences necessitated the move to bring in Rutgers and Maryland.

As the dominoes of conference realignment began to tumble, many wondered how Rutgers and Maryland could get the call to join the Big Ten. Neither athletic department was profitable. Neither played sports — namely football — particularly well.

But Stewart Mandel’s recent column for Sports Illustrated takes an interesting look behind the curtain of Delany’s expansion vision, showing not just a money grab for cable subscribers in two major metropolitan markets, but also the deteriorating population statistics that necessitated the move eastward.

While the entire column deserves a read, here’s a key snippet from Mandel’s feature:

Maryland and Rutgers went a combined 13-13 last season. The Terrapins last finished in the AP top 10 in 1976; the Scarlet Knights never have. “Ohio State fans in particular are sick of having to defend the league after winning 24 straight [2012 and ’13] and still not getting the respect it deserves,” said Luke Zimmermann, founder of the Buckeyes blog Land Grant Holy Land. “This is not in their mind anything more than adding another Indiana or Purdue.”

To which Delany says, “That’s not a compelling comment to me. If the standard for expansion is you have to bring in Nebraska or Penn State, no one’s ever going to expand. There’s only a couple of those out there.” In his vision Rutgers and Maryland will soon develop into big-time football programs in large part because big-time football is now coming to them. Season-ticket sales are up 25% at each school mainly because Rutgers is now hosting Penn State and Michigan instead of Cincinnati and South Florida, while Maryland’s last ACC home game was against Boston College but its first Big Ten visitor will be Ohio State. Nearly a half-million Big Ten alums live from New York to Virginia, and the two newcomers will add a half-million more in that area.

Most of all, Delany believes the conference had no choice. As the Big Ten’s population moves South and West, the conference’s base is rapidly shrinking: Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa all rank among the 12 states with the smallest projected growth from 2000 to ’30. Meanwhile, between June ’10, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12, and the Maryland and Rutgers announcements in November ’12, the SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and most important, the ACC delivered a death knell to the Big East, poaching Syracuse, Pittsburgh and, as a partial member, Delany’s long-coveted target, Notre Dame. The Big Ten, which had long claimed the most populous footprint of any conference, suddenly ranked a distant third. And with Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, the ACC had moved directly into the neighborhood. A still unfolding lawsuit filed last year by Maryland against the ACC over the league’s $52 million exit fee claims that representatives from two ACC schools, acting on the conference’s behalf, contacted two Big Ten schools about joining. “That’s when it changed,” says Delany. “Once people start getting on our doorstep and calling our institutions, then I think it’s important to be able to be offensive and defensive. We came to the conclusion there was more risk in sitting still than there was in exploring other opportunities.”

We will see what Notre Dame’s future in football looks like this fall, with the Irish starting their pre-arranged scheduling alliance with the ACC. That’ll bring the Irish to Tallahassee, where they’ll meet the defending national champs. It’ll bring games with Louisville and North Carolina, and reboot games with Syracuse, as the Irish begin to tour the conference for five games a season.

Looking outside the prism of football, other Irish sports began their ACC membership during the 2013-14 seasons. There were both good experiences and bad — The men’s lacrosse and soccer teams, and the women’s basketball and softball teams thrived, while men’s basketball and baseball and women’s lacrosse struggled mightily. But with competition levels clearly going up, the Irish athletics department can’t help but get better in the coming years.

While the Big Ten has lagged behind, Notre Dame’s migration east started a long time ago, far before any conference alignment or expansion. Whether it was playing the Big East or in Shamrock Series games in New York, Notre Dame has never struggled to attract eyeballs on the East Coast. Add to that the Irish’s fertile recruitment of the Carolinas and Florida, getting stronger and stronger each year.

But the beauty of independence also allows a foothold on the West Coast. Annual trips west for Thanksgiving make keeping Stanford and USC on the schedule a no-brainer, keeping (and building) rivalries with both historic and strategic significance.

There’s no question that the Big Ten has figured out how to financially bridge the gap, with the Big Ten Network printing cash for its member schools as long as cable service providers keep the channel in bundles that sports-lovers need and are willing to pay for. But at the same time, money can’t make up for a disintegrating brand — and as Mandel’s article points out, Michigan doesn’t win with a home conference football schedule of Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and Maryland. (Non-conference home games include Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio) and Utah. Ugh.)

“It seems like they keep pushing and pushing to see what our breaking point is,” MGoBlog.com founder Brian Cook told Mandel of the Big Ten’s changes.  “They keep doing things they know people will hate.”

As it pertains to Notre Dame, grumbling will continue as long as the Irish have to walk away from select rivalries, some painful to lose like Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. But keeping the ability to build a schedule that allows the team to play coast to coast and retain its national brand was essential in keeping the Irish as one of college football’s marquee brands.

So while the Big Ten builds nine-game schedules and utilizes non-conference matchups with MAC programs, the Irish will continue playing their most important rivals, while “servicing” it’s commitment to a conference that’s supporting every other athletic program at the university. All in all, not a bad trade-off.

The Big Ten’s challenges are a nice reminder that Jack Swarbrick and the powers-that-be at Notre Dame had a very clear image of the big picture. That hasn’t always been the case for the men in charge under the Golden Dome.

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.