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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.