Mike London

Offseason Q&A: Virginia

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Part two in our series looking at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents. Check out our entry on Texas here. 

 

You can understand if Virginia fans aren’t dying to talk about the football season. That’s because the Cavaliers are back playing for the College World Series title, a return to Omaha and a chance to win the title for former Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor.

If O’Connor’s ability to bring the Hoos to the top of the mountain fulfilled the promise that the top-notch assistant showed when he worked under Paul Maineri in South Bend, Mike London’s tenure in Charlottesville has been a little less cheery.

Since taking over the program in 2010, London has had a winning record only once, an eight-win season that ended in a lopsided loss to a 7-5 Auburn team. So with one of the country’s most difficult schedules ahead of them and a head coach on the hot seat, forgive Virginia fans for enjoying these final days of the baseball season, especially if they can sneak pass Vanderbilt.

Nice enough to give us the intel on Virginia during the middle of a title run is Jay Pierce of Streaking the Lawn, the SBNation home for all things Virginia sports.

Let’s get to it.

 
Let’s start with pretty much the only connectivity between these two programs:

JON TENUTA.

Charlie Weis’ former defensive coordinator is now running the UVA defense, meaning that sunny press conference personality is now on display in Charlottesville.

How has the Tenuta era been at Virginia? And what type of defense will he utilize against Notre Dame? (Safe to guess, a blitz until you can blitz no more approach?)

Considering all of the frustration UVa fans have with the football program, Tenuta’s one of the more appreciated members on the coaching staff. Tenuta’s defense at UVa last season improved from allowing 433.1 yards per game in 2013 to 353.2 ypg. Turnover production is up, sacks are up, and the defense has a more aggressive style of play all around.

While they haven’t won too many games recently, no one would put that on the quality of the defense – and at the very least, I’ve enjoyed the team’s penchant for beating the crap out of the opposing QB weekly. The Hoos will run primarily out of a nickel set and certainly you can expect plenty of blitzes from any position out there.

 

After a relatively hard-luck 5-7 season, Mike London was brought back for a sixth season, a somewhat controversial decision. AD Craig Littlepage cited progress that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the won-loss record.

Tell Notre Dame fans a little bit about London the head coach. And if you think Littlepage made the right decision.

To put it bluntly: London is a great guy, solid recruiter, wonderful figurehead for a program, and has produced very little in terms of success on the field. Aside from an 8-5 2011 season, every one of his years at UVa has been a losing season, including some abysmal records in conference games.

He’s 23-38 in five years overall and has managed to win 11 ACC games in that timespan. Was keeping him the right decision? Perhaps there are/were pressures (financial, political, or otherwise) that led it, but to me, it says nothing more clearly than an acceptance of mediocrity by the athletic department.

 

Big news came last week with the transfer of Greyson Lambert after starting nine games last season. Matt Johns won the job out of spring practice, but what’s the state of a quarterback position that’s seemed like a rollercoaster since London came to town?

For most of Mike London’s tenure, UVa has used multiple starting quarterbacks each season, often switching out QBs every few series. Rarely does this ever work and as such, it’s brought little success to the position for the Wahoos. While Greyson Lambert was a leader on the team and probably the most talented of the quarterbacks, UVa fans can take solace in the fact that now there’s a legitimate QB1 with (hopefully) no threat of an in-game carousel.

Johns showed some moxie last year, appearing in 12 games, starting 3, and throwing for 1109 total yards with a 54.9% completion rate. While he brings a little more of a gunslinger mentality than recent UVa QBs, he did struggle with some costly turnovers at times, throwing 5 picks to match his 8 touchdowns.

Where does that leave the team this year? I like Johns. Especially now that he’ll have a whole summer and fall to know that he’s the go-to guy. However, if he gets hurt, or the wheels really come off, UVa’s only got RS-Fr Corwin Cutler, incoming Fr Nick Johns, and newly-committed transfer Connor Brewer as the scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. That said, with an experienced guy in Brewer transferring in this summer, perhaps the coaching staff can start shuffling again soon.

 

One gambling website put the over-under on Virginia wins this season at 4.5. The schedule is a meat grinder. The roster lost some talented players. But what are your expectations after a three-year stretch of 11-25 football?

Bet the farm on the under.

Really, like most fans, I try to be optimistic going into each season. But, as they say: “fool me five times, shame on me.” Like you said, the schedule is brutal.

At first glance, there’s one (should be) definite win and maybe one or two probable wins but there’s just way too many “ifs” to think this team will win five games.

If the defense can replace two star DEs, if Matt Johns stays healthy and shows a year’s worth of progression, if we continue whatever voodoo hex we have on Miami, if we catch a UCLA team replacing their star QB off guard, if we avoid disastrous time management blunders, if we finally manage to beat our coastal division overlords (that would be Duke, of course, not Virginia Tech). The list could go on and on.

UVa usually wins a game or two that they’re not supposed to each season, but getting to five wins would require that – plus not losing the game or two that they’ll be favored in. My expectation is a four-win season.

 

A handful of graduate transfers. Former 5-star recruits Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell. The home opener. I could make the argument that this game sure feels like a trap for Notre Dame.

Will you?

Absolutely. Would I bet on it? No.

But, considering our knack of handing one team a year a big upset, you can’t completely ignore the possibility of a UVa win here. As you said, there’s talent on the roster – though the defense is replacing a lot in the front seven. The team should come out amped for their home opener and the crowd should be lively with a big-name school in town.

I really like the potential of TJ Thorpe and Canaan Severin as the starting wideouts having months of reps with one (and only one) starting QB. You force a few turnovers (as we know Tenuta’s defense can do)…make a few plays here and there…get the desperate-for-a-winning-team crowd behind you…

I’ll say this: I’d be shocked if UVa pulled out the upset, but the players wouldn’t be. There’s enough talent and experience to keep it closer than most fans might expect. That said, the differences between the two programs should be clear by the second half and the Irish should get a double digit win – if they show up ready to play.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”