Why it’s never been better to cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame

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It’s Good Friday. Or for Notre Dame athletics, it could be a Very Good Friday.

Three Irish teams are among the final 16 remaining in their respective winter sports. Notre Dame’s hockey team faces off with Michigan in the first round of the NCAA hockey tournament, the men’s basketball team is playing Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 while Muffet McGraw’s lady hoopers are taking on Stanford.

If you’re not paying attention you might just be missing one of the golden eras of Notre Dame sports. Irish athletics have thrived since joining the ACC, showing a willingness to take their cold-weather geography and step into a conference that was universally viewed to be more challenging. And a weird thing has happened—Notre Dame’s student-athletes have risen to the challenge.

In an era where coaches and administrators usually do battle to find the easiest path to success, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and a university administration led by Rev. John Jenkins have been rewarded by a bold move that served two key university goals: Elevating the stature of Notre Dame athletics while keeping the Irish football team independent.

It’s unpopular to tip your cap to a university administration that less than a decade ago deserved most of the shade thrown its way. And whether it’s ironic timing or proof that the school’s transformation is complete, just months after finally getting Charlie Weis’ contract off the books, the Irish athletic department has a group of head coaches leading their respective teams that might be the best collection in the NCAA.

That’s a credit to Jack Swarbrick. Not just for the decision to hire (and keep) Brian Kelly and stabilize a football program that had turned into a piñata, but for his ability to support established coaches like Muffett McGraw, Mike Brey and Jeff Jackson—all three of whom have hit their stride under Swarbrick’s leadership.

(Consider this profile of Mike Brey in the Washington Post as Exhibit A.)

Stability in South Bend never seemed possible, not with the preying eyes and demands of alumni and subway domers. But look closely at the athletic department and you see Kelly, McGraw and Brey all locked up to long-term contracts, a type of continuity that never seemed possible.

There’s work to be done. The baseball team continues its climb back after falling off a cliff when Paul Mainieri left for LSU. The volleyball program replaced long-time volleyball coach Debbie Brown with Jim McLaughlin—the only person to win an NCAA title coaching both men and women.

But dig out that Notre Dame sweatshirt or hat. Do your best not to be “that guy,” but wear it with some pride. Because across the board, really impressive things are happening.

Both lacrosse programs ranked in the Top Five, both soccer programs have equally lofty expectations. Senior track star, national champion and All-American Molly Seidel might be the most accomplished college athlete currently in competition. (Google her.)

With a reimagined Notre Dame Stadium almost here, new facilities for basketball and sports medicine around the corner and the most lucrative apparel deal in college sports, Notre Dame has found a way to balance elite athletics with a still-rising academic reputation.

It’d be a shame if you didn’t stop for a moment to realize it.

Freshman Devin Studstill catching on quickly at safety

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Early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill has proven himself a quick study. The Florida native kick-started his life as a college student, trading Palm Beach for South Bend in January. He’s also found his way into the thick of a surprising position battle with senior Max Redfield, the first-year player providing a datapoint that maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to solve Brian VanGorder’s defense.

Studstill had been a staff priority since the day he stepped foot on campus for the Irish Invasion summer camp. While the three-star defensive back didn’t come in with any expectations from the recruiting services, the Irish coaching staff knew better. And after five practices, Brian Kelly explained what has allowed Studstill to rise quickly and put himself in the mix for a job that nobody thought was open.

“He’s just a natural player. It comes easy to him,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “It’s not hard to him, he has had no setbacks in terms of learning curve.”

That learning curve is a crucial one for a defense that needs to replace multiple starters at each level. We saw even that experienced group struggle with consistency, breakdowns stemming from mental mistakes as much as physical limitations.

We won’t know until this fall what Studstill truly brings to the table. His ascent could be a product of opportunity—with Mykelti Williams transferring and limited bodies at the position, Studstill’s early arrival turned this into a force-feed situation.

Nor will we know if this rise up the depth chart is part of Brian Kelly’s motivational tactics. Remember, Kona Schwenke moved into a dead heat with Louis Nix the spring before the 2012 season, sending enough of a message to Big Lou that it put him back on track to anchor one of the finest front sevens in the country.

But as the Irish look for consistency at a position that’s lacked it since Harrison Smith roamed the back line, Studstill has turned into a potential face of a reloaded secondary. Paired with Shaun Crawford as standouts in back-to-back recruiting classes asked to transform the secondary from a group of Cover 2 defenders hand-picked by Bob Diaco to VanGorder’s preferred man-covering athletes, the early returns are good—essentially all you can ask this time of year.

As young defensive backs push guys like Redfield and Cole Luke, the roster churn has helped create some much needed competition for Todd Lyght’s secondary. And that’s allowed Studstill to catch the eye of the one man who needs him most.

“Excellent ball skills. Excellent retention,” Kelly said of his new safety. “He is out there making plays and getting lined up and getting guys in the right positions, so we have been pleased.”

 

Back (again) from knee injury, Drue Tranquill ready for starting role

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Try to keep Drue Tranquill off the field.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly couldn’t do it this week, not with Tranquill back and at full strength after a second miraculously-quick recovery from ACL surgery. So when the Irish defense went live on Wednesday, there was Tranquill, two rebuilt knees not even a thought for the rising junior safety.

“There was some question as to whether he’d be allowed to do that,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “That was answered today. I think he answered it—he did not come off the field when we went live. So he kind of forced the issue. He looks good.”

Tranquill looks good enough to pencil in at strong safety, given the opportunity to start after backing up Elijah Shumate and serving as a key piece of the situational puzzle for Brian VanGorder. So while incumbent free safety Max Redfield’s job seems less secure than ever, it’s Tranquill—who has spent more time rehabilitating than playing football these past two-plus years—ready to step in and serve as a (rebuilt) building block in a rebuilt secondary.

Tranquill’s presence could serve as a binding agent for the defense. Between his injury and the loss of freshman Shaun Crawford during fall camp, ACL injuries impacted the secondary more than any of the injury-ravaged spots on the roster. Now Tranquill’s leadership skills and nose for the game—both sharpened during his recoveries—can help raise the collectively on-field IQ of a young defense that lost a lot to graduation.

 

“It’s all you can do at that point— you’re physically out. So your mental game is really the only thing that can grow, your leadership can grow as well,” Tranquill said of his time spent studying and helping. “That’s kind of how I saw my role develop over the past few years.”

Spring is a time for learning, and Todd Lyght’s secondary is in the midst of a cram session that’ll have to carry over to summer and fall camp. And with Tranquill ready to go from productive situational player to starting strong safety, it’s now his job to lift the rest of his young teammates and make sure the mental lapses that killed this defense in 2015 don’t do the same thing next season.

After shaking off two major knee injuries, don’t expect that assignment to scare off Tranquill.

CJ Sanders out for spring with hip flexor injury

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Rising sophomore C.J. Sanders will sit out the remainder of spring with a hip flexor injury. Brian Kelly confirmed the news, first reported by Irish247’s Tom Loy late Tuesday.

Kelly tabbed the injury as a four-month process, putting him on track to be back and healthy in time for the majority of summer workouts and all of fall camp. He compared it to an injury that Torii Hunter suffered in 2014 and the Notre Dame medical team will now decide whether to surgically repair the injury or rehabilitate it with advanced therapy treatments like PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma).

“It’s in that grey area. They’re still consulting if it’s a surgical procedure,” Kelly explained.

The Irish didn’t surgical repair Hunter’s injury, though he was largely anonymous for most of 2014. That might lead them to a different conclusion as they work to get Notre Dame’s return man—and an option at slot receiver—back to full health.

While they wait for Sanders to return, walk-on sophomore Chris Finke will take over punt return duties. The Ohio native continues to impress Kelly with his speed and steady hands.

 

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Kelly also revealed a few other bumps and bruises, with fellow sophomore receiver Miles Boykin undergoing minor surgery to repair a fractured finger. Kelly expects Boykin back to practice after Easter break.

Seniors Corey Robinson and Colin McGovern were held out from practice after sustaining concussions. They are both in the concussion protocol program and being monitored by the team’s medical staff.

 

Mykelti Williams departs Irish football program

Photo property of Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
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Sophomore safety Mykelti Williams is no longer a part of the Notre Dame football program. Brian Kelly announced the news on Wednesday, though wasn’t able to give any more details.

The Indianapolis native preserved a year of eligibility last season, sitting out his freshman season after coming to Notre Dame as a four-star prospect out of Warren Central, the same program that brought the Irish Sheldon Day. Williams was expected to compete for a spot in a safety position that’s still up in the air.

That won’t happen, with the only clues on Williams’ next move coming from social media, where a slew of college coaches have found their way into his sphere. Williams is certainly a transfer candidate who’ll likely land on his feet, with three seasons of eligibility remaining assuming he’ll have to sit out 2016. He picked Notre Dame relatively late in the recruiting process, choosing the Irish over offers from mostly Big Ten programs like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Until reinforcements coming this summer, the depth chart will feature seniors Max Redfield and Avery Sebastian, junior Drue Tranquill, sophomore Nicco Fertitta and early-enrollee freshmen Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill. It’s been Studstill who has made waves so far through just five practices, with Kelly revealing that the Florida native is sharing reps with the first team in place of Redfield.

For the doomsday crowd, it’s worth pointing out that transfers—especially this time of year—happen. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley has pointed out, Notre Dame has now had a transfer every season since 1980 (and potentially longer), a 36-year trend that rolls on with Williams.