Catching up with… Mike Karwoski

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Consider this a special off-season version of Catching Up. Monday marked the first day of training table meals for Irish athletics, the pilot program kicking off with a football team only dinner hosted weeknights in the Gug. The training table initiative, along with several other plans that are in the works, are being administer by Mike Karwoski, an associate athletics director at the university, who heads the Athlete/Sport Performance Program.

Mike was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the training table pilot plan, and the new Athlete Performance Program.

ITI: What was the impetus for starting the Athlete Performance Program?

Mike Karwoski: The impetus for us to review the concept of implementing an Athlete (or Sport) Performance Program was the arrival of Jack Swarbrick as athletics director in 2008. Jack’s background and experience over the years included extensive involvement in both professional and Olympic/amateur sports. He has been exposed to and involved with many different sport organizations and different models in the areas of sports performance. As such, over the course of Jack’s first 12 months he evaluated the things we were doing with regard to strength and conditioning, athletic training, sports medicine, nutrition, sports psychology and came away with the thought that we could benefit our student-athletes and coaches by trying to create a system in which all of these units reported through the same structure which would enhance our communication and the sharing of ideas to improve the overall performance of our student-athletes. The thought is to create a more scientific approach to the way we test, train, treat, rehab our student-athletes using the latest techniques and protocols. By creating a single unit encompassing all of these critical units the thought is that ideas and sharing of ideas and data will ultimately provide our student-athletes with innovative and cutting edge opportunities for performance enhancement. Generally speaking, we want to ask ourselves are we providing our student-athletes and coaches the best opportunity for peak performance.

ITI: Training table has been a hot-button issue, and the decision to start a specialized meal plan for athletes was a big step, especially in light of the weight-loss issues during last football season. Why has it been so challenging to get student-athletes to eat properly?

MK: First, it is important that I mention that the perception of training table is widely misunderstood. By having a training table, that does not mean that student-athletes are provided 3 meals ever day separate from the general student population. NCAA rules allow institutions to provide only one training table meal to student-athletes each day. In addition, NCAA rules state that partial and non-scholarship student-athletes may only participate in training table meals if they pay the cost difference between a regular dining hall meal and a training table meal. Clearly, those are important factors to consider for any institution that has a training table. What we know though is that nutrition and rest are two of the more critical issues affecting an athlete’s on-field/on-court performance. The issues with nutrition and rest are not just a student-athlete issue but impact all college students. These problems exist on every college campus. Although we may not be able to completely impact the rest aspect of performance except by providing student-athletes with more time effective and efficient practices and training sessions and by educating them about the need for rest we can have a fairly significant impact on nutrition. We moved in that direction a few years ago by adding a full-time sports dietitian to our strength and conditioning staff. Currently, Erika Whitman is in that position and she makes every effort to meet with as many student-athletes as possible to discuss eating habits and making the proper dietary choices for those individual student-athletes. This is a huge challenge because the dietary needs of a 300 lb. offensive lineman are going to be different than those of a distance runner on the cross country team which will be different from the point-guard on the basketball team and the starting shortstop on the softball team. Body type, genetics and activity level all impact the dietary and calorie needs of individual student-athletes. We have been discussing the issue of training table for some time. First and foremost, because of Notre Dame’s residential nature with the majority of students (and student-athletes) living on campus and having a meal plan to eat in institutional dining facilities, the creation of a separate training table just for student-athletes has bot been something that was widely embraced institutionally. Through education and data, I believe we have been able to show the need for a different nutritional model for student-athletes. By having a training table, the meal can be mandatory and monitored by both coaches and out sports dietitian. The issue with overall eating habits is typically (from what student-athletes tell us) a time management problem. With heavy class schedules, study needs, practice obligations and opportunities/activities associated with being a college student, decisions on what you do and what you “skip” need to be made every day. Unfortunately, rest and eating are usually two areas that do not get prioritized to the top of the list.

ITI: Each athletic program at Notre Dame has high expectations. What are some of the things this program does to help individuals and teams reach their goals?

MK: At this point, we are still developing the plan for our Athlete/Sports Performance Program. Generally, our focus has been on communication in terms of sharing data and ideas amongst our sports. We have great coaches and support staff in the areas of sports medicine, strength and conditioning, athletic training, etc. What we need to do is look at the services we are providing and ask if we are doing everything we can to help our student-athletes be successful. Further, we need to look at our specific sport training programs and determine if we are meeting needs properly. We want to make our training programs more individualized by sport and student-athlete because the needs are different. In addition, we want to try to introduce a more scientific approach in terms of screening/testing our student-athletes. We still have some work to do on the plan and certainly the implementation of things will be a long-term process. When a student-athlete graduates from Notre Dame, our goal would be for them to say that Notre Dame provided them every opportunity to be successful in their chosen sport and that we helped them improve.

ITI: In your research, did you find certain universities implementing programs like this successfully?

MK: There are a number of institutions who have some variation of a sports performance program. A small number have fairly advanced programs. Whether it be larger institutions with a hospital or medical school affiliation or institutions with an exercise physiology, sports science or athletic training educational program those places are generally a bit ahead of the curve. Resources associated with the hospitals and medical schools as well as access to research personnel has given these institutions a head start on others. The overall concept of sports performance and incorporating this type of program is fairly new to the college athletics landscape, but it is gaining traction. For the most part though, sports performance is about having all of the units impacting a student-athlete’s performance working together to achieve the best results. There are also several private, for-profit models that exist and we have visited or communicated with some of those facilities as well and have an idea of what they are doing.

ITI: For the Athlete Performance Program to be a success, what goals do you need to achieve? 

MK: First and
foremost, leadership from t
he athletics director and athletics administration is key. To our benefit, the implementation of our sports performance program is one of Jack’s key strategic initiatives and he has communicated that widely within the campus community. Second, coach and support staff acceptance and participation will be critical. We have outstanding coaches and staff who have great experience, expertise and ideas in their areas of focus. Tapping into those resources has been extremely beneficial for me as I have researched what directions we should focus on both short term and long term. At the end of the day though, what we implement first as part of the sports performance program must show measurable results. Whether that be a modification of services currently provided, alterations to the training programs for student-athletes or the implementation of more scientific testing/screening protocols. If we do not show results in some measurable way early, you run the risk of losing interest/traction with the overall program.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.