Revisionist history shouldn’t comfort Trojan fans

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We’ve done our best to stick to just football this week. Whether it be unsettling reports in the media regarding the Lizzy Seeberg case or sticking to just on-the-field matters when it comes to discussing USC and the major sanctions the NCAA imposed on its athletic department, we decided to stay in the football writing business because that’s what this is, a Notre Dame football blog.

That said, it’s been hard not to discuss the elephant in the Coliseum this weekend, the USC Trojans and the massive sanctions handed down by the NCAA in June, a ruling nearly four years in the making after Yahoo! Sports broke open the Reggie Bush scandal.

I have no desire to recap or judge the findings of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, a committee that Notre Dame deputy athletic director Missy Conboy serves on, one of ten members. (For an in-depth article on the members that heard USC’s case, read George Dohrmann’s excellent piece at SI.com) But there seems to be an undercurrent flowing through the USC fanbase that both points blame at Notre Dame’s role in their athletic department’s demise and pointedly questions why the NCAA committee that a Notre Dame administrator sat on could levy such serious penalties on Heritage Hall.

Dan Weber, the writer who we exchanged questions and answers with via email earlier this week, writes for USCFootball.com, a website that’s been incredibly critical of the sanctions on the football program. Earlier in the week, the website launched a campaign targeting Conboy:

For those who paid close attention to the NCAA’s embarrassing Committee on Infractions USC saga, next week will offer an opportunity. The Trojans host Notre Dame for the 43rd time in the nation’s most historic intersectional college football series that opened here in 1926 and helped make Notre Dame a national name. Much of that is thanks to a respected West Coast school like USC willing to play the Irish when a number of Midwest powers — Ohio State, we’re talking about you — would not.

Next week will also be a time to remember that Notre Dame’s senior deputy director of athletics, Missy Conboy, joined with the gleeful Mr. Dee in the scandalous over penalizing of USC in a manner that branded the Trojans as one of the all-time rogue programs in college football history.

We know a number of you haven’t understood how anyone from Notre Dame could have possibly come to such a conclusion about the school that’s been there toe-to-toe with the Irish academically and athletically for 84 years.

All we know about the actions of Conboy, a Notre Dame grad with a law degree who’s been an athletic administrator there for 23 years, is that she recused herself when the Committee unbelievably talked about penalizing USC by taking the Trojans off TV. Recused herself because that could have hurt Notre Dame.

But what we don’t know is what in the world was Conboy thinking? One ineligible player, 30 scholarships? Could she possibly be serious? Should she have recused herself on the entire case? It would seem someone at Notre Dame would have to because they would know USC couldn’t possibly be as guilty as the Dee scenario called for it to be, allowing his Miami program not to go down as the most lawless in modern history. Wouldn’t a Notre Dame administrator just recuse herself for fear of looking like she’d given up on the Irish ever beating USC again unless someone took 30 scholarships away from USC.

So here’s your chance. We’re creating a thread on The Peristyle this weekend called “Ask Missy” where each of you can list the one question you’d like to ask a person on the Committee on Infractions about the USC case. Sure, she won’t answer them. But we’ll work to get them to her, or to South Bend, or to a place where maybe, just maybe, she’d have a chance to read them. And think about what she and Dee have done.

No profanity. Be respectful. This is serious business.

In our original Q&A, I asked Dan two questions about the NCAA’s rulings. The first was asking for an explanation of why he thought the sanctions were heavy handed and the second dealt with his critical comments on Dee and Conboy, and what blame he would hand to Mike Garrett, Pete Carroll, Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo, and Reggie Bush. His responses were extensive and pointed, especially his characterization of Conboy, so I asked for a response from Notre Dame before I posted any of his responses.

Here’s the response I got from Notre Dame after I shared the original question and answer:

NCAA Bylaw 32.1.5 entitled Conflict of Interest states that a Committee member should not participate if the member is directly connected with an institution under investigation or has a personal, professional, or institutional affiliation that reasonably would result in the appearance of prejudice. In this case, Ms. Conboy did offer to recuse herself from the case precisely because she was concerned about the appearance of prejudice. After a discussion with the Committee Chair, her participation was deemed appropriate in light of no discernible Conflict of Interest. It is important to note that even if the Committee member does not believe that his/her involvement would prejudice the institution, the institution is also able to raise an objection to the participation of a Committee member whom they feel might prejudice their case. USC did not choose to raise an objection to the involvement of Ms. Conboy.

After talking with Brian Hardin at Notre Dame, he explained that Conboy has stepped off the committee multiple times before, like when UConn basketball came in front of the committee, or when Arizona State baseball coach Pat Murphy came in front of the board, because Murphy is the former baseball coach at Notre Dame. She even asked to be recused during the recent Michigan hearings, but was asked specifically by Michigan that she stay on.

In a posting yesterday, a few days after I agreed not to publish our questions and Notre Dame’s response, the “War Room” was at it again, this time pointing to the Kim Dunbar scandal, which resulted in the Notre Dame football program being placed on probation for two years and losing one scholarship for two consecutive seasons, the first major violation of NCAA regulations by any Irish athletic program.

From the War Room:

One thing that you realize quickly if you engage in this dialogue with the ND folks is how much they don’t know about the USC case, and never will. And do not care.

Sure, they’ll still argue, more than a decade after the fact, how unfair it was what the NCAA Committee on Infractions did to Notre Dame. How it had to go to a tiebreaker vote to declare the Notre Dame booster club member and $1.4-million-dollar embezzler who just liked to “date” Notre Dame football players, a “booster.”

Sure she took trips with them and showered them with presents over a five-year period, something an Irish assistant coach admitted he knew about but never bothered to inform the NCAA because, as one ND official said, the rules were “convoluted.”

What a miscarriage of justice, they’ll tell you, costing the Irish one whole scholarship a year for two years.

But they’re little concerned that the NCAA, after the fact, declared a whole slew of passers-by in the lives of Reggie Bush and O.J.Mayo USC “boosters.” After all, the USC case was about a lot more than that, they’ll tell you. You USC fans just “lack introspection” to see your program as others see it, they’ll say. Sure, ask them to name the other USC athletes involved, unlike the eight from ND, and all you’ll hear is crickets chirping.

And that’s when you realize where this case was lost. We’d forgotten about the USA Today national survey of nearly 25,000 readers published the day after the NCAA’s ridiculously unprecedented penalties were revealed in June.

Only 16 percent thought the USC penalties too harsh. A whopping 42 percent thought that the loss of 30 scholarships and a two-year bowl ban for one player on the take from outsiders encouraging him to leave was letting USC off way too easy. Another 41 percent thought that was just right.

So there are the numbers: 83 percent thought the NCAA was either too easy on USC or got it right. Just 16 percent understood what had happened. And that’s what the NCAA was clearly counting on.

Nearly four years of relentless hammering had done its dirty work. Nearly four years of failing to answer back, to respond in any way, to make the USC case, to let others fill in all the negatives, well, even if USC’s lawyers had gotten the Trojans off, it might not have mattered. USC was guilty as charged, or guiltier — if that’s a word. And as dirty as a program could be. It had to be.

How else do you win three Heismans in four years to tie the almighty Irish? How else do you play in seven straight BCS games and win 34 straight games and seven straight Pac-10 titles and hammer four straight SEC teams whose names begin with the letter “A” if you’re not doing something outside the rules?

And if you come to South Bend next October to play the 85-scholarship-strong Irish with the same number of 51 scholarship players you took to Stanford this season, well, that will be just fine, Notre Dame fans seem to be saying. It’s about time the playing field was leveled.

Comparing the Dunbar case to the violations committed by the Trojan athletic department doesn’t make much sense when you look closer at what actually happened. That Dunbar was convicted of embezzling $1.4 million from her employer wasn’t an NCAA violation. That Dunbar, starting at the age of 20 and until she was arrested at 25, dated a few different football players, had a child with one, and occasionally purchased travel and gave them gifts also was not an NCAA violation. What turned the Dunbar fiasco into an NCAA violation was that she gave $25 in 1996 to a (quickly defunct) Quarterback Club that supported Notre Dame athletics, which turned her into a booster.

It was far from an easy decision for the NCAA, who — as the War Room points out — needed a tie-breaker to determine if Dunbar was a booster, making the comparison of the then-22-year-old Dunbar to Lloyd Lake, Michael Michaels, Rodney Guillory, or any of the other unsavory characters in the USC case not too appropriate.

USC will go in front of an appeals committee in the near future, asking to cut in half the sanctions they received, and athletic director Pat Haden believes that USC has a strong case, even if only 10 percent of all sanctions are overturned in appeal. For the sake of the student-athletes that were in junior high when Reggie Bush was committing violations, maybe lessening the penalties is the best thing that could happen, with most of the major player long gone from the Trojan athletic department.

But even though Garrett, Carroll, running backs coach Todd McNair, Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo and Reggie Bush are a memory now doesn’t make any revisionist history including Missy Conboy, Notre Dame close to appropriate.

Harsh or not, any penalties levied on USC were their own fault.

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.