Weekend notes: Buyouts, schedules, and more

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It was only a matter of time before somebody did a public search of Notre Dame’s tax records and found out just how much Charlie Weis actually got paid to walk away from Notre Dame with six years left on his ten-year contract extension.

Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune was the first to do the digging, and the number he uncovered was certainly a big one — with Weis getting paid $6,638,403 as a “termination payment,” after Weis was relieved from his duties after the 2009 football season.

The official wording on Notre Dame’s Form 990 tax return:

“Termination payment of $6,638,403 was made during the reporting period to Charles J. Weis under a separation agreement that includes much smaller annual payments through December, 2015.”

The dollar amount made waves across the internet today with main-stream media members and anonymous message-board posters alike taking some type of pleasure in an odd sort of gallows humor, as if Weis was somehow better off getting the severance payment than the six-years left on his deal. A deal that for the longest time was just assumed to be guaranteed, with numbers like $18-$20 million being thrown around by major media outlets as the cost of firing Weis back when he was on the Irish hot seat.

No doubt, the seven-figure check the Irish cut to Weis certainly hurt the bottom line (and supposedly isn’t completely over), but that’s the price of doing business with high-level executives, which is certainly something that the head coach of Notre Dame can qualify as.

If you have any sort of animosity, direct it at former athletic director Kevin White, who negotiated an unprecedented extension midway through the debut season of a first-year head coach.

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If you’re looking for required reading, head over to the Notre Dame student newspaper, where Douglas Farmer, the Editor-in-Chief of the Observer, got an exclusive sit-down interview with athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Swarbrick was incredibly candid about a ton of hot-button issues, including a revamped — and much more difficult — football schedule, the potential for a Notre Dame Network, the conference realignment that almost swallowed the Irish, and the demands on his time.

Here’s the greatest hits if you’re too lazy to click over and read:

On toughening the football schedule:

If you’re going to be independent, if you’re going to give yourself the flexibility of building your own schedule, you have to embrace that. You have to try and build one that’s really good. I also think that if one assumes that the current BCS format remains in its current form or something like it, it’s really incumbent on Notre Dame to be able to make the case at the end of the year that it’s played the toughest schedule in the country, because there will be a strong presumption in favor of the SEC champ, the Big Ten champ, the Pac-12 champ, or the Big 12 champ to be in that championship game. If we want to be there, we better be able to make the argument that no one in the country played a tougher schedule, and so that’s how we’re going to build them.

On the potential for a Notre Dame Network:

We are very focused on building our digital media capacity. It’ll probably take a slightly different form because we work with a different set of assets than Texas. I think that Texas’ model is a great one; I think they’ll be hugely successful. But it is based on the remarkable passion for that school in a geographic area, so it fits over a cable footprint. I don’t have any market like that. I have interest everywhere, but not a concentration of it in one place. And so our opportunities will really come as broadband delivery increases and as you all are consuming media on a more content-by-content basis rather than a network basis. So as those two things evolve, that’s really going to play to Notre Dame’s favor, and what we want to do is position ourselves to take full advantage of it. So as broadband delivery on an a la carte basis, if you will, becomes the future of media, Notre Dame’s going to be really well-positioned.

On the conference realignment that reshaped the Big Ten, Pac-10, and Big 12:

I was consumed by it. I spent all my time it. The staff understood — it’s like the football search. When you make a change in football coach, you get with your senior staff and you say, ‘I’m out of here for a while. I have to put all my energy on this.’ Conference expansion was a lot like that. We had to stay very engaged. We had to make sure we understood what was going on, we had to conduct an internal evaluation to reaffirm our priorities, and so we worked on that every day.

This is incredibly interesting stuff and a great job by Farmer and the Observer. If there’s something that doesn’t surprise me, but confirms a lot of what I heard when it was happening, it’s that Swarbrick was one of the leading voices during Jim Delany’s potential Big Ten power-play, which very nearly changed the face of college football as we know it. Some people discounted Swarbrick’s role in all of this, but it’s pretty clear from his comments that he was far more involved than many people realized.

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It’s that time of year again… Yep, it’s “Watch List” season, and Braxston Cave is the first of (potentially) many Irish names to find themselves on one.

The 42-man list (which is listed in its entirety here) includes only David Molk from the Irish’s upcoming schedule. It’s a good honor for Cave, who was singled out repeatedly by head coach Brian Kelly for his improvements throughout the season and spring practice.

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Lastly, a special bit of congratulations to all the seniors at Notre Dame celebrating their graduation. It feels like yesterday (or maybe, the day before yesterday) when I was complaining about the cheesy license plate holder gift, trying to talk my parents into skipping my Business ceremony, and feeling really hung-over after a long week of partying. It’s a great celebration for families and students, the culmination of four great years in South Bend.

Now let me beat your parents to it: Go get a job…

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.