Offseason Q&A: Texas

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As the 2015 season inches closer, it’s time to start thinking about the Irish’s opponents. To that point, we begin our summer series taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s upcoming schedule.

When the Irish and Texas announced their plans to open the 2015 season playing each other, things looked quite different. Mack Brown was coaching the Longhorns. DeLoss Dodds was the Texas athletic director. Brian Kelly was set to embark on his first season leading Notre Dame.

Brown and Dodds are gone, with Charlie Strong entering his second season and former Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson now running the Longhorns’ sports empire. And while the 2019-20 games have been lost from the scheduled four-game series (Patterson, no stranger to scheduling battles with Jack Swarbrick, was unwilling to work with Notre Dame after they forged their ACC alliance) the Irish and Longhorns will kick off the next two seasons in fine fashion.

To get us ready for this series, Wescott Eberts from Burnt Orange Nation was kind enough to answer some questions. It’s been a chaotic 18 months for Texas fans after Brown’s reign over the Longhorns came to a frustrating finish.

So as Charlie Strong continues a reboot that’s got plenty of scorched earth, let’s dig into a blue-blooded season opener that’s coming on September 5.

 

It’s been 18 months since Texas hired Charlie Strong. And to put it lightly, plenty has happened as Strong has reshaped the program. From someone who follows things pretty closely, can you put into perspective the heavy lifting that Strong has done since taking over?

There’s certainly been plenty of heavy lifting with numerous dismissals and departures via transfer, including some highly-rated prospects who were either contributors in the past or expected to become key contributors in the the future. From that standpoint, the future of Texas football looks much different than it did in January of 2014 when Texas announced Strong’s hire.

So there’s been a full-scale culture change underway in Austin that also had to deal with season-ending injuries in 2014 to three key starters in quarterback David Ash, center Dominic Espinosa, and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson.

 

If I’m looking at this Texas football team, I see a team with a big question mark at quarterback and a young roster (29 freshmen?!) that’s going to be asked to do a lot. How much progress was made during spring practice, and what do you think is the primary focus of summer before a stern test in the season opener?

 

Strong said that the team was better coming out of spring practice than it was against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, but given the nature of that devastating and disappointing beatdown, that’s not saying much.

Finding a quarterback is certainly a key storyline heading into the fall, with summer 7-on-7 workouts often a major proving ground for those battles, but this is also an offense getting used to a new system that the offensive brain trust installed this spring with the intention of better highlighting the skill sets of every player offensively.

 

Strong made some headlines when he spoke at a booster event and said that Everett Golson’s No. 1 preference was to play at Texas in 2015, a move not necessarily realistic considering the opening date on the schedule (at least from Notre Dame’s perspective). But it leads me to this question: Is the offense really just a quarterback away? What would Golson have been walking into? What type of skill talent surrounds the quarterback?

The offensive line play last year prompted Strong to say that even Teddy Bridgewater would have looked bad playing behind them, so the unit needs to demonstrate some significant improvement in order to get a major jump in production from the starting quarterback. Senior running back Johnathan Gray could have a huge breakout season, but there’s no particularly proven talent behind him.

Texas lost the top two leading receivers and three tight ends, so a number of young players will have to emerge for the offense to maximize its potential. There’s some talent, it just hasn’t produced yet.

 

Who starts against Notre Dame at quarterback? Tyrone Swoops? Jerrod Heard? Is that quarterback the same one who’s starting in November? How do you think Strong will handle the most important position in the program and how much faith does he have that the guy he needs to lead this team is currently on the roster?

Starting a redshirt freshman in South Bend isn’t Strong’s preference, so sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will likely come out with the first team unless Jerrod Heard takes a major step forward by the end of fall camp and clearly outplays Swoopes. It’s impossible to say at this point which one will start by November, but the odds are high that Texas will start both at some point this season — there will likely be a quarterback controversy in Austin this fall. As for Strong’s confidence in those two, it’s difficult to say. I think he would prefer to have more competition.

 

It wouldn’t be much of a Q&A if we didn’t talk about the Longhorns defense. How has Strong’s DNA impacted the unit? With six starters gone, among them All-American Malcom Brown, how will the Longhorns do against a Notre Dame offense that has pretty elite personnel?

Strong’s arrival resulted in some notable leaps by multiple Texas defenders and he also brought his 30-Stack defense with him to Austin, which resulted in some changes like defensive tackles playing outside in the three-man line and the addition of the Fox end position, which is a versatile hybrid defensive end/linebacker role.

After losing two players at every level of the defense, including six of the top seven tacklers, the unit will likely experience some growing pains and Notre Dame is a strong candidate to ensure those struggles start early.

 

Give me your best case/worst case scenario for 2015. A few eyebrows were raised when the early line had Notre Dame a 10.5 point favorite. We’re still 90 days away from the game, so this is kind of a ridiculous question. But what’s your early feeling heading into a pretty exciting season opener?

The worst-case scenario features the Longhorns losing multiple key starters to injuries again — guys like junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, senior cornerback Duke Thomas, and senior running back Johnathan Gray — then having young players struggle defensively and the offense fail to take off behind continued shaky quarterback play.

The best-case scenario featues one of the quarterbacks stepping forward to provide consistent play, young players across the roster emerging quickly, and Texas competing for the Big 12 title. In all likelihood, Texas will take a step forward in some key areas like becoming more consistent and more explosive offensively, but experience some struggles with the young defenders and have to battle hard to win six or seven games.

 

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

Clemson v Notre Dame
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Recapping these preseason predictions bit by bit has emphasized how much of a see-saw Notre Dame’s 2022 was. They expected decent Irish success at Ohio State to open the season, which was realized. They then plainly assumed Notre Dame would continue to wallop overmatched opponents as Brian Kelly made the default.

Instead, Marcus Freeman stubbed his toe twice as first-year head coaches are wont to do, rendering that stretch of predictions largely flawed.

Now, the predictions tilt into early November, expecting little from the Irish. Of course, that was exactly when Freeman delivered the defining moment of his debut campaign.

21) “Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks.”

The first part of that fell inarguably short, 38 clearly less than 41. But the next sentence held more merit. Defensive end Justin Ademiloa and twin brother tackle Jayson Ademilola each had three sacks while Mills added 3.5. No linebacker reached three unless willing to still count Jordan Botelho as a linebacker with his 4.5 sacks. Given two of those came in the Gator Bowl when Botelho was clearly a defensive end, that would be generous grading. Instead, this entire prediction should be considered wrong, alas. (12/21)

22) Did this space continue publishing as planned after the Minnesota Timberwolves home opener? The running content calendar says a “Leftovers & Links” column ran on Oct. 20, the day after. Take the wins where you can find them, especially as a Timberwolves fan. (13/22)

23) The Irish had won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents entering the season. Predicting that would reach 27 meant predicting Notre Dame would beat North Carolina and Syracuse. Check and check. (14/23)

24) That did not push the Irish into the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, as predicted, thanks to the mishaps against Marshall and Stanford. (14/24)

25) And here comes a stretch of predictions predicated in pessimism, focused on how Notre Dame would fare against Clemson. The Irish had won 16 straight games in November entering the 2022 season. Suggesting that would end at 16 was suggesting Notre Dame would lose to Clemson on the first weekend of November.

Rather, that was the win in Freeman’s first season that will be long remembered. (14/25)

26) That expected loss was based on Clemson’s defensive front holding Notre Dame’s ground game in check. There was no expectation the Irish would dominate there with 264 rushing yards on 46 carries after adjusting for a single one-yard sack. Logan Diggs ran for 114 yards on 17 carries while Audric Estimé took 18 rushes for 104 yards. (14/26)

27) That loss did not knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers messing around and finding out against South Carolina did that. But regardless, predicting Clemson would return to the Playoff was ill-fated. (14/27)

28) Notre Dame was 30-1 in its last 31 home games entering the season. Predicting that would reach 35-2 in step with suggesting the Irish would lose to the Tigers was wrong in all sorts of ways, most notably in that the stretch is now 34-3 after Notre Dame went just 4-2 at home last season. Again, Marshall and Stanford. (14/28)

29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers did not have the predicted 40-yard catch on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. He had a long of 39 yards on a snow-covered field playing with a backup quarterback.

The spirit of the prognostication was valid, but alas. (14/29)

30) Former Irish tight end George Takacs did not catch a touchdown in his return with the Eagles. No one did. (14/30)

31) And former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec did not have a “perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day.”

Jurkovec did not play at all, so let’s call this wager a push. He did, however, make some headlines from the sideline.

There is a strong chance this prediction is rerun in its entirety in 2023 with Jurkovec and Pittsburgh heading to South Bend on Oct. 28. (14.5/31)

Leftovers & Links: Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State
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The first two notable dates of college football’s offseason passed last week, the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal before the spring semester and the deadline to enter the NFL draft. The former hardly warranted much notice at Notre Dame, only three players entering the portal after the 2022 season. While plenty did transfer from other programs, a mid-May look at that movement may better serve Irish purposes, as plenty of names will eventually leave Notre Dame.

The NFL deadline has no second passing. Players are either headed toward the NFL draft by now or they are not.

The Irish lost five players to early entry to the NFL, though two of those instances were offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and defensive end Justin Ademilola, both of whom would have been returning for sixth collegiate seasons in 2023. So in a more genuine sense, Notre Dame lost only three players early to the NFL draft: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey and safety Brandon Joseph.

All five would have started for the Irish next season, obviously. But at most, Ademilola’s and Joseph’s declarations were surprises, and even those were only mild at most.

College football will slowly churn back toward college careers following “normal” timelines and more tenable roster management the further it gets from the universal pandemic eligibility waiver from 2020. That will not take all the way until the 2025 season. Coaches are already leaning toward it.

While Notre Dame would have gladly welcomed back Patterson and/or Ademilola, it also knew two realities.

1) Patterson should be a second- or third-round draft pick who could have gone to the NFL a year ago. His time is now.
2) A year of Ademilola’s production would come at the expense of the development of younger players that may already be on the verge, somewhat deflating the value of his return.

In a parallel way, coaching staffs fall into two categories.

1) Either they are doing well and trust they can recruit better players than any draft debaters now. Leaning into continued successful recruiting lengthens the timeline these coaches expect to continue to succeed.
2) Or they are failing and soon fired. A new coach would rather bring in new players, “his players,” to reboot the program.

In both scenarios, fewer and fewer sixth-year players will be seen around college football long before the 2025 season rules them out entirely.

All of that is to say, when discussing entrants into the NFL draft, it is more and more accurate to focus on the juniors (like Mayer) and the seniors (Foskey, Joseph) rather than the half-decade veterans. Those losses from Notre Dame’s 2023 opponents, in order of most severe to least …

Ohio State: Losing quarterback C.J. Stroud would top this list no matter who else was on it. Stroud alone would have made the Buckeyes the title favorites next season. Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also jumped to the NFL, though his final collegiate season was effectively nullified when a Joseph tackle in the season opener injured Smith-Njigba’s hamstring to an extent he never genuinely returned in 2022.

Center Luke Wypler and offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. headed to the next level, as well, along with defensive tackle Dawand Jones and defensive back Ronnie Hickman.

But those latter losses are anticipated at elite programs. Ohio State has recruited to replace most of these players. The Buckeyes barely missed Smith-Njigba in 2022, and he may be the best receiver in the draft. Stroud, however, is a loss that will throw the early part of Ohio State’s 2023 into some question.

Clemson: Similarly, the Tigers losing three defensive linemen in Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry along with linebacker Trenton Simpson may be too much to overcome in stride. As Clemson has so terribly struggled — throw some sarcasm on that phrasing — to just 10 and 11 wins the last two season, it has leaned on its defensive front.

The Tigers gave up only 102.7 rushing yards per game in 2022, No. 13 in the country, and 20.9 points per game, No. 22 in the country. A year ago, Clemson ranked No. 7 and No. 2 in the respective categories.

Replacing 29.5 tackles for loss from the 2022 season including 16 sacks will be a difficult task. Perhaps “terribly struggled” will no longer warrant sarcasm.

Pittsburgh: Not many programs saw two All-Americans jump to the NFL, but the Panthers did in running back Israel Abanikanda (1,431 yards on 5.99 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns) and defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (14 tackles for loss with 7 sacks in 11 games). Safety Brandon Hill also provided Pittsburgh’s defense some versatility.

USC: The Trojans also lost two All-Americans to the NFL — which, come to think of it, Notre Dame did, as well, in Mayer and Foskey — in receiver Jordan Addison and defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. To be more clear, Addison was not a 2022 All-American, but one at Pittsburgh back in 2021. Injuries slowed him a touch in 2022, but overall, his talent is All-American in caliber.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s talent drain this offseason will warrant a deep dive. It is one to behold. The first line on it is quarterback Tanner McKee heading to the NFL with some draftniks thinking he should be an early-round pick.

When Stanford upset Notre Dame in October, McKee led the way with 288 yards on an impressive 26-of-38 completion rate. Losing him will drastically change the Cardinal ceiling in 2023, which is saying something considering how low that ceiling already was.

Central Michigan: Running back Lew Nicholls III did not have the statistical profile of someone who should head to the NFL already, with all of 616 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but look back to 2021 and his choice makes more sense. He ran for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns with another 338 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air.

Navy, Tennessee State, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville and Wake Forest did not lose players to any early NFL decisions.

If this list seems abbreviated, that’s because it is throughout college football. Name, image and likeness rights have made it more enticing for players to return to school Reportedly, fewer players entered this draft early than at any time in the last decade.

To think, so many people insisted NIL rights would ruin college football. Here is hard evidence it has upgraded the talent in the sport.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Trio of early-enrolling Notre Dame receivers most likely of dozen arrivals to impact 2023
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: ND’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

OUTSIDE READING
2023 NFL Draft Big Board: PFF’s top 100 prospects
‘Everything’s on fire’: NIL collectives are the latest patchwork solution for college athlete pay
Numbers show NIL benefits college football
Has legalized betting led to more hurtful social media actions? Some admins think so.
Best college football games of 2022 season
Blazers’ Justise Winslow’s ‘giant, little steps’ out of the darkness

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

Marshall v Notre Dame
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To continue a final look back at Notre Dame’s 2022 season through the lens of preseason predictions and the expectations they framed …

11) The most underappreciated part of the Irish resurgence since 2017 and thus Brian Kelly’s final years coaching in South Bend was that Notre Dame won 42 straight games against unranked opponents, the longest streak in the country. It was so taken for granted, this prediction thought the Irish would run that to 50 games in 2023.

Instead, Marcus Freeman lost his very first game against an unranked opponent. (8 correct predictions out of 11.)

12) A few predictions always delve out of college football, for variety’s sake. Maybe that should be forgotten moving forward, considering the Packers neither beat the Vikings to open the season nor won the NFC North. To make matters even worse for this scribe of a lapsed Packers fan, they also were not bad enough to draft a good quarterback in 2023. (8 out of 12.)

13) North Carolina leaned on dynamic receiver Josh Downs to prodigious amounts in 2021. An early-season injury slowed him this year, thus ruining any chance of him having “the most catches in a game against the Irish this season, though not the most yards.”

He caught five passes for 32 yards.

Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka set the catches mark with nine for 90 yards to open the season, while BYU’s Kody Epps caught four passes for 100 yards, the season high in yardage against Notre Dame. (8/13)

14) Notre Dame played a multiple-look defense this season, a layup of a prediction given the linebacker depth and versatility led by Jack Kiser and (eventually injured) Bo Bauer. That was emphasized at USC when the Irish leaned into a 3-3-5 look without both cornerback Cam Hart and nickel back Tariq Bracy. Kiser’s speed became the defense’s best chance.

It was not enough, but it was a valiant effort, and one to keep in mind in 2023. (9/14)

15) “The math says at least one Irish player will be ejected for targeting in 2022.”

Enter JD Bertrand, twice. (10/15)

16) “Notre Dame will beat BYU in Las Vegas.”

Despite a lackluster second-half, check.

“… This space will miss at least one day of publishing the following week. Who can say why.”

Let’s check the running content calendar. For Tuesday, Oct. 11, it reads, “Vegas won this round.” Sometimes it is best to foresee your own personal failures. (11/16)

17) Marcus Freeman’s recruiting emphasis never waned, underscored by the last two years of recruiting topping anything the Irish have ever done. (12/17)

18) The only area in which Michael Mayer fell short in his Notre Dame career was of this prediction, one saying he would casually break two of his own three Irish single-season records. To do so, he needed to exceed 71 catches, 840 receiving yards and/or seven touchdowns.

The surefire first-round draft pick merely caught 67 passes for 809 yards and nine scores.

Would he have reached all three metrics if he played in the Gator Bowl? Almost assuredly. But then again, he played in only 12 games in 2021, too. The prediction was wrong, regardless. (12/18)

19) Another thought about an individual record, defensive end Isaiah Foskey did not exceed Justin Tuck’s record of 13.5 sacks in a season. He did take down the quarterback 11 times, reaching double digits for a second consecutive season while setting the Notre Dame career mark. (12/19)

20) Similar to prediction No. 11, an underappreciated part of Kelly’s final five years in South Bend were that the Irish won 39 straight games when favored at kickoff, covering all of the 2018-21 seasons.

Both to suggest that would continue and to guess how many times Notre Dame would be favored in 2022, arguing that streak would reach 48 was right in that the Irish were favored in nine of 13 games. They just happened to lose the first of those (and then again against Stanford, the fourth time they would be favored this season).

Such blunders should have been expected from a first-year head coach. Those missteps seem to catch just about every such rookie. But forgetting or overlooking that led to dashed expectations in 2022. (12/20)

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Delayed accountability is better than no accountability, and with the modern college football calendar, this accountability is barely delayed. Notre Dame’s season may have ended nearly three weeks ago, but the combination of the College Football Playoff and the ever-flowing transfer portal kept those three weeks busier than not.

By hauling in five starter-quality transfers, the Irish and the modern college football calendar provided some newfound content in the stretch. That does not mean 40 preseason predictions should be forgotten.

Acknowledging each mistake should never be skipped, particularly since many of them shed light on where Notre Dame fell short in Marcus Freeman’s debut season. All 40 will be tackled in time. For today, the first 10 …

1) The first preseason prediction tied back to Freeman’s first day as the Irish head coach, expecting the highlight of his introduction to his new team to be featured on the first two broadcasts of Notre Dame’s season. NBC had the raspy introduction in hand for the opener, but I am not certain it actually aired. (o/1)

2) The expectation that Notre Dame’s rushing effectiveness would improve compared to 2021 took some time to bear fruit, and that delay clouded the statistical betterment. In 2021, the Irish finished No. 99 in the country in expected points added per rush. This past season, that rose to just No. 89.

Blame the first three games. At Ohio State, Notre Dame gained only three first downs via rush and then eight (compared to 11 passing first downs) against Marshall in Freeman’s home debut. The Irish averaged 2.5 yards per rush against the Buckeyes, 3.5 against the Herd and 3.6 against Cal.

That all changed at North Carolina, exploding for 287 rushing yards on 51 carries, gaining 17 first downs on the ground. In the following nine games, only twice would Notre Dame fall short of at least 4.4 yards per carry: Leaning on the passing game to blow past Navy (1.9 yards per rush) and on the same aspect to try to keep up at USC (3.5 yards per rush).

The Irish averaged 4.6 yards on 532 carries with 139 first downs. Let’s put those into some comparison. Adjusting for sacks, Notre Dame gained 20 more yards rushing than passing and averaged 5.06 yards per carry. It gained 16 more first downs on the ground than through the air. Oddly, the Irish scored 25 touchdowns through each method.

The preseason prediction emphasized, “Reclaiming effectiveness on the ground will be crucial.” Some of that is relative, but in this instance, relative to 2021.

A year ago, adjusting for sacks, Notre Dame gained 1,803 yards fewer rushing than passing. It gained 167 first downs passing and just 92 rushing. Touchdowns tilted toward through the air, 30, rather than rushing, 23.

The Irish returned to the ground in 2022, partly because its change in quarterback demanded it and partly because that will forever be how offensive coordinator Tommy Rees prefers to operate. (1/2)

3) “Sophomore Audric Estimé could be the key to the Irish ground game.”

He led Notre Dame with 920 yards, 5.9 yards per rush and 11 rushing touchdowns. Nailed this one. (2/3)

4) “The Irish will score first [at Ohio State].” Blake Grupe’s 33-yard field goal made this accurate, but stay tuned on the sentiment. (3/4)

5) “And they will still lose at Ohio State.” That 21-10 momentary moral victory was still a loss. (4/5)

6) “The Buckeyes will make the College Football Playoff.” Not all these predictions will be so clearly correct. (5/6)

7) And Playoff expansion will once again dominant too many thoughts in the season. This will be the case until the first season of the 12-team Playoff. And when that day comes, for the sake of enjoying unique football atmospheres, let’s hope Notre Dame is one of the top-eight teams in the country, thus hosting a quarterfinal Playoff game most likely on Dec. 21.

There is precedent for the University allowing students to stay an extra day for a sporting event the weekend before Christmas. When the Irish hosted UCLA on Dec. 19 — the day after classes had ended and when students are usually required to be out of the dorms by the afternoon — anyone going to the men’s basketball game could stick around until Sunday. (6/7)

8) Did you stay tuned on that score-first sentiment?

“Notre Dame will score first in at least nine games this season.” The opening script used to be a Rees strong point. It was not in 2022. Yet, the Irish still almost made this prediction correct, even if the sentiment was wildly off base.

The Irish would not score again in the first quarter until the fifth game of the year, against BYU, another Grupe field goal. They would not enjoy a first-quarter touchdown until the seventh game, against UNLV.

Charitably, Brandon Joseph’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown at Syracuse came on the game’s first play, but then Notre Dame’s offense would need until halfway through the second quarter to find points. The same could be said against Clemson, a punt block in the first quarter that summed up the game until a last-minute touchdown before the half.

A strong first half against Navy and a shutout of Boston College changed this trend, but then this prediction died an early death when the Irish fell behind early at USC, though they did the same against South Carolina.

All in all, Notre Dame scored first seven times this season, but the prediction was worse than simply being off by two given the repeated first-half struggles from Rees’ offense. (6/8)

9) The Irish were expected to be heavily favored against Marshall, predicting by at least 17 points. They were favored by 20 points.

Separately, prediction No. 9 simply said, “Some favorite of at least 13 points will lose by the end of [the second week of the season].”

This is, uhhh, awkward … (7/9)

10) “Jac Collinsworth will provide the one characteristic that is most vital to a broadcast booth. He will be excited to be there at Notre Dame Stadium.”

Collinsworth absolutely provided that excitement in the broadcast booth, the one characteristic that no production magic can manufacture. (8/10)