January 18, 2010

Thoughts on Derek Dooley, Tate Nichols, "big skill," and why Brian Kelly (and Jim Tressel?) should be happy about how the NFL Playoffs are going

Leo is an ND fan?? That's cool. I had no idea.

Some other thoughts from the football weekend:

5) I'll admit that the Derek Dooley hire looks shaky on paper, but you never know. No one has any clue if Derek Dooley is going to work out at Tennessee or not, so the "bad hire" stuff is premature. You can't really make a "bad hire" determination on the day you hire the guy. It's like the NFL Draft. Unless you're talking about a can't miss hire like Saban, you really won't know what you have for 3-4 years. We've seen too many examples of unproven head coaches coming in and winning at their first big time jobs to just write Dooley off as a disaster waiting to happen.

Dooley is a flier, but I'd rather take a flier on a young Nick Saban disciple who can recruit over a steady, 8-4 kinda coach like David Cutcliffe. If you hire Cutcliffe, you pretty much know what you're going to get. A lot of Outback Bowl appearances. Nothing wrong with that, but Tennessee has bigger aspirations than going 8-4/9-3 every year.

Seems like a lot of college programs are going with the NFL trend of hiring young guns who will get in the office and work 20 hr days and pound the recruiting trail. Call it the Mike Tomlin effect. There are all kinds of thirtysomething head coaches in the NFL right now. Not sure if these moves are going to work out or not, but I can sort of understand it. And lots of young gun college coaches have worked out (Stoops, Richt, Pelini, Fitzgerald, Harbaugh, etc) who had little or no head coaching experience.

If you're a down in the dumps program, I kind of like the idea of hiring a young gun and just letting him build the program. It's no different than a pro sports franchise. Sometimes you just need to tear everything down, take your lumps, and build back up with a new face. If you try to hire a retread, you're just delaying the inevitable. Not sure if Dooley is the right guy or not for that building process, but I can understand to some degree what Tennessee has done.

4) How great is this Martha Coakley--Curt Schilling feud??

Could this women be any more out of touch with her constituents?? How could any Bostonian vote for this woman after making that comment?? IT'S FREAKING CURT SCHILLING!! The Bloody Sock! How could you not know who Curt Schilling is?? I don't care if you're the biggest non-sports fan of all time. ABoston people worship that sock like it's from Christ Himself.

If you live in Boston, every person knows about three things:

1) Paul Revere
2) The Boston Tea Party
3) The Bloody Sock

What is it with Democratic politicians from Massachusetts and sports blunders??? Remember when John Kerry said that his favorite Red Sox player was "Manny Ortiz"?? My god, open up a sports section man. Politicians who know nothing about sports should undergo some sort of mandatory "current events in sports" training session. Someone should open up a consulting business as a "politicians sports tutor."

3) I know people are scratching their heads to some degree about ND signing a 2 star o-lineman in Tate Nichols, but I don't really have a problem with it. Isn't Nichols the perfect "project" o-lineman for this system?? He's a classic "big skill" athletic guy (hoops player) who played TE in high school but can easily fill out and play offensive tackle. Maybe he's a 2star TE prospect, but he's probably more like a 3.5 star type offensive lineman. Put this guy in the weight room and maybe he can get on the field in his 4th or 5th year. That's the type of move that a team like BC has been making for the last 20 years. They build these projects into productive players by the time they hit their 4th and 5th year in the program. You look at BC's line, and they always seem to have a roster full of seniors and 5th year guys in their two deep. That's how you breed consistency in your program.

The other thing I like is that Nichols addresses a position of need. ND badly needs offensive tackles. If we don't land one of the big fish out there (James or Henderson), we need to bring in someone who can maybe fill out and contribute. And even if he doesn't contribute, at least Nichols adds some depth up front. For my money, we can't have enough of these "big skill/power" guys who can come in and give us some options on the lines. ND should be bringing in 5-6 potential o-linemen prospects a year.

With that said, I can understand to some degree that people are saying "ummm, Coach Kelly, you are the head coach at Notre Dame now. You can recruit outside of the Greater Cincinnati area for players as well." And I think that's a valid point. He's landed two guys (Austin Collinsworth and Tate Nichols) from the Greater Cincy area who are probably more like Cincy recruits. 2 and 3 star "RKG" kinda guys who could end up being good football players, but don't really fit the typical "ND recruit" profile. If you load up your roster with 2 and 3 stars, that's not really what ND fans are looking for on the recruiting trail. Even though our schedules are getting weaker, we still need those high-end top recruits if we want to compete with the big boys.

Two thoughts on that issue:

1) Kelly has a different recruiting approach than Willingham/Davie/Weis -- Weis was a good salesman, but was he really that great of a recruiter?? Weis could sell players on ND, but I don't think he ever really had a great feel for personnel at the college level. He recruited high school o-linemen to play o-line in college, linebackers to play linebacker, etc. He had no imagine with personnel, and I think that came from a lack of understanding of the college game. For all the talk about how smart Weis was, I was never that blown away by his management of our roster.

Meanwhile, I think personnel evaluation might be Kelly's greatest strength as a coach. He has specific traits in mind for the types of players he is looking for, and he recruits those specific skill sets. He doesn't care what position you played in high school. He just wants to see what type of an athlete you are. Kelly would rather take a 2star "big skill" TE who can become an OT than a 4star guy who played offensive tackle in high school but is too slow to be a college offensive tackle.

Kelly is going to get us away from recruiting all these "high floor/low ceiling" finished product guys who maxed out in high school. We've been so obsessed with chasing stars, but I want guys who are going to be good football players in college!! What good is it if a guy is a 4star in high school if he's not going to project well on the college level??

Think about how many times an ND player has looked great as a freshman and then didn't get any better in four years on the team. That's your classic "finished product." A guy who maxed out as a college freshman, but other guys filled out and passed him up.

Unless you're talking about the elite 5 star guys, the star rankings are generally overrated. I don't want a roster full of "projects," but I want to make sure that we recruit guys who will be good college players. If that means taking a high school d-linemen ("power") and moving him to guard before his freshman year, that's fine with me. If you are coaching guys properly, you can develop him by year 3 and 4 into a good offensive linemen. Same with taking 6'5, 215 pound defensive ends or tight ends and turning them into offensive tackles. Or 6'3,220 rbs and turning them into linebackers.

Give me a team full of athletes with upside and give me the right coach who can develop them properly. I'd take that over a roster of all star recruits any day of the week.

2) It's hard to recruit at Notre Dame -- Recruiting at Notre Dame is not as easy as it seems on paper. The biggest problem might be that we always have to recruit out of state for our talent. When you have to cover 50 states, you really can't get in-depth in any particular region to look for players. Unfortunately, that means you might miss out on the sleepers that local teams might hear about.

Let's take LSU for example. There's lots of elite talent in the state of Louisiana. But there's also a lot of 3star sleeper types that LSU can find about because they are all over that state and know all the high school coaches and local beat guys and recruiting gurus in the state. So if there's some sleeper 3star out there, LSU is going to find out about him first because they are the in-state brand. Most people in the state are LSU fans, so they are going to tip off Les Miles and his staff before anyone else gets a look.

This applies in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas and Alabama and everywhere where there is good high school football. The schools in those state always seem to snap up these underrated 3star guys who are late bloomers or had a growth spurt or just more playing time in their senior years. (Guys like Marcell Dareus and AJ Hawk.) Probably one of the greatest examples of all time is Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was a tight end prospect as a junior, and only the MAC schools knew about him. When he started to blow up in his senior year, Ohio State got the word on him from local coaches and went after him. Roethlisberger ended up staying loyal to Miami, but the point is that OSU got word on him before any out of state big boy like Michigan or ND did.

For ND, it's almost impossible for us to get in on these sleeper guys. We have to cover 50 states with our recruiting strategy, so we can only really focus on the top high school prospects in each state. If there's some stud LB 3 star in Mississippi, we won't get the inside info on that guy to offer him. Instead, we go after the higher profile 4star guy because we know about him from recruiting services, but maybe that guy doesn't project as well in college.

So what does this have to do with Nichols?? Well, Nichols and Collinsworth are two "sleeper" types that Kelly has already scouted for UC. These are guys that we would have never known about without Kelly's personal insight into them from his UC days. If Kelly feels like they can play, that's good enough for me. Might as well take guys he is familiar with at this point over other higher-profile guys that he might not know enough about to use a scholarship on.

It just goes to show how challenging the ND job can be. In a couple years, Kelly might not know about the Tate Nichols of the world because he won't have time to look for those types of guys and might not get as many tips from local high school coaches since he's coming in from out of state. He has to be out there looking for players in all 50 states, and there's no way he'll have time to study the film of a random 2star from Kentucky. Plus, Kelly will have to maintain relationships with high school coaches across the country and not just the Cincinnati area.

I don't mean this as a "woe is us" post because we do have a national brand that helps us of course. We are one of the few schools that can go out to Hawaii and land a guy like Manti Te'o. ND has a national recruiting profile that a lot of other schools would kill to have.

But I think it's a relevant point. Right now, Kelly is only familiar with players in the Cincinnati area and some pockets of Ohio and Florida. He can get local intel to find out about guys in those regions. Now that he's the head coach at ND, he has to be able to get intel on players in every state in the country. It's a difficult task, and I think it explains to some degree why we have so many busts in our recruiting classes. When you are stretched out in all these different states for recruits, we don't get quite the same info that the local schools migth get.

Anyway, 2011 and 2012 are the big recruiting years for Kelly. The current class is Charlie Weis' class. Maybe Kelly can add 4-5 guys of his own, but the bulk of the work on this class was done by Weis. If we finish up Weis' efforts by landing Barr and James and maybe Ferguson, that would be a coup. Ultimately, we won't really know about Kelly's recruiting philosophies at ND until the results come in for 2011 and 2012.

2) Some NFL thoughts from the weekend:

1) Chan Gailey?? Really Buffalo?? My word, just contract that franchise already. Buffalo is the most hopeless franchise in the league. I'm not even sure they're trying anymore. Chan Gailey will not be the head coach with Buffalo three years from today. Mark that down in pen.

2) Does the NFL have a placekicker problem?? How many choke jobs are we going to see out of NFL kickers in the playoffs this year?? This is unreal. Kaeding, Suisham, Graham, Rackers, etc. Was there some rule change last offseason that affected kickers?? I don't remember hearing anything. It's just strange that suddenly kickers have become unreliable this year from 40-50 yards out and even inside of 40 yards.

I always thought of a 40-45 yard kick as a borderline automatic in the NFL, especially in a dome. If a guy missed a kick inside of 45 yards, it was considered a shocker unless they were playing on bad turf or something. In the playoffs this year, it has become like 50/50.

I guess it makes the games wackier and more exciting, but I don't like it. It's jarring to me. It's the NFL, and these guys have one job to do. Hit your field goals. There are only 32 kicking jobs in the world. Kickers should not miss ANYTHING from inside 40 yards and only rarely inside 48 or so yards.

3) I can't embrace dome football. It's just not football to me. I don't necessarily like the sloppy conditions that you see on grass fields in Pittsburgh (and South Bend for that matter), but I like outdoor football. It's what I'm used to, and it's what I prefer. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best game of the weekend was at the one outdoor venue.

Then again, the dome is probably the one true homefield advantage left in pro football. You can build your team around the dome style of play, and the only teams that seem to play well in domes on the road are other dome teams. Somehow, the Lions still haven't figured this out.

I think the Jets have a HUGE disadvantage going into the Lucas Oil Dome this weekend. The Jets are built more like an AFC North team, and that's not always a good formula for winning in a dome. They are going to have to do something to disrupt the rhythm of the Colts.

4) Dumbest coaching move of the weekend BY FAR was Norv Turner going for the onside kick with over two minutes to go. Inexplicable to me. Not only could Rivers have taken them down the field for a field goal with a minute to go, he would have had an outside shot at leading them on a touchdown drive. He did the same thing against the Bengals a month ago with under a minute to go. In the NFL, you can go sixty yards in 3-4 plays. Even with no timeouts, you can do that in a minute with no problem.

Just an unbelievably bad, low percentage move by Norv Turner. How does he not have someone looking over his shoulder telling him to kick off there?? NFL coaches should spend an entire week every offseason charting out 4th quarter game management scenarios. You can steal 2-3 victories a year (including the playoffs) if you play your cards right and manage the clock well in the 4th quarter, especially when you are trying to come back. Using your timeouts properly, managing the clock, making good decisions, running a good 2 minute drill. Those things are CRITICAL in the NFL when you get in those close games.

5) How good is Peyton Manning?? When I watch the Colts, I'm really not even that impressed with the rest of their roster. They don't run the ball at all, and their receivers are just ok other than Reggie Wayne. It's not like they get a ton of separation. Manning just fits the ball in there perfectly.

The Colts do give Manning good pass protection, but I'm not even sure they'd be a playoff team with an average quarterback. Put Sanchez on the Colts, and some of those tight fits that Manning squeezes in there would either be interceptions or incompletions. I'm not even sure Sanchez would attempt some of the passes that Manning completes.

Manning is an unbelievable player. He singlehandedly throws that team on his back. Reminds me a lot of what LeBron does with the Cavs.

6) Somewhere Jim Tressel is wearing a New York Jets sweatshirt in his office at the Woody Hayes Center. Are we sure he hasn't been sitting somewhere in the shadows pulling the strings these last six weeks?? The Jets have basically taken a page out of The Senator's playbook. Aggressive defense, avoid turnovers, don't be afraid to punt, run the football, limit possessions, play the field position game, and score when you get your opportunities. The Jets have been playing this game masterfully. Doesn't hurt to have the best defensive player in the game blanketing receivers either.

Crazy thought raised by my brother. Would Jim Tressel be a good NFL coach if he took his formula to the pros?? I would have laughed at that statement a while back, but couldn't you make an argument for it?? You might even be able to make a case that he'd be a better fit for the pros. Good defense, manage the game, no turnovers, win the field position battle. Teams have won Super Bowls playing that way. The 07-08 Giants, the Ravens, the 80s and 90s Giants.

7) Meanwhile, the Vikings seem to be validating Brian Kelly's line of thinking on football. The Vikings are the ultimate "big chunk" team in the NFL. By "big chunk," I'm referring to the Brian Kelly term for big plays: runs over 15 yards and passes over 20 yards. Brian Kelly believes that the biggest key to success offensively is with these "big chunk" plays. I think it's an interesting theory and something that I agree with. We always had these long 9 play, 60 yard drives under Weis, but they often stalled out in the red zone. With Kelly, he wants big plays and touchdowns and designs his offense around that. The little bubble screens and crossing patterns and deep balls. All stuff designed to pick up big chunks. With Weis, we worked the sideline. With Kelly, he wants to spread it around and get guys in space. Big chunk. It's a great concept.

The Vikings are entirely built around this "big chunk" concept. Rice and Harvin are purely big play guys, and even Peterson is the same way. Peterson isn't a 29 carries, 116 yards kinda guy. He's a 16 carries, 108 yards kinda guy. They want big runs out of him. They drafted all those guys under this big play model, and it's working for them.

Even defensively, the Vikes are built around their playmakers. They built that roster around their defensive ends getting pressure and sacks. That's the same way Brian Kelly built his UC defense. Around his defensive ends and his secondary. BIG PLAYS.

I really like how the Vikings built their roster. They put a premium on the premium difference-making positions. WR, DE, CB, explosive RB, offensive tackles. If you get stars in those spots, you're going to be good. And now they have a quarterback who can bring it all together.

Anyway, thought that was interesting. The Vikings might not be methodical, but they can score in 4 plays better than anybody in the league. I think that's what we'll see out of Brian Kelly at ND.

Final thought on the Vikes. How come nobody ever raises the HGH issue with Brett Favre?? He's 40 years old and looks great. No one is suspicious about this??

I don't really care about roids, but I think it's funny that we crucify these baseball players for using the juice and then you have 40 year old quarterbacks running around making plays in the NFL and no one has even the slightest suspicion.

8) Finally, some picks for Sunday:

New Orleans over Minnesota -- I'll admit that I have no idea on this game. I feel like Minnesota has more talent and a better defense, but these dome stadiums seem to create ridiculous home field advantages with all the noise. The Vikes have been iffy on the road all year. I'll go with the Saints and not feel remotely confident about it.

"I'm feelin kinda Shockey." And the Who Dat song was on!!! It's a Party in the M.I.A.! Any reason to throw on a Miley Cyrus Saints parody is reason enough for me to pick the Saints.

Indy over the Jets -- Just feels like the party is about to end for the Jets in Indy. The Colts in the dome?? Man, tough matchup. Manning is a maestro at home in that dome. Even if you play the field position game with the Colts, they can move the ball down the field and go 80 yards. The Jets are going to be on their heels the entire game, and it's only a matter of time before Manning breaks through if you keep giving him the ball time after time because your offense can't do a thing. I just don't think the Jets have enough playmakers to win a game like this on the road.

Then again, if there's one team that could shut down Manning this year, it's gotta be the Jets. The Colts cannot run the ball at all, and you know Revis will shut down Wayne. So basically Rex Ryan has all week to figure out ways to get pressure on Manning and devise coverages to neutralize Clark, Garcon, Collie. Can it be done?? Maybe. The fact that the Jets can narrow the key to this game down to one facet like that gives them a fighting chance.

Jets need turnovers, they need to be able to run it and get some plays out of Sanchez, and they need to hope Manning isn't red hot. Honestly, I will not be shocked at all if this game is very close in the fourth quarter. Also wouldn't be shocked if the Colts are cruising in the fourth quarter up 21-6. Gotta go with the Colts at home.

1) At this point, I think Swarbrick is just rubbing it in to get a reaction with this scheduling stuff. This quote in the South Bend Tribune is almost laughable if it weren't also probably true.

Q: Is there an urgency to get a Big 12 or SEC team on the schedule beyond the upcoming home-and-home with Oklahoma?

A: “We do have that series with Oklahoma, but beyond that, not particularly. I think there are schools that make sense for us for any number of reasons.

“I'd like to try and figure out how to keep the Stanford relationship, because in so many ways, that's an institution we like to do business with and have multiple relationships with across the university.

“I'd like to do more with Duke and Wake and some of those schools. It's really more institutionally focused - what's a good fit for Notre Dame? What sort of looks and feels like us?”

Unreal. At this point, if the future schedules consist of USC, the Big Ten, and the "Geek Squad," at what point does it become more appealing to play a conference schedule (including a possible conference championship game) for football?? I would like to remain an independent as much as anyone and maintain our national brand and play a national schedule, but our "independence" feels more and more like the mid-majorization of Notre Dame football. We are slowly morphing into Boise State East with these future schedules of two big time teams a year with a bunch of mediocre programs, service academies, Big East teams, and academic peers sandwiched between. If USC goes into the tank under Lane Kiffin, no one is going to take us seriously as a major football program even if we go undefeated. Can you imagine the vitriol of the Pat Fordes and Stewart Mandels of the world if we run the table one year with our best win being over an 8-4 USC team or a 7-5 Michigan State team?? They are going to do everything possible to marginalize us, and probably deservedly so since we won't have a conference championship game to prop us up either.

I have no problem playing schools like Wake and Duke as "filler" one-off home opener type games, but not as marquee games that we are actively seeking out, especially in lieu of playing big time home and homes with the Tennessees and LSUs of the world. Are we a big time football program or is this a math league competition?? I can't believe Swarbrick went out of his way to mention those schools as desirable opponents.

I hate to say this, but I'm looking at potential schedules involving Miami, FSU, VT, Clemson, Georgia Tech, BC,etc if we joined the ACC or OSU, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Wisky, MSU, Illinois, etc if we joined the Big Ten, and they have some appeal to me. They certainly look more appealing than the schedules we are going to play as an independent going forward, especially if we use available spots for "long term partnerships" with the Wakes and Dukes and Northwesterns and Stanfords of the world instead of playing a few interesting Big 12 or SEC teams. I would love to go down to Virginia Tech or Miami for road trips, and maybe we could keep our annual games with USC and Navy in the "nonconference" schedule. It has far more appeal to me than these bogus neutral site games and one-off "buy games" with Wake and Duke.

With that said, I would reiterate that I don't want to join a conference. Our brand comes from our independence and national appeal, and regionalizing ND would be problematic in terms of differentiating ourselves from the rest of the pack. I don't want to become Midwestern Catholic U any more than anyone else does, and I hope that we can find a compromise to continue playing strong football schedules as an independent. But I must say that the football schedules would look far better in a conference than what Swarbrick and Heisler seem to be floating out there for us. That scheduling memorandum from a year or two ago was incredibly troubling because you can see that the wheels are in motion to keep this new scheduling policy in place for many years to come.

I'm trying to figure out the motivation of the collars and athletic department for this about face on scheduling. Is it just about money?? Is it fear of playing tougher schedules and the "heavyweights" in college football?? Is it a desire to manufacture 10-2 seasons and BCS dollars?? Is it a general repulsion of what the big time "football factories" are doing and a desire to stay away from them?? Is it an attempt to curry favor with the academic schools and try to align ourselves with them??

Just seems like they are sending mixed messages. We've hired this great new coach with an expectation that he will compete for championships with the big boys, but then we talk about playing the Wakes and Dukes of the world because they are "schools that feel like us." Which one are we going to be??


OC Domer said...

That's one heck of a post Doug. I especially agree with you that Coach Kelly's recruiting approach is probably going to surprise/worry a lot of folks. He doesn't seem too interested in "stars." He wants football players who fit his system and fit his profile of RKGs. I think the result will be recruiting classes that don't look as impressive on paper, but that will hopefully look better on Saturdays.

Matt said...

As a soon to be Wake Forest alum, I feel the need to stand up for my school. If you can't respect the job that Jim Grobe has done....who am I kidding. I can't even type this with a straight face. As Mike Gundy would say, that whole interview with Swarbrick made me want to puke. To Notre Dame, I would ask, "Where are we at in society?"

Anonymous said...

Great blog, as usual.

I would say for my part that I think ND can easily stay on top on virtually all the sleepers out there in any state in the nation - easily. Do you think they have a subscription to Rivals.com? If so, then they have virtually all the meaningful access they would ever need to at least get a minimal line on any possibly worthwhile sleepers to go after late in the game. And if these guys really are sleepers, then they are likely to be open to a big school like ND even if it was late in the process. As to regional "sleepers" that commit early and are quietly taken off the market, maybe you're right. You can't recruit everybody.

But I still don't think it's much of a problem. I figure the coaches have fairly easy access to meaningfully learning of just about any conceivable D-1 prospect they might want to offer, even at a sufficiently early stage in the process. Not EVERY last one, but still plenty.

As always, IMO, it will come down to a question of political will, so to speak. Will the coaches have the balls to offer, in May or July or October, some guy with only a couple of MAC offers and maybe a Purdue or BC offer as well? That's all any coach needs to recruit sleepers. Guts. And you must know as well as anyone how slavishly and fiercely devoted most of ND nation is to the cult of "elite" recruits. Maybe Kelly will break the mold.

But again, great blog, even if I often don't agree with you.