April 27, 2010

Blue Gold Game recap: Thoughts on Brian Kelly's offense, Dayne Crist, Cierre "Mist" Wood, TJ Jones, the tight end shovel pass, and the turf problem.

You really can't beat football in late April. Spring practice just gets the blood flowing for college football season. Unfortunately, now we have four long months of waiting until the regular season begins. Time to saddle up to the Triple Crown, the PGA Tour, the tennis majors, some MLB action, and NBA and NHL playoffs for a sports fix until football starts back up in July and August.

For you PGA Tour fans out there, figured I'd direct your attention to a great new golf blog called Village Green Golf. Highly-entertaining stuff, and written by the two most knowledgeable PGA Tour fans I know (or will ever know for that matter).

Anyway, some general thoughts on Brian Kelly followed by some awards.

Two things really jumped out at me from over the weekend about Brian Kelly that make me think we might have finally found the right (kinda) guy at Notre Dame.

1) Presence -- I don't know what it is, but Kelly really seems to have the head man persona down pat. With the great coaches, they just have this presence that creates an identity for their teams. Guys like Izzo and Coach K and Saban and Tressel and others. They always seem to look like they are in control and know exactly what they are doing. There's an "In ____ I trust" element to following those teams. In the end, you just know those guys are going to find a way.

Kelly has a little bit of that. I remember hearing him speak in the early days at Cincinnati, and I was struck by how confident he was that he was going to come in and win right away. I had just graduated from law school at UC at the time and didn't know much about the guy, but it felt like a foregone conclusion that he was going to win big at UC. I mean, this is UC. The home of 12,000 people in the stands and 96th ranked recruiting classes.

But suddenly they just started winning games and it never stopped the whole time Kelly was there. Just when you thought he couldn't possibly take UC higher, he'd pull off a win that UC had no business winning. I remember sitting in stunned amazement watching UC go out to Rutgers in the opener this year (people forget that everyone thought 2009 was going to be a rebuilding year for UC and that the over/under on wins for them was 6.5 in Vegas before the year) and just lay the wood to them. 47-15. That might have been one of the five most impressive wins of the entire college football season.

He's been the same way at ND. It's a complete contrast from the previous three coaches.

Davie had charisma to some degree (he was always great in the pep rallies and still is great on tv as an analyst), but he always put out a "this job is bigger than me" vibe at ND. And he didn't really try to hide it. Davie couldn't wait to tell you how hard the ND job was or how overhwelmed he was by the pressure. You knew he knew football, but I don't think his teams ever took him too seriously as the leader of their team.

With Ty, he took the opposite approach. He didn't know anything, but he played coy and acted stoic hoping that no one would figure out that he didn't know anything. People bought into it the first year, but there's only so many times you can speak in cliche and generalities before people wonder what's going on. Tressel is like this in public, but it's all an act. With Ty, that was basically it. He was stoic because there really was no substance behind what he was saying or doing.

Weis put out a thinly-veiled "this job is bigger than me" vibe too, but he tried to hide it with a bunch of nonsense and false bravado. Weis was like a giant Ponzi scheme. He was able to sell quite a bit of hype, but there was nothing behind it. Weis embraced high expectations, but unfortunately, he didn't have enough experience to meet them.

With Kelly, you don't see any of those massive flaws. He's not compaining about high standards. He embraces them. He's great in the community and seems to really understand the political aspect of being a head coach. He's got a staff that practically worships him and is completely on message. He's very candid with the media, but in a good way. When I listen to Kelly, I'm always learning something about football or recruiting or why he does the things he does. With Weis, I don't think he had any type of overriding philosophy for how to run a program. Kelly is VERY specific when he talks about what he is trying to accomplish in all aspects of the program.

It's just night and day. Kelly acts like a guy who really knows what he's doing, and he actually has the substance to back it up when you listen to him talk about football.

2) Personal conduct policy -- Maybe this isn't a big deal, but I think it's telling that there's a lot less trash talk and other B.S. with the team this year. In fact, I think I read that it has been prohibited under a new personal conduct policy. I think that's awesome, and exactly what this team needed.

Seems like our team was so caught up in its own hype the last few years. No offense to Jimmy Clausen and Brian Smith and others, but scoring a touchdown against freaking Hawaii is not cause to celebrate like you just won the BCS championship. That should be the bare minimum. Act like you've been there before. Brian Smith was woofing every time he made a tackle even if the guy was already five yards dwon the field. Instead of spending so much time running his mouth, how about making some plays?? How about winning some games before you act like you're the big man on campus??

I would like to see more winning and less jawing. WIN GAMES. Let's go 11-1 and then get excited about it. Beating Nevada or Hawaii is not cause to act like you've arrived.

It all started at the top though with Weis. Weis would practically hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner on our sideline if we so much as played a decent half. He'd start puffing his chest out to Alex Flanagan during the halftime interview like we had the game in the bag. I'm sure that rubbed off in the locker room. Weis had a litle of the Marvin Lewis complex of telling his guys how great they were at the half, making no adjustments, and suddenly we let the game slip away in the 2nd half. You gotta stay on top of it.

Discipline, discipline, discipline. It's so important in college football. Kelly gets that. He doesn't buy into all the hype, and he's going to stay on these guys for 60 minutes. Attention to detail is so critical.

Maybe I shouldn't be buying into the hype just yet, but I think ND has finally stumbled into a high-quality proven head coach. Hope he can start turning this program around on September 4, 2010.

General observations on the Brian Kelly offense from the spring game:

1) The tight end shovel pass -- Absolutely love that play. I think Gary Danielson would literally pump his fist every time Florida did it with Aaron Hernandez last year. It's almost unstoppable because no one ever seems to see it coming. The tight end just slides down the line and.....BOOM. He's got the ball with a wall of blockers up the middle. It's such a cool play. Like the triple option but on the interior.

Great to see that we are running that now. Could be a great red zone option for us. As good as our offense was under Weis, it was never all that efficient in the red zone. We were either running it up the middle, trying a play action (which teams started sniffing out), or throwing a fade to the corner. It just got old and predictable after awhile, and the only reason it was relatively successful is because of great individual efforts by Tate and Floyd. By the end of the year, we always seemed to be running on fumes offensively.

With Kelly's playbook, we're a lot less predictable down there with plays like the tight end shovel pass and stuff like that. I expect to see a lot of reverses and middle screens when you least expect it. No matter where we are on the field, one principle overrides everything for Kelly: GET THE BALL TO YOUR PLAYMAKERS IN SPACE.

2) The Pace - WHOA. Basketball on grass. Up-tempo, high-energy. Fun to watch. Is Tom Hammond going to be able to keep up with this??

Whether you like it or not, I get the strategy behind it. Kelly wants to put pressure on the other team to keep up. It just seems to create a sense of urgency with your team, and also a little rhythm. I still think back to the first half of that Michigan State game when we came out no huddle and looked like we were going to blow them out of the building. Then we sort of took our foot off the peddle and let them back in the game. Kelly wants to create urgency to play like that offensively for 60 minutes.

And even though it sells out the defense a little bit, I do think there's a psychological benefit to scoring quickly and putting pressure on the other offense to keep up. Every time Purdue gets the ball in the opener, I want them to feel like they have to score. That leads to risky moves and turnovers.

3) The "clap snap" -- Heard this term for our new snapping method. The quarterback slaps his hands together violently to signal for the snap. It just looks goofy, but whatever. I'll get used to it. Nothing will ever top the Brady Quinn squat in terms of goofy QB mannerisms, but this "clap snap" thing will be oft-imitated by 7 year old ND fans playing backyard football with their buddies.

The hurry-up, no-huddle offenses do feel a little micromanaged with the quarterback always looking to the sideline for the play and all that, but it does seem to work. If everyone else is doing it, we might as well keep up with the trend.

4) Rollouts and quick hitters -- I also like the shotgun and the rollouts and all the quick hitters. The rollout is such an underrated play in football.

Maybe this offense isn't your classic NFL style offense, but I don't care about that stuff anymore. Win games, and players will get a look in the NFL. See Tebow, Tim. Same with Colt McCoy for that matter (who basically played in the Brian Kelly offense the last four years).

5) Running game -- Tough to tell if the running game really was good or just a product of the vanilla defenses, but I'd really like to see ND run the ball more effectively this year. Once you get into the games against the elite teams, it's hard to win when you are completely one-dimensional. Even with Cincy, they really did not play well against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl a couple years ago, and a big reason for it (besides VT just having better personnel overall) is that they had no balance on offense. Every person in the building knew Pike was throwing it every down, and he had his worst game as a result.

For the most part, Cincy ran it about 30 or so times a game under Kelly, but their running game was really not that great other than the games where Collaros ran with it. There may be some mitigating circumstances since Cincy did not have much up front or a big time stable of running backs, but I'd like to see Kelly create a more effective running game at ND.

I'm fine with a pass-oriented offense, but if we want to win BCS bowl games, we have to be able to run it to some degree. ND has plenty of 4 star types that we have recruited along the o-line, so there's really no excuse not to be able to run it.

The other reason why I really want to be able to run it this year is that it takes some of the pressure off Dayne Crist. Crist should not have to throw it 40 times a game this year. If we can pound the ball with Allen and Hughes and Gray and Wood, we should do it as much as possible. In fact, we should go into the Purdue game looking to shove it down their throat.

The running game looked good on Saturday. Hope we can keep that rolling into the year.

6) Overall, I expect this offense to eventually be very effective at ND. People are going to complain at times (me included), but that's the nature of the beast. No coach has ever gone an entire career at a school without being criticized for something. But I like what I've seen. This is much more of a college offense than the Weis offense, but I like that. If Lou Holtz can build dominant teams at ND running the triple option, it goes to show that the scheme doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is execution.

Time for some awards:

The Junior Jabbie Award for "spring game all stars that have the fanbase a little bit too excited": Jonas Gray, Nate Montana

I just went back and looked at last year's preview and saw that last year's winners of the "Junior Jabbie Award" were Jonas Gray and Nate Montana! I literally could just repost what I wrote about both those guys last year because I think it's applicable to some degree again this year.

Jonas Gray -- I like how he runs, but I need to see it consistently before I believe it. This is the 2nd year in a row where Gray looked like the best running back on the team at the spring game, but we gotta remember that he's doing this again 2nd and 3rd teamers in a practice setting against vanilla defenses. In other words, he's running through guys who don't belong out there, and it's not a high-pressure environment.

One thing I've noticed about spring games in general (and no one hypes up spring game performances more than me...I was ready to look into flights to Glendale by mid-2nd quarter on Saturday) is that offenses always look good in the spring game. And the running game always seems to look like a juggernaut. I don't have the football acumen to know why that is, but running backs don't just rip off 20 yard runs play after play like that.

Gray has had a few flashes in his career where I started to believe that he was going to break out and be a legitimate player in this offense. But he hasn't done it under the bright lights.

I hope this is the year, but I've read a few too many "Jonas Gray should be the feature back this year" posts in the last couple days. If he's bulldozing Purdue and Michigan, sign me up. Until then, there's a reason why he's a 2nd stringer right now.

Nate Montana -- Ok, I'll admit, Nate Dogg looked good out there. I mean, he was throwing some really nice passes into tight spots, especially to the tight ends. And I will admit that hearing the words "Montana checking into the game" out of Mike Collins ALWAYS puts a little charge into me. But he's still very much a work in progress, and it's impossible to get a full read on him based on the spring game. Last year, he might have been the offensive MVP of the game, and yet he was off the team like a month later.

I do think he looks better than he did last year, and I think the Kelly offense is a better fit for his skills. If he has to come into a game this year, maybe he can hold his own if we give him some rollouts and things like that. But personally, I'd rather not find out.

The Brent Musberger "FOOTRACE!" Award: Cierre Wood

Smoeone had to inherit the "Footrace" nickname from Joe McKnight. Might as well be Cierre Wood.

I thought he was the most impressive running back of the day. Very explosive, great balance, nose for the end zone, rips through tackles, stays on his feet. One missed tackle, and he could be gone. He's the heir apparent to Golden Tate for guys who could go the distance at any time.

Cierre Wood also wins the Grant Irons Award for players who just look great in their pads. If you looked at every guy on our team and had to pick out our best player/athlete purely on how they looked in their uniform, I'd go with Cierre Wood. He just looks like he should be good.

I don't know how this running back depth chart is going to shape up, but Cierre Wood has to be on the field. I like Armando Allen as a steady hand, but he's just not explosive enough for my liking. I'd like to see a running back emerge who plays like Golden Tate. A guy who you cannot bring down with arm tackles and fights for every single yard before a herd of 3-4 guys has to bring him down.

Anyway, I'm really excited about the Cierre Wood era. He needs a nickname. Cierre Mist?? The Cierre Club?? Cierre Nevada?? We have an inbox to the right. Someone chime in with some suggestions.

The Derek Curry award for "underrated players who could have a sneaky good year": Gary Gray

The tackling was pretty terrible, but one guy who really seemed to stick his nose in there all day was Gary Gray. I think he might be our best corner this year. He's coming off a little bit of a comeback year, and now he looks like he might be ready to make the leap and be a leader on the defense.

As for the other corners, Blanton looked like he has his mojo back a little bit, but Walls didn't do it for me.

Then again, I thought Blanton looked like our best corner last year at the spring game, and he was awful last year. Stay tuned.

The Anthony Weaver award for "freshman who doesn't play like a freshman": Tai-Ler Jones

Wow, very impressive debut for TJ Jones (really glad we can officially call him TJ since "Tai-Ler" is sort of a pain to type). He's like a very rich man's Deion Walker. Pretty thin and lanky, but very smooooooooth, fluid, catches everything, just seems to do everything with ease. Seems like he runs perfect routes and always finds a way to get open. He's not as physically imposing as a guy like Michael Floyd, but makes up for it by being really polished.

Also seems like a perfect fit in the slot position for Kelly's offense. Big time future ahead for #7. I can see why he was at the top of the depth chart.

Should be interesting to see how the receiver position stacks up. We have a ton of options out there with Kamara, Floyd, Evans, Goodman on the outside and Jones and Riddick in the slot.

The Justin Tuck Awards for "breakout stars who everyone knew would be breakout stars someday": Manti Te'o

I don't have much to say about the defense mainly because (a) the defense didn't look very good and (b) the format is never really favorable to the defense, but I can't do a Blue Gold game recap without at least mentioning Manti Te'o. WOW. What a stud! Te'o is in line for a slew of 18 tackle type days. Really going to have a great career at ND, and he's the only guy on our defense who looks like an elite player. If he's not a high NFL draft pick in three years, I'll be stunned.

The Nick Setta Award for "special teams player of the game": Ben Turk

Thought Turk looked good. Placekicking did not, but it's early. Maybe I've listened to too many Jim Tressel quotes, but good punting is important. At the very least, hit it solid and get it down the field. Changing the field position is an underrated game within the game.

The Julius Jones Award for "comeback player of the year": Steve Filer and Brandon Newman

A little disappointing last year for both these guys, but I thought they both looked good Saturday. I think the "Filer is a USC-type linebacker" type stuff is a little overstated, but he looks like he could be a playmaker at OLB. Same with Newman on the interior.

Sort of interesting that we went with the 4-3 defense so often on Saturday. Is that going to be more of a regular occurrence than we expected??

The Ron Powlus "unreasonably high expectations" award: Dayne Crist

This is a tough spot. I thought he played fine on Saturday, but it's clear that Dayne is very much a work in progress. For every great throw he made, you could point out a tipped ball or a pass that just wasn't on target. I will admit that I have been spoiled by Jimmy Clausen a little bit. Clausen literally did not miss throws. With Dayne, it feels like we're going back to Brady Quinn a little bit. He gives you some new dimensions in terms of playmaking, but you have to live with some bad balls.

Three good things though:

1) Arm strength - One thing that is nice is that Dayne has a rocket arm. That throw to TJ Jones in the corner for the touchdown was a bullet.

The potential is there. Even though he might not be as accurate as Jimmy Clausen, Crist can make some throws that Jimmy didn't necessarily attempt in college. Brian Kelly runs a lot of deep crossing routes, and that looks like a throw that Crist will have no problem making.

2) Mobility -- Even coming off ACL surgery, Crist is substantially more mobile than Jimmy C. He's going to take off and make some plays this year with his legs, and we might see some designed runs for him.

I really like rollout passes in college football. Moving the pocket and giving a QB a run/pass option always seems like a good thing to me. And it creates some great opportunities for misdirection stuff and throwbacks and things like that.

3 Brian Kelly -- As Jimmy alluded to in his post last week, Kelly has a system for quarterbacks. If there's one guy who is going to be able to get production out of Dayne Crist in his first year, it's Brian Kelly.

The fact that Zach Collaros (3 star nobody out of Steubenville High School) emerged as a superstar in Brian Kelly's offense at Cincinnati is all I need to know about the Brian Kelly system. They literally threw this guy in there, and he proceeded to play out of his mind for a month when Pike went down. I don't know what Kelly does to prepare these guys, but it works.

Ultimately, I think Crist will have a good year. By the end of the year, I think we'll be really excited about him going into 2011 (like Heisman talk excited). But I think it's clear that there will be growing pains along the way.

The Dr. Kevin White Award for "off the field issue that bugs me": The condition of the turf

Not much the groundscrew could do about it with the rain, but just seeing that sloppy field reminded me of all the lousy turfs we've played on the last 4-5 years. ND Stadium becomes a complete mudpit by about mid-October. It's not fair to our players to have to play on that sloppy track. It turns the game into a crapshoot, and I think it takes away from our home field advantage. We have these teams built around the passing game, and yet we're running around on this dogtrack with sloppy footing.

I don't have a solution for this issue, but it's poor form. We can and should have a better field. I don't really want to switch to field turf, but there might not be a choice. Somehow Lambeau Field seems to stay in pristine condition year round. Maybe we could consult their groundskeepers on how to manage a grass field in cold weather conditions.

Last thing I want to see is another sloppy game against some schmuck team like UConn and losing to them because our guys are slipping all over the place.

Overall impressions:

The feeling that I got from watching the game was that we're an 8-4ish kinda team but with a hunger to do better. Still working out the kinks offensively, probably not great defensively, new quarterback who is not quite there yet, and maybe some of the usual up and downs associated with a new head coach. But there's talent everywhere, and the guys are going to be chomping at the bit to redeem themselves.

The schedule is interesting. It's probably the lightest schedule I've ever seen for an ND team (I feel like I say that every year these days), but the front end doesn't provide much breathing room and there are a lot of "desperate" teams on this schedule. On paper, BC and Michigan State are 7-5/8-4 type teams, but we're going to get everything they can throw at us at night on the road. USC is going to be a bear of course, and we have a slew of hungry, veteran teams like Michigan, Stanford, Pitt, and even Utah at home.

I think ND has the talent to do something great this year. We have the talent to beat anyone on the schedule other than maybe SC (who is going through their own transition period). But it also wouldn't shock me to see us drop two or three road games and trip up against 1-2 teams at home. I think it's reasonable to talk about a BCS type year, but also realistic to point to 8-4/9-3 with a Gator Bowl bid as a solid first year for the Kelly regime.

Should be interesting. Can't wait for September 4 to roll around.

April 23, 2010

Dayne Crist Expectations: Year 1

With hype and speculation sure to reach a fevered pitch this Blue Gold Weekend, a healthy dose of reality might be in order to measure everyone's expectations for Dayne Crist in his first year behind center. One way to gauge the offense's newly anointed leader is to look at what his predecessors accomplished in their first seasons. Quinn and Clausen are the most relevant comparisons. (I wanted to include the stats of all first year QBs dating back to the post-Tony Rice era, but I resisted. Relevance trumped nostalgia this go round. Apologies to all the Ron Powlus, Jarious Jackson, Carlyle Holiday, Rick Mirer, Kevin McDougal and Matt Lovecchio fans out there. Do Matt Lovecchio fans even exist beyond blood relatives?) Back to the comparison:

Clausen: 138-245 (56.3%), 1,254 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT
Quinn: 157-332 (47.3%), 1,831 yards, 9 TD, 15 INT

Granted, the circumstances of Quinn and Clausen getting thrown to the wolves as freshmen signal callers, coupled with sieves of offensive lines, skew these numbers a bit. Crist has spent two years acclimating to the college game and shouldn't have as steep a learning curve, nor the line woes (let's hope).

So maybe a more appropriate comparison would be the last three quarterbacks Brian Kelly has coached in their respective first seasons running his spread offense:

LeFevour: 247-388 (63.7%), 3,031 yards, 26 TD, 10 INT
Mauk: 235-386 (60.9%), 3,121 yards, 31 TD, 9 INT
Pike: 199-324 (61.4%), 2,407 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT

Kelly recruited Dan LeFevour to Central Michigan and coached him in 2006, his freshman year. (LeFevour would finish his career as the all-time NCAA leader with 150 total TDs and 2nd all-time in total offensive yards. That's NCAA history! Needless to say, Kelly has an eye for quarterbacks). When Kelly moved to Cincinnati in '07, he tabbed Ben Mauk as starter, a transfer from Wake Forest who started 10 games over two seasons before wrecking his throwing arm on a freak play. Mauk didn't have to sit out a year (his wiki explains) and adopted the Kelly offense with ease, leading the team to a 10-3 record and its first winning season in the Big East. Tony Pike fared the worst, statistically, of Kelly's first-timers, but outperformed Clausen and Quinn considerably.

A conservative estimate, an average of those three seasons, suggests the following year 1 totals:

Crist: 227-366 (62%), 2,853 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT

Not to read too far into extrapolating on other people's numbers, but this suggests a fairly reasonable expectation of the year ahead, given the circumstances. The numbers would dwarf the first impressions Quinn and Clausen made on Irish fans. If Crist matches or, heaven forbid, exceeds this estimate, ND Nation would be ecstatic and a new star would be born.

Only 134 days until these expectations take root in reality.

April 22, 2010

Blue Gold Game Preview: Thoughts on Theo Riddick, Bob Diaco, the 3-4 defense, Dayne Crist, and why more ND fans should be fired up about Brian Kelly.

Time to gear up for the Notre Dame spring game, so I figured I'd throw down some thoughts as we come to the conclusion of spring practice. Hope the weather holds up on Saturday. What a great weekend for football. NFL draft starts up tonight, more NFL action on Friday and Saturday, and then the ND spring game on Saturday. You really can't beat football talk in April. I was not crazy about the NFL Draft moving to Thursday, but I'll admit I'm excited. Darn you Roger Goodell. Guess you knew that the hardcore fans would come around and buy in.

Anyway, these are the big questions on my mind heading into the Blue Gold game.

1) What grade would you give Brian Kelly for the offseason so far??

I'd probably give him an A, but he hasn't coached a game yet and I probably should cool my heels until he does so. But I like everything I've seen and heard out of Brian Kelly so far on multiple fronts:

1) Recruiting -- People seem to be jumping down Kelly's throat about his recruiting, but I'm not seeing the cause for concern at all. I said the day that he was hired that Kelly would turn out to be a better and more effective recruiter than Charlie Weis, and that is exactly how things are playing out so far. We are really poised to make some noise in the next month or so.

The thing that I like about Kelly is that he's not just adding positions or addressing needs, which I think is how Weis approached the recruiting game. Weis was a grab-bagger when it came to recruiting. Shocking I know. One year, he'd be into 3-4 bodies, the next year he'd be into 4-3 guys, then he'd be into tall corners and then short corners and then big running backs and then smaller guys. There was no method to the Weis madness mainly because he had no understanding for personnel and no real feel for how he wanted to construct his roster. How can you have guys competing for jobs when you don't even know what skill set you're looking for??

Meanwhile, Kelly is all about specific body types and skill sets. He's offered like 50 of these 6'5", 250 raptor types to play OLB in his 3-4 defense. Give him an athlete, and he will find a position for you.

Seems like Kelly's entire recruiting apparatus is built around getting playmakers. He wants duel threat QBs who are athletic and can run and throw and make plays. He wants receivers who can be explosive in space. He wants linemen who can move and be quick on their feet. And he wants linebackers who are going to wreak havoc on the perimeter and get to the quarterback.

Kinda like how the NFL teams build their rosters. How many times have we heard Kiper and others say that the NFL places a premium on quarterbacks, wide receivers, pass rushers, athletic offensive tackles, and corners?? Kelly's mindset seems to mirror that.

2) Player Development -- Really like some of the personnel moves we've made. Seems like a lot of guys are back in positions where they can make plays. Neal and Smith could be great at OLB, Ethan Johnson is a much better fit at defensive end, love the Theo Riddick move (more on that in a bit), and I like some of the position changes on the offensive line. That unit with Robinson and Martin at tackle suddenly looks a lot more athletic and agile.

How many times has Kelly talked about player development as his #1 priority in coaching?? It's not a coincidence that all these dudes from Cincinnati and Central Michigan are about to get drafted. Would Tony Pike even be sniffing the NFL Draft if it wasn't for Brian Kelly?? No way.

I don't know what the secret is to player development, but Kelly has the credentials.

3) Coaching staff -- Are you kidding me?? I'm loving this assistant coaching staff. Tons of energy and passion and fire. A complete contrast from Weis' cronies.

How great is Bob Diaco?? YOUNG GUNS! How many years have we been talking on this site about guys like Will Muschamp and Major Applewhite and all these young gun assistants on the other big time staffs?? It's about time we finally have our own high-energy young gun defensive coordinator who is going nuts on the sideline and rumored for a bunch of high-profile jobs down the road. Kelly saw something in this guy a couple years ago, and you can already see what he liked about Diaco. Would not be shocked at all if he's running a program of his own in 3-4 years.

Same with Tony Alford. He is all over the place working "The Trail." If he can pull in Aaron Lynch in the next couple weeks, it's time to start talking about him in the same breath as Brian Polian in terms of recruiting.

Even Elston and Martin are out there working it. Just seems like all these guys are 100% dialed in and totally committed to the Kelly system. Give me a cohesive staff of hungry guys, and I'm excited.

On paper, this offseason couldn't have gone any better, but it seems like people are still really cautious about Brian Kelly. I completely understand where ND fans are coming from, but it's like we used up all our "In Coach We Trust" energy on Willingham and Weis and now everyone is beaten down. I get it, but it bums me out to read the constant "win games and then I'll get excited" refrain on the message boards.

This is the one guy out of the last three hires that we actually should be excited about. He actually has a system, he has a track record, he's won everywhere he's coached, he's recruiting well, he seems to understand motivation and personnel, and he's saying things that we really haven't heard since Holtz. He's the first coach we've hired who doesn't buy into all the hype. If you're not performing, he's going to call you out on it.

I think his honeymoon has gone really well. Even the skeptics are slowly warming up to Kelly.

2) Do you have any concerns about Kelly??

Well, truthfully, I'm not crazy about his offense. It's probably not a fair criticism since it's more of a personal preference thing, but the pass spread doesn't feel like football to me. I know Oklahoma and Texas and pretty much everybody is running the pass spread these days and doing just fine with it, but I like to see my team imposing its will on the other squad. There's just something about playing a power style where you move the line of scrimmage and grind out games and hit big play action when they are selling out for the run that gets the blood flowing for me. Watching Alabama just DESTROY Florida with the power game last year or USC when they had it rolling is what I'd secretly love to see ND doing on offense.

I've watched a LOT of Cincinnati football in the last three years, and I will say that there's a little bit of a gimmicky element to what they do. It's effective, but it almost feels a little flukish. It's the kind of offense where they were in 3rd and 8 a lot after two incompletions and then just came through with some great bubble screen call that goes for 25 yards. Is it great execution?? Yes, but it's not the same "we're kicking the crap out of you and there's nothing you can do to stop it" feeling that you get when you really have it rolling.

Having said that, it really doesn't matter what you run in college football. The key is that you execute well. Heck, Lou Holtz ran the same five plays at ND, and no one could stop it because we ran those plays so well. Kelly's entire offense is built around getting his playmakers in space with the ball, playing up tempo, and executing big plays. He doesn't care if he starts off with two incompletions because the third one could go for 25 yards. And they PRACTICE this stuff ad nauseum. Catching the ball in traffic, making good decisions, getting his linemen to block well in space, conditioning to keep the tempo up, etc. You win with execution. That is what Kelly will bring to the table.

And I wouldn't be shocked if his offense is a lot more diverse at ND now that he has superior talent. He might be able to run the ball more effectively, and we will definitely get the tight end involved a lot (that was the case at UC as well).

Our offense is going to be fine. Probably great in fact. Wouldn't be surprised if the offense is better under Kelly than it was under Weis. But it's not my favorite offense in the world.

3) What position change are you most excited about??

Theo Riddick! Color me pumped about this move! If there's one guy who I could see blowing up as a superduperstar this year, it's Theo Riddick.

There's a reason why Kelly moved him to wide receiver. Wide receiver is the glamour position in this offense. Riddick said as much in his interview. Kelly wants to get his best athletes at wide receiver, and Riddick might be the best athlete on the team. I thought he looked spectacular last year at running back. Explosive, big time moves, great balance. Couldn't he be a star in the Mardy Gilyard role in this offense the next couple years??

Kelly is all about these "big chunk" plays. Reverses, bubble screens, slants, middle screens. He wants to get the ball to Riddick in space, break a tackle, and........FOOTRACE! Just call it The Musberger Special.

I'm going on record that Theo Riddick has like 50 catches this year and 7-8 touchdowns. If I'm wrong, well...this is a spring preview. Bear with me.

As for the rest of the wide receiver position, I'd be pretty happy to see Duval Kamara have a bounceback year, and I think Goodman will be a great 3rd-4th option as a possession guy. Not sure what to expect of Shaq Evans. I was really excited to see him last year, but was pretty underwhelmed by his athleticism. Just not as explosive as I thought he'd be. Honestly, I didn't see a huge difference between Evans and Toma.

Might also keep an eye on Tai-Ler Jones. Sounds like he has really looked good in spring camp. Could be a star someday.

4. What are your feelings on the 3-4 defense?

Kind of a mixed bag. Biggest concern for me on defense is depth and the front seven. You win on defense in your front seven. You can have athletes and all kinds of things going on at other positions, but you have to have the horses up front up front to win. Get pressure and stop the run. How many times have we seen that year after year?? Need to put defenses in 2nd and 3rd and long and find ways to get stops. GET STOPS. Get off the field. Last year, even when our defense came to play (which was rare), we'd wilt in the 4th quarter. That UConn game was the saddest thing I've ever seen. FREAKING UCONN literally was ramming it down our throat play after play after play, and we couldn't stop it. Read that again. The UConn Huskies. Ugh.

I'm not a huge fan of the 3-4 college defense, especially since I don't think we have dominant personnel up front. It's so important to be able to win the line of scrimmage in college football, and I don't think these linemen really understand their assignments when it comes to running a 3-4. I'm just having nightmares of running backs ripping 4-5 yards through the line before they even get touched because our d-line is overwhelmed. I like it for an NFL defense, but NFL teams all have 300 pound stud d-linemen who have all the time in the world to know their roles in that defense. And they also have 260 pound ILB who can blow up the middle on running plays.

In terms of our personnel though, I don't mind the switch to the 3-4 for this particular team. Ultimately, that's all that matters for me. Just play the best defense that we are capable of this year. Ethan Johnson and KLM are good 3-4 DEs, and I think we can get away with Ian Williams at defensive tackle. Cincy had a 250 pound NT last year. Maybe he's not Terrence Cody, but if we get a guy in there who plays with leverage and toughness and knows his assignments, I'm fine with that.

And our linebackers should be really good in the 3-4. I can't believe I'm saying it, but we actually have depth at a position for the first time in about ten years. We can legitimately go 2 deep with quality guys at OLB with Filer, Fleming, Neal, and Smith. When was the last time where our backups were actually really good at any position?? We are usually paper thin defensively.

Plus, Manti Te'o is going to be a STUD this year. Every time I click on a highlight, he's laying the wood to somebody. Probably the only guy on our defense who consistently makes "WOW" plays. We need more guys like that.

Cincy's defense was really not very good last year. Part of it was personnel, but they just couldn't stop anyone. Maybe they wore down or something. I don't know what the story was there, but I really hope our defense isn't a complete sieve this year. Kelly seems to think that our defense is going to be a surprise. That's good enough for me at this point.

5. Who are your sleepers for this team?

Kerry Neal - Can I call him a sleeper?? More of a "Comeback Player of the Year" candidate. I think he's a guy who has been in the wrong position for his entire career, or the last two years at least, and now he's finally back in a spot where he can be in that OLB raptor spot and just rush the passer like a madman. Brian Smith could be the same way. Remember how good those guys were as freshman?? It feels like that was ten years ago. That was what was so frustrating about the Weis era. So many guys were just being developed improperly or playing in the wrong position. Even a fan like me who knows nothing about football could tell that. I must have said ten times before the year that I didn't like Ethan Johnson at defensive tackle, and then he did nothing all year. Really frustrating. I don't know why you would put your guys in positions where they aren't going to succeed.

RJ Blanton -- Maybe Walls too. This season almost reminds me of one of those fantasy baseball seasons where there are a bunch of guys who were all hyped up and didn't pan out and then everyone forgets about them and they break out a year or two later. We could just call it the Cameron Maybin All Stars. That's kind of how I feel about this team. Seems like last year was a complete waste of a year in terms of player devleopment. Put these guys with new coaches and a new attitude and a fresh start, and maybe they break out this year. I mean, Walls and Blanton started as freshmen. We all thought they were going to be great and they just never got any better.

The talent is there with Blanton and Walls. Time for them to step up and have great years.

Jamoris Slaughter -- What I would do for an athletic, playmaking safety at Notre Dame. We should just call it the curse of Glenn Earl. I could see Slaughter being that guy. I thought he looked good in limited action last year. Really would like to see him win one of the safety jobs. I can't stomach the idea of two white safeties for the Irish.

ND special teams -- The whole unit! Why not?? Special teams, special teams, special teams. We can win games next year with special teams alone. Great kicking game, great punting, good return units. You put all that together, and it really adds up, especially in the field position game. We lost the Pitt game last year singlehandedly because of special teams. Instead of pinning them deep in the punting game, they were starting every drive at midfield. It's just a recipe to give up cheap scores.

Just infuriating. No defense, bad special teams, no discipline. The Charlie Weis era!

6. What are your thoughts on Dayne Crist??

I watched some of the practices online, and I gotta say I'm not blown away by Dayne Crist at this stage. He looks like a guy who is coming off an ACL operation. It is what it is. He's a first year starter, new coach, etc. There are going to be growing pains and some rough patches ahead. If he gets off to a slow start and costs us a game somewhere early in the year, I hope people stay patient with him. I'm not expecting Kelly to win a national championship in his first year, so I hope people aren't jumping all over Kelly and Crist if we drop a game or two early in the year.

I'm not worried about Dayne long term though. Kelly has a great repuation for qbs, and every guy who has ever played for Kelly has thrived. I don't see why that would be any different with Crist. Once he gets a little further along in his development and gets more comfortable, I think he'll be great. He's got the talent, the size, and the ability to make things happen on the run.

I don't see why he can't be Tony Pike but even better. I think Crist will have a great career at ND, but it might not all come together by opening day against Purdue.

7. What are your expectations for the spring game??

I'm excited to see the spring game. People say the spring game is meaningless, but I don't agree with that at all. I've been to just about every spring game for the last ten years, and I've always learned something about our team in every one of them.

There are things that can be misleading coming out of the spring game of course (color me embarrassed that I was so excited about our DBs last year), but there is a lot you can tell out of your team and how they look physically. Thats the big thing for me. I just want to see if guys look fast and athletic and like playmakers. Even though I thought we looked pretty good in the spring game last year, I still had this lingering feeling that we looked small and slow and sort of plodding. Weis never produced teams that passed the eyeball test from a physical standpoint.

To be honest, I still get that vibe out of this team while watching the practice videos online. We still look a little too small and slow for my taste. i thought we were going to look a little more physical and explosive and "athletic" on both sides of the ball after Camp Kelly. Guess we need to cycle in some more of these "big skill" recruits the next couple years.

Ultimately, that's the biggest concern for me about the future of ND football. Kelly has done a ton of great stuff to reshape the attitude of the players and to bring in the training table and some other amenities to modernize the ND football program, but do we have the horses to be an elite program again?? Can you win in college football today with true student-athletes who take real classes and have to study at night when every other big time football factory has guys who are spending their entire time on campus hitting the weights and the film room?? Even if Kelly is truly an elite coach, can he beat the Alabamas and Floridas of the world in a BCS bowl game, or is he going to plateau with the 9-10 win seasons and blowout losses to the elite teams in the bowl games?? I don't know the answers to those questions. I would like to think that ND can compete again for championships, but I fear that the heavyweights have put us in the rearview mirror from a program commitment standpoint.

Stay tuned. Either way, I think ND will be a winning football program under Brian Kelly. Much like what Bo Pelini has done at Nebraska. Maybe Nebraska doesn't have the horses to win a national title, but at least they are getting the absolute most out of their roster that they possibly can right now. You can tell from watching them that they are impeccably coached, and I think Pelini was the perfect hire at Nebraska. I hope Brian Kelly has me saying the same things in a couple years.

April 18, 2010

2007 Recruiting Review


With the Blue-Gold game looming next weekend, its time to take a look back at the class of 2007, now entering its senior year at ND.

Charlie Weis’ 2nd recruiting class drew rave reviews for its offensive star power. The defining moment, of course, was Jimmy Clausen’s verbal commitment at the College Football Hall of Fame, complete with spiky hair, HS championship rings and a Hummer limo. What followed was an interesting assortment of skill players and continued disappointment in the front seven on defense.

Apart from the Clausen show, perhaps the biggest stories surrounding this class were the last-minute disappointments and defections. Signing Day has rarely been kind to the Irish, but when three of the more talented verbal commits in the class pulled a fast one at the 11th hour, the class dropped a notch from elite to very good (#11 – Scout, #8 Rivals).

Quarterbacks

Jimmy Clausen


Scout: 5-star, #1 QB
Rivals: 5-star, #1 QB (Pro Style)
#1 in Rivals 100, #1 Player in CA

Offers: USC, Oklahoma, Michigan, South Carolina

62.6 Comp. %, 8,148 yards, 60 TDs, 27 INTs, 137.2 Career Passer Rating, 5 rushing TDs

Without a doubt, the jewel of the 2007 recruiting class. Enrolled early and was anointed as the heir apparent as early as spring practice (the majority of which he missed due to a bum elbow). Starting much of his freshman year, Clausen took his knocks throughout the awful 2007 season and became one of the greatest QBs ever to play under the Dome (statistically, at least). Made the leap during his transcendent junior year – 68.0 Comp. %, 3,722 yards, 28 TDs, 4 INTs, 161.4 rating. And most of this on a bum wheel – the torn tendons in the right foot suffered during the MSU game limited his mobility for almost the entire season. With a completely healthy foot and half a defense, Clausen would have undoubtedly landed an invite to the Downtown Athletic Club.

Clausen’s amazing 2009, coupled with the firing of Charlie Weis, made Jimmy’s decision to take his talents to the NFL an easy one. Clausen’s legacy at ND will be an interesting one to follow – the enormous recruiting hype made it almost impossible for him to meet the expectations, but his 2009 season certainly showed that the talent is there. Had he decided to stay, the Irish almost definitely would have been a darkhorse national title contender in 2010. And Clausen likely would have graduated after his senior season with every relevant passing record. Alas, once again with Jimmy, we’re left wondering “what could have been…”

Running Backs


Armando Allen

Scout: 4-star, #21 RB
Rivals: 4-star, #2 RB (All Purpose)
#52 in Rivals 100, #10 Player in FL

Offers: Florida, Georgia, Miami, Tennessee

Rushing: 362 attempts, 1,630 yards, 4.5 YPC, 6 TDs
Receiving: 102 catches, 695 yards, 3 TDs

He arrived on campus with some serious fanfare – an ultra-quick, ultra-talented back from FL with serious home run potential. The lingering effects of a significant leg injury during his senior year of HS may have sapped some of the speed early in his career, and chronic injuries over the years have limited his carries, but he’s clearly become one of the more productive backs in recent Irish history, particularly in the passing game.

The pass-happy Brian Kelly offense should play right into Allen’s strengths, as he’s become a great receiver, and an outstanding pass blocker. Amazing that Allen has been the feature back for most of his 3 seasons at ND and only has 9 offensive TDs to show for it.

Robert Hughes


Scout: 4-star, #9 RB
Rivals: 4-star, #7 RB
#77 in Rivals 100, #3 Player in IL

Offers: Ohio St., Michigan, Penn St., Miami

Rushing: 253 carries, 1,092 yards, 4.3 YPC, 13 TDs
Receiving: 36 catches, 303 yards

ND’s recruitment of Robert Hughes signaled Weis’ desire to dominate recruiting in the greater Chicagoland area – Hughes was the 1st player from the Chicago Public League to enroll at ND in quite some time. The jumbo back from Chicago had a big 2nd half to his freshman year, but injury issues slowed him during his sophomore year (only 3.4 YPC). Answered the bell in a big way during the 2009 Purdue game and showed flashes at other times as well. His bruising style and pass-catching ability should allow him to remain a key cog in the Brian Kelly offense.

Spring scuttlebutt has Hughes actually putting weight back on this offseason, perhaps signaling that Kelly will embrace Hughes’ pounding style, encouraging him to punish the opposition between the tackles. Look for Hughes to see some time in a fullback/H-back role as well.

Wide Receivers

Duval Kamara


Scout: 4-star, #8 WR
Rivals: 4-star, #6 WR
#34 in Rivals 100, #1 Player in NJ

Offers: USC, Miami, Penn St.

75 catches, 781 yards, 6 TDs

The extremely large, raw wideout from NJ was Charlie Weis’ second big recruiting victory over his arch-nemesis Pete Carroll. Kamara burst onto the scene in a big way his freshman year, setting many freshman WR records at ND. He was eventually passed by Golden Tate and Michael Floyd on the depth chart, and although Kamara has flashed his solid downfield blocking skills, he continues to be MIA in the passing game.

With Golden Tate’s early departure, Kamara now has the chance to reclaim a headlining slot in the WR corps. The parallels between Kamara and Maurice Stovall are eerie – big, raw WRs coming out of HS who had impressive debuts in their respective freshman years, followed by bouts of inconsistency, and a new coaching regime heading into their senior seasons. If Kamara can find a way to become Stovall Redux, I think Brian Kelly will be a very happy man.

Golden Tate


Scout: 4-star, #37 WR
Rivals: 4-star, #7 ATH
Rivals 250, #2 Player in TN

Offers: Alabama, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

157 catches, 2,707 yards, 17.2 YPC, 26 TDs
31 rushes, 227 yards, 7.3 YPC, 3 TDs

The man with the name built for Notre Dame, Tate had to wait until relatively late in the game to get his offer from the Irish. Thankfully, Weis finally did offer and Tate committed almost immediately. A smashing debut against Purdue was the highlight of his freshman year. He followed that up with a great sophomore year full of highlight reel catches, including an incredible performance in the Hawaii Bowl. But no one could have seen his 2009 season coming – 93 catches, 1496 yards, 15 TDs, 2 more rushing TDs out of the Wildcat, and that unbelievable punt return TD against Pitt. The ceremony for the Biletnikoff was a mere formality – Tate was hands-down the best WR in the country last year and probably should have received some Heisman consideration as well. Just a sublime performance that will probably never be recreated and never properly appreciated by Irish fans.

His decision to leave early for the NFL was probably easier than Clausen’s – next year’s WR draft class is unbelievably deep and Tate would have again had to compete with Michael Floyd for touches. But there can be no doubt that Tate cemented his legacy as the most exciting Irish player since Rocket during his abbreviated time on campus.

Tight Ends

Mike Ragone


Scout: 4-star, #2 TE
Rivals: 4-star, #3 TE
#83 in Rivals 100, #3 Player in NJ

Offers: USC, Florida St., Clemson, BC

7 catches, 67 yards

Various knee injuries derailed an incredibly promising career. Passed by Kyle Rudolph on the depth chart, Ragone became a key blocker, particularly in the run game. The TE is not exactly a prominent part of the Kelly offense, so hopefully Ragone doesn’t get lost in the mix.

Amazing to think that Ragone was only a small step below Aaron Hernandez in the recruiting rankings coming out of HS. Hernandez is likely going to be a first-day selection this year after 3 incredibly productive seasons in Gainesville. Ragone just can’t seem to buy a break

Offensive Linemen


Matt Romine

Scout: 4-star, #12 OG
Rivals: 4-star, #3 OT
#55 in Rivals 100, #2 Player in OK

Offers: Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan, Miami

Romine arrived in South Bend with some big buzz after committing at the Army Game, choosing the Irish over his home state Sooners. Finally found his way into the rotation in 2009, but Paul Duncan was able to wrestle away the majority of the playing time at LT. Now the job is Romine’s to lose.

With spring reports indicating Kelly’s willingness to bounce guys all over the OL, its tough to determine whether Romine will be the guy in September. Here’s hoping the big guy can finally live up to the hype and anchor one of the tackle spots for the 2010 Irish.

Taylor Dever

Scout: 4-star, #29 OT
Rivals: 3-star, #39 OT
#60 Player in CA

Offers: Oregon, Miami, Nebraska, Washington

Dever was a late bloomer as far as recruiting stories go. With only an offer from Fresno St. to his name before Charlie came calling, Dever’s stock went up like the rocket by the end of his senior year, garnering some pretty hefty offers.

Originally thought to be the heir apparent to Sam Young at the RT spot, Dever was expected to battle with Zach Martin and perhaps Trevor Robinson for the majority of the PT on that end. However, recent spring reports have Brian Kelly moving Dever to the crowded interior, perhaps suggesting his development is not as far along as the new coaching staff might like.

Andrew Nuss

Scout: 3-star, #52 OT
Rivals: 4-star, #22 OT
# 9 Player in VA

Offers: Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, BC

The services varied wildly in their evaluations of Nuss, but he received some high praise from the previous staff, and Verducci in particular seemed to take a real liking to him. Will likely be fighting with various people on the interior, including Chris Stewart (5th year) and Trevor Robinson

Early spring news has the Kelly regime moving guys around on the line at will, and Nuss could perhaps be pushed out to a tackle spot throughout the spring evaluation period as well.

Emeka Nwankwo


Scout: 4-star, #22 OT
Rivals: 3-star, #24 OG
#52 Player in FL

Offers: Georgia, Florida St., Virginia

Moved to the DL early in his career, Nwankwo hasn’t been able to crack the rotation. This may be his last shot to grab some playing time. Look for Nwankwo to battle guys like Hafis Williams and Tyler Stockton for spots in the DE rotation.

There’s been some positive news concerning Nwankwo this spring as the new staff, and Mike Elston in particular, have singled him out for good effort throughout most of the spring.

Defensive Line

Ian Williams

Scout: 3-star, #36 DT
Rivals: 3-star, #26 DT
#44 Player in FL

Offers: Florida, Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina

124 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU

Williams was one of Weis’ first conquests at the troublesome DT spot. A big boy from FL, Williams received some late interest from Urban Meyer but signed with ND and made some positive impressions his freshman year.

Williams hasn’t become the anchor on the DL that many expected, but will be starting his 3rd straight season at DT, this time in the NT role of Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. With some promising big boys pushing for playing time behind him, Williams will need to become more consistent to maintain his starting role.

Kerry Neal

Scout: 4-star, #31 DE
Rivals: 4-star, #18 WDE
#9 Player in NC

Offers: Alabama, Miami, Nebraska

70 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 fumble recovery

The first verbal in the class, Weis snagged Neal before his stock blew up, and Neal stayed the course throughout. There weren’t many positives from the disastrous 2007 season, but Neal’s performance from an OLB spot seemed to indicate his potential as a rising star. But his sophomore and junior years can most kindly be described as disappointing.

Irish fans are hoping that Tenuta’s move to the 4-3 (and Neal’s awkward transition to a DE spot) was the primary culprit in Neal’s decreased productivity. With Diaco switching the Irish back to a 3-4 (and Neal back to his natural OLB position), Neal could once again wreak havoc from the outside.

Linebackers

Brian Smith

Scout: 3-star, #30 MLB
Rivals: 4-star, #13 ILB
#2 Player in KS

Offers: Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska

150 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles, 2 PBU

Smith received a late offer from Charlie Weis and flipped his commitment from Iowa to follow his family’s legacy at ND. Much like Neal, Smith was one of the rate bright spots from the 2007 season. Forced into a MLB spot during the 2008 season, Smith seemed out of position for much of that year, and again in 2009.

With the transition back to the 3-4, Smith finds himself back out on the outside (as he was during much of the 2007 season). Smith won’t be guaranteed a starting spot, as he’s got some serious competition for playing time (Neal, Fleming, Filer). But look for ND’s vocal leader on defense to increase his productivity from the OLB position.

Aaron Nagel

Scout: 3-star, #14 WLB
Rivals: 3-star, #41 OLB
#11 Player in IL

Offers: MSU, Purdue, BC, Illinois

Nagel represented Weis’ first attempt to flip a skilled HS offensive player to the defensive side. The switch to a 3-4 defense under Corwin Brown likely sealed Nagel’s fate as he was too small to play an ILB role and not quick enough to crack the deep OLB rotation. Nagel was the first and only transfer from the 2007 class.

Steve Paskorz

Scout: 3-star, #36 SLB
Rivals: 4-star, #29 ATH
#10 Player in PA

Offers: Michigan, Pitt, Virginia, WVU

See: Nagel above. After an early move to the defense, Paskorz was moved to FB to fill a gaping hole in the Weis offense. He’s now transitioned back to ILB, the position to which he was initially recruited. One last chance for significant playing time…

Defensive Backfield

Gary Gray

Scout: 4-star, #6 CB
Rivals: 4-star, #9 CB
#78 in Rivals 100, #3 Player in SC

Offers: Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida St.

43 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 PBU

Initially a verbal to Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, Gray switched his commitment and signed with the Irish. Gray’s had an interesting career thus far, including some injuries and a suspension. But when he’s been on the field, he’s been one of the best cover corners on the team.

With the CB suddenly looking frighteningly thin, the Irish will need Gray to remain healthy and productive in 2010. Kelly has singled Gray out as one of the best tacklers on the team, and look for Gary to spend much of this coming year at the boundary CB position.

Harrison Smith


Scout: 4-star, #25 S
Rivals: 4-star, #25 ATH
Rivals 250, # 7 Player in TN

Offers: Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Va. Tech

126 tackles, 15 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 12 PBU

Moved to OLB for part of the 2008 season and led the team in TFL. Moved back to S in 2009 and was disappointing to say the least. Spent some more time at OLB at the end of the year.

Brian Kelly has famously said that if Smith can’t stick as a S, he’s not going to see the field for the Irish. While this line is certainly good for some laughs (and hopefully some motivation), the thin depth chart in the secondary might not support Kelly’s brash assertion. The bottom line is that Kelly desperately needs Smith to find his way as a S, with only the green former CB Jamoris Slaughter and the incredibly green Dan McCarthy listed as fellow scholarship safeties. Smith’s performance may make or break the defense this year.

Special Teams

Brandon Walker

Scout: 3-star, #5 P
Rivals: 2-star, #16 K

Offers: Pitt, Cincinnati, Louisville

61 XP, 20 FG

Late add-on to fill the hole Ryan Burkhart couldn’t fill himself, Walker played immediately and struggled in ’07 and ’08. Nick Tausch came in and grabbed his job. Walker missed all of 2009 with a back injury, but is apparently healthy this spring and will provide Tausch with some competition in practice.

Other Significant Names

Justin Trattou
(FL)

The former 5-star recruit from NJ has become a stalwart on the Florida defensive line. Last minute defection to the Gators and the first successful Urban Poach.

Arrelious Benn (IL)

Long thought to be a heavy ND lean, Benn shockingly spurned the Irish for the Fightin’ Zookers. Injury prone for much of his career and criminally underused in the Illini offense. Would have been amazing to watch him operate with Clausen for a few years. Expected to be a first-day pick later this month at the NFL draft.

Martez Wilson (IL)

Another supposed heavy ND lean, Wilson landed in Champaign-Urbana with some heavy hype. Alas, Ron Zook has been unable to figure out where Wilson should be playing, and just when he appeared to be getting comfortable, an injury ended his 2009 campaign. He enters his senior year at Illinois with some big expectations.

Ben Martin (TN) and Chris Donald (TN)

Rumor had Martin and Donald seriously considering the Irish until the debacle in the Sugar Bowl against LSU. Both have been pretty quiet since signing with the Vols, but would certainly be able to provide some much-needed depth in the Irish defense.

Greg Little
(UNC) and Chris Little (UGA)

Both of the Littles (not related) gave their verbal commitments to Charlie Weis and the Irish, but few thought they would end up with ND once Signing Day rolled around. Sure enough, both 4-star prospects chose their home-state teams over ND at the last minute, further decimating what was once an extremely promising recruiting class.

SUMMARY

Taking away the production of Clausen and Tate, the class looks like a disappointment, at least compared to the fairly hefty rankings from the gurus. On the offensive side, the skill players have been very up-and-down – Allen has been great when healthy, but quite a bit will be expected from him this offseason. Kamara looked like a star his freshman year, but hasn’t been able to contribute much since then. Ragone came to campus with a ton of hype, but balky knees and the ascension of Rudolph have kept him from reaching his full potential.

The offensive line hasn’t done much thus far, which is difficult to interpret in a positive fashion. Sure, there were bodies in front of them, but the fact that the guys from the class of ’07 couldn’t displace any their predecessors, who were anything but consistently great, is a bit disheartening. Still, with Young, Olsen and Duncan graduating, there’s definitely going to be PT available, and at this point, Dever and Romine have to be considered the presumptive starters at the tackle positions. Its now or never…

Production on the DL has been disappointing, but will only one significant recruit at that position, its tough to be too critical. Much is expected of Ian Williams this year, and it sounds like Nwankwo might be able to provide some valuable depth as well. At linebacker, Brian Smith and Kerry Neal started off with a bang, but haven’t been able to replicate their early effectiveness. One last chance to turn it around…

Pretty much the same story in the secondary – there’s no denying the talent that Harrison Smith and Gary Gray bring to the table. By the end of last year, Gray was probably the best corner on the team. Harrison has shown flashes of his athleticism, but nothing particularly special in the safety position. If he can’t lock down a spot in the secondary, it could be a very long year.

Final Verdict – I’ll call them a bit overrated now, with the caveat that many of these guys have a great opportunity to change that this year.

April 13, 2010

Thoughts on Jimmy Clausen, the NFL Draft, and why it's time to give it a rest on all the Todd McShay bashing.

In the last three years, I've seen just about every throw that Jimmy Clausen has made in a Notre Dame uniform. I've seen him in just about every scenario, I've experienced the highs and lows of his career, and had a million conversations about him. It's been four years since he committed to ND, and not a day has gone by in his ND career where he hasn't faced intense scrutiny.

Now that he's about to enter the biggest week of his life, I figured I'd break down Jimmy's draft prospects from my own perspective as a fan and close follower of his college career.

6) First things first, where is he going in this draft?? It's tough to really pin down in terms of percentages where he's likely to end up.

-St. Louis -- 10% - Sounds like it's Bradford
-Detroit - 0% - No
-Tampa Bay - 0% - No.
-Washington - 10% - Now that they have McNabb, I can't see it. If they want a young quarterback, they can afford to wait a year or two.
-Kansas City - 25% - The Weis connections are intriguing, but I can't see that happening. If Clausen was a can't miss Manning type, maybe they take him. But they already have Cassel.
-Seattle - 30% - Pete Carroll making the play for Jimmy C?? Wow, that would be interesting. Could be a good fit for Clausen actually.
-Cleveland - 40% -- If he's there, this is going to be fascinating. I'm not sold on Mike Holmgren as a GM, but he does seem to have some level of acumen for evaluating QBs. He has hinted that he's not really crazy about Clausen. Maybe it's all smoke, or maybe he's not interested.

One thing that might hurt Clausen's draft status is that this draft has some nice 2nd-4th round values out there. I think that is hurting Clausen a little bit. Holmgren seems to think he can find a productive QB in the middle rounds. McCoy, Lefeoveur, Pike, Tebow, Jevan Snead...those are pretty good options. I could see 1-2 of those guys becoming good NFL quarterbacks.
--Oakland - 20% - Man, you never know with the Raiders. This would not shock me. Al Davis knows at this point that Russell is not the guy. I think they'll draft a QB, but not sure about the first round.
--Buffalo - 60% - Even if Buffalo isn't crazy about Clausen, how could they not make this pick?? At least Clausen would make them relevant and put a spark in that franchise. If they go draft Bruce Campbell, is that going to get anyone excited about the Bills?? Just draft Clausen and hope that his confidence doesn't get ruined playing for Chan Gailey for the next three years. Maybe the worst head coaching hire of all time. For Jimmy's sake, I hope he doesn't go to Buffalo.
--Jacksonville -- 25% -- Maybe, but not likely.
--Denver - 50% -- Wouldn't shock me if they took him if he was still there. Denver knows they need a franchise QB at some point.
--Miami - 0%
--San Francisco -- 50% -- Another intriguing possibility if Clausen slips. Would he rather go 13 to the 49ers or 9 to the Bills?? I'd go to the Niners in a heartbeat.

The Niners and Seahawks each pick twice in the first round. I gotta think Clausen would go to one of those teams if he was still around in the teens.

After that, I don't really see anybody until Minnesota at 30. The Vikes would have to be jumping for joy if Clausen is still there at 30.

My guess is that Buffalo takes him. If not, they might as well just move to Toronto now. Personally, I'd love to see him end up in Seattle or San Francisco. Get him back to the west coast, out of the cold weather, he can quietly put up numbers away from the spotlight a little bit, and both those franchises are at least somewhat competitive.

5) Every time I read a column/article on Jimmy, the Brady Quinn comparisons pop up. I certainly can understand why people are raising the issue, but having watched both of these guys for years in college, they really are not all that similar in terms of ability. Clausen didn't have Brady's playmaking abilities, but he was so much more poised and accurate in throwing the ball. How many times did we see Brady come out all pumped up to start a game and airmailing passes to the sideline?? We sort of overlooked that stuff when Brady was in college, but that's a critical throw in the NFL. You never saw that type of inaccuracy out of Clausen even in his early days at ND.

The other thing is that Clausen always had the "big time" 5 star pedigree that Brady Quinn never had. There was a reason that Clausen was the #1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school. If Clausen had gone to USC and started there for three years, he'd probably be viewed a lot like Carson Palmer or Mark Sanchez. A high school stud who went to USC and won big and now is destined to be a star in the NFL.

I do understand why people are raising the Brady Quinn comparisons for Clausen though. No matter what you think of the Charlie Weis offense, it's impossible to deny that it was great for quarterbacks and the passing game. Did he just make these guys look better than they are?? I can't believe how poorly Brady Quinn has fared in the NFL. It's like none of his skills were transferrable to the pros. He got to the Browns, and completely fell apart.

Did Weis' offense not have as many reads as a typical NFL offense?? Brady was so efficient in college, but now it's like he's playing hot potato. Last year with the Browns, he'd do a three step drop and couldn't wait to get the ball out of his hands. He'd be like 7 for 9 for 34 yards. Nice completion percentage, but it doesn't matter when you're punting after a three and out. The name of the game is first downs and touchdowns. Seems like the Weis offense was built around quick throws, but sometimes you gotta hang in there and get the ball down the field.

Anyway, Clausen has proven to be more accurate and more daring when it comes to getting the ball down the field, so maybe he won't run into those same problems in the NFL. Even though I'm generally leery of college "system" quarterbacks, it doesn't mean you should completely avoid them. Everyone got scared off by Jeff Tedford guys after a series of busts (Akili, Boller, etc), and that's what knocked Aaron Rodgers down the draft board. Now, he's one of the best young QBs in the game.

4) One other note on the pedigree thing. The "high floor, low ceiling" whispers on Jimmy Clausen have been raised by McShay and others who think that Clausen is a finished product and won't get much better in the NFL. I don't know where I stand on that, but it sort of mirrors a post I wrote on here last winter about Jimmy Clausen as the ultimate "outlier" in sports today.

If you look back at Jimmy's history, he's always had a leg up on the competition. Between being held back in 6th grade, having a private quarterback coach as a kid, playing at a small private high school in California instead of against the top big school competition, playing for a QB guru in college, and quite frankly, playing probably the softest schedules in the history of Notre Dame football, isn't he a little bit of a concern as a "maxed out" guy who isn't going to get that much better in the NFL?? He's basically had every edge and advantage that you could possibly ask for in his development, but the NFL is the cream of the crop. Talent eventually wins out. The reason there are so many random I-AA guys making it big in the NFL is that a lot of these guys don't develop as players until they get to the league.

Does this mean that Clausen is going to be a bust in the NFL?? No, of course not. He could be a star. And we've seen plenty of quarterbacks make it in the NFL from all different sorts of backgrounds. Clausen didn't exactly play the toughest schedule at ND, but it's not like he was Joe Flacco playing a I-AA schedule or PacBen Roethlisberger playing a MAC schedule. Those guys have worked out just fine.

It's just something that concerns me though. College production is the best indicator of future success at quarterback, but we've seen enough Tim Couches out there who put up great numbers in college and couldn't hack it at the next level for me to just dismiss the "low ceiling" talk about Clausen.

3)
The other red flag that has been raised is the character question, which seems like a bunch of BS to me (although it is a little weird that there were like ten witnesses to that CJ's thing and no assault charges were filed on the alleged perpetrator...was there more to that story?). His teammates seem to like him, and I don't see him pulling a PacBen in the NFL and getting into a bunch of trouble with the law. No one has questioned his work ethic either, so it's not like he's a Jamarcus Russell type.

I think the larger intangibles question of leadership might be the more relevant inquiry. Isn't the overwhelming whiff of Ewing Theory emanating out of the ND locker room right now something to take into consideration?? Part of it is the new coach, but I think the new leadership group of Dayne Crist and Manti Te'o certainly seems like a more team-oriented group. Clausen had more of an "I'll do my job, you do yours" leadership style. Nothing wrong with that, but some quarterbacks have a knack for rallying the troops and getting their teammates to dig down deep to finish off a drive. That's where I feel we're headed with Dayne Crist. I don't know what that says about Jimmy Clausen, but I'm really not all that broken up about turning the page with new leadership at quarterback.

Then again, Clausen made it happen in the clutch. How many comeback drives did he lead this year?? When it got to be crunch time, Clausen made plays. If you produce, players will respect you. If he had even a half-decent defense, ND would have been a BCS team this year.

2) Maybe I've just become desensitized to ND criticism through the years, but I don't understand all the Todd McShay hate out there. What is everyone's hangup with this guy?? Because he's not high on Jimmy Clausen?? What if he's right?? Are people really that upset about this??

I actually don't mind McShay. Is he always right?? No, not even close, but at least he has an opinion. I'd rather hear a guy go out on a limb with a take than just trot out the same cliches and hype that you hear from everyone else. Half these NFL first round picks are busts. It's sort of insulting to present the draft as if every guy picked in the first round is a great pick. I need a foil who is willing to be the bad guy. As great as it is to see Mel Kiper on draft day, he's lost his edge. No one knows more than Mel about some random outside linebacker from Louisiana Tech, but he's not going to take too many controversial stances.

McShay has had some spectacular misses (Jamarcus Russell), but I remember him questioning Vernon Gholston before the draft and calling him a bust candidate. And that's exactly how it played out. No one else had the guts to say it.

I was a little unsure of McShay at first and wondered where this guy came from, but he's grown on me. Maybe he's been harsh in his analysis of our two pro qb prospects, but I can't deny that he was right on Brady Quinn thus far. Brady has been a bust. He's not accurate and doesn't throw it well down the field, which were the two big concerns about him coming out of college. McShay said he wasn't a top 10 player, and he's probably right.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what guys like McShay say. Scouts and GMs are the guys making these picks. It's not like McShay drafted Jamarcus Russell. He's just following the lead of all these dope NFL scouts. Having seen how the guys running the Bengals have drafted in the last 20 years, I'd rather have McShay conducting the Bengals draft than anyone in the organization.

People are just too thin-skinned with this stuff. The reality is that guys like McShay and Mark May have been right more often than not about our players and our program. The only way we're going to shut the ESPN critics up is by winning games, producing All-Americans, winning bowl games, and producing NFL pro bowlers at the next level. Until then, it is what it is.

Jimmy C is going to get a chance to start in the NFL without question. Even McShay concedes that. The best way for Jimmy Clausen to prove McShay wrong is by going out and having a great NFL career. I hope it happens.

1) Ok, time for a projection. There's not really any one quality that guarantees success or screams out bust when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks, so I like to think of guys who remind me of the player in question.

Clausen reminds me of a few different people. If I had to project his future, I'd go with these percentages of him emulating these guy's careers.

30% -- Phil Rivers -- Franchise qb, legit star, 10+ year career with the same team, Pro Bowler, makes all the throws, great leader, capable of winning a Super Bowl with him

Man, I'd like to put this a little higher, but I'm just not there yet. Clausen has a little bit of the Phil Rivers edginess to him and throws a great ball, but I don't think he has the same presence as Rivers (Rivers is 6'5"). I mean, Rivers has been a little shaky in the playoffs, but there's no question that he's a franchise QB in every way. Rivers has a cannon and throws probably the best deep ball in the league. Maybe Clausen surprises me and gets to this level, but I don't think we'll be seeing him leading teams deep into the playoffs five years from now.

Another "franchise" guy here could be Matt Ryan. Now that intrigues me a little more as a comparison. Ryan is a slow, 220 pound type with great accuracy and great poise. Isn't that pretty similar to Clausen??

35% -- Jay Cutler, Jeff George -- Productive QB, fringe franchise QB, has 1-2 legitimately great All-Pro type years, capable of leading a team to the playoffs in the right system, but also a little flaky and not ever "The Man" for any franchise for a long period of time.

Truthfully, this is where I see Clausen emerging. I think he has a chance to be a good NFL quarterback. I could see him having a nice 4-5 year run where he's productive and clearly entrenched as a starter somewhere. But I'm not sure that he's a "12 years for the same franchise" type of guy. He seems like one of those guys who will probably wear out his welcome in a couple different stops, might get traded at some point in his career, might have injury concerns that slow him down, but still one of those guys who you can feel ok about if he's your quarterback.

If Jake Delhomme can be a 4-5 year starter in the NFL, you gotta like Jimmy's chance to start somewhere and be productive. I think this is ultimately the category where he'll end up. Not a star, but not a bust either.

35% -- David Carr, Tim Couch -- Bust, maxed out before he got to the NFL, played in a pass happy offense in college, not enough ability to translate to big success in the NFL

(Gulp). I can't shake this category for Clausen. How good was David Carr in college?? I remember seeing him at Fresno State and thinking there was no way he could be a bust. Carr threw 46 tds in his senior year with only 9 picks, and threw for almost 5,000 yards with a 64.5% completion percentage. Sound familiar??

Then he got to the NFL and was completely overwhelmed. I don't know what happened, but he never became anything better than a below average starting quarterback. He actually started for 5 years in Houston, but never put it together. We'd read these "Carr ready to bust out" stories right before the fantasy drafts every year, and then you'd look back at his stats and see 11 tds and 12 ints. By year five, it had become obvious that he was not a franchise QB.

I hate to think of Clausen as a bust, but we've seen so many busts coming out of college that it's always a possibility. If he gets in the wrong system or gets behind a terrible o-line, all bets are off. Heck, I'll say it right now. If he ends up in Buffalo, I'll go ahead and say he'll be a bust. Couldn't ask for a worse fit for him. Bad coach, bad organization, bad weather, shaky fanbase, bad vibes. Pretty soon, he'll lose his confidence or get banged up behind a bad line, and the whole thing unravels.

I think a 65% success rate is a pretty fair evaluation for Clausen. There are some bust questions out there, but he's got the tools and the drive to be a good one.

Can't wait to see how it all plays out.

April 07, 2010

Thoughts From the Eye of the Sports Tornado

Is there a better time of year for sports fans?

On the heels of a satisfying March Madness romp (even if the wrong team cut down the nets), Opening Day excitement and the labor of fantasy drafts finally coming to fruition, the sports calendar is only picking up steam. Augusta tees up tomorrow. NBA and NHL regular seasons are winding down and gearing up for the playoffs. NFL free agency and draft chatter provide juicy nuggets every few days. Spring football is in full force across campuses. And the glow of the nascent baseball season still offers hope to all fans. Yes, even in Pittsburgh.

Today's "eye of the storm" respite - a day bookended by Opening Day festivities (for Tampa Bay, at least) and the start of the Masters - gives me a chance to jot down a smattering of idle conjectures, musings and ramblings.

- First things first. BRING BACK LUTHER! Nothing against Jennifer Hudson's talent and abilities, but One Shining Moment was a travesty this year, starting with Hudson mimicking the motion for "The ball is tipped." Egads! It's hard enough to fit all the worthy highlights and indelible images from the tournament into 3 minutes. But to waste precious time on Hudson is an abominable decision. CBS whiffed on including the Wake Forest buzzer-beater, as well as the best game of the tournament (Xavier - Kansas State) and any of Gus Johnson's orgasmic calls from it. How the brain trust at CBS could botch this is beyond me. This isn't a generational thing that more eyeballs need to be captured by appealing to the American Idol crowd. Put Luther Vandross' angelic pipes back in next year and focus on basketball. I'll gladly support any grassroots movement to ensure they rectify these transgressions. If we need to lead the charge, so be it. In case you forgot what perfection sounded like.

- Speaking of Gus, the man is hands down the most entertaining sports announcer living. He even gets things warmed up with the obligatory sponsor shout out at the opening tip with his cackling "This game is brought to you in high-definition by LG. Life's...GOOD!" All in all, a pure delight to listen to. I've even got my wife hooked on Gus when he's courtside. This year's winner of the Gus Johnson Call of the Tournament comes courtesy of the epic double-overtime thriller between Xavier and Kansas State. Has the technology been invented where we can listen to any broadcast feed that Gus works? Why can't he just sit in a control room with 20 screens and pipe into a broadcast when the moment calls for Gus? What would Gus be like in the Olympics?

- Switching over to the diamond, the fateful day came and passed without due mention on these pages, but it is confirmed. There is a God, and he helped ink the deal to keep Joseph Patrick Mauer a Twin for life. There aren't ample words to describe my relief and delight upon hearing the deal was struck. It's good for baseball that he didn't end up in New York or Boston.

- A quick anecdotal story at Doug's expense. I imagine some of our readers enjoy fantasy sports. Our annual Hardhitters baseball league fills the void left from the football season (NBA and NHL get the fantasy silent treatment). Any draft involving technology (the last in-person draft was far too many years ago) has included the inevitable "Doug is experiencing computer problems" moment. Most are harmless. One almost prompted Doug to quit the league on draft night. This year's moment turned out to be a nice surprise everyone found upon entering the online draft forum. The lottery draft order had been selected weeks in advance by Commissioner Doug, giving everyone time to plan and prepare around their draft position. Except Doug never plugged in said draft order into the website. Maybe there's an E.S.P. app Doug was testing on his phone. Needless to say, everyone learned of their (drastically in some cases) new draft spot a couple minutes before the start. Everything turned out fine. I lucked into the #1 pick and might need to change my team name to the Pat Williams All Stars.

- Some quick MLB predictions, since everyone under the sun likes to make them:

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera - Thought I'd say Mauer, huh? Cabrera plays with a daily memory of his unfortunate finish to last season. He answers all critics with a career year.
NL MVP: Albert Pujols - Warrants no explanation.

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez - Not just because he's my fantasy staff ace. The King blossomed last year. With Halladay across leagues, the throne is his for the taking.
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay - This might be child's play for Roy, backed by an offense as potent as Cialis and getting the luxury of the pitcher spot.

AL ROY: Austin Jackson - Just a hunch, as long as he bats in the top half of the Tigers lineup.
NL ROY: Jason Heyward - The "Say Hey Kid" (credit to Lips on the moniker) looks like a bonafide star. I'm sure the rookie wall will hit at some point, but he has all the tools to become a Brave legend.

AL Division Winners: Twins, Rays, Angels
Wildcard: Yankees
ALCS: Twins beat Yankees

NL Division Winners: Phillies, Cardinals, Rockies
Wildcard: Braves
NLCS: Cardinals beat Phillies

World Series: Cardinals exact revenge for 1987. Target Field has a historic first season, but isn't quite the same as "Dome Field" advantage.

- Attended my first NHL game ever a couple weeks back, witnessing Antti Niemi shut out the Coyotes in the Madhouse on Madison. Instantly hooked on the live hockey experience. The national anthem gave me goosebumps. Such an outstanding feeling to cheer wildly for America instead of standing solemn like you're at a funeral. Thank you Canada for showing us the light. The game itself is a sight to behold live. I've heard countless times how much better hockey is in person than on tv. Y-E-S, yes. I agree wholeheartedly. The passing is breathtaking. It's not hard at all to follow the puck. And there's almost constant action. Truly riveting. Can't wait to go back. Hope to find tickets for a playoff tilt.

- On a somber note, not much can be said about the Matt James tragedy other than your heart goes out to the James family for their tremendous loss. It's such a shame that a kid with so much promise and potential loses it all because of a silly and tragic accident on spring break. Alcohol claims too many young kids' lives. Brian Kelly asks the right question when he wonders what high school (and college) students are using their spring breaks for. Nice gesture to see that Kelly will find a way to honor James and considers him a part of the ND family.

- What kind of effect will the tragedy have on Luke Massa? I could see it totally wrecking his emotional psyche and he's never the same. Or I can see him use the experience as motivation to become a leader and champion in carrying on the spirit of his high school teammate and friend. I'm sure Mick Franco and the sports psychologist staff will help him navigate through this difficult time.

April 06, 2010

The 96 team NCAA Tournament field: How it works, the new controversies, how it will affect the Big East, and what it means for Notre Dame basketball

Seems like this 96 team tournament is an inevitable, so I figured I would break this thing down both from a national perspective and a Notre Dame perspective.

Four big questions on my mind when it comes to this tournament expansion.

1) How is this thing going to work and what will be the new controversies??

The logistics of how this 96 team tourney would work would be interesting to say the least. Sounds like it would still start on a Thursday, but it would pretty much go on uninterrupted for the next two weeks. You'd have the bottom 64 teams playing Thursday and Friday, then the winners playing the first round bye teams on Saturday and Sunday, and then they'd just plug away with the newly created 3rd round on Monday and Tuesday and the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 coming later in the week. In other words, basically eleven consecutive days of March Madness. Pretty sweet when you think about it like that.

Seeding would still be important, but it seems like it would be much more unpredictable. If you're a 1 seed, who are you getting in the 2nd round game?? Presumably, the 1 seeds would be playing the 15-16 seeds, but who would those teams be?? Would the NCAA try to line up smaller schools in those spots or would those spots go to the teams that would normally make the NIT?? The Daytons of the world. Imagine if you're Kentucky and earned your way to the top seed and now you're playing Dayton as a 16 seed in the first round. That would be nuts.

The awarding of first round byes would become the new controversy for the talking heads to discuss. The difference between an 8 and 9 seed right now is none in terms of positioning, but the difference in the new format would be substantial. The 8 seed teams would get a bye, and the 9 seeds would be stuck in some first round game. How can you really differentiate there?? It would be completely arbitrary.

Then again, as we've seen for years in the conference tournaments, getting a bye in the first round might work as a disadvantage. How many times have we seen a team get a little momentum in the conference tournament from playing a first round game and then catch a a first round bye team napping a little bit?? Happens in almost every league tourney. I could see that happening in the NCAAs as well.

Imagine if you're a 4 seed Maryland who has scraped and clawed to get that first round bye and a good seed. Now, you're staring at playing the winner of a 13 vs. 21 seed matchup where the winner has gotten warmed up a little bit and had a chance to shoot on those rims and get a feel for their environment. Wouldn't that be a disadvantage?? With the new seeding, that 13 seed could be somebody like Mississippi State (who barely missed the NCAAs as an at large team)?? That would be a brutal matchup.

Bottom line, expect a TON of parity and upsets and crazy first round matchups and blown up brackets. If you like that stuff, great. But if you don't like seeing a Sweet 16 with 9 seeds and 12 seeds all over the place, this is not the format for you.

2) What would be bad about the 96 team tournament??

You mean besides the fact that it would completely devalue the regular season and destroy the importance of the conference tournaments?? The top teams would be playing for seeding of course, but the majority of the BCS conference teams out there now are going to head into every season knowing that all they need to do is pull off a winning record to get into the NCAA Tournament.

Think about this for a second if you look at this past season. 13 Big East teams would have made the NCAA Tournament this year. THIRTEEN!! Out of sixteen. You'd have the 8 teams that made the NCAAs, and the other 5 teams who made the NIT since the NIT is basically being swallowed up by the 96 team tourney. That's insane!! Every team in the Big East can go into the season thinking that all they need to do is avoid finishing last and they're probably in. Win 6-7 Big East games, load up the nonconference with cupcakes, and you're dancing. The regular season becomes completely meaningless.

The ACC is the same way. 9 out of the 12 teams in the ACC would have made it this year. This is the national championship!! Why do we need a 20-16 NC State team that finished 5-11 in its own conference to determine a national champion?? This whole thing just invites rampant mediocrity.

It's just a shame that making the NCAA Tournament will no longer be considered an accomplishment in itself. Everyone with a pulse is going to make this thing. If you're puffing your chest about making a tournament where teams that went 5-11 or 6-12 in their own conference are getting in, that is going to look a little silly.

The conference tournaments are going to take the biggest hit though. What else is there to play for other than pride?? The bubble is essentially going to disappear, so no one will go into the conference tournament knowing they need to make a deep run to get in. That bums me out. I will miss all the bubble talk. Unless you actually think that we should be having serious discussions about the teams on the bubble for the 96th spot. And I refuse to get involved in those discussions.

What is Joe Lunardi going to do?? His whole gimmick is the NCAA bubble. With no bubble, his whole Bracketology thing is sort of diminished. He can still predict the seeds and the field and all that, but it's not the same without the bubble discussions.

3) What would be good about an expanded field??

Well, I don't want to make it sound like this thing would be a complete disaster. 96 teams means an additional 16 games on the docket. That's 16 thrillers and nailbiters and intense matchups. Isn't that a good thing?? I will watch any sporting event that involves single elimination. This tournament is still going to be a basketball smorgasbord for hoops fans.

The other positive effect I could see is that the expanded tournament creates a little stability within the Big East. Let's be honest, if you're a Rutgers or St. Johns or Providence or DePaul fan, you're probably ready to throw in the towel on Big East membership. You're probably eyeballing what Butler has done as a big fish in a smaller conference and thinking that you could go off to the Atlantic 10 or some other league and dominate and turn into the new Butler or Xavier. The Big East is so loaded with heavyweights right now that there just isn't much room for other schools to rise up and make a dent in this league. Who are you beating out for a spot in the NCAAs?? Nova?? West Virginia??

Now, with 96 spots in play, you can go into the season thinking you actually have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. It's a fairly realistic goal. Heck, St. Johns was in the NIT this year. If they do that again next year, they're in the tournament.

If teams think they can get into the NCAA Tournament out of the Big East, it'll do a lot to keep league members happy.

Then again, maybe the NCAA will use more of those 32 extra spots to get smaller schools in, which would create the reverse effect. Being in the Big East would be a disadvantage under that scenario, especially if you are finishing 12th-13th in the league. We'll have to see how the NCAA treats the expanded field in terms of participants. I could definitely see some sort of initiative to get more non-BCS schools into the field.

4) How does tournament expansion affect Notre Dame basketball??

First, from a selfish point of view, I think that more spots in the dance is a good thing for Notre Dame basketball. How could it not be??? I mean, we're the quintessential fringe NCAA tournament team. We play in a loaded conference, we have middle-of-the-pack talent in our league, we're generally in the 7-11 win range in terms of conference wins, and we're on the NCAA bubble (either in or out) at some point virtually every single year. Take a look at our last seven seasons:

2003-04 - 19-13 (9-7) - NIT
2004-05 - 17-12 (9-7) - NIT
2005-06 - 16-14 (6-10) - NIT
2006-07 - 24-8 (11-5) - NCAA
2007-08 - 25-8 (14-4) - NCAA
2008-09 - 21-15 (8-10) - NIT
2009-10 - 23-12 (10-8) - NCAA

By my recollection, we were firmly planted on the bubble in 03-04 and 04-05, and a lot of people thought we got hosed when we didn't get those years. The 05-06 team had like eight extremely close losses that could have gone either way, and we were sort of a fringe bubble team for most of the year. The 06-07 team was on the bubble to some degree before playing its way definitively into the field. The 07-08 team was in pretty good shape most of the way. The 08-09 team was all over the bubble before fading late, and the 09-10 team was the same way but actually played its way in.

If you had a 96 team field, we would have gotten in every single one of those years. I don't necessarily like this 96 team field because it dilutes a great tournament, but it's probably a good thing for Notre Dame basketball. If ND is playing NCAA Tournament games, I'm happy.

It will be interesting to see how Mike Brey reacts to the expanded tournament terms of nonconference scheduling. Will he continue to line up cupcakes to try to squeeze out 18-22 wins every year and a guaranteed NCAA Tournament bid?? Or will he be more adventurous knowing that he has more leeway to lose some games?? Knowing how ND runs things these days, my guess is that we'll be lining up a lot of 300+ RPI teams to get 12-14 wins in nonconference play and a virtually guaranteed spot in the NCAAs.

RPI and Pomeroy ratings and all that will become a meaningless factor in terms of getting in. It will affect our seed, but does it really matter what seed you get in this bloated 96 team field?? Just get in and try to win some games. It's going to be much more like the conference tournament. Everyone is going to be fair game.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of tournament expansion for Notre Dame is how this whole thing is going to shape our expectations for the program. Ever since I became a student in the late 90s and started following ND basketball closely, the barometer for a successful ND basketball season has been to make the NCAA Tournament. If we made the NCAAs, that was generally enough to be considered a successful season.

But how are we going to judge the performance of this program going forward?? Making the NCAAs?? Winning a game or two?? Sweet 16?? Winning conference record?? It's tough to say. It's probably going to be a lot more of a gray area. "I know it when I see it." Going 19-14 (8-10) and losing in the first round of the new NCAA field is probably not going to satisfy too many people. I would guess that expectations will be similar to what they are now. Winning record in the Big East, decent seed, and try to make noise in the Big East and NCAA Tournament.

Then again, there are factions of ND fans who feel that Sweet 16s and beyond should be appropriate barometers for ND basketball and in terms of judging Mike Brey's performance, and I don't think those expectations are fair either. If ND gets really serious about basketball and spends the dollars and builds a big time practice facility and starts allowing academic exceptions, then I'll ramp up my expectations for Mike Brey. For now, I think he's done a good job with this program, and I'd be fine with Brey spending the rest of his coaching career at ND. If he continues to do what he's been doing and wins 20+ games and has a winning record in Big East play, I'd consider that to be a good year for ND basketball. Anything better would be gravy.