Monday, February 07, 2005

Roundtable, par deux | by Jay

We now resume our Memphis layover, with part II of our Recruiting Roundtable.

(Setting the scene: Dylan has just been defeated by Sean in a stunning best-of-three Rochambeau challenge for the last Chili's rib. Sean, licking his chops, continues the conversation...)


One thing I like about this year's recruiting class - their nicknames. Check out the writeup from the SBT. Some very creative nicknames. Like Scott Smith is Smitty. No way. And Asaph Schwapp is Ace. But I think my favorite ones are Joey Hiben and Kyle McCarthy, whose nicknames are "Joey" and "Kyle", respectively. What will they think of next?

Hey, if we've got an "Ace", shouldn't we also have a "Gary"? Although that might mean that they should have gone to Southern Cal instead, or even oiled each other up for a transfer to play for the ol' wrasslin' coach down at Ole Miss. But I digress.

One other point that I'd like to make about this class is it's flexibility. Weis mentioned as much in his press conference and I think that multiple guys will end up moving around during their time at Notre Dame. Just taking a quick look at the recruits, Steve Quinn was recruited as a wide receiver and linebacker, Pat Kuntz as a defensive end and defensive tackle, both cornerback and safety for Kyle McCarthy, Washington as I mentioned earlier is a linebacker who also plays free safety, Joey Hiben is a tight end who has also been mentioned as a possible defensive end, linebacker Scott Smith has the size to move to the d-line, and fullback Asaph Schwapp was also recruited as a linebacker. Weis mentioned in one of his earlier press conferences that he likes to recruit "big guys" and "skill guys" and fit them in slots later. Well that seems to be the early hallmark of this class. As Weis mixes the current talent on the team with the incoming talent of future classes, the flexibility of this current group of 15 should prove invaluable to fill any holes or depth issues in the coming years.

Damn you, Pat, you stole my thunder. I was thinking about the same thing when I was writing up the recruiting post the other night.

Don't forget Duncan, who started as a pretty good tight end as a junior and bulked up to play tackle. Apparently he's a fantastic hoops player to boot.

I wonder, though, if this isn't typical of most recruiting classes. Most of these guys are the best athletes at their school, so it follows that they will have played offense, defense, multiple positions, other sports, etc.

Do we think that this group is exceptionally versatile?

I don't think the group is exceptionally versatile, at least compared to other recent classes. Guys who you hope can play corner make decent safeties, and tight ends often have the frame and quickness to handle SDE. These aren't particularly earthshattering concepts.

17-year-old prep recruits damn well should be versatile, because many of them aren't close to done growing yet. So anyone who wants to put a kid that age in a box and make decisive pronoucements about what he can't be at the next level does so at his own peril. As Weis is someone who has coached and developed players at the high school, college and professional levels, so his experience probably gives him some insight on the subject that recruiting gurus like Lemming and most of us don't possess.

I don't doubt that Weis has different things in mind for some of the members of this class than what you'd gather from reading Rivals.

Agreed on this...I think there is more a perception of versatility because of Weis' background but I'm not so certain that this class is any more versatile than previous ones. A lot of the position changes being discussed have been discussed in previous years...same conversations, just change the names.

I think maybe the versatility factor is accentuated, or at least “noticed” more because Charlie Weis is the new coach, and we’ve seen how the Patriots use players in a variety of roles. I’m thinking here about how they put Vrabel at tight end sometimes, use Richard Seymour as a blocking back, shift Troy Brown over to DB, etc. So while this class may not be “more versatile” than other classes, and I think that there’s going to be a willingness on the coaches’ part to actually use and test that versatility, shift guys around, you know -- perhaps to a degree that we haven’t seen in a long time.

If I remember correctly, Holtz did a bunch of this when he first came in: making Heck a tackle, putting Stams over on defense, moving Steve Belles (Steve Belles!) to defense, George Poorman to DB, etc. He wasn’t afraid to simply assess a guy’s raw talent and put him where he could prosper. Charlie seems to think the same way.

Anyway, switching gears for a second...When we fired Ty, we pretty much immediately lost a few commits: Harrison, Wilson (seemingly) and Frierson, and things were thrown into turmoil.

A question that comes to you think there was a better way we could have handled the firing of Ty and the transition to Weis that could have salvaged these guys, and maybe strengthened the class overall? In other words, here's an invitation to do some Monday morning quarterbacking. Given what we know now about how recruiting ended up this year, what would you have done differently? Could anything have been done differently? Is this the best possible class that we could have gotten under the circumstances?

I don't think there was a better way to handle this, because I believe the two factors mostly - if not entirely - responsible for the defections were two factors beyond our control. These factors were:

1) Ty's recruiting sales pitch. It was always more about the opportunity to be molded by Ty Willingham than the Notre Dame experience. To this end, Ty presented himself as a larger than life figure to recruits. If a player had committed prior to the firing, they probably bought into this image of Ty, which would make his firing hard to swallow.

2) Media coverage. Dodd, Wilbon, et al, couldn't wait to get their shots in at Notre Dame. Nothing we could have done would have changed this - Wilbon never gave ND credit for hiring Willingham in the first place. Willingham was portrayed as a great, noble coach who got a raw deal. I'm sure recruits followed the story as closely as we all deal, and until Weis was named coach the standard media spin was almost all the recruits were hearing.

So factor 1 + factor 2 = a few pissed-off recruits. An inevitable short-term loss.

Perhaps there is one thing we could have done - had Kevin White not been a completely self-serving jackass at the press conference announcing Willingham's firing, the media would have had less material with which to work. But I don't think the spin would have been materially different had he not.

First off, there was no better way to handle this. Cripes, we had a new coach in place ten days after Willingham was removed. Given the Meyer schtupping and everything else that went on, that's more than satisfactory. I know that it felt like a good month or two based on our own handwringing and the ridiculous media coverage that followed it, but the University acted swiftly and intelligently in making their decision. And Chris Fowler is more than welcome to [expletive deleted] if he thinks differently.

Brandon Harrison and the other recruits who reference how Willingham was "handled" are sidestepping the real issue . There wasn't a damn thing unprofessional about how Willingham was ousted. They just didn't like the fact that he was dismissed at all. I wish that these people would be more honest about their feelings instead of implicating the University for some sort of gross misconduct, as if they deviated from the standard code on how to fire a football coach. Kevin White bent over backwards to praise Willingham in the press conference. Short of retaining him, what else could you possibly want?

The biggest miss this year was definitely not landing a pure cornerback. Most of this falls on Willingham, because anyone who watched ND play for more than about three minutes this past season could see that there was an immediate opportunity for someone with some semblance of corner skills. But Willingham couldn't even sell the potential of immediate playing time, because he was a completely insufficient recruiter. No matter what Weis does in the immediate future, keeping Willingham on for another season probably would have set the program back another two or three years. That's what a poor coach and recruiter he really was. Kids might have liked and respected him (such as Allen Smith and his mother), but they weren't nearly so gung-ho when it came to actually playing for him.

We're so much better off for being rid of Willingham, and my giddiness leads me to make absurd proclamations, like that Weis will produce as many NFL draft picks from the current signing group as any Irish recruiting class has accounted for over the past decade. This is how strongly I feel about how insufficiently our players have been developed during the Willingham and Davie regimes. Irish fans have become conditioned to think that we need to outtalent our opponents to win games, but that's simply not the case.

Anyone who is using this year's class as a reason to temper expectations next year, take a look at Weis' overall body of work for recruiting this season. He brought 11 non-committed kids onto campus and signed EIGHT, with one (Lorig) still deciding. That's a phenomenal closing ratio, especially for a guy who had less than a month and virtually no face-to-face time to build a relationship with any of these players. If anything, that speaks to (1) Weis and his staff's phenomenal sales skills and (2) the staying power of Notre Dame as a brand name with the right kids (see Herring, Ray).

By the way, here's a real nice story from signing day. Further proof that Tom Lemming is the anti-Christ and college football recruiting is the beginning of our societal downfall.

That leads me to my next comment. This whole recruiting's ugly, it brings out the worst in people, it's slimy, and it's the closest I'll come to feeling like a pedophile. That said, it's a necessary evil, but I sort of wish I didn't follow it as closely as I do.

Wait, are we talking about recruiting or porn?

Sounds like a future post topic: "Recruiting, or Porn?"

"Hold on honey, I'm just downloading some videos of a 17 year old boy off the internet."

Recruiting or porn?

"Thank goodness for these pay chat rooms where we can talk about the kids without worrying about people stealing our information."

Recruiting or porn?

"Hey, let's head over to the high school and see if there is any good talent this year."

Recruiting or porn?

With Burt Reynolds starring as Tom Lemming: "He's my 17 year old piece of gold."

The more attention I pay to college football recruiting, the more convinced I become that I'm completely wasting my time by paying so much attention to college recruiting. By and large, great college players are developed at the next level, not plucked ready-made from the vine.

And there's only a small trace of sour grapes in there. Swear.

I'm so hesitant to trash college recruiting in 2004 and the way that Lemming and his ilk approach and profit from it because we all follow it so closely and eat up what he's serving like candy. That said, these kids are WAY too empowered, and a lot of it is because of the age we live in and the stage that the Tom Lemmings of the world have created. There's just something a little unsavory about a guy getting into a car and driving 5,000 miles around the country so he can watch a bunch of spandex wearing 17 year olds in Mississippi lift weights and run the forty. I'm just saying....

Looking for positives, recruiting has always been shady and just a bit creepy. One of the benefits of the increased exposure in college recruiting is that it is helping to expose some of the blatant criminal acts some schools and coaches perform to get certain kids to their schools. The story about the coach paid $150,000 to steer his prize player to 'Bama and the whole Willie Williams fiasco are two small examples of things that go on all the time and never get reported. Now with more people looking, it's getting harder for the criminals to keep recruiting kids the "old fashioned way". Eventually they might have to sell the kids on actual football and academic reasons.

Good point - the dialing down of the lear jets and four-lobster/two-steak dinners (which I attritbute directly to the Willie Williams diaries last year) can only help our cause. Now if the NCAA would just tie graduation rates to bowl eligibility...

What I find sort of odd about all things ND is how often the developments, especially with coaches, come out in what seem to be these blatent characatures of good and evil.

Take a guy like Urban Meyer. Some of us (guilty as charged) loved him and thought that he was born to coach ND and restore the team to greatness. So Willingham gets dumped, Meyer gets offered the job and...he turns it down to go to Florida. In most situations where that sort of scenario plays out, Meyer would simply go about his business in Florida, doing just what he's done before without any serious controversy and leading a winning team at Florida. Perhaps even winning a championship and doing the sorts of things that we pined for him to do at ND.

Instead, he's exposed himself almost immediately as this shady character dispossessed of any purported loyalties to ND that would prevent him from taking our coaches or recruits. And now we have evidence that he doesn't even have enough respect for this program, one he called his dream job and referred to as the pinnacle of college football just months ago, to avoid trashing us to prospective recruits and their families. The only detail left hanging is the press clipping about him cheating on his wife or kicking someone's dog.

So I ask you: am I imagining this because of the bias, or does it often seem like those who abandon Notre Dame announce themselves as louts and generally unsavory characters?

The situation wasn't altogether different with Matt Doherty, when he left Notre Dame to take over as coach at his alma mater of North Carolina. Once there, he had a few recruiting entanglements with ND, then went on to prove himself to be something of a bad apple, a coach who wasn't all he was cracked up to be and, ultimately, a failure who was dishonorably discharged from his dream job within three seasons. Drop curtain.

I also see some good "evil antagonist" characteristics in the Pete Carroll figure with his Eddie Haskell underpinnings, and I see someone who's ripe for a fall in the sort of "Behind the Music" way that I've described elsewhere.

So does life always live itself out in these broad morality plays, or does it just seem that way with our coaches?

I don't know the answer to your ultimate question, but if "Urban Meyer's Florida coaching career playing out the same way as Matt Doherty's UNC coaching career" were available on Ebay, I'd pony up $5,000 and not even care. Seriously, it would be THAT entertaining and satisfying to watch. I'm not exagerrating. 5 grand, EASY.

I'm of the opinion that recruiting is like soap operas for guys. Aside from the lack of amnesia subplots, it has all of the intrigue, backstabbing, wild speculation, ever evolving cast of characters, and complicated storylines. Here's my take on some of the notable storylines/characters from this year.

Feel Good Story - I think Ray Herring is the hands down winner in this category. Not only was he ND's biggest cheerleader in his online recruiting journal, but in a recent diary entry he dropped this emotional bombshell about his father who was paralyzed during a high school football game.

"My Dad told me a secret after I made my decision final. Notre Dame was his dream school that he wanted to go to before he was paralyzed. God always works things out! Now, I can play for both of us!"

Most Anti-Climatic Story - The whole David Nelson saga. As he dragged out his "I'm a soft commit, but looking around" saga, his actions turned off a lot of Notre Dame fans and really started to get under the skin of people for varying reasons. David, if you're looking around that seriously, you're not committed. Furthermore, don't use the "lack of personal attention" routine to justify squirming out of your previous verbal committment to Notre Dame. Just come out and say you want to go somewhere else. By the time he dove headfirst into the deep UF depth chart, most ND fans had already had enough of the name David Nelson.

The "Amatuer Hour" story - The way that the former staff attempted to recruit and sign a quarterback was hilarious...for everyone that doesn't like Notre Dame. Obviously Mark Sanchez was the prime suspect, but even though ND made his final four list, Diedrick couldn't be bothered to meet Sanchez when he came to campus and ND didn't even offer him a scholarship until 2 weeks before he made his decision. Maybe that's because Diedrick was enamored with the cannon arm of Rob Schoenhoft. Despite the fact that Robbie had mediorce stats, was benched by his own coach for mediocre performance, and looked like a tight end in the making, Diedrick apparently saw a fit for his "system". Meanwhile, Evan Sharpley calmly and confidently waited until ND offered him a scholarship and he prompted committed. The whole fiasco was maddening from a Notre Dame fan point of view and was an up close and personnel look at the disorganization and lazy recruiting style of the previos coaching staff.

The "Karma's a Bitch" Story - North Carolina was pursuing running back Montario Hardesty and when they thought they had him they made room for him by yanking the scholarship from a previously committed, lower ranked running back. Then, on signing day Hardesty changed his mind and signed with the UT Volunteers.

Recruiting game = a soap opera for guys. That's about the size of it.

Final thought -- I don't think it's a stretch to call the 2006 recruiting class the most important in the last 25 years. Given the lack of numbers in key areas and the overall dip in talent level in the last two recruting classes, Weis needs to hit a 1987 or 1990 Vinny Cerrato style home run. 1987 is probably the best analogy, since that was Holtz's first full recruiting class coming in on the heels of the Faust Era. If you remember, 1987 gave us immediate impact freshmen like Ricky Watters, Todd Lyght, Tony Brooks, Andre Jones, and sophomore building blocks like Chris Zorich, Tim Ryan, Scott Kowalkowski, and Mike Heldt. If this staff recruits like everyone seems to think they will, they will probably give damn near the full 25 scholarships next year. There have to be at least 7 or 8 kids ready to play right away in that group. As for the kids we did get, given that we only brought in 15 (for now), I think we addressed some key areas. We got the all-important quarterback, a couple of very good wide receivers, bookend tackles, a top notch tight end, a sleeper fullback, and we loaded up on the defensive side of the ball. Obviously, the glaring omissions are a tailback (any tailback), an impact pass rusher, lockdown corner, and some more offensive linemen.

I can't disagree with that. To borrow an overused cliche, next year is everything.

(Looking at watch) our flight ready to go yet?

The one they rebooked us on? It looks like it just got cancelled.

(the table sighs.)

Another onion blossom, anyone?