Last summer, all of the focus on Notre Dame centered squarely on Coach Charlie Weis and what he was going to bring to the Irish program. The players were rarely featured outside of their hometown papers. This off-season however the focus has shifted to the players with the trio of Brady Quinn, Tom Zbikowski, and Jeff Samardzija getting the bulk of the attention. We've already seen the national stories on Quinn's upcoming Heisman run and Zibby's boxing career, and now Samardzija is commanding the headlines after the Chicago Cubs made him the 149th overall pick of the Major League Draft yesterday.
ND Coach Paul Mainieri offered his opinion that while Jeff is better known for his work on the gridiron, his future in baseball is just as bright as his one in football.
"One of the truly great players in Notre Dame history got selected today by the Chicago Cubs. You can throw his numbers out the window. I don't care what his ERA was or how many strikeouts he had. This guy is going to be a great Major League pitcher, if that's the route he chooses. He has all of the ability that it takes to be a Major League pitcher. He's got the body, he's got the arm strength. Every time he pitched, he got better and better and I think the work that [ND pitching coach] Terry Rooney did with him took him to another level as a pitcher. I've had some good pitchers around here - Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman - but Jeff is as good as or better than those guys. He's going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time and at a very high level.By being drafted, Samardzija will likely pitch this summer for the Cubs' Class A affiliate, the Boise Hawks. Then in August, Samardzija will come back to South Bend to start football practice and get ready for the 2006 season. After that though, which professional sport he pursues is unclear. For now it sounds like Samardzija is going to use the summer baseball sessions to really gauge where he's at as a pitcher.
"After being involved in both sports and playing both [professionally], then I'll have a better idea whether I can do both - and if I can't, then which way I'll want to go. It's hard to say right now. Maybe I'll get into it and say that I can do both and can do it for a good amount of time. The deeper you get into it, the more you know.There will be a number of talented wide receivers in college football this year who will likely be in the 2007 NFL Draft (Dwayne Jarrett, Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn) so Samardzija isn't exactly a lock for the top receiver spot in the draft but he shouldn't drop much below the middle of the 2nd round. If he does end up as one of the top NFL picks, he might be forced to go football full-time, but if he slides a bit and his pitching is strong this summer in the minors, you never know, he might try and continue his Bo Jackson imitation. It has to be harder for a pitcher than an outfielder to double up, but I'm sure there will be some teams willing to at least give him a shot to do both. In the meantime, Samardzija along with his classmates Brady and Zibby are quickly becoming larger than life Irish legends. It will be fun in a few years/decades to look back and see where they fit in on future discussions of Notre Dame greats.
"It will be incredible because there will be no school and no football, it will be just baseball day-in and day-out, which will be amazing. Just to see the strides I made [this spring] just from missing a few football practices, I'm excited to see where it goes and it will give me a good idea of what I can do with my career."