Monday, January 31, 2005

And another... | by Jay

From the Boston Herald:

"Charlie just has a mind for the game,'' said second-year center Dan Koppen, a fifth-round draft pick out of Boston College who's thrived under Weis since taking over for an injured Damien Woody last season. "He puts the preparation in each and every week. He really has an idea of what the defenses are going to do against him, and he's able to call plays.''

Adaptability and diversity have been two hallmarks of Weis' offense. Those two attributes were on display to their fullest in the Patriots' two playoff victories this month. While the defense deservedly received plenty of credit for holding Peyton Manning and the explosive Colts to a mere field goal in the divisional round, the offense deserves just as much for the way it chewed up the clock with Corey Dillon.

Last week, Weis used a bombs-away approach in the first half to streak to an insurmountable lead against the Steelers, who boasted the best defense in the NFL.

"We go out there and figure out 'How can we beat this team?' not based on what our offense is but based on what our best chance is of beating them is,'' tight end Christian Fauria said.

"If it makes sense for us to work towards a team's strengths, we'll do that. If it makes sense to work away from their strengths, we'll do that. Every week is a different game plan, and every week, depending on what the defense is, we decide whether it's best to run at their best players or weakest players. It changes every week.''

Weis' offense has kept everyone involved. Six players had at least 25 catches in the regular season and 10 had at least 10 grabs. That kind of distribution might keep some capable players from reaching Pro Bowl numbers, but it also lets players know that nobody's just along for the ride.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Feeling Super. Thanks for asking. | by Jay

One byproduct of Super Bowl week is the glut of articles sifting through every aspect of the upcoming bout, no matter how trivial (in the past week I've read about Freddie Mitchell's new country music album, the dearth of limousines in Jacksonville, and the ongoing growth of Patriots superfan JJ Feigenbaum's lucky beard). So it's no surprise to see some Charlie Weis stories trickling in amidst the filler.

J.A. Adande of the LA Times keeps the drumbeat of fluff going with this short profile, which is notable only because it's the first time I've seen Rob Ianello quoted in an ND story. But in keeping with the spirit of super-intense, Super Week scrutiny, I pass it on to you. Just doing my part to prove Boyle's Law of Thermodynamics (gas expands to fill a vacuum).

Saturday, January 29, 2005

quick postscript | by Jay

Actually, I will point out one particular piece of new info from the previous article.

Apparently, if the NCAA expands to a 12-game season, ND will add an annual game at the Meadowlands, in an effort to "revitalize" east coast interest in the Irish and hopefully give a boost to recruiting from the area. Sounds like a neat idea, and I'm curious to see who they'll line up for the game (I suppose Army and Navy will be in the rotation). Recruiting-wise, it'd probably be a little more productive than our annual west coast jag. The northeast has always been a solid source of Irish talent, but it's been a while since we've really been plugged-in.

ND + Meadowlands + Joisey native Charlie Weis = fuhggeddaboutit.

"It's like a new Notre Dame" | by Jay

Arthur Staple of Newsday just put together such a comprehensive and enlightening summary of the new dawn at ND that trying to pull out the pertinent snippets is pretty much an impossible task. So instead, I'll just offer up the whole thing. Enjoy.

Golden Dome Shines Again

After one of the worst periods in its history, there is a feeling of excitement at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- D.J. Hord had been to Baton Rouge. He'd been to Madison. He'd been wooed and wowed by the facilities and the prospect of catching passes for LSU or Wisconsin, two elite schools using all their resources to get a commitment from a top 100 high school wide receiver.

Hord came here next, to the most hallowed ground in college football. Touchdown Jesus stood tall over Notre Dame Stadium. The Golden Dome glinted in the winter sun. The tradition called out, as it has to thousands of high school football players in the last century.

But Hord looked a little closer. That stadium? Not much to look at, really. And the part about walking -- in pads, helmets and jerseys -- from the stadium locker rooms to the practice fields a quarter-mile away ... This is the greatest program ever?

"I was shocked, actually," said Hord, a 6-1, 180-pound senior at Kansas City's Rockhurst High. "To be there, with all the greatness of the history, and see that the facilities weren't up to par with all the other big schools ... It was a shock."

Hord wasn't the first recruit to be stunned. Notre Dame's ignominious display of the past two months -- firing Tyrone Willingham, enduring the resulting cries of racism, failing to get then-Utah coach Urban Meyer into the fold -- diminished the stature of the program. Nevertheless, Hord did give an oral commitment to the Fighting Irish after that visit earlier this month.

He found three reasons to be optimistic about the future. They are the same reasons the Notre Dame family is so giddy, a surprising turn of events coming on the heels of one of the most humiliating periods in school history.

The first thing that impressed Hord is that those outdated facilities are about to get an upgrade: The 95,000-square-foot, $22-million Guglielmino Center will open in June. New coach Charlie Weis called it a major step forward for Notre Dame recruiting.

"No longer will you just have to sell the name. You'll have the school, the name and a facility that will be second to none," Weis said. "When players walk in, they'll say, 'Whoa.' That's what it's going to be when they walk in there: It's going to be a 'Whoa.'"

The second piece is Weis himself. The offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots is busy preparing for a third Super Bowl in four years, so he barely has had time to attack his new job. But Notre Dame might have accidentally helped point itself in the right direction by hiring the New Jersey native after the firing of Willingham, the misfire on Meyer and a few interviews that went nowhere. Weis, a disciple of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, has guided some of the top offenses in the NFL for the past decade.

Last, but hardly least, is the feverish fan base that athletic director Kevin White calls "the national parish." White, an Amityville native, said calls for Notre Dame to join a conference "have been around since the Rockne days." Through the lean years since Lou Holtz left as coach in 1996, the calls have become louder. But White said the school never has been more committed to playing -- and recruiting -- on a national scale and as an independent.

If the NCAA votes in April to go to a 12-game schedule, as is expected, Notre Dame plans to add a yearly date at the Meadowlands to revitalize the East Coast football community that once provided the Irish its talent base.

"The new staff, the new facilities ... It's like a new Notre Dame," Hord said. "I can't wait to be a part of it."

White has a blueprint of the Guglielmino Center in his office. He's been working to make the building a reality since he arrived on March 13, 2000. "He probably had better facilities at Central Michigan," one Notre Dame administrator said of White's days as a track coach in the 1970s.

White pointed out that he was at Central Michigan the same time as Willingham, who was coaching the secondary. "He's a friend" is among the few thoughts White offers on the Willingham debacle. He and outgoing university president Rev. Edward Malloy voted against the firing but were overruled by incoming Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and three Board of Trustees members, led by Morgan Stanley CEO Philip Purcell.

"Any time you go through a staff transition, it's painful," White said. The ensuing debate about the racial implications of firing Notre Dame's only black head coach brought more pain, and layered onto the disgruntlement expressed by thousands of alumni who turned on NBC every Saturday and watched a disjointed offense get pounded from coast to coast.

"The level of interest and passion in this program is unquantifiable," White said. "It's what makes Notre Dame Notre Dame."

White knew what his program needed even after Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant, decided the hubbub wasn't worth returning for. "It became," White said, "an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves. We have a wonderful history and tradition that has served us very well for, oh, about 114 years in college football. But it's very, very important that we stay current. Any opportunity you have to get better, you do it."

Turning to a college coaching lifer did not seem the answer, even as time dwindled through December to an Insight Bowl date with Oregon State (a 38-21 loss, the Irish's seventh straight loss in a bowl game). In Weis, who signed a six-year, $12-million contract, White found fresh blood in a Notre Dame alum (class of 1978) and someone who could bring innovation to the field.

In six weeks, Weis has been at the school for perhaps five days total. He's turned into the personification of the old Army ads, doing more before 9 a.m. (and after midnight) than most people do all day. And his double duty, running the Patriots' offense while calling recruits and current Irish players at night, has impressed everyone.

"He's exceeded our expectations so far, I'd say," White said.

That started with his coaching staff. Weis, whose work with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is an ongoing success story, never had met David Cutcliffe, who also helped produce one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Cutcliffe was offensive coordinator at Tennessee when Peyton Manning was learning the ropes; he also was head coach at Mississippi when Eli Manning was there. So Weis, lacking the time for a major search, called Cut.cliffe and hired him just before New Year's Day without ever actually meeting him.

Weis has three former head coaches on his staff, tantamount to heresy in the coaching world: You never hire someone who could just step right in for you. "I'd rather get the best people available, regardless of experience," said Weis, whose staff also includes former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter as defensive coordinator (his job at Notre Dame from 1992-93) and former Georgia Tech head coach Bill Lewis as assistant head coach.

"When you get three guys with that ability to come and join your staff, if you don't get them, you're the one making the mistake," Weis said.

"He's not coming in here to do well and make the move somewhere else," Cutcliffe said. "This is Notre Dame."

The next step for Weis was recruiting. National signing day is Wednesday. Not only did Weis and his staff have to establish relationships with high school coaches and athletes who had been recruited for months by other schools, they had to try to maintain commitments from those who had wanted to play for Willingham and turned away.

Weis has lost a few. Wide receiver David Nelson of Texas wanted to sit down with Weis before re-committing. The AFC Championship Game win by the Patriots made that impossible, and Nelson is going to join Meyer in Florida. But Weis has kept a few players, mostly skill guys.

"I'd say this could end up working out great for me," said Evan Sharpley, a quarterback from Marshall, Mich., who committed in July. "He's been so successful at the pro level and he's brought in such a good staff, it's hard not to be excited."

"That Super Bowl ring is huge!" said Ray Herring, a safety from Melbourne, Fla. "It doesn't even look real."

For better or worse, that is what recruits want: a chance to make their NFL dreams more real. Brady Quinn is the incumbent quarterback, a sophomore who endured a pair of 6-5 seasons but still can say he attends one of the top academic institutions in the land.

"When you make the decision to come here," he said, "it's a life-altering experience. Playing football is one thing, but it's joining a network of alumni that's better than just about anyplace else."

Still, as White said, "The goal is to play on Sunday." That's what sells blue-chippers, not Rockne and Parseghian and Holtz. It's why, in addition to the experienced staff he's hired, Weis will have Trophy winner and future NFL Hall of Famer Tim Brown on staff the minute Brown hangs it up in the pros.

"We've been able to recruit a very good cut of student-athletes," White said, "but I'll say we have to do a better job of identifying the four, five high-end recruits, the difference-makers. In football, you need the difference-makers."

Hord is the only difference-maker in the fold for this year's recruiting class, which is ranked in the 20s among Division I schools by ESPN and But "The Gug," as the training facility has been dubbed, will be open by June. Weis might have another Super Bowl ring to show off as he shakes the hand of a wide-eyed 17-year-old who can run a 4.5 in the 40. And the collective minds of Weis and his staff might excite plenty who watch on Saturday.

The national parish, said White, "has never been more galvanized."

"It's all about winning," said Hord, wise beyond his years. "And Notre Dame is willing to do whatever it takes to win."

Friday, January 28, 2005

A Tale of Two Kiddies | by Dylan

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times….or something.

Following up a bit on Teds’ post (at least tangentially), the past week provided one of those “agony and ecstasy” dichotomies for ND fans who follow the increasingly Brechtian spectacle of the closing of the recruiting period. Following the news was like reading the bastard child of BGI and Highlights, with the roles of Goofus and Gallant being played by David Nelson and Ray Herring. Hopefully, the story will serve as a signpost for the turning of the tide in the Willingham-to-Weis transition, one on which we will look back with bumfuzzlement.

Nelson, of the now famous commitus interruptus and the Goofus of our story, will be forever enshrined as the embodiment of the “Ty Willingham recruit,” the player who wanted to play for the man, not the school. The type of player who bought the false premise that one’s success as a “man” mitigated one’s lack of gridiron achievement. Teds summed this up exceptionally well down below (and considerably more generously than I would have, eschewing the encouragement I would have offered to Mr. Nelson to perform certain unnatural and physically impossible acts upon himself after his decision that, if Charlie would not play James Lipton to his Nick Cage, he would make a cuckold of ND and pledge his precious flower to Pope Urban the Turd), and I’m content to let that speak for itself. I will stay above the fray.

Ray Herring has spent the past two weeks being everything that a Notre Dame fan could want. (Be sure to read his latest diary entry here.) His enthusiasm for the school, the fans, the team, and every word in the English language that starts with an “N” or a “D” has been infectious. Next, I expect an entry in his diary praising the culinary perfection of the South Dining Hall, the soaring and inspirational architecture of Flanner, and the sweet, sweet smell of ethanol. Assuming that Ray is the real deal (and there is absolutely no reason to assume otherwise), we may be looking at the proto-recruit for the reborn football program. What the program has lacked, and this is directly attributable to Willingham and his belligerently clueless predecessor, is kids who come to Notre Dame because they want to play for Notre Dame. Herring, in case you missed it, is stupendously, fantastically, tremendously, reconculously excited, not just to have made the decision to come to Notre Dame, but to be a part of it. He, a senior in high school, understands what Notre Dame means better than either of the two previous stewards of the House that Rock Built. Is he too good to be true? Who knows. But one thing is for certain, I would rather have a team of Ray Herrings (especially on a team coached by Charlie Weis) than a team of David Nelsons. Nelson is a very gifted football player, but Herring seems to be a winner of the New England Patriots variety. He doesn’t seem to see success as his birthright, as do many of today’s pampered, coddled student-athletes; but as a goal which requires discipline, work, and faith, and one which, once attained, bears sweeter fruit as a result.

Welcome to the family, Ray. Keep calling your prospective classmates. Next August, share your insight and your enthusiasm with them. Be their leader. Tell them where you want to take them. I have little doubt they’ll follow.

Battle report | by Jay

From the Northwest Indiana Times, another dispatch from the recruiting front lines.

Defensive line recruit Pat Kuntz out of Indianapolis talks about the touch-and-go nature of the coaching transition, how he almost went elsewhere ("If he would have called a day later, I wouldn't have gone to Notre Dame"), and what ultimately sold him on ND.

Also a couple of good quotes from DJ Hord.

Another Irish recruit, wide receiver D.J. Hord of Kansas City, Mo., believes Weis' credentials will help the school's recruiting efforts as next Tuesday national signing date draws nearer.

"I really think what he's doing right now will play a role,'' Hord said. "With them playing for a Super Bowl title again, it shows that he's a coach who can win consistently. To me, his offense is outstanding, very impressive.

"It gets you excited about playing for him. I'm anxious to get up there, get to work and learn his system as quickly as possible.''
And a final note from Allen Wallace of SuperPrep magazine, on the recruiting benefits of playing in the Superbowl:
"It's basically all he has to sell right now, but that's a lot,'' Wallace said. "The fact that the man recruiting you can move the ball against any defense in the NFL, is a huge plus. Players thinking your coach, with his Xs and Os, can outscheme the opposition, I think that gives any team an enormous advantage. I think it would be a very big factor for any recruit to consider before he decides for or against playing at Notre Dame.''
You sort of wish David Nelson had connected the dots as Wallace suggests; instead, Nelson complained about the very thing that makes Weis preeminent. (Sour grapes, I know.)

The Gag Order | by Teds

David Nelson, a wide receiver recruit Notre Dame had been pursuing in the current campaign, cast his fate with the Florida Gators during a visit to Gainesville last weekend. As a highly-ranked prospect who had been committed to former ND coach Tyrone Willingham prior to his dismissal, Nelson had been the source of some consternation among Irish fans.

(The quicker ones among you may notice that I mentioned Willingham specifically in association with Nelson, not the University of Notre Dame as a whole. There's a reason for that.)

It's not unprecedented for a prep prospect to change his commitment midstream after a coach has been replaced. Nor is it all that unusual for a high school player to sign on with the coaching staff who gives him the most and best attention, as Nelson admitted regarding his pledge to Urban Meyer and the Gators. Most ND fans didn't hold it against fellow ex-Willingham commit Lawrence Wilson when his interest in the Irish was rekindled after seven Notre Dame assistants dropped by to visit at his Akron-area school and home recently. Whether we openly admit it or not, most followers realize that attention in one form or another pays when it comes to recruiting.

At the same time, the internet age has transformed recruiting into big business and made household names of kids who haven't yet picked out prom tuxedos. Recruiting services regularly hound these young men for scraps of new information that might provide some insight as to their college destination for the thousands of sick twists (yo!) who consider such things worth obsessing over. From the mouths of babes...come what is often accepted as gospel nowadays.

One of the problems with that is the fact that the NCAA does not allow college coaches to discuss recruits by name during the process. So although the players in question can and often do provide gory, blow-by-blow accounts of their dealings with different suitors which are naturally subjective and occassionally shy on certain details, there's no outlet for a counterpoint from coaches and schools on the other end of the equation. As a result, what we're left with -- at least on the record -- is a one-sided conversation, or, if you prefer, "He said, [inaudible]".

So when Nelson declares, "For my dad to be comfortable sending me somewhere, he needed to be able to look a head coach in the eyes", there's a decent chance that he's sincere in his remarks. But there's also the possibility that Nelson is merely trolling for an excuse, something concrete to tell the reporters that will make his change of heart more understandable and palatable.

Admittedly possessing no special insight, I suspect that if Weis had the opportunity to visit with Nelson and his family face to face, the meeting would have done nothing more than forced the player to come up with a different and more outrageous reason to sign his letter of intent with a different school. Maybe something along the lines of: "My folks really needed to see Coach Weis don the San Diego Chicken mascot costume and do the Cabbage Patch to feel comfortable about his intentions and the security of my athletic and scholastic future".

(Then again, who knows? I only used this as an example because it's how I arrange most of my dates. Although that Chicken head can get a bit stuffy, so truth be told, I allow some of the more fetching girls to do their business without it. But I digress.)

Whatever the case, the NCAA's gag order gives these 16-18 year-old kids the simultaneous freedom and burden of shouldering the load as the designated mouthpiece in documenting the various relationships they develop with college coaching staffs, only one of which will ultimately come to fruition. Certainly, a recruit could just plead the fifth, but a "no comment" will often accomplish little more than stoking the fires of curiousity and leading to further badgering of the witness.

To be clear, I'm not looking for some sort of change in the restriction placed on these schools and their employees with respect to discussion of prospective players by name. As with any business which interviews candidates for employ and turns down some while also being rejected by others, it's poor form to openly discuss the details of the process. What I would ask is that those who follow the recruiting game closely and judge schools and coaches based on their success or failure in luring prized prospects to sign on their dotted line might take the postmortem comments of said prospects with a grain of salt.

Some will appear to change their priorities as the process unfolds, while others will completely fabricate reasons for choosing one school or declining the advances of another. Many will say that education matters but few will mean it, and certain ones who purportedly consider quality schooling a factor will make the kind of decision that leaves observers wondering if they actually grasp the definition of the term. Some will not be completely forthright about the schools that sincerely pursued them, and a few might even declare a "choice" of, say, BC when other options didn't actually exist. And all will lie like dogs about their height, weight and 40-yard dash times.

But this has all become an accepted part of the dance. We come to expect a certain amount of half-truths and gorilla dust. These teenaged kids have been all but strapped to a television camera, microphone or journalist's keyboard, and it's a difficult age for even the most well-adjusted among them to handle that sort of exposure with winning grace and brutal honesty. Cripes, it's hard enough for people twice that age.

You don't have to hate the game, but recognize the player for the possibility that his best interests might not neatly align with the unvarnished truth.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Are You Experienced? | by Pat

With the arrival of a new coaching staff, as the cliché goes, everyone starts from scratch. Throw out the old depth charts and wipe the slate clean, because every player, no matter his experience, is going to be learning a new system and competing for a spot in the starting lineup.

But the reality is that nothing in practice nor read in the playbook can prepare a player for that moment when he steps onto the field, surrounded by tens of thousands of screaming fans. Experience is important. And while the 2004 season just ended 30 days ago, it's never too early to look forward to 2005.

A few days ago, Lou Somogyi of Blue and Gold Illustrated posted an article with the playing times of each player from the 2004 season. Some quick crunching of the numbers shows that while the Notre Dame offense will return virtually intact, the defense will have large holes in experience at multiple positions. Obviously the new coaching staff might make position changes, and young players could surprise and beat out returning veterans. But unlike a stock market disclaimer, past perfomance is a strong indicator of future results when it comes to playing time.

Here's a quick breakdown of each position and a percentage of minutes played in 2004 at that position by players returning in 2005.

Overall, 89% of the offense is coming back, while only 36% of the defense will return.

Quarterback - 95.5%
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.This is a pretty obvious stat as everyone knows that Brady Quinn is returning for his junior year. But this stat is a bit deceiving in that pretty much all of that 95.5% is Quinn's playing time himself. The inability to put many teams away early last season meant that Quinn usually played the entire game and our backups did not receive much playing time. In fact, the only other returning quarterback who saw time in 2004, David Wolke, played a mere 2 minutes out of the 374 minutes that a Notre Dame quarterback was on the field. So while the returning experience level at quarterback is high, the depth of that experience is not.

Quarterback '04 Minutes
Quinn 356
Dillingham 16
Wolke 2
Total 374
Returning 358
Difference (16.00)
Return Pct. 96%

Running Back - 67.6%
The bulk of the carries last year were split between Ryan Grant and Darius Walker. Grant has graduated and is the only starter on the offense that will not return in 2005. However, Walker had more carries and minutes played last year than Grant so Darius will hardly be a novice when he steps on the field as the starting running back at Heinz Field next September. However, the same depth concerns at quarterback apply here. While Walker proved durable last year, it is unrealistic to expect him to be able to carry the complete load next year. Marcus Wilson was a pleasant surprise last season in backup work and that should continue next year, but other running backs Travis Thomas, Jeff Jenkins, and Justin Hoskins only combined 28 minutes of playing time last season. At fullback, Rashon Powers-Neal returns but behind him Ashley McConnell has not seen the field yet.

Running Back 04 Minutes
Walker 150
Grant 128
Powers-Neal 119
Wilson 46
Schmidt 40
T. Thomas 21
Jenkins 7
Schiccatano 4
Hoskins 3
Total 518
Returning 390
Difference (128.00)
Return Pct. 68%

Offensive Line - 99.1%
Suffice it to say that Notre Dame will have one of the most veteran offensive lines in college football next year. Not only will all five starters return, but so will all of the second team players. This position should be a strength next year and a source of team leadership. Ryan Harris, Dan Stevenson, Bob Morton, and Mark LeVoir will be marking their third year in the starting rotation at offensive line while John Sullivan returns for his second. Incidentally, John Sullivan came into last season with no playing experience and logged the most minutes of any Irish player.

Offensive Line '04 Minutes
Sullivan 368
LeVoir 365
Harris 363
Stevenson 348
Morton 310
Santucci 81
Ryan 11
Mattes 8
Raridon 8
Thompson 7
Giles 6
Mitchell 4
Minutes 1879
Returning 1862
Difference (17)
Return Pct. 99%

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Wide Receiver - 90.2%
Again, every starter returns and the only player who saw meaningful time that will not return is Carlyle Holiday. However, Matt Shelton's recent ACL injury puts a question mark about when and how he will be able to return to the field. Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall will make their final appearance in a Notre Dame uniform and my opinion is that they will stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of Charlie Weis' new offense. Surprising, to me at least, was that Jeff Samardzija was second only to Rhema McKnight in playing time last season at wide receiver. He should pick up where he left off in the Bowl and round out a deep receiving corp.

Receiver '04 Minutes
McKnight 219
Samardzija 166
Shelton 160
Stovall 131
Holiday 79
Anastasio 42
Vaughn 10
Minutes 807
Returning 728
Difference (79.00)
Return Pct. 90%

Tight End - 71.1%
Notre Dame loses quality contributors Billy Palmer, Jerome Collins, and Jared Clark, but fans are excited about seeing Anthony Fasano return. Marcus Freeman and John Carlson also played well last season and that will result in yet another deep and experienced offensive position in 2005.

Tight End 04 Minutes
Fasano 269
Palmer 109
Freeman 76
Collins 32
Carlson 30
Clark 13
Minutes 529
Returning 375
Difference (154.00)
Return Pct. 71%

Now to the other side of the ball, where the percentages are lower and the expectations are, by necessity, higher.

Defensive Line - 42.6%
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.As with every position on defense, the top two players in terms of minutes played at defensive line will not return in 2005. Those names on the defensive line are Greg Pauly and Justin Tuck, who became the first defensive player to declare for the NFL Draft with remaining eligibility since Brock Williams in 2001. Kyle Budinscak, a co-starter for much of the 2004 season will also graduate. Derek Landri is the returning lineman with the most playing experience in 2004 and will team with Victor Abirimiri, Trevor Laws, Brian Beidatsch, Chris Frome, and Travis Leitko to reload the Irish defensive line. Dwight Stephenson Jr, Justin Brown, Ronald Talley, and Brandon Nicolas did not see the field in 2004, but could make contributions in 2005.

Defensive Line '04 Minutes
Pauly 266
Tuck 261
Landri 242
Budinscak 217
Abiamiri 194
Laws 122
Beidatsch 33
Frome 27
Leitko 5
Minutes 1367
Returning 623
Difference (744.00)
Return Pct. 43%

Linebacker - 29.4%
With the graduation of Mike Gooslby and Derek Curry, Brandon Hoyte is the only remaining returning starter and the percentage reflects that. Corey Mays also played meaningful mintues, but the rest of the returning linebackers are going to be very short on experience. The purpose of this post isn't to guess who will play where next year, but new names and faces will keep fans flipping through the media guide early and often next year as names like Mitchell Thomas, Joe Brockington, Nick Borseti, Abdel Banda, Maurice Crum Jr., Anthony Vernaglia (just going by roster listings here folks) and the incoming freshman all fight for a starting spot.

Linebacker '04 Minutes
Curry 328
Goolsby 298
Hoyte 199
Mays 47
M. Thomas 9
Brockington 4
Borseti 3
Minutes 888
Returning 262
Difference (626.00)
Return Pct. 30%

Defensive Backs - 33%
This position will undoubtedly be a favorite of Depth Chart Engineers in the off-season. I didn't break down the numbers into cornerbacks and safeties precisely for this reason. The field is wide open and it's likely that position changes will affect this position more than any other. The only returning starter is Tom Zbikowski, although Mike Richardson logged quality minutes at cornerback. Like at linebacker, there are plenty of names but little to no returning experience. In fact, if you take Zbikowski out of the equation, the percentage of returning minutes played drops to a little under 12%. Fans saw glimpses of Ambrose Wooden, Freddie Parish IV, and Chinedum Nduwke last season and the young talent does give hope for the future. But only time will tell how they mix in with other players like Lionel Bolen, Jake Carney, Leo Ferrine, Terrail Lambert, LaBrose Hedgemon, Junior Jabbie, Tregg Duerson, and whatever incoming freshman end up in the defensive backfield.

Defensive Back '04 Minutes
Ellick 343
Burrell 336
Zbikowski 331
Jackson 270
Richardson 134
Campbell 86
Parish 27
Ndukwe 13
Wooden 7
Bolen 2
Carney 1
Minutes 1550
Returning 515
Difference (1035.00)
Return Pct. 33%

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ready for my close-up | by Jay

On, Stephen Rodrick mourns the death of traditional sports writing, and fingers the rise of sports TV outlets like ESPN and the ensuing multitasking by print columnists as the culprits. It's a solid rant against the watering-down of sports commentary, and it's definitely worth a read. He particularly skewers Stephen A. Smith, much to my delight.

Where have you gone, Jim Murray? A sound-bite nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Breaking up the Flying Wedge | by Jay

In researching the previous post, I came upon a neat history of the NCAA. Did you know that the NCAA was formed mainly in response to the brutality and violence of early-century football? It's true. You could look it up.

"As more schools picked up the game and the rules developed over time, football became a body-slinging battle that often resulted in severe injuries. There was no forward pass, no neutral zone between teams and no limit to how few players could be on the line at once. 

"Hurdle plays" were permitted, allowing teams to literally pick up and launch their ball carrier over the opposing line. Mass-momentum plays, whereby the runner is protected by a moving "V" or a "flying wedge" of players, gained popularity as a way to advance the ball, but they also increased the game's violence as linemen were permitted to do almost anything to run over the opposition. There were no helmets, mouthpieces or face guards, and the few primitive pads that existed were of little benefit to the athlete. As football's critics got louder, it was obvious that there was need for reform. State legislatures debated making it illegal and several colleges and universities banned the sport, but the loosely formed national football rules committee only offered up a few changes to the game. "To make matters worse," wrote football historian Col. A. M. Weyland, "there was no authoritative body that could take the necessary action." 

The 1905 college football season produced 18 deaths and 149 serious injuries, leading those in higher education to question the game's place on their campuses. "One human life is too big a price for all the games of the season," said James Roscoe Day, chancellor of Syracuse University. The game might have died that year had it not been for the nation's chief executive officer, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard man, football fan and former student-athlete. 

On October 9, 1905, before the bloody season had even finished, Roosevelt called representatives of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House to discuss the game's future. Roosevelt was clear: Reform the game or it will be outlawed, perhaps even by an Executive Order of the President himself. After hearing of the President's concerns, the existing rules committee made some changes to the game, but there was still no national athletics organization with the power to force the committee to completely reform football. 

  Then Henry M. MacCracken, the chancellor of New York University, took it upon himself to call a meeting of football-playing institutions of higher education. Thirteen attended that first meeting in New York City on December 9, 1905, and the schools decided to reform the game and meet again, on December 28. At that meeting, 62 schools are represented. 

Capt. Palmer E. Pierce of the U.S. Military Academy suggested creating a formal association, the National Intercollegiate Football Conference. Representatives from the other schools agreed with the idea, but decided to leave out the word "football," thus creating the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). The delegates also created a new IAAUS football rules committee and invited the old football rules committee to participate, which they eventually agreed to do. What was known as the "amalgamated" committee made many changes to the game, including approving the forward pass, prohibiting hurdling and mass-momentum plays (by requiring at least six men on the offensive line), and increasing first-down yardage to 10 yards. 

The game was saved, and by the issuing of a formal constitution and bylaws on March 31, 1906, the Association -- still the IAAUS for another four years -- was created."

the Graduate(s) | by Jay

It didn't seem to generate a lot of discussion at the time, but a couple of weeks ago the NCAA released some new standards for academic performance for athletes at Division 1 schools. Under the new guidelines, college sports teams must stay on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their student-athletes to avoid the risk of losing scholarships for a year, under a plan approved by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.

The brickbat here seems to be something called a contemporaneous penalty, which means that when one of your players flunks out, leaves, or otherwise fails to graduate, your school may not re-award his/her scholarship a new student-athlete. This restriction lasts for one year. (For a lengthier explanation of the penalty system, take a look here.)

A second component to the new rules involves losing scholarships if your across-the-program grades aren't good enough. A new scoring system will go into place, a 1,000-point scale that measures your overall academic achievement. The Chronicle of Higher Education explained it in an article last Friday:

The 1,000-scale score equates to a percentage: 925 means that a team received 92.5 percent of all possible points.

Each scholarship athlete on a team earns two points per term by returning to college and passing enough classes to remain eligible for sports, according to another complex formula. Athletes who return to college but do not pass enough courses to be eligible earn one point, and those who flunk out altogether earn none.

Take a football team with 80 scholarship athletes at a college with two semesters. Assume, however implausibly, that all the athletes pass their courses for the fall semester. But 10 players decide in February to leave college immediately. Five more do not pass enough courses in the spring to remain eligible, but return to college anyway.

The team can score a maximum of 320 points (two points per athlete per semester). The players who leave cost the team 20 points; those who fail their courses cost five points. So the team has 295 points, or 92.2 percent of 320. Thus, its final score is 922.

Because the score falls below the threshold of 925, the team faces the loss of 10 scholarships for the next year.

But the NCAA decided to cap the number of scholarships teams can lose at 10 percent of the maximum they may award. Football teams are permitted 85 grants, so this team would lose the maximum of 9.

The NCAA estimates that 30 percent of Division I football teams would have lost scholarships, based on 2003-4 data, under the new plan. A quarter of baseball teams and 20 percent of basketball teams also would have been punished.

Now, the NCAA is nothing if not a rule-making body, but as far as I can tell, this is the first time the NCAA has tied actual graduation rates to athletic incentives and penalties. It's quite a bold step, since for the first time it encumbers the school with the responsibility of not just qualifying kids and keeping them in class, but actually sending them off into the world with a diploma when their athletic usefulness has expired.

So, a couple of thoughts on all this.

First of all...50% graduation rate? Well, I'm blown away -- talk about setting the bar high.
Fifty percent. Wow. Except maybe in gambling, or dating (or maybe voter turnout), in what other area of life is 50% anywhere near a successful outcome? Yet, for Division 1 sports, fifty percent is considered an acceptable rate of success.

In fact, it's not just acceptable...for some programs, it's a major improvement. Check out the sub-50% graduation rates of these major college football programs (based on 2003 stats, from an exhaustive analysis by Stanford's

Florida St.49%
Ohio State41%
Georgia Tech39%

(By the way, these numbers can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Texas, because of a dismal performance by the most recent class, saw its four-class grad rate drop from 50% to 38% in a single season.)

So fifty percent, a really rather modest goal, would nonetheless be a triumph for the likes of Oklahoma. It's really almost unbelievable that only a third of the guys on your football team are going to graduate, but there it is. These football factories needed a healthy dose of healing shame, and the new rules are a good step in the right direction.

And yet, you know they're going to find a way around it, somehow. The risks of not graduating your players has just dramatically increased, and your livelihood and identity as a "football school" hangs in the balance, so you've got to make it work. The obvious recourse, it seems to me, is going to be to simply push the kids through, increasing the number of "gut" classes and greasing the wheels of academia to keep the machine humming along. I'm sure it's the cynic in me thinking this way, but looking at the history of recruiting -- an area where violations have been piling up for years, despite any NCAA sanctions -- you have to realize that where there's a will, there's a way.

So will these new rules really have any teeth? And will the end result be simply a devaluing of the diploma itself, turning it into a meaningless piece of puffery worth no more than the paper it's printed on? NCAA czar Myles Brand actually weighed in on this very argument, saying it's an insult to the faculty who create the classes and the academic environment. "We have to ferret out the fraud", says Brand. Yet, short of installing a truly independent, objective NCAA compliance officer at each school, I'm not sure how you can accomplish this.

A few years back there was a five-part series in the Chicago Tribune on the uneasy relationship between higher education and athletics, and while the NCAA landscape has evolved somewhat since
then, the article still gives a glimpse of how big-time programs manage to operate under the umbrella of academia:

One Midwest football coach said as much: "There are no level playing fields in this academic stuff. Michigan is a big-time institution, and they find a way to hide their athletes. It doesn't take a genius to know what's going on. I can show you the transcripts of the kind of kids they're getting into Michigan. They're going through the back door."

"Did I put (marginal students) into sports management? Yeah, I put them there," said Frieder, now the coach at Arizona State. "They're not going to make it at Michigan in the school of business. All my kids on my good teams went through sports management. If you want those kind of kids, you have to have an avenue for them."

But at the same time, yes, it is a place where Michigan houses several of its student-athletes, some of them who are academically marginal. There are suggestions from sports management's own faculty that some Michigan athletes are directed into the program as a way of surviving in a tough academic climate. In its course curriculum, sports management has "remedial" math and study skills classes that faculty members say are in place for marginal student-athletes.
It's a bit of folly to think that by simple decree, the NCAA can somehow invoke the Platonic ideal of "student-athlete" and suddenly transform these football factories into institutions that truly serve the interests of the students, but it's good that they're trying, and it's got to be done.

And there also needs to be a stark realization that in the grand scheme of things, college isn't for everyone. On some level, the NCAA code of rules is like Frankenstein's monster, cobbled together from spare parts and held together by the thinnest of sinews, an unnatural creature always one step away from falling to pieces. Each year, it seems, new regulations are proposed and passed, all in the name of "student-athletes", and this flimsy web of rules constantly strains to hold back what is, at its heart, a robust, irrepressible, revenue-generating machine. There ought to be a way to divert kids from this machinery who otherwise couldn't give two flips about school, and provide a better alternative than trying to fit them into that preconceived mold. (It's been touted before, but maybe a professional minor league for football and hoops would be a viable option.) The schools would move a little closer to their ideal vision of the athlete-as-student, and the NCAA could unclench their cheeks a little bit more.

So how does Notre Dame fit into this picture? Well, we don't really have to worry about the 50% rule -- ND's grad rates for football have always been among the best in the land. And along with a handful other schools -- Duke and Stanford, to name a couple -- we seem to have cracked the code on the student athlete, providing sound academic grad rates along with competitive teams. We do this in a couple of key ways: a higher academic threshold for incoming recruits, and a serious dedication to academic support once at the school.

Unlike Duke, Stanford, and the rest, however, ND is the only school actively engaged in trying to win a national championship in football, and as such, we offer an important and unique perspective for the college landscape.
We're the sole institution of higher learning that also wants (I'll stress wants) to be a real football powerhouse, on par with the Miamis and the Oklahomas of the world, while maintaining a high level of academic excellence. Due mostly to the sheer number of players involved, a football program requires much more diligence and allocation of resources to its academic well-being -- much moreso than many of the typical football schools seem to devote.

Is the whole idea of a student athlete in this most bottom-line of sports a quaint notion of a bygone era? Is it ridiculous to think that ND can compete with Oklahoma and LSU on the field and still graduate 80-plus-percent of its players? And not just in puffy Michigan-style Kinesiology programs, but in fairly rigorous curriculums, and send them off with a diploma that has some heft and value? Is it even possible?

Well, we are certainly trying. In fact, it's part of our mission. As Father Ted once put it...

“Several years ago Sports Illustrated kindly invited me to express some convictions regarding intercollegiate athletics. In a recent (1958) article entitled “Surrender at Notre Dame,” you say that I have found it impossible to live with these convictions at Notre Dame and have reversed myself, or allowed myself to be reversed, albeit reluctantly. If I read the article correctly, and separated the fact from the fiction, your conclusion is derived from the single fact of our having changed football coaches. Here are a few more facts and convictions that may suggest an alternate, although perhaps less colorful, interpretation of that single fact.

“My primary conviction has been, and is, that whatever else a university may be, it must first of all be a place dedicated to excellence. Most of my waking hours are directed to the achievement of that excellence here in the academic order. As long as we, like most American universities, are engaged in intercollegiate athletics, we will strive for excellence of performance in this area too, but never at the expense of the primary order of academic excellence.”

"He (the ND head coach) understands what we stand for and he has our confidence. Despite any syndicated surmises to the contrary, he is not expected to be Rockne, but only himself; he is not to be measured by any nostalgic calculus of wins, losses and national championships but only by the excellence of his coaching and the spirit of his teams."

“A university could make broad and significant changes in academic personnel to achieve greater excellence, and attract only a ripple of attention. But let the same university make a well-considered change in athletics for the same reason, and it sparks the ill-considered charge that it is no longer a first rate academic institution and must henceforth be considered a football factory. It seems to me a little more thought is in order regarding what makes and institution academically first rate…. What the University does athletically, assuming it to be in the proper framework, neither adds to nor subtracts anything from relevant and all-important academic facts.”

“There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose...There has been a surrender at Notre Dame, but it is a surrender to excellence on all fronts, and in this we hope to rise above ourselves with the help of God.“

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Trojansphere | by Jay

Apparently Heisman winner Matt Leinart had been keeping a fairly detailed and regular blog for the past year. Anyway, from an ND standpoint, it's pretty funny, in a trainwreck sort of way. Matt on movies:

I also liked 'Rudy' when I was growing up. It made me want to go to Notre Dame for a while but, of course, I grew out of it.
One of Matt's fan letters:
Matt! "Cat's are useless." Say what?!? Matt you are my favorite quarterback ever at SC and I love you dearly, but cats are not useless. You don't have to like em personally, but jeez louise! My cat is very useful. She is my little buddy and keeps me company (although she isn't a huge fan of football, too much excitement for her.) She is very amusing and does funny stuff like zooming around the house with wild look in her eye and getting pissy with the outdoor cats who get too close to the window. She is also very smart and knows many verbal cues. And a huge perk: she smells a lot better than a dog. Anyhoo, I love you just a little less today after reading of your great dislike of cats. I'm even thinking of taking down the picture of you I have above my desk. Ok, I'm messin' with ya a little bit.
But I can't rip on Matt's blog too much. Even though it's clear that someone's ghostwriting it for him, it's a pretty good "inside look". I hope he keeps it up, and I'm looking forward to what he'll write about the ND game this year. Last time around...

Notre Dame
I've always had tremendous respect for Notre Dame. I think that is the centerpiece of the rivalry--the mutual respect between two great programs. Notre Dame didn't really recruit me out of high school. I think they were featured more of a running-style quarterback at the time. By their tradition alone, they attract great players. They get top players and they have great coaches. I think Coach Willingham is an excellent coach. But, it's not just the players, the coaches, the tradition--when you think of Notre Dame, you think of all that comes with it.

The Game

I was approaching the game like any other. I was trying not to listen to the talk surrounding the game. I was trying to go in with the same attitude and I did. It just so happened we made a lot of plays and guys got open and that helps. You throw a five-yard pass to Reggie and he goes for 70. That helps. It was fun to be out there. It's easy for me to keep the discussion of awards away and just play my game.

Working On The Run
We just took what they gave us. They were trying to take away the run, so we passed. We were still able to get some key yards on the ground. Obviously, we wanted a little more, but we were able to exploit them through the air. We always want to run the ball and establish the run, but we'll keep doing the same things.

Notre Dame hardly blitzed. They had a good run defense. They played stout and physical and played back and didn't want to give up anything deep. We were able to play action them and our line blocked great for that.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Protégé | by Jay

Tip of the hat to Hobbs over on NDN for pointing out two fine articles on Charlie from Sunday's NY Post.

"Charlie Hustle"

He was a fat, obnoxious loudmouth that didn't fit in," said Jim Washburn, a South Carolina assistant at the time and the current Tennessee Titans defensive line coach. "Everybody thought he was a [jerk] and then he became one of the most respected and loved guys down there."

"Jersey Guy Wearing Two Hats - And Both Fit Fine"

"Belichick had a significant role in getting me this [Notre Dame] job," Weis said. "They talked to Parcells a couple times, too. I'm full of gratitude toward Belichick, who helped me get the job and has made this transition period relatively easy, and also Parcells, because they called him and asked him if I was right and he recommended me for the job.

"Belichick and Parcells are the two reasons I was in position to get this job. I would not be in pro football if it wasn't for Parcells and I've grown even more since I've been here with Belichick."

Good stuff.

Friday, January 21, 2005

MEN-DO-ZAA! | by Pat

Charlie Weis continued to make his mark on the Notre Dame football program as Ruben Mendoza was hired as the new strength and conditioning coach for the Notre Dame varsity athletic teams. Mendoza comes to Notre Dame from the University of Mississippi, where he worked alongside current ND assistant coaches David Cutcliffe and John Latina, and will take over for the departed Micky Marotti.

Keeping with the "football tough" attitude that Weis is instilling in the program, Mendoza describes his approach to strength training in similar terms.

"We have a simple philosophy here at Ole Miss that combines a 'no-nonsense' approach with an 'old school' attitude," said Mendoza, who joined the Rebel athletic department in January 2001. "We have a balanced, well-rounded program. We incorporate a variety of training methods from dynamic-conjugate training to Olympic-style movements. Everything we do here is geared toward developing speed, power and strength.

"We want to instill in our student-athletes work ethic, discipline, intensity, attitude and pride. We want the student-athletes to come into the weight room in the frame of mind that they want to work hard to get better every day. Our student-athletes understand what it takes to strive for and win championships."

The 6'6", 320 lb Mendoza is no stranger to hard work himself as he graduated from Wayne State as the football team captain and a Kodak and NAIA All-American offensive lineman. After college he spent time in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, and Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals before returning to college to coordinate strength and conditioning. That sort of size and experience will come in handy should Mendoza decide to "pull an Orgeron" in the weight room.

A widely respected strength coach, Mendoza appears to always be on the lookout for ways to improve his teaching and training. While at Ole Miss he traveled to Nebraska to study their legendary weight training regimen and according to one article, "implemented a new system in Oxford where the players actually perform strength and conditioning drills in deep sand. The sand, according to reports and physical studies conducted by physicians at various research institutes, helps joints strengthen and also stabilizes the bone."

One of the perks that helped to draw Mendoza to South Bend has to be the upcoming opening of the new
Guglielmino Athletics Complex. The new football facility will be one of the best in the nation and will house the football offices, which will move from the JACC this summer. Mendoza and his staff will get to run the new 25,000 sq. ft. weight room which will include three track lanes for speed work and 40 yards of the new Prestige Turf that was recently installed on the field in the Loftus Center. No word yet on whether Mendoza will get his sand pits.

Mendoza was widely credited for increasing the strength and physicality of the Ole Miss football teams in the few years he worked with the program. Add in the fact that he has NFL O-line experience and has already worked with offensive line coach Latina at both Clemson and Ole Miss, and I think it's safe to say that the strength of our offensive and defensive lines won't be an issue. And while it doesn't seem that Mendoza is a strictly "bulk is better" type strength coach, the addition of the Gug speed training areas and returning speed coach Shawn Gaunt should help to provide the lightning to Mendoza's thunder approach.

Oh, and one more time...


This Thing of Ours | by Jay

A short, but jam-packed article about Father Jenkins today in USA Today, wherein he reiterates some of his previous comments, as well as adds a strong vote of confidence for Kevin White.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's incoming president, the Rev. John Jenkins, affirmed his support of athletics director Kevin White and defended the process that led to the controversial firing of former football coach Tyrone Willingham after three seasons.

White has been criticized by fans for the performance of the football program and the way the search for Willingham's successor turned out. The school courted Utah coach Urban Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant, who went to Florida.

White also defended Willingham in the announcement of the firing Nov. 30.

"Kevin White has given great leadership in the past five years," Jenkins said in his campus office this week, his first formal interview on athletics. "He has been put in difficult situations. I think he performed well. I have every confidence in him."

Jenkins said he initiated phone calls to two university trustees that began the process that led to Willingham's firing. "I suppose insofar as anybody is responsible for that decision, I am," he said, "and I'll take responsibility for it."

Jenkins did not specify a level of expectation for the football program under new coach Charlie Weis. "I am not going to give an expectation in terms of won-loss (record)," Jenkins said. "I think we can and should perform at a high level on the field. I think we should, in all ways, seek to be outstanding. ... We do have a special tradition in football, and so it is a special concern that we show in all those areas — integrity, graduation rate and performance on the field — excellence."

Jenkins said Willingham's acknowledged indirect contact with the University of Washington before the season ended was not a factor. And Jenkins said the need for confidentiality was the reason he consulted a small number of administrators and two members of the board of trustees.

"Everybody feels that they should be included," Jenkins said. "It's difficult to know who to include in such a way that the circle doesn't become so wide that the appropriate level of confidentiality is lost."

Jenkins said donors who have helped fund Notre Dame's athletics budget, $39 million for the 2004-05 academic year, according to school spokesman John Heisler, did not sway the decision.

"I can say categorically that financial considerations weren't even mentioned in our discussion, at least any discussion I had with anybody," Jenkins said.

The incoming president acknowledged that while the integrity of the program had been maintained under Willingham and graduation rates were among national leaders, performance on the field had become a concern.

"Win-loss record," he said. "Obviously, your recruiting plays a role. I think programs have a momentum. If they lose that momentum, it becomes harder to recover it. ... It's the total picture of: 'What is the direction of the program? And what confidence do we have in that program?' And I guess one can infer what confidence players considering here have in that program."

Willingham declined through a spokesperson to comment.

Jenkins said he had discussed the strong response of current university president, the Rev. Edward Malloy, who registered his embarrassment. "I think we're working together well," Jenkins said.

Malloy said through a spokesman he had nothing more to add.

Let's check the scorecard. White is staying; I fired Ty, not anyone else; wins are important, as important as integrity and academics; no more decisions by committee; Monk has nothing more to say. Kind of reminds you of when Tony finally took control of the family from Uncle Jun.