Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Wizard of Notre Dame | by Pat

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the passing of Notre Dame's greatest coach, Knute Rockne. The small memorial located in the middle of a field in Bazaar, Kansas has served as a pilgrimage of sorts for Notre Dame family and friends for close to three-quarters of a century. With the upcoming 75th anniversary next year I suspect even more will visit and pay their respects to the man credited with transforming a small Catholic school, tucked in northwest Indiana, into a national spectacle and source of inspiration for countless Americans. If you do go, keep an eye out for Easter Heathman, a witness to the crash who still takes visitors out to the nondescript landmark.

In the end, perhaps Will Rogers summed up Rockne's passing the best:

"It takes a big calamity to shock a country all at once, but Knute, you did it. You died one of our national heroes. Notre Dame was your address, but every gridiron in America was your home."

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Opportunity Knocks | by Jay

Irish Eyes has a few great videos from yesterday's post-practice session: a Q&A with Charlie, a short discussion with Mike Haywood, and a visit with Darius Walker. (The videos are paysite-only, but if Mike Frank is going to be offering this level of access and material going forward, then now is the time to pony up for IE. It's going to be well worth it).

Charlie was pretty sober about the first practice: he saw a couple of good things, but there's a hell of a lot of work to do. In particular, he had a strong message for the guys further down on the depth chart:

The biggest -- I wouldn't say, problem -- but the biggest thing we're going to have to do here in this training try and find some more guys from the backups who can step up and be dependable players. The biggest problem I had with today was not seeing enough people, people that I don't know that much about, making a statement for themselves. If I'm going try and have this open-door policy, where everyone gets a fair chance and a fair opportunity to make a name for themselves, then I'd like some people to stand out and do some things.
Message received? We'll see as the spring session continues.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Spring Roster | by Pat

The updated spring roster was released today and while there isn't much to glean from it, that won't stop me from trying...

Number Changes

It seems that changing numbers is the in thing to do for defensive backs. They are the only position players to change their number from last semester (outside of Darrin Bragg that is).

Anthony Vernalgia changed from 42 to 4 while Junior Jabbie went from 37 to 8. Tregg Duerson changed his number from 28 to 24, and Leo Ferrine went from 38 to 15 (haven't they burned that jersey yet?). Darrin Bragg went from 18 to 7 and Terrail Lambert has switched from 34 to 20.

Moving On

This has been reported previously on various recruiting websites, but the 5th-year eligible players who opted not to return to the team are Marcus Wilson, Darrin Mitchell, Jeff Thompson, Lionel Bolen, and Zachary Giles.

Position Changes

For the most part the listed positions are the exact same as last semester. That makes sense since Weis and Co. haven't actually seen the players on the practice field yet. I still expect guys to move around once spring practice gets going, but for now Brandon Nicolas is still a defensive end, Vernaglia and Ndukwe are both still safeties and Brady Quinn is still a quarterback.

Bulking Up

Gone are the Davie days where players were bulked up as much as possible during the offseason. In fact, a quick comparsion between the new roster and the one from last spring shows that most of the players are reporting at a lower weight than before. One exception to that is the wide receiver position where nearly all of the players have gained weight. Most notable in this group is Chris Vaughn who bulked up from 205 to 221. Other big gainers on the team include defensive end Justin Brown who went from 225 to 243 and Mark LeVoir who is up from 310 to 325. Man, I really hope that the 245lb DE from Pitt who was ordered to drop weight lines up across from Mark. Those hoping that weight gain by Vernaglia and Nduwke would tip position changes are out of luck as both are listed at just about the same weight as before.

Shooting Gallery already has a bunch of photos up from today's first practice. Among the various coaches' and players' action shots, notice the masking-tape name tags on every helmet. Probably a necessity, but it still made me laugh.

"Smoke and Mirrors" | by Jay

Lou Holtz got some rough treatment over the weekend by Ron Morris and Joe Person in South Carolina's The State newspaper, which ran a couple of less-than-complimentary postmortems on the Holtz era at Gamecock U. In an article entitled "Blame Game", Person writes:

In the four months since Holtz retired, nine of his former players have been arrested, including five who face felony charges related to theft or burglary. A 10th player, 2004 leading rusher Demetris Summers, was dismissed from the team after a second failed drug test.

Spurrier has not blamed Holtz or his staff for the off-the-field problems, saying Holtz’s players became “my guys” when he took over. But in interviews with more than a dozen USC players and coaches from the Holtz Era, many of them said Holtz is accountable for the environment in which a spate of criminal activity has taken place since he left.

According to Person's article, the problems seemed to be twofold: one, that Holtz recruited some unsavory characters to the program -- lots of Jucos with lots of problems -- and two, that Holtz showed preferential treatment to his star players.

“Toward the end, especially the last two years I was there, it was very obvious because he just kind of let a lot of guys get away with a lot of different things that he never did before,” said former offensive guard Jonathan Alston, a captain on the 2004 team.

“A lot of times it wasn’t big things, it was small things. But small things lead to big things, which are coming out now.”

The police blotter's pretty ugly, as the article documents. Ron Morris follows up Person's imputation with a sanguine look to the future and the dawning of a more disciplined, more respectable Steve Spurrier era:
Lou Holtz talked about changing the culture of South Carolina football as if the problem was some sort of gnat that kept buzzing around his head. Holtz waved at it, swatted at it and generally hoped it would just go away.

Steve Spurrier is taking a different approach. In four months on the job, Spurrier has brandished the fly swatter and insect repellent in an effort to change the atmosphere around USC football. By all accounts, it is working.

...An old friend told me once of the time Holtz performed a magic trick during a dinner gathering in North Carolina. You might have seen the trick. Holtz would rip a newspaper apart then magically piece it back together. On this night, Holtz failed to realize he was performing in front of a mirror and the audience saw him produce a pieced-together newspaper from his back pocket.

That is the way it was with Holtz, a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Now, I was at ND during the Holtz years, and although Lou definitely recruited some high-risk, high-reward guys during his tenure (we've all heard stories), he seemed to be able to keep a firm grip on the wheel of discipline, meting out punishment whenever necessary (and to whomever necessary). As far as we know, he didn't play favorites. During the championship '88 season, he famously sent his leading runningback Tony Brooks and his leading receiver Ricky Watters home from Los Angeles the morning of the USC game for violating team rules the night before. He knowingly gambled with some of his recruits, taking chances on some questionable characters, and although the results sometimes frayed at the edges, Holtz was able to keep the fabric of the program more or less whole.

I'm not sure exactly why the wheels fell off at South Carolina for Lou. He certainly started off his USC career with an iron fist: before his first year in 1999, he dismissed leading runningback Troy Hambrick for a violation of team policy (and followed that up with a couple of other high-profile suspensions). Perhaps the looser strictures on recruiting and the heavy reliance on academically-questionable junior college transfers -- his 2003 class had seven JUCOs and two more guys who needed an extra year of prep school to qualify -- led to a influx of rascals. And it's clear that in trying to keep the team together, Lou relaxed the rules for some guys once they were in the door. Former USC fullback Brandon Schweitzer took a stab at analyzing the mess:

“But I think where he failed — and I hate to talk about Lou Holtz, legend, like this — is he tried to make too many exceptions for too many people. I think he realized there were people in his program that he needed on his team, but at the same time he knew that within his system of values they weren’t going to make it.

“In order to keep them there, he had to adjust what he believed in. He made exceptions for those guys, and I think that was the starting point for the downward spiral.”

The most likely explanation for Lou's slide is probably the simplest: he got tired. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to corral a bunch of college kids, keep them in line, and try and make them into a winning football team (especially in the SEC); at 67, he probably got sick of chasing the chickens around the yard.

Last November, as the college football season was winding down, South Carolina played Clemson, and an ugly brawl between the two teams erupted in the fourth quarter. (It was quite the weekend for fisticuffs; the night before, Ron Artest leapt into the crowd and touched off the insane melee in Detroit). Holtz was seen diving into the pile, grabbing facemasks, and trying to peel guys off of each other. He said it was the most embarrassed he's ever been as a football coach.

Two days later, he announced his retirement as the head coach at South Carolina, no doubt tired of the chicken run.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Spring Practice Roundup | by Pat

Tomorrow is the first day of spring practice for the Fighting Irish and a chance for Irish fans to put the tumultuous offseason and disappointing men's hoops season behind us and begin the first look to next season under Coach Weis. Hopefully we'll see answers to some of the more obvious questions as news trickles out from the spring practice sessions. (Fishing for comments alert: Feel free to supply your opinions or add more questions.)

In the meantime, here's a quick look at some spring practice updates from next year's opponents...


One of the five opponents that will also be breaking in a new head coach, Pitt started the spring with Coach Wannstedt reinforcing the need to improve on last season's 105th ranked rushing attack.

"I know what my vision is: we're going to be a tough team," Wannstedt said. "This is when you learn to run the football. This is when you make a commitment to running the football."
His other apparent goal for the spring was to upgrade the speed of his football team, especially on defense. Perhaps coming from the NFL he wasn't prepared for the slower college game, but Wannstedt seems dead set on getting his team faster.
"We've given up a lot of size to add speed," Wannstedt said. "But from a philosophical standpoint, that's what we're looking at. That's what spring practice is for."
He isn't kidding about giving up size. Wannstedt is moving linebackers to defensive end and defensive ends to defensive tackle and he even told 245lb defensive end Azzie Beagnyam to drop more weight. Sounds like a perfect chance to work the kinks out of ND's running game. I'll put Darius Walker's number of carries around 25 right now.


The big news in Ann Arbor is injuries. With seven players out for the spring and four more limited, Lloyd Carr has already called off their traditional spring game and replaced it with a standard practice.

One of the players who is out for most of the spring is QB Chad Henne. He looked pretty good last year as the season progressed, but he's still a freshman and could have used the extra practice as the Wolverines look for a replacement for go-to receiver Braylon Edwards. Carr's biggest worry is probably about how to plug in the holes in his defense that lost All-Americans Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor. Stanford transfer Grant Mason, who briefly considered transferring to Notre Dame, looks like he might get the starting nod at one cornerback spot.

Michigan State

The Spartans will head into the spring with some new faces after losing three assistant coaches to three rival Big Ten schools. Starting QB Drew Stanton is healthy, but the big question is a defense that has to replace six starters. They just had their first practice on Friday, so there really isn't much news out of East Lansing yet.


Washington hasn't started spring practice yet, but Irish fans can pretty much guess what they will experience under "Paint Dry Ty". I'm sure there will be stories about incredibly organized practices, pushups after miscues, running the ball to the endzone on every reception, and players running stadium steps to instill discipline. Of course, to a team that went 1-10 last season, organization and discipline probably sound too good to be true.


Obviously, Purdue's biggest task this spring is to replace Heisman winning QB Kyle Orton. Wait, he didn't win the Heisman? Are you sure? But I watched the ND/Purdue game last year and I thought he... No? Well, ok.

Anyway, Orton's still gone and Brandon Kirsch looks like the best candidate to be the starter in the fall. Purdue hasn't started spring practice either so not too much to report here either. Actually, there is one interesting fact that might interest ND fans. Recent recruit Ryan Baker who pulled a last minute switch from Notre Dame to Purdue (because he wanted to play TE in Tiller's offense) is apparently listed as defensive tackle on the Boilermakers spring roster. Notre Dame was recruiting him a defensive end, but I'll admit that I'm surprised he's ended up at tackle so soon.


USC's biggest task this offseason will be to replace offensive guru Norm Chow and fiery defensive coach Ed Orgeron. Another (minor) obstacle for the Trojans is the fact that Matt Lienart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, and a host of others will be unavailabe for some or all of the spring practices. That gives QB John David Booty a chance to show that he didn't skip his senior year of high school for nothing before all-everything recruit Mark Sanchez shows up in the fall. So far the star of practice appears to be running back Chauncey Washington, who has ripped off 50+ yard TD runs in every practice. I'm sure a third stud Trojan tailback is just what Irish fans were hoping for, but keep in mind the spring practice axiom: whenever your offense looks good, keep in mind it is going against your defense. Replacing four All-Americans on defense will be a tall task, even for the loaded Trojans. Possible legal trouble for one of their starting cornerbacks can't help matters either.


New BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall seems to have his work cut out for him. A recent Matt Hayes article offered this blurb on the task facing Mendenhall.
Why has BYU fallen so far? Here's an anecdote: The team--including the coaches--recently ran up Y Mountain on the campus as part of a unifying exercise. LB Kelly Poppinga, a Utah State transfer, finished the 1-mile trail first. Quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman finished second, and head coach Bronco Mendenhall was third. LB Justin Luettgerodt was fourth. What's more disconcerting--that two coaches finished in the top four or that no skill players finished in that group?
And while he's getting the team into better shape, the number one priority is to decide on a starting quarterback from the three returning veterans; Matt Berry, Jason Beck, and John Beck.


Finding a starting quarterback is also the plan for the Volunteers spring practices as Coach Fulmer sorts through a finally healthy roster of Erik Ainge, Brent Schaeffer, and Rick Claussen. All three started last season so Fulmer wants to be able to pick one and go with him this spring.
"Right now it's just amazing how much difference a year makes and the understanding those kids have for our offense and how easy it is to flow through practice with veteran quarterbacks," Fulmer said. "Personally, I'd like to have a starter or at least a guy who would start the first practice of two-a-days."
For all those armchair coaches who want to see what Fulmer has to work with, here's a video of a recent UT spring practice.


The Naval Academy start spring practice today and will have to find replacements for QB Aaron Polanco and star FB Kyle Eckel. Hopefully whoever they find won't really matter much come November 12th. Still, Paul Johnson has taken the Midshipmen to two straight bowl games and is a very good coach.


New head coach Greg Robinson is looking to bring the West Coast offense to Syracuse as the Orangemen start practice today. He's also the defensive coordinator and despite returning 10 starters, wants to work on the tackling skills of last season's 101st ranked defense. A shift to a 4-3 defense is also something that will need plenty of practice time this spring.


Stanford now has Pitt's old coach and will probably pass even more than they did last season against the Irish. QB Trent Edwards should be a good one next year under Walt Harris, but it's up in the air how the other 21 starters will look. Spring practice for the Cardinal starts April 3rd so not much in the way of Stanford football news yet.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Director's Cup Update | by Pat

As you may or may not know, Notre Dame ended the fall semester ranked #1 in the NACDA Director's Cup standing for the first time in the school's history. The preliminary winter update was released Thursday and Notre Dame lost the lead, but is still holding on to 3rd place behind Michigan and Stanford.

For those unfamiliar with the rules, a school is awarded points in a maximum of 20 sports. In Division I, those twenty sports are split evenly; ten male sports and ten female sports. Sports like fencing count as a men's sport, but can be moved to the women's category if they don't have ten scoring women's sports. As it stands now, Notre Dame competes in twenty-five of the thirty-six qualifying sports. Perennial Director's Cup favorite Stanford fields thirty-three.

Yet, a quick look at Director Cup recent history shows that ND has never maxed out the twenty team scoring. In 2001/2002, ND scored in ten women's sports and eight men's sports. In 2002/2003, eight women's teams scored and seven men's teams did likewise. Last year, the number was ten for the women and six for the men. Ironically, the year among this very limited sample set that ND had the fewest scoring teams (02/03), ND had it's best finish, placing 13th overall. Both in 01/02 and 03/04, Notre Dame finished in 19th place.

Obviously, the return of the football program to Top 10 contention would help out the standings as would an increase in the performance of the men's basketball team. Also, an interesting change to the scoring setup seems to have a negative effect on the Irish score. The total number of points given for fencing was cut in half so Notre Dame's national championship in fencing awarded the school 50 points towards the Directors Cup, rather than the usual 100. As a point of contrast, Penn State's 23rd place in men's wrestling awarded them 51 points. Even Stanford got 37 points for their 37th place in wrestling.

The recent creation of the Rockne Hertiage Foundation and fully funded scholarships for all Olympic sports prove that Notre Dame and Kevin White are serious about improving the performance of all Notre Dame sports. But the fact of the matter is that it will be hard for Notre Dame to compete year in and year out for the Director's Cup without adding some sports to the mix. The problem is that the school is not going to be able to spend more money on so-called non-revenue earning sports. This is due to not only the lack of football bowl money in recent years, but also the fact that a significant amount of money has been directed towards buying out the contracts of the two men primarily responsible for the lack of bowl money.

The optimistic take is that in the near future Notre Dame will have reaped the bounty of numerous bowl appearances including several lucrative BCS showings and will have enough cash to resurrect the historically strong men's wrestling program as well as adding a women's hockey team. It would be a bold step and admittedly is a best case scenario, but one Notre Dame might have to take to have a serious chance at bringing home the Director's Cup more than once.

As an aside, unlike fans of most universities, the high standing in the Director's Cup isn't exactly a source of pride among Irish fans, and at times is even the butt of a few stale jokes. Most of this blame lies in the fact that that Fr. Malloy and Kevin White used Notre Dame's standings in the Director's Cup as a sign that all was well during the past eight years of mediocre Irish football. To many Notre Dame diehards this was the equivalent of pointing out the beauty of a new deck while the roof was springing leaks and ruining the interior of the house. But I think it's pretty clear that those days are over and while Weis still has to prove himself on the football field, all indications are that Notre Dame has people in charge who not only know what they are doing, but won't need to fall back on distractions and excuses to cover up shortcomings.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Media Blitz | by Jay

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A bunch of stuff in the wake of the Football Media Day that ND threw on Tuesday, and you've probably read most of the official releases. In case you haven't, here are the links from

Spring football outlook. The basic team rundown, position by position.

Weis inherits an experienced team that returns 36 lettermen, 13 position starters and three starters in the kicking game. The Irish are particularly well-stocked with experience on the offensive side of the ball. Ten starters and 20 lettermen are back on offense while the defense returns three starters and 14 lettermen. The kicking game welcomes back kicker/punter D.J. Fitzpatrick.

Based on the returning experience, the offense would seem primed to be the standard bearer for the Irish in `05. While toughness and consistency in the running game will be focal points of spring preparation, a passing game that averaged 281 yards per game in `04 will only benefit from Weis's offensive expertise.

Weis presser. Lots of good stuff here, from his philosophy on installing the offensive schemes ("Put a whole bunch in...throw it on the wall and see what sticks") to getting a geographically-diverse recruiting brain trust ("I'm not stupid") to this heartwarming announcement:
I am going to name today a couple of names that will sound familiar to you all who will work as honorary coaches for the Blue and Gold game. For the Blue Team, the names are Montana and Zorich. The Gold Team, there will be two names helping out called Theismann and Brown. It was one of my aims to try to get some of our alums back in the program.

They are dogging each other pretty good right now. They are talking unofficial trash back and forth...I would like to give those guys somewhat of an active role so it isn't just a 'show up and here we are.' I think it will be a good experience for them and it will be a great experience for our players.
Player quotes. Offseason workouts, installing the new schemes, the new spirit in the program, the new coaches...
BQ on the playbook: "It's thicker. It's just one of those situations where you have a little more to learn and a little different style too. I compare it to learning a different language almost. It's a tough task at times but I think once we get out there on the field and work some of the kinks out that we'll be pretty well situated."

Abiamiri on the staff: "I like them a lot. They know their football. They know a lot of football. I'm really excited to go out there and have them teach us what they know."

Fasano on the offense: "It's definitely a very complex system. I think we are learning it the right way, slowly but surely. We have a lot of stuff in already. I was pretty excited with the creativity that it has in it. I think everyone is pretty excited about it."

Stevenson on experience: "I think everyone on the offense is really excited about that. We return 10 starters and you can almost say 11 with Darius. It's huge. Experience is something you can't practice and you can't work on it except for playing in a game. I think this can definitely be a breakout year for the offense. This could be a year that the offense could really carry the team and that's what we are looking forward to."
Assistants quotes. Haywood, Oliver, Lewis, Minter, Parmalee and even Powlus all weigh in, describing the challenges, sizing up players, and laying out the road map to success. Jappy sums up the staff chemistry:
"So far I think we've gelled and mixed well together. From an offensive standpoint those guys really seem to work well together. We actually got a chance to go against the Ole Miss crew so we know firsthand what we are getting over there. And from a defensive standpoint, the fact that I've worked with Rick (Minter) before and I've known coach (Bill) Lewis for awhile and down to Brian Polian I think we work well together and it's a strong staff."
Blue and Gold Festival. The official announcement, the day's itinerary, ticket info, etc. Sponsored by Chick-Fil-A, among others.

Photo gallery from the day.

A few random thoughts on all this.

• One theme that reverberates over and over: we've got "smart" players, and we've got "experienced" players. Weis: "They are very smart...when you have a bunch of intelligent guys who really want to win, you have a chance." Haywood: "The experience is invaluable." Lewis: "We have an intelligent group of players here. We will throw a lot at them in the spring." Weis, again: “We’ve set a very aggressive installation for spring ball and we figure we can always tone it back if it is too much. But that is the way we are going to approach it.”

Did you hear any excuses about lack of depth, the complexities of installing the WCO, or the challenges of a too-demanding schedule? Neither did I.

• All the players wearing the same shirt. All the coaches wearing the same ND sweater. The "team" mentality is already well-inculcated.

• Parmalee looks like he could still suit up.

• Charlie and ND are really making a big deal out of the Spring Game this year. He wants it to be a real competition, and he wants the celebrity coaches to take an active role in the coaching. They've also renamed it to the Blue & Gold Festival, and expanded the even to not just be about the game itself, but a whole day's worth of activities. In years past, this game was a bit of a snoozer, with the coaches trying out various configurations and tinkering with the lineups, but this year it could actually resemble a real game. Imagine that.

• The Irish legends coming back to coach the spring game is fantastic. I guess the Blue team got first pick, because the Gold got stuck with Theismann. Smart money is on Montana/Zorich. They're just more balanced.

• Chick-Fil-A. Love Chick-Fil-A. Easily the best chicken-sandwich based fast food chain around. It's a pain that they're closed on Sundays.

• Powlus, believe it or not, looks like a real find, and a fine addition to the staff. Powlus' career has always been sort of Flick Webb-ish, standing tall among the idiot pumps, the expectations too great and the potential never realized. Ask any Irish fan what they think of when they envision Ron Powlus, and chances are you'll hear two things: his electrifying debut against Northwestern, four touchdown passes and Beano Cook conferring the double Heisman; and second, a wobbly Powlus happy-footing an option play down the line, awkward and jittery. Still, whenever Holtz dialed up the option (all too frequently), he plugged away and did his best. Somehow Powlus was able to grab some passing records during his tenure (although as Pat points out, QB records at ND up until then hadn't exactly been stellar, relatively speaking. Quinn will probably break Powlus' records at this rate, and then a Weis QB will probably break those.) Still, his teams were marked by underachievement, and I think it's safe to say that most Irish fans exhaled a sigh of relief when he finally graduated.

Happily, though, the curtain didn't come down on the Powlus-ND story when he stepped off the playing field. After a foray into business sales, Powlus is back on campus, having impressed Weis over a number of other potential hirees for the role of Director of Football Operations. Powlus is personable and self-effacing, traits perfectly suited to the task at hand, which requires quite a ton of organization, communication, and logistical coordination. He'll also be available to current players as a sounding board for dealing with the ups and downs of Irish football (Quinn, for one, plans to lean on him heavily: "I think he is someone who is going to be a great utility to vent and easy to talk to and get advice from. He's someone I think this program needs to have.") It's a great opportunity for one of the Irish's biggest enigmas, and he'll have a chance to reinvent himself and finally buck the saddle of his patchy playing days in the eyes of the fans. (As I'm writing this, I notice IE just put up a new interview with Powlus. It's a pay article, but it's a good read. Powlus on his new job responsibilities: “A lot of what I’m doing is recruiting, and this is a busy recruiting season right now...But at the same time I think coach wants me to be available to the current players as a resource that’s not a coach--just somebody that knows what they’re going through and what it’s like.”)

• On a more sober note, Weis announced that assistant coach Cutcliffe won't take part in spring practice, which begins Tuesday, after recently undergoing triple bypass surgery. Weis visited Cutcliffe at his home in Mississippi shortly after he was released from the hospital Sunday. ''He looked surprisingly well and in good spirits,'' Weis said. ''I told him I don't want to see him anywhere near here any time soon.''

• It might just be me, but it seems like the Sports Information Department is putting out a lot more stuff on than they have in years past. Is this directly attributable to Charlie? Who knows. In any case, it's long overdue. You should see the glut of articles and multimedia the other big-time football homepages offer.

• Gotta lose the wrinkled yellow bedsheet for the pressers. What are we, a backyard puppet show? Somebody get the FTT stagecraft department on the horn and have them cook up a backdrop worthy of the best college football program in the land.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Not Invited or Not Interested? | by Mike

Most Notre Dame fans had probably never heard of Assistant Provost for Enrollment Dan Saracino prior to a May 1, 2000 Sports Illustrated article focusing on Notre Dame's admission standards and their relationship to the football team's success (or lack thereof). Between Ted Duckett's (father of current Atlanta Falcons running back T.J. Duckett) harsh words and an unflattering "gatekeeper" photograph, Saracino was portrayed as the villain of the article.

However, in a series of interviews with The Observer, Saracino has sought to provide a more accurate picture of the relationship between the admissions department and the football program.

In an article from last spring, Saracino argued that Notre Dame's biggest recruiting hurdle was not recruits' inability to meet entrance requirements, but rather recruits' skepticism of the coaching acumen of the Davie and Willingham regimes. Saracino specifically disclaims any significant increase in admissions standards for the football team:

But University officials insist admissions standards have remained constant and are not tied to grade point averages or standardized test scores. And the school's director of admissions says that Notre Dame will overlook below-average numbers as long as it believes a potential recruit can survive in Notre Dame's rigorous academic environment.

"I've seen the profiles of the athletes over the 40-plus years," director of admissions Dan Saracino said, "and the academic profiles of the classes of football players has not changed. ... The 1984 recruits [who were seniors during the 1988 championship season] were no different as a class than any other year."
The Observer's own research indicated a slight increase, though one cannot be sure of the accuracy of the numbers to which the Observer had access.
But statistics show that the average SAT scores for athletes have risen at almost the same rate as the scores of the regular student. The SAT scores for football players jumped roughly 6.3 percent from 1993 to 2004, while the scores of the average student rose 6.7 percent over the same period of time. Saracino, however, maintains that standards for football players have not toughened as the standards for regular students have risen.
Finally, Saracino points to several "difference-makers" who had less interest in Notre Dame's previous coaching staff than the admissions office had in them.
"We get beat, and have gotten beat [in football] over recent years by young men who we clearly wanted to come here," Saracino said. "Reggie Bush was cleared by admissions, Allen Smith was and so was Lorenzo Booker."

Top running backs Bush and Booker went to USC and Florida State, respectively, in recent years. Smith committed this winter to Stanford, also a school with a prestigious academic reputation.

So why are these players choosing schools, even a school like Stanford that has rigorous academic standards, over Notre Dame?

"I don't really know, but I am frustrated that we seem to be having less success in recruiting [top players] compared to the past," Saracino said. "It could be that our current coaches just don't understand Notre Dame and its "positives" well enough to convince these young men that Notre Dame is the place for them."
Note that this surprisingly candid last statement was made in April 2004, during the previous coaching staff's tenure. Based on his comments in a recent Observer article, it appears Saracino believes this situation has changed.
"One of the benefits of having a Notre Dame alumnus in that position is he understands Notre Dame," Saracino said.
Saracino also reiterated that academic requirements had not kept Notre Dame from getting its top targets in recent years.
"It wasn't bad before," Saracino said of his relationship with former Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham. "If we were having some difficulty in recruiting the student-athletes that we wanted, it wasn't because they were trying to get young men admitted who could not do the work. It was just that they weren't getting them."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Morning Latte | by Jay

Guy with neck-support: I'll have a decaf coffee.
Trudi: I'll have a decaf espresso.
Movie critic: I'll have a double decaf cappuccino.
Policeman: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
Harris: I'll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.
Trudi: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Guy with neck-support: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Movie critic: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Cynthia: I'll have a twist of lemon.

How about a little bit of everything?

Tom Noie on the Irish hoops collapse:

Late Tuesday, in a quiet locker room interrupted by the sobs of seniors Jordan Cornette and Chris Thomas, the Irish were asked how the season had turned so sour after that afternoon in Providence. Nobody had an answer.

"If we knew, we would have changed it," said sophomore shooting guard Colin Falls. "Some things just didn't work out. I thought we were playing really well."

"The coaches can only do so much," said senior Dennis Latimore. "We had to get it done. It's on us. We had to go out there and just make it happen."

In the end, the Irish did not have the mental makeup needed to handle expectations, many of which were self-induced. Thomas had talked since last summer of how excited he was to play with such a talented group, the deepest collection of contributors in his four seasons. He believed greatness -- 30 wins, an NCAA Final Four -- was possible for a bunch of guys that truly cared for one another. All that talk about talent and togetherness never did translate into team.

"A lot of people questioned our toughness and I think it got to a point where we questioned our own," Thomas said. "When you don't have tough players or tough leaders, you can have all the confidence in the world, but if guys are out-hustling you and out-toughing you, you can't do nothing about it."

Next year?

...tough questions likely need to be answered by Brey and his staff. Like can Torin Francis have any sort of a low-post presence? How about Rick Cornett? Does Russell Carter have a prominent place in the program? Omari Isreal? Will Dennis Latimore even be asked back for a fifth-year of eligibility after a season where he never did fit in? How much can Rob Kurz offer after his 11-point, seven-rebound showing against Holy Cross?

Did the collective commitment of this team slide late in the year, and if so, why? Soft senior leadership? Focus? Outside distractions?

Though the core returns from a team that lacked a toughness where all the expected talent never did come together, the future may arrive sooner than anyone expected for incoming freshmen Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland, Kyle McAlarney and Luke Zeller.

"They will all get a chance to play," said Brey, who plans to hit the road and to recruit this week. "We could be a little of a youth movement next year. That's something we'll analyze."

Irish win a National Championship
Notre Dame's six entrants in the women's portion of the NCAA Fencing Championships lived up to their top-ranked billing in Sunday's final rounds of bouts, blitzing their competition for a 44-10 record that lifted Notre Dame past Ohio State, 173-171, and delivered the program's seventh national title.

Three-time NCAA foil champion Alicja Kryczalo -- who would lose later in the title bout -- fittingly fenced Notre Dame's final bout of the tournament and won to clinch at least a share of the team title.

Rockne Statue dedicated at the College Football Hall of Fame.

Yet another monument to the Coach, joining the ones in Voss, Norway; the Flint Hills of Kansas; and south quad. And here's a bit more on the statue's sculptor, Jerry McKenna.

Jamie Ryan hangs up the cleats; Zach Giles transfers to Northeastern. The strain on the OL depth chart becomes a concern. Ryan wants to stay and help out:
"I want to be around the team in some aspect, then maybe get a graduate assistant job somewhere," Ryan said. "I have to meet with coach (Charlie Weis) and see what I can do, and what he wants me to do, and take it from there."

Michigan football goes PSL.

Not only will fans pay $50 a ticket for each of the Wolverines' seven home games this fall, but under a preferred seating program, season ticket holders whose seats are not in the end zone must make a per-seat donation of $250, $190, $125 or $60 depending upon location.

This is the first phase of the seat license program.

Next year at Michigan Stadium, season ticket holders near the 50-yard line must annually donate $500 per ticket, while others must donate $375, $250 and $125 depending on seat location.

"I don't like it, but they've got to raise money," said Bob Blamer, 49, who has been a season ticket holder since the 1970s.

"I'm going to pay it regardless, and there are 100,000 other people who will pay it, too."

Cutcliffe on the mend.

Observer on Football Recruiting, part one, two, and three.
"I have a passion for recruiting, as much as I like to coach," Weis said. "Now, that confuses some people [who ask] 'How can somebody who's been in the NFL for the last 15 years and hasn't had to recruit be a guy that has a passion for recruiting?' "It's because I look at recruiting like a game with wins and losses and setbacks and small steps."

College Park busted on St. Pat's (again).

This is worth a laugh. Spot the chuckle.

College Football's Top 100 Finishes, according to CFN.
31 to 30 checks in at #5. Texas over Irish in 1970 ranks 17th.
With just under seven minutes to play, ND QB Theismann hit Jim Yoder for a 24-yard TD pass to put the Irish up 17-14 and in position to upset the Longhorns. Then it was up to the play of QB James Street and the daring play calling of UT head coach Darrell Royal. Street converted two fourth down plays on a 17-play drive including 44-yard completion on fourth and three. Billy Dale took a Street pitch with 1:08 to play to take the lead. A Texas interception squashed the final Irish drive and won the national title.

And finally, a twist of lemon...

May I Have Your Attention Please?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Questions Abound | by Pat

The start of spring practice is right around the corner and the only sure thing is that chesterlep will be there to photograph it. The defense will have to replace eight starters and while the offense returns all eleven starters from last year (counting Walker as a co-starter), no one really knows what the new coaching staff will end up doing with players and positions. Here's an early stab at some of the major questions going into spring practice.

1. Will a definite second string QB emerge?

Brady Quinn is the starting quarterback. That's pretty obvious. But after him the depth chart is both shallow and full of inexperience. Will Quinn's eventual backup solidify his position this spring or will this debate continue into the fall when Evan Sharpley and Dan Gorski show up?

Dillingham is moving on with his post-college career so that only leaves two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring. David Wolke has the playing time advantage over fellow sophomore Darrin Bragg with a whopping 2 minutes of game experience last season, but who knows what Weis and Cutcliffe (who's first priority this spring is to recuperate from his recent heart surgery) will see in each player.

My guess is that the 2nd string debate will wage on into fall practice as the bulk of the limited spring practice time will be dedicated to tutoring Quinn on the new offensive system. Getting a solid backup some quality reps would be ideal, but the reality is that you need to make sure your starting quarterback is comfortable before you move further down the depth chart.

2. Where will Justin Hoskins end up?

Ever since Hoskins hurdled a tackler during his first career kick return against Washington, fans have been hoping #33 would see more and more playing time. Injuries and questionable special teams coaching decisions kept him off the field for much of the season, but he did start at running back in the bowl (where in true Diedrickian fashion he threw a pass on a fake play to open up the game). As one of the more athletic players on the team, Hoskins appears to be able to contribute at multiple positions. So, aside from fielding more punts and kickoffs, where will he end up?

While he finished the season at running back, according to many he might have the ability to play cornerback next year. He also could be moved to wide receiver if the coaches feel they need more speed at that position. Obviously the secondary needs some help and Hoskins might be the answer, but I'm betting the offensive coaches would like to keep Hoskins with the ball in his hands. Then again, with Darius Walker the assumed starter at running back, Hoskins may be moved just to get on him on the field more.

In the end, his move to the secondary will probably be dependent on if other young players like Terrail Lambert, Ambrose Wooden, Junior Jabbie, and Leo Ferrine make solid improvement this spring. The optimistic take on Hoskins' future is that the secondary will improve on its own and that his speed will help out a running back position that has talent but no other true "burners". Of course, it's also possible that he will end up playing both ways. Weis himself mentioned at a coaching clinic that it's possible one player on the team will play on both sides of the ball. Perhaps this spring we'll find out if Coach Lewis was able to convince Weis to share one of the team's best athletes.

3. Who is going to start in the secondary?

In all honesty, this is probably Question #1 for the spring. The play of our secondary was ND's achilles heal last year as multiple quarterbacks bolstered their Heisman chances against the Irish secondary. The hiring of Coach Bill Lewis from the Dolphins is reassuring, but he has his work cut out for him as the roster is filled with youth and inexperience. And even the lone returning starter, Tom Zbikowski, might not stay at the same position. Coach Lewis has mentioned that "the slate is clean" in terms of the past and everything will start anew in the secondary this spring. Sounds like some of the fiercest competition in the spring will be found in the defensive backfield.

Mike Richardson has the leg up on other cornerbacks in terms of playing experience and seniority so he might see the field at corner first. His main competition will most likely come from Terrail Lambert, one of the fastest players on the team. Knowing that Lambert was named top performer at the 2003 Army National Combine, ND fans have been impatiently waiting for him to claim a starting corner spot since he stepped foot on campus. One of the other names that many Irish fans hope will emerge this spring is Ambrose Wooden. Wooden seemed much improved in the bowl and I wouldn't be surprised to see him start out as the other corner. At safety Zibby is a good bet for one of the safety positions. My guess is that he will slide over to strong safety as he was impressive against the run last season, but struggled at times in coverage.

After that, the roster is filled with plenty of unproven speed and talent that could fit in at multiple positions. Finding slots for Freddie Parish (my pick for starting free safety), Junior Jabbie (dark horse starting free safety candidate), Anthony Vernaglia, Jake Carney, Leo Ferrine, Tregg Duerson, and Chinedum Ndukwe will keep Coach Lewis and Coach Polian very busy this spring.

4. Who will end up switching positions?

Hoskins has already been mentioned here as a candidate for switching positions and with a new coaching staff, I'm sure he won't be the only one moving around. With the end of Jamie Ryan's playing career, the offensive depth chart is extremely thin after the five returning starters. (anyone else getting tired of reading "depth chart" and "thin" in the same sentence? But I digress...) Looking at the roster, Brandon Nicolas appears to be a prime candidate to make the move to the offensive line. He was considered one of the best offensive lineman in the L.A. area in high school and still has four years of eligibility. Considering there are no current offensive guards on the roster who will be juniors, sophomores, or freshman next year, someone is going to have to move this spring and Nicolas seems like a good bet.

Another player who is a prime candidate for a move is Anthony Vernaglia. Thankfully the reasons are his versatility and not the need to plug another depth chart leak. Currently he is still listed as a safety, but many armchair coaches think he could also be very effective at outside linebacker, tight end, or wide receiver. He should stay on defense as tight end and wide receiver are our deepest returning positions and keeping Vernaglia at safety would add size to a position that only has one other player over six feet tall. However, I think he will be moved to outside linebacker this spring. Specifically, I'd look for him to push Mitchell Thomas for playing time at the strongside linebacker position. It's possible that Vernaglia could shuffle between the safety and linebacker position, but I suspect linebacker is his future home. Coach Minter is going to want to put as much speed on the field as possible while not sacrificing too much size. That seems to fit Vernaglia's description. And while I'm at it, you can replace Vernaglia's name with Chinedum Ndukwe and everything else stays the same. These are two extremely versatile guys and it will be very interesting to see how the staff utilizes their mix of size and speed this spring.

5. Who is going to be the big surprise this spring?

This is the annual spring question as every year Irish fans love to look at the younger players and try to find the potential All-American just waiting to make his move, or the upperclassman player who finally puts it all together. And while the results in the spring don't always translate to production in the fall, it's still fun to speculate which players will announce their presence during the March and April practices. With all of the openings on the defensive side of the ball and a new coaching staff claiming that everyone is going to have to earn a starting spot, the field is wide open at this point.

This spring, the convential wisdom is that Terrail Lambert and Justin Hoskins are two players to watch. But I'm looking for a bit less obvious choice here, so I'm going to offer up two names that I feel might surprise people this spring: Travis Thomas and Maurice Crum, Jr.

Thomas has to be ecstatic that his position coach has changed from Buzz Preston to Michael Haywood. I could do the crappy car to sports car analogy here, but I think the coaching upgrade is rather obvious. Now, Thomas is not exactly a surprise as he had a great fall camp last year, but ill-timed fumbles last season and the rise of Darius Walker might have caused some fans to write Thomas off. However, Thomas' fumblitis problems last season appeared to be mental and I fully expect the new staff to get him back on the track that earned him a starting spot in last year's BYU game. Walker will probably remain the starter, but I think Travis Thomas is going to give him some serious competition this spring and become a dependable power back for the Irish next fall.

On the defensive side of the ball, Coach Rick Minter loves to have his defenses play fast, aggressive, attacking football. I wouldn't be surprised to see Crum make a push to be the starting weakside linebacker with current weakside starter Brandon Hoyte moving to middle linebacker. Hoyte is a team leader and one of the best hitters on the team, but playing against the pass is not his strong suit. A starting linebacker group of Crum and Mitchell Thomas on the outside and Hoyte in the middle would be a definite increase in speed over last year's excellent linebacker trio while still stout enough to stop the run.

Depth Chart

Ok then, as long as I'm making predictions for the spring, I might as well take a crack at a two-deep depth chart for the end of spring practice. Here's what I think it might look like. Be sure to clip and save for future mocking purposes.

Brady Quinn
David Wolke
Victor Abiamiri
Travis Leitko
Darius Walker
Travis Thomas
Trevor Laws
Brian Beidatsch
Rashon Powers-Neal
Ashley McConnell
Derek Landri
Brian Beidatsch
Maurice Stovall
Jeff Samardzija
Chris Frome
Dwight Stephenson, Jr.
Rhema McKnight
Matt Shelton
Mitchell Thomas
Anthony Vernaglia
Anthony Fasano
Marcus Freeman
Brandon Hoyte
Corey Mays
Ryan Harris
John Kadous
Maurice Crum, Jr.
Joe Brockington
Bob Morton
Dan Santucci
Terrail Lambert
Mike Richardson
John Sullivan
Bob Morton
Ambrose Wooden
Leo Ferrine
Dan Stevenson
Brandon Nicolas
Tom Zbikowski
Chinedum Ndukwe
Mark LeVoir
Brian Mattes
Freddie Parish
Junior Jabbie

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Taking Inventory | by Teds

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Notre Dame's season in Big East play lived up to the adage about the madness-inducing month that everyone points toward in this sport: "in like a lion, and out like a lamb". Obviously, the team controlled its own destiny over the final two weeks of the season and failed to grab that one extra, elusive win that would have made it nearly impossible for Bob Bowlsby and his crack tournament committee to ignore the Irish. The infighting has been hot and heavy among ND fans between those who see black helicopters hovering over NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis and those who will only be satisfied once the new, force-fed team motto ("We have no one to blame but ourselves") is stitched to the front of next season's jerseys in scarlet lettering.

The dust-up is understandable, because expectations at the beginning of the season were as lofty as they've been during Brey's tenure. But with the NCAA dreams now dead, does the reality of what Brey was working with render the season a huge disappointment or merely the predictable conclusion for an outfit with warts that went unnoticed back in October? A review of the main players from the 2004-05 team is probably in order, as well as a peek at what the future might hold for those who will continue to fight the good fight next season.

Any discussion of the Irish team has to begin with Chris Thomas, the heart of the team and de facto posterboy for Brey's squad over the past four seasons. To say that Thomas has been a credit to this program would be an understatement, and he will go down in history as one of the best point guards and most memorable players to ever wear a Notre Dame jersey. That being said, the past two seasons of his career have been marred with health problems and poor performances in critical games. Here are Thomas' season-by-season averages:


The data shows that Thomas' averages have jumped around somewhat based on what Brey required of him within the framework of the team. His assist totals were highest during his freshman year with a solid, experienced supporting cast, then dipping the next two seasons as he assumed the role as primary scorer (as noted by the increase in points per game, as well as shots attempted), before leaning back toward his freshman effort this year with Quinn and Falls taking up some of his perimeter scoring slack. Thomas also became a more active rebounder as his career progressed, and that part of his game will be sorely missed next season on a team that couldn't ever seem to get enough of those boards. But the numbers that tell the greater story of Thomas' stagnation are his shooting percentages:


We can see that Thomas was progressing nicely going into his junior season, shooting well in general and becoming a more consistent threat from behind the arc. However, his percentages took a turn for the worse last year before practically cratering into the realm of self-flaggelation in the season just concluded. It's possible that failures on the part of Brey's coaching staff could have played a role in Thomas' erosion as an offensive threat, but his knee problems have obviously been a significant factor, as well. Watching Thomas struggle as his college career comes to a close, I'm reminded less of an "undeveloped player" than I am of a once-great NBA performer who can no longer force his body to regularly do the things it did when he was at the top of his game. It's a shame that his career has to end on such an underwhelming note, and the variety of his contributions will undoubtedly be missed. However, his departure represents an opportunity for Brey and his team to step out from underneath Thomas' formidable shadow, and the turning of this particular page can't come soon enough for the program.

Perhaps the most critical component in the team's life-to-be without Thomas is Chris Quinn. Quinn is not an imposing physical specimen, nor is he the sort of player who gets noticed much by the average fan on a court full of Big East-caliber performers. But a review of his statistics this season points to a player who was more effective and efficient than Syracuse's Gerry MacNamara, an oft-celebrated peer who strongly considered ND during the recruiting process and is sometimes compared to Quinn as his better.


Based solely on the statistics, Quinn appears to be the stronger player of the two, especially in terms of shooting. Of course, to put the numbers in proper context, one has to recognize that Thomas' play has supported Quinn's performance and taken lead-dog pressure off him. Next season, Quinn will be charged with the primary responsibility for handling the ball and running the offense. It's an open question as to how well he'll fare in the transition, but his experience and performance record to this point puts him in a good position to succeed. Quinn's absence over the last three games (only 33 minutes and 5 points in total) was an underrated factor in those losses. I believe that having a healthy Quinn finally manning his proper role next season will be a boon for this team, and I expect him to have a very productive final season as the baton is cleanly passed over to incoming freshman Kyle McAlarney.

Colin Falls lived up to the glimpses that he showed during his freshman season as a sharpshooter in the making, doubling his minutes (15.6 to 30.8) and nearly tripling his scoring average (4.6 to 12.4) this year. He led the team in three-point field goals made (second in the Big East behind McNamara), as well as free throw percentage (first in Big East). However, though his legitimacy as a long-range bomber is not in doubt, he has yet to establish that he's much more than a one-trick pony. His three-point shooting percentage (.414) actually propped up his overall shooting (.390), so absent was his offensive game within the arc. Falls' discomfort inside the circle was obvious based on his two-point shooting (.235) and the lack of attempts of such shots (just 34, compared to 215 attempted threes). He played almost 100 total minutes and into his sixth game this season before even attempting his first two-point shot against DePaul. And any hint of a game on that portion of the court completely disappeared once conference play started, as Falls shot only .148 (4-27) inside the arc during the Big East season.

To a certain extent, this is an unfair dismissal of Falls. Brey put him on the floor and in the offense for the express purpose of hitting those threes, which he did at a laudable clip (fifth in the Big East -- minimum 75 attempts). But as the season progressed and Falls reputation grew, so did the attention paid to him by opposing teams on the perimeter. Without an effective dribble drive, Falls could be taken out of the game, and this happened on numerous occassions, leading to something of a rollercoaster ride in output on a team already saturated with such performers. So while Falls was an effective and valuable player for ND, he was also one that needed to be shooting well to outweigh other parts of his game that weren't suited to play wing in the Big East.

It's likely that the departure of Thomas will mean a shift to shooting guard for Falls, which should be helpful to him on the whole. At 6'5", he possesses the size to take advantage of some of his peers, but he needs to improve his strength during the offseason in order to make the most of it. His defense improved last season, but he was still exposed by great athletes like UConn's Rudy Gay. He'll be tested by the quickness of opposing guards, and it's no guarantee that he'll ever be anything more than a tweener -- not strong enough to handle wings, nor quick enough to stone smaller guards -- on that end of the floor. Most importantly, Falls needs to work during the offseason to develop and hone his skills with the ball and creating shots off the dribble. Given some marked improvement in this respect, the potential is there for Falls to emulate former Irish star Matt Carroll down the road. However, there's also the possibility that his career could end up more closely resembling that of Keith Friel or Ryan Hoover. In the latter case, the 30+ minutes per game that Falls contributed this past year may not be asked of him again in future campaigns.

Along the frontcourt, no player more accurately illustrated the maddening, mercurial tendencies of the Irish team this season than Torin Francis. A former McDonald's All-American, Francis has shown flashes of greatness over his three seasons that made him look like an NBA lottery-pick-to-be while offering on other occassions the sort of handiwork that would make a first-time observer wonder if he'd ever played a day of college basketball in his life. Francis was sidelined for the final month of his sophomore year with back problems, and subsequent surgery to correct the ailment left him laid up for much of last summer and slow in getting a jump on the new season. This, in turn, precipitated both predictable and frustrating peaks and valleys in his performance over the first part of the year..

Connecticut and Syrcause are the two most recent national champions and probably also the two strongest teams in the Big East as the NCAA tournament opens this week. Both teams feature strong and athletic frontcourts, and one would surmise that lesser performers would tend to look worse in direct competition against them. So it's a bit of a surprise to discover that Francis averaged 16 points (shooting 53% from the field) and 8 rebounds in Notre Dame's 4 games against those teams this season. He also chipped in with a double-double -- 19 points and 13 rebounds -- in a tightly-contested loss at Villanova, another talented conference opponent with Final Four aspirations. At times such as those, he appeared to be assured and aggressive, a worthy adversary for his acclaimed opponents. But in other games, Francis was almost completely lost -- hesitant, clumsy and strangely invisible for a young man of his dimensions.

As a card-carrying member of the Ty Willingham Memorial "Coaching Begat Talent" club, I understand that I risk exposing myself as a hypocrite, but I feel quite strongly on the subject. What's holding back Torin Francis more than anything else is Torin Francis. I recognize that his recovery from offseason surgery set back his timetable, but it doesn't explain why he was capable of contributing three double-doubles over the first month of Big East play but performed so poorly against Providence in a key game in late February that he was benched for the entire second half. Anyone capable of "player of the game"-type impact when matched up against the best teams in the best conference in the nation should also possess the ability to perform at least adequately against average-or-worse opponents, and Francis was too often unable to contribute in such a manner. There seems to be such an inconsistency in his focus and level of intensity that it's difficult to suggest an appropriate remedy for the coaching staff.

There's a lot of talk about Francis attending the Pete Newell Big Man Camp duirng the upcoming offseason, which would probably be beneficial in terms of both instruction and experience against other quality players of his stature. Additionally, Francis' forays into ballhandling have graded out anywhere between "unorthodox" and "abominable", and I believe that he stands to benefit greatly from some isolated training on hand-eye coodination. Still, I think that the most important factor in his further development resides in his basic mindset and approach to his growing role on the team. If Francis could somehow channel Harold Swanagan just before tip-off of each game, he has the makings of an All-American sort of performer. Otherwise, it might be a matter of bringing Vince Vaughn in for a pep talk about bears, bunnies, fangs, sharp (bleeping) claws and the like.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Dennis Latimore was something of a poor man's version of Francis. He rode the performance rollercoaster just as his teammate did, but his highs weren't as uplifting and his lows not quite so traumatic. Greatness had been predicted for Latimore coming into the season, and his infusion was one of the primary reasons that expectations for the Irish team had been so promising. In retrospect, he was a talented but almost completely unproven player who wasn't ready for the Big East meatgrinder. The projections for him should have been tempered. Here are per-game averages for Latimore this season, both prior to the Big East season and from the conference opener (Seton Hall) forward:

Time Frame
Pre-Big East27.610.75.9
Seton Hall to BET17.65.33.6

Admittedly, Latimore's minutes being cut hampered his scoring and rebounding totals, but anyone who tracked him as the season progressed couldn't help but notice that he wasn't the same player in conference competiton that he had been in earlier contests against the likes of Michigan and Indiana. Coming from a part-time role in a less challenging conference with a different and less physical style of play, competing in the Big East was the sort of shock to Latimore's system that a full year of in-team scrimmages against Francis, Rick Cornett and Tom Timmermans couldn't adequately prepare him for.

Looking back, Ryan Humphrey was not only a fantastic athlete but also an experienced player and proven commodity during his two seasons at Oklahoma before arriving at Notre Dame. However, even he had to fight his way through the growth curve and was a significantly more effective player during the second half of his senior (second) year at ND than he had been previously. For a more contemporary example, Ed Nelson, former ACC Freshman of the Year and a major contributor on the interior for Georgia Tech two seasons ago, was little more than an afterthought (9.6 mins pg, 2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) in his first Big East campaign after transferring to Connecticut. But Jim Calhoun and the Huskies had the luxury of a strong, deep frontcourt and weren't dependent on Nelson's contribution. The pitfalls for Mike Brey and ND were greater. My guess is that Latimore will be a distinctly more effective and valuable player for the Irish next season, although his imprimateur as a former All-American blue-chip recruit remains somewhat in doubt.

Jordan Cornette was the best defender in the Irish frontcourt and primarily responsible for hindering Craig Smith, Hakim Warrick and other nationally-recognized opposing players. On the other end of the floor, he didn't have the consistent shot or slashing ability necessary to make him a dangerous wing, nor the power and presence required in this conference to qualify as a threat in the paint. On a different team, Cornette would have been an extremely valuable role player and a fan favorite, contributing 10-15 minutes of hardnosed, enthusiastic play and a couple of rejections every night. But on this team, Cornette was required to take on a regular position and was simply stretched too thin, his shortcomings exposed over the course of 26 minutes per game. His loss will be felt next year just as Torrian Jones' was this season, but the hope is that the Irish can cultivate another player or two who might attach a wider array of skills to the fiery attitude that served Cornette and ND well throughout his college career.

If Irish fans decided to hand out a Jere Macura Memorial Award this year for the ND player most inappropriately (in their minds, anyway) relegated to the bench, it would have to go to Rick Cornett. Cornett ran a bit hot-and-cold in his performance, but he once again displayed some worthwhile offensive skills and an uncanny knack for collecting loose balls and rebounds. He almost singlehandedly won an important game for the Irish at Providence late in the season, coming off the bench in Montanaesque fashion to log career-highs in points (14) and rebounds (14). His free throw shooting was execrable (41%), and he seemed lost on occassion. But considering the disparity in minutes between Cornett (9.4 per game) and those soaked up by Francis (26.4) and Latimore (20.6), it's a wonder that he wasn't hip-deep in hibernation mode when finally summoned from the bench. Here are the 2004-05 averages for the three players, extrapolated to illustrate their projected performances over 30 minutes per game:


Based on the numbers, Cornett is a player with the potential to score and hit the boards every bit as well as Francis and Latimore, although these figures also note that he suffers from the same shortcomings in ball skills that plague Francis. Overall, it's a mystery that Brey turned to the tough and athletic Cornett as little as he did this season, especially given the coach's public declarations about the shortage of tough and athletic players on the interior. If there was any reason to second-guess Brey's handling of the team this year, the continued ignorance of Cornett as a viable option on the frontline was Exhibit A. Looking toward next season, it would be nice to think that Cornett will finally get the opportunity to shine in extended duty. However, given the return of Francis and Latimore along with the expected contributions of freshman Rob Kurz and incoming freshman and McDonald's All-American Luke Zeller, it seems more likely that Cornett will be squeezed further, barring an unforseen injury or departure.

Among other minor contributors, Russell Carter and Omari Isreal showed flashes of potential, the former mostly on offense and the latter on the other end of the court. These two represent the sort of athletic wings that the Irish suffered without a major contribution from this year, and the accelerated development of one or both players over the upcoming offseason could mean a world of difference to next season's team. I'd stop just short of calling it imperative that one of the two proves to be an effective regular performer in 2005-06. Rob Kurz enjoyed his most extensive court time of the season last night against Holy Cross and offered Notre Dame fans a glimpse of his promising future. Kurz appears to have the makings of an effective inside/outside game, which should help Brey and the Irish offense thwart opponents packing in down low against the team's less mobile bigs.

Notre Dame finished the season 9-7 in the Big East, good enough for sixth place in the nation's most competitive conference. Given a review of the team's major contributors this season, what I see is essentially a sixth-place squad. Any expectations fans or analysts might have had back in October for a 25-win season or a trip to the Final Four for this team were couched solely in a best-case-scenario sort of wishcasting. That's no knock on the players who were part of this year's ND squad, as the sudden blossoming of particular performers or a team in general can't be scheduled like a dinner reservation. Many people expected great things from Jay Wright's Villanova squad the past two years (both ending in trips to the NIT), but it took them until this season to finally flourish into an outfit capable of winning big games in bunches and making a deep tournament run. Things in this sport don't often go according to plan, and anyone who wishes to put a particular coach or team on a regimented, year-by-year timetable is likely to end up disappointed, if not suicidal.

None of this is to say that Mike Brey and his coaching staff get a free pass for the disappointment of the current campaign. As unfit as this unit might have been to trade body blows with Connecticut, Syracuse and other national powers over the long haul, it's a team that had no excuse not to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus. They started the Big East season with some close and headache-inducing wins but appeared to be on track to play meaningful basketball in March. Unfortunately, the proverbial pit of quicksand the team mysteriously slipped into over the final weeks of the season proved its undoing, and the more Brey and his charges struggled to escape, the deeper they sank into the muck. Everyone connected to this team will most assuredly limp into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouth, and the hope is that Brey and others will use the frustration of this lost season as fuel to regroup, retool and hit the ground running come October.

There is still sufficient time for Brey to prove that he's a coach capable of taking Notre Dame basketball to another level, but for the first time in his tenure, there is some well-deserved urgency in the short-term fortunes of the team. With the Big East expanding to include Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati next season, the timing is especially poor for Irish basketball to be moving in the wrong direction. Righting the ship over the course of the next year -- and perception of this matters even bit as much as reality -- may ultimately make or break Brey's tenure at Notre Dame. As I've stated previously, I believe him to be capable of leading this program to the promised land, but some amount of change is in order. Good coaches adjust, and Brey needs to act accordingly and prove he is exactly that.

I still see good things ahead for Notre Dame basketball, but there's some heavy lifting to be done by coaches and players alike in the meantime.