Thursday, January 31, 2008

Blitzing into the Bend | by Pat

As suddenly as one of his all-out blitzes, Jon Tenuta has officially been named an assistant coach at Notre Dame.

University of Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis announced today that 44-year coaching veteran Bill Lewis, Irish assistant head coach/defense the last three seasons, will leave the Irish football coaching staff and join the University's athletics community relations staff. Weis also announced that former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has been offered and accepted the role of assistant head coach/defense.

Lewis will remain at the University and will begin his role as manager of athletics community relations on Feb. 18. Tenuta's start date also is Feb. 18.
Instant reaction: This is an excellent hire, with the added bonus of Bill Lewis staying in the Notre Dame community. Lewis is a fantastic coach and a wonderful representative of Notre Dame. Keeping him around campus is a bonus for the University. But replacing him with one of the more respected defensive minds in the country is the real show-stopper.

After leaving Georgia Tech in the wake of the dismissal of head coach Chan Gailey, it was expected that Tenuta would either land his first head coaching gig or become the defensive coordinator for another high profile program. Instead, he's now at Notre Dame as a position coach (albeit likely with more responsibilities than your average position coach). Wow. Perhaps for his next trick, Charlie Weis will hire Frank Beamer as a new special teams coach.

In a way, the Tenuta hire mirrors the Lewis hire. When Charlie Weis hired Bill Lewis, he commented that the Dolphins pass defense under Lewis was the one that gave him the most fits with the Patriots. Likewise, Tenuta's defense at Georgia Tech didn't allow a single Irish passing touchdown the past two seasons. In fact, in 2006, Georgia Tech was the only team on the Irish schedule to keep Brady Quinn without a passing touchdown.

Now employed by the same program he had so much success against, Tenuta's duties haven't been explicitly laid out yet, but we can make a few guesses. For starters, Tenuta has a long history working with defensive backs. Then again, Corwin Brown also is experienced with dealing with the secondary, so perhaps Tenuta will take the linebacker job. There have been credible rumors to each effect. If Tenuta does coach the linebackers, where would this leave Coach Polian? These are all questions likely to be answered during the National Signing Day press conference.

We'll dig further into Tenuta's blitz-happy strategies and his accomplishments as a coach in a future post. If you want something to get you started, here is a look we did at his defense before the 2006 ND/GT game.

Getting back to the reason why the change was made in the first place, Bill Lewis explained.
"I should start by giving some background on this decision. During the bye week this year, I learned that I needed to have both my hips replaced. I've run six to eight miles a day almost every day for a long time and now I need to get a tune-up.

"The initial plan was to have surgery on one hip on Feb. 8 with the hopes of being back for the start of spring practice. Then I was going to have surgery on the other hip in the middle of May with hopes to be back for training camp. The more I thought about it, though, I thought this was a selfish plan.

"At this same time, Dr. Kevin White and Bill Scholl were having discussions about creating a position where someone could coordinate a variety of activities involving athletics community relations and represent the department at various events around the country. Dr. White approached me about retiring from the coaching staff and moving over to the community relations staff.

"I viewed this as another way to stay involved in athletics at Notre Dame and to possibly lengthen my career in athletics. I have been a lot of places and I absolutely love this place and my wife feels the same. We love this community and love being part of it.
While Lewis was figuring out his future, Charlie began to figure out his contingency plan.
"Early in December, I learned that Bill Lewis needed to have both his hips replaced and that he would have a four month recovery. He said there was a chance he may need to leave the coaching staff and that I should prepare a list of replacement names should this come to fruition.

"I spent time with (defensive coordinator) Corwin Brown in January discussing possible replacements for Bill in case this situation arose. Corwin and I talked to a few candidates and agreed that Jon was the best person for the job. Corwin and Jon had numerous conversations on how they would work together and they both agreed this would be a great fit.
Probably the best part of the above quote is the last sentence. It's fair to speculate how a seasoned veteran defensive coordinator would mesh working as an assistant to a defensive coordinator with a whole year of coordinating experience under his belt. That both are already working together is great news for Irish fans and bad news for opposing quarterbacks.

Coach Tenuta chimed in on the hire and said all the right things.
"It's a great opportunity for me to coach at Notre Dame and to work with Coach Weis. I'm truly thrilled about this and my family is excited, too.

"Two things attracted me to this job, Coach Weis and Notre Dame. It's an opportunity to coach at one of the greatest traditional powerhouse programs in college football and to work with one of the brightest minds in the game.

"I love coaching defense and Corwin is a very bright young coach who has a bright future ahead of him. He's a great guy who I'm looking forward to working closely with daily. My main goal is to do whatever I can to help the defense become the best in the country and help return Notre Dame to where it belongs."

There will be more to this story we're sure as ND pulled off one of the most surprising assistant coaching hires in recent memory. An immediate concern for many Irish fans will be the impact on recruiting with only a week until National Signing Day. We all won't have to wait long to find out, but you can already count on at least one defensive back who isn't going to change his commitment.

"I'm still 100 percent committed," [Robert] Blanton said. "Actually, I want to change that. I'm probably 12,000 percent committed right now."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Notre Dame Legend | by Pat

A few months ago my father was going through a few of my late grandfather's books and papers that were stored in the basement of my parents' house. Flipping through the documents, he stopped on a small card. He quickly realized was an old funeral prayer card, and, turning it over, saw that it was dedicated in the memory of one Knute K. Rockne. My grandfather, a sophomore at ND in the spring of 1931, had either attended Rockne's funeral or a memorial service on campus, collected the prayer card, and at some point quietly tucked it away where it sat, forgotten, for at least a few decades.

I suspect my family is like many other Notre Dame families. The tragic and sudden death of Knute Rockne is something usually remembered only occasionally; on fall trips to campus and Knute's grave, on the March 31st anniversary of the fatal crash itself, and those rare moments when you stumble across a long forgotten piece of memorabilia.

For one man though, remembrances of the plane crash and death of Notre Dame's greatest coach have been far more frequent. Easter Heathman, one of the first to arrive on the crash scene as a 13 year old boy, lived his whole live near the crash site and has served as the unofficial official caretaker and tour guide of the memorial honoring the life and death of Rockne and the seven other members of doomed Transcontinental and Western Air Express Flight 599.

Easter passed away this week at the age of 90. Although having no previous connection to ND, Easter spent most of his life serving and assisting the hundreds of Irish football fans who over the years made their way to the Flint Hills region of Kansas in search of the hard-to-find memorial. And in doing so, Easter has himself become an integral part of the Notre Dame story. His stewardship should never be forgotten.

We'll leave you with a short video that shows just the kind of selfless and humble man that Easter was. Rest in peace, Mr. Heathman.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Digging deeper down the depth chart | by Pat

After losing nose tackle Pat Kuntz for the semester and possibly longer, the Irish defensive line might be without another big body. Senior-to-be Derrell Hand is looking at a possible end of his football career according to his high school coach.

“He’s not the type of player to complain about injuries and he really never said that his back was hurting him, at least when he played for me,” said Fulk, who coached Hand at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia. “It kind of came out of nowhere for me.”

Hand is expected to get a second opinion but if the initial diagnosis is correct, Fulk said that playing football could severely aggravate the injury and potentially cause long-term problems.

“He’s going to get a second opinion about it,” Fulk said. “But at this point, it doesn’t look real good for him to play football ever again.”
Hopefully Hand is still at a point where he can without too much pain if he stops football now. Back injuries certainly are no fun at all.

If Hand's career is indeed truncated, that will make an already young defensive line even younger in 2008. Hand only played 27 minutes in 2007, but that was good enough for fourth-most out of returning players. His playing time likely would have been even higher if not for a multi-game suspension earlier in the season for his solicitation of an undercover cop.

With both Hand and Kuntz out for the spring, there really is no spring front-runner at this point for one of the starting defensive end spots. Consider this position breakdown heading into spring ball.
5th Year - Justin Brown (DE)
Senior - none
Junior - Paddy Mullen (NT/DE), Kallen Wade (DE)
Sophomore - Ian Williams (NT), Emeka Nwankwo (DE)
Freshman - Sean Cwynar (DE)
Six players to man three positions is barely enough to even field two teams for the Blue-Gold game. Assuming the usual bumps and bruises, ND might be down to walk-ons at some point during the post-winter practices. Then there is the fact, as pointed out by Mike Frank on Irish Eyes, that all of the potential replacements for Kuntz -- Mullen, Wade, Nwankwo, and Cwynar -- combine to have as many career tackles as Jimmy Clausen. In other words, let's really hope that Kuntz is able to make it back into school for the fall.

The cavalry will show up before the first game when Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman, and Hafis Williams arrive, but even then it's asking a lot for freshmen DL to provide much more than sporadic backup minutes. Johnson has a chance to make a significant impact at defensive end, but even he missed most of his senior year with a knee injury.

One possible workaround to the inexperience and lack of depth would be to have outside linebacker John Ryan transition to a defensive end spot. Towards the end of 2007 he was slowly but surely being replaced in the starting lineup by Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Ryan did battle through a shoulder injury that limited him at times, but Neal and Smith appear to be better long-term solutions at the outside 'backer spot. Ryan, who saw time at defensive end behind Abiamiri his freshmen year, might go from being a somewhat slower outside linebacker into a suitable defensive end provided he can add some bulk to his 250-ish pound frame.

The major problem with such a move is that once again ND would be robbing Peter to pay Paul on the depth chart. If Ryan is taken away from the outside linebacker spot, that only leaves
Neal, Smith, and Mo Richardson as experienced players at the OLB spot. With more defensive linemen freshmen showing up this fall than outside linebacker freshmen, it might be better for Ryan to stay at the linebacker spot rather than spend all winter, spring, and summer bulking up for the line, just to have to slim back down for linebacker in the fall. The only thing for certain at this point is that the front seven on defense is going to be one of the most interesting things to watch this spring.

Going out in style | by Pat

In their final game wearing an Irish helmet, the trio of Zibby, Laws, and Sullivan all had great games in the 2008 Senior Bowl that in all likelihood improved their draft stock.

The main star was Trevor Laws, who was named Most Dependable Linemen for the entire Senior Bowl week. After earning positive reviews all week for his effort and energy in practice, Laws didn't wait long to make an impact. On his first play from scrimmage, Laws beat the South OL and sacked Colt Brennan. In the next series, Laws snagged a fumble from South QB Andre' Woodson in mid-air that was more interception than fumble recovery. You can check out highlights of the grab,as well as the rest of the game highlights here. Overall, Laws finished with six tackles, and tied Dan Connor and Gary Guyton with a game-high five solo tackles.

Laws's play was no surprise to ND fans, but his output impressed NFL scouts, both professional and of the online armchair variety, who looked more at his "measurables" than actual college production.

"There was some concern coming in about his size and his short arms (33 inches), and he's not going to fit into every scheme," Coyle said. "But there's a lot to like. He just makes an awful lot of plays. He gets off blocks. He's quick and explosive. I think he's gone from being a real late-round guy to at least the fourth and maybe more likely third."
Zibby had a solid performance in the game as well, notching five tackles, recovering a fumble, and a 38 yard punt return that earned him the game's Long Distance Play award. Still, it sounds like Zibby's spot in the NFL Draft will come down to his performance in the NFL Combine. In an article that details Tommy's week at the Senior Bowl, Oakland Raiders DB Coach Darren Perry had the following to say about #9.
"Tommy takes great angles to the ball and he's real sharp," Perry says. "He's very fundamentally sound. Now it's just understanding the pro game, the formations and adjustments.

"The speed level of the game is another issue. Obviously, in an environment like this, we don't get too exotic from a coverage standpoint.

"After this event here, it's all about workouts. And people put a lot of stock into that."
Zibby's first crack in the pros will likely come on special teams as a kick returner and his big punt return no doubt helped his cause. There will be questions about his ability to play defense in the pros until he gets a chance to prove himself at training camp somewhere. It probably doesn't hurt that Nedu made an instant impact with the Bengals this year after hearing similar criticisms of speed and college production heading into last year's draft.

The final ND player in the game is the one who surprised me the most. While watching the game, John Sullivan looked like the All-American center many ND fans had hoped he would become. He was a rock in pass-protection, punished in the run game, and was exceeding positive and energetic the whole game. Yes, there were two fumbled snaps and whether they were his fault or that of John David Booty -- BGS guidelines force me to blame the Trojan -- they will likely stick with Sully as will his few, but notable, misguided shotgun snaps in 2007. Still, it was a revelation to watch Sullivan not only pancake opposing defensive linemen, but also get out to the second level and make the block on the opposing middle linebacker. He even de-cleated Georgia Tech's Philip Wheeler on one block that honestly had me wondered where this guy was all season. It was the best game I've ever seen him play.

I know that the play of the offensive line was exceeding poor in 2007 and Sullivan turned into one of the larger scapegoats, but on Saturday he appeared to be well on the way to reviving his pro chances.

As a final aside, while watching the Senior Bowl, I came to the conclusion that it is one of the very best football games to watch from a college football fan perspective. It seems like an odd thing to say about an exhibition game that ultimately means nothing, but no other college game is like it. In addition to the fact that it is a de facto college All-Star game, the game and the way that the NFL Network presents it is very transparent and honest. Rather than heaping the usual platitudes and healthy doses of hyperbole found in a typical Musburgerian broadcast, the announcers were critical of the players when appropriate and offered plenty of constructive criticism.

Issues with technique and fundamentals that might escape the grasp of the average football watcher were highlighted, even if the player ultimately made the play. Making it even easier to play along from home was the wired up coaching staff. Play calls from the coach to the QB were broadcast over the air and translated into plain english by one of the announcers before the snap. So when it was announced that a whip route was coming, you knew what to expect and could watch the receiver try to make his cut and shake the defender. Likewise on a running play you could watch the OL attempt to open the correct hole in the defensive line. It was a unique experience for any fan that wants to get an inside look at a play developing and made the game enjoyable to watch. Hopefully by next year's game more than just a handful of households will have access to the NFL Network.

With the Senior Bowl week festivities over, Trevor, Sullivan, and Carlson will return to California to continue their draft prep training. Zibby will go back to his training center, which I imagine is a log cabin somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. The next big step for the players will the NFL Combine, starting on February 20th.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Irish beat Nova | by Jeff

With the win this afternoon at #18 Villanova, the Irish men's basketball team accomplished something that has not happened yet this season in Big East play. The Irish were the first team to win a Big East conference game against a ranked team on the road.

Jan 26ND at #18 VillanovaW 90-80
Jan 21Syracuse at #5 GeorgetownL 62-64
Jan 19ND at #5 GeorgetownL 65-84
Jan 16DePaul at #25 VillanovaL 69-76
Jan 14#7 Georgetown at #20 PittL 60-69
Jan 12Seton Hall at #20 PittL 70-84
Jan 12ND at #15 MarquetteL 66-92
Jan 12UConn at #7 GeorgetownL 69-72
Jan 8Seton Hall at #15 MarquetteL 56-61
Jan 6#13 Pitt at #17 VillanovaL 63-64
Jan 3Providence at #10 MarquetteL 67-96

As Mr. Wednesday pointed out, ND's position as the sole Big East team to win a conference game against a ranked team on the road was rather short lived. Rutgers won at #13 Pitt 77-64 about six hours after the Irish victory.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pre-Draft Prep | by Pat

It's Senior Bowl week down in Mobile, Alabama -- the New Hampshire primaries of the NFL Draft season (if you'll pardon an election year metaphor). Some of the best seniors in the country are down South to showcase their talents on the field, as well as meet and greet with team reps from all over the NFL.

The Irish sent four players to the event, but tight end John Carlson had to bow out after a battle with an illness that saw him lose 15 pounds in 8 days.

"The important thing is he's finally starting to feel like himself again," Carlson's father, John Sr., said via telephone Monday night. "He wanted to play in the Senior Bowl in the worst way. He knew how important it was for him to be there. He would have loved to have shown people what he can do. But he's also smart enough to know that sometimes the best-laid plans don't work, so you have to move forward."
With Carlson out, that leaves a trio of domers in Tom Zbikowski, John Sullivan, and Trevor Laws. Before they even hit the field though, they have the ever popular weigh-in. Zibby had some comments about what has to be the least pleasant part of the draft process, the official weigh-ins.

Wearing only their skivvies and the occasional awkward smile, they were weighed and measured as the scouts looked on and listened attentively when the results were announced over the sound system. The measurement process is extremely specific, measuring players' height to the 16th of an inch, their weight, their wingspan and the sizes of their hands."It's something you've got to go through. Obviously walking through a roomful of 200-plus middle-aged guys is not the most fun thing to do, but it's part of the job," Zbikowski said. "They've got a job to do and they've got to be thorough with what they want as a player, to see what type of body you have and what your height and weight is."

There haven't been many updates on the three so far, but Trevor Laws has been noticed by a few different writers covering the event. SI had this to say...
Trevor Laws, DT, Notre Dame: Laws does not possess top NFL dimensions -- he measures just 6-foot, 300 pounds -- yet there is a lot to like about his game. He has played with a non-stop motor every day and is constantly around the ball.
...while the Ledger-Enquirer mentioned a few specifics from a Monday practice session.
Laws is very strong, athletic and quick off the snap. He has really impressed scouts with his athleticism and non-stop motor. He showed off his hops on Monday when he elevated and batted down a pass from 6-foot-6 QB Joe Flacco.
If you want a inside look at some of the battles from the practice week, here is video of both John Sullivan and Trevor Laws in the OL vs. DL drills and Zibby in the TE vs. Safeties drill.

For even more of an inside take on the week, Trevor Laws has started up his own blog. He's been adding short updates during the week about training in California with Sullivan and Carlson, rooming with Zibby at the Senior Bowl, and watching Sullivan battle in practice while fighting through an illness. It's definitely an interesting thing to see another former Irish great start up his own blog and share his post-ND career thoughts. Check it out.

Sport Literate | by Jay

I'd like to take a moment to mention Sport Literate, a unique literary journal focusing on "life's leisurely diversions," and the chef-d'oeuvre of a favorite contributor of ours, Gina Vozenilek. (You might remember Gina's essay, reprinted by us, on the dilemma of weddings and football Saturdays, entitled A Special Reverence.) From the SL website:

The first issue was a modest affair, printed at a local copy shop and stapled down the middle. But the idea of considering sport stories as something deeper than journalism, of illuminating the common experience of life beyond the daily grind and elevating it to something literary and thought-provoking, had staying power. Sport Literate has grown up to be a perfect-bound magazine published twice annually and supported by eleven consecutive grants from the Illinois Arts Council. Our issues and authors have garnered awards and recognition in anthologies such as The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Essays. We are proud to be perhaps the nation’s lone literary magazine examining sports and leisure primarily through the lens of creative nonfiction.

Since its humble genesis, Sport Literate has sought to publish the best writing about how people pass their free time. We read elements of story in all sport; we are less interested in the final score than in figuring out why we play in the first place. Through memories, dialogue recast, and real-life characters rendered as accurately as possible on the page, our poets and writers tell true tales artistically. Our definition of sport is broad, literary excellence is our only criterion, and our loyalties lie with a story unforgettably told.
Sport Literate has launched an enhanced website with links for subscription and a new online blog. They've also just released their latest print issue, "Another Issue of the Big Shoulders." (If you scan the table of contents, you might find a familiar name.)

To mark the launch of the new site, SL is sponsoring a creative non-fiction essay contest, on the broad theme of "football." The winning essay will not only be published in the Fall Football issue, but will also garner the talented author a prize of $300. Sharpen your quills.

Anyway, if you're looking for some quality reading material on "life's leisurely diversions," please check out Sport Literate. It's a lively read, and it's that rare sports journal that takes the notion of "writing" just as seriously as "sports."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Kuntz out; possibly Webb | by Pat

More player attrition: starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz is no longer enrolled at the University, per the AP news wire.

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound junior, speaking from his home in Indianapolis, would not elaborate further on why he was not at school. Because of privacy laws, the university could not comment on Kuntz's status other than to say he is not enrolled, said Brian Hardin, director of football media relations.
Kuntz declined to state the reason for a spring stint at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis, but according to sources it's likely academic-related. The good thing is it appears it's not a permanent separation and Kuntz definitely appears motivated to return.
No matter what I'm going to be back there. I'm going to have one more year to play and I'm going to graduate from Notre Dame," said Kuntz, who is majoring in sociology. "The time is the only thing that's not 100 percent."

Kuntz hopes to know in the next month whether he will be back in school in time to play next fall.

In an interview with the South Bend Tribune, Kuntz reiterated his desire to get back to campus as soon as possible.
"Coach Weis and I are on the same page about everything," Kuntz said. "We've been in contact. We'll stay in contact, and we still have the same ultimate goal, and that's me being a big part of the defense in 2008.

"I still feel like I'm part of my team. If I can get up in the spring to some spring practices, I am going to do that. I've got great friends there. I'm not planning on distancing myself from the team whatsoever. I'm gone, but I'm not done -- not the least little bit."
Obviously this means that he will miss spring practice, but he was going to have to sit out the spring anyway as he rehabs from the torn knee ligaments he suffered in the Air Force game. His back injury against Navy also turned out to be a chipped bone in his spine, which also will take some time to heal.

In the meantime, there is now a huge opportunity for, well, pretty much any player who wants to make an impact on the defensive line this spring. With Justin Brown and Ian Williams likely holding down two of the three starting spots, there is a wide open race for the final starting spot. The main contenders -- Kallen Wade, Paddy Mullen, Derrell Hand, Emeka Nwankwo, and early enrollee Sean Cwynar -- are all very inexperienced with only a combined 37 minutes of playing time between them last season. A silver lining of this whole situation is that they will all get more reps in practice and a better chance to showcase their development.

If Kuntz is able to make it back for the Fall, then the overall impact of his semester away shouldn't be all that great. However, if for whatever reason he is not able to return, then the Irish defensive line will be in desperate need of a player to step up the way that Kuntz himself rose to the challenge last season. Because Kuntz did play as a freshman, he will have one season of eligibility left even if he is forced to miss the 2008 season.

In other news, the rumors are getting stronger that the Irish have lost an offensive lineman to injury. There still has been no official confirmation from the school or player himself, but reports have popped up on Irish Band of Brothers, Irish Illustrated, and Irish Insights that backup tackle Bartley Webb is likely going to hang up his cleats due to a shoulder injury that will at minimum keep him out this spring. In all likelihood, this topic as well as other personnel matters and injury news will be addressed as part of the National Signing Day press conference.

Monday, January 14, 2008

SkyWriting: Ian Impact Edition | by Pat

• With the freshmen skill players like Jimmy Clausen, Duval Kamara, and Armando Allen getting most of the fan attention this past season, it was classmate Ian Williams who is now being honored for his play. Williams, who only started two games in 2007, was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

Starting the year as backup to Pat Kuntz, Williams saw time in every game save the Southern Cal contest. When Kuntz went down with injury, Williams manned the nose tackle spot against Duke and Stanford. His 45 tackles were good for 6th on the team, just ahead of Kuntz. His numbers were also more than just late season surge against poor competition. He had 16 tackles in the first half of the season compared to 29 in the second half, with his single-game season high of 11 tackles coming against Navy.

After a full off-season gaining strength, perhaps Williams will assume the starting nose tackle spot in 2008 coupled with Kuntz moving to a defensive end spot. This will allow ND to maximize the thin returning experience at defensive line.

• Continuing their fine work Sunday through Friday, the ND football team achieved a fifth straight semester with a team average G.P.A of over 3.0. Prior to Charlie's tenure at ND, the highest team GPA (since such numbers were recorded '92) was 2.91.

Sticking with the academic theme, Notre Dame was awarded the 2007 American Football Coaches Association's Academic Achievement Award this past week in Anaheim, California. The annual award goes to the college program with the highest football graduation rate. This year, which represents the players who entered the school in 2001-02, the Irish tied for first place with Northwestern as 95% of the class graduated. Overall it is the 7th time that ND has won the award ('82, '83', '84, '88, '91, '01)

• Finally, as we hit the home stretch in recruiting, Irish fans who don't obsessively follow the minutiae of recruiting year-round have a great chance to play catch-up thanks to all-recruiting edition of Notre Dame Live. Watch as Tiffany and John talk about some of the incoming players and review selected highlight clips along with reporter and Irish Insight blogger Michael Rothstein.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Letter to the Editor | by Pat

As he begins his prep work for the NFL Draft, John Carlson set aside some time to write a letter for Notre Dame Magazine. We're going to skip the color commentary for now and let the letter speak for itself.

I still have vivid memories of setting foot inside Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.

Notre Dame was playing Stanford in football on the first weekend of October in 2002, and I had come to visit the campus for the first time. I learned quickly that this was the place I wanted to call home for my college years.

I still recall the colors on the trees, the aromas in the air and the sounds of the "Notre Dame Victory March" filling my ears. The atmosphere and energy on campus that weekend were something I had never before experienced. The way the students, the alumni and the fans treated the Irish that day, as well as how they treated the opposition, sold me on this place.

Five years later, I leave Notre Dame with the same admiration and appreciation for the students, alumni and fans as when I entered. I came here expecting to win national championships in football, and, while that did not happen, my Notre Dame experience didn't suffer any because of that.

Notre Dame stands for what is right in collegiate athletics. This place means more than wins and losses -- and the character and pride demonstrated by this year's team, along with the willingness to continue working and to never give up, are something I'll always be proud of. Don't get me wrong, the two Bowl Championship Series seasons I was a part of in 2005 and '06 were more enjoyable than this most recent season. However, the people supporting the program were just as great during this difficult 3-9 season as they were when we won nine and 10 games.

None of us was happy with this substandard year. There were disappointments and frustrations and even tears. And yes, sometimes it was hard to maintain perspective, in part because of the emotional way in which so many people view our program. However, the encouragement the team received at home and on the road was something truly unique to Notre Dame. For that, I offer a sincere thank you.

Looking back on five years here, I've learned more than I anticipated. Coming in as an 18-year-old kid, you don't fully know all the changes you'll go through as a person, as a student and as a player because of this place. I've made friends I'll cherish forever, I've learned a great deal in the classroom, and I learned many lessons through all sorts of social interaction out of the classroom.

Many of my closest friends at Notre Dame were not necessarily teammates from the football team. I lived in Saint Edward's Hall for three years and developed friendships with lots of other guys in that hall. I have a friend in med school in Chicago and another who is an officer in the Air Force and is currently living in California. I have another friend who works as an engineer in Baltimore and yet another doing missionary work in South America.

The academic life has been challenging, entertaining and rewarding. Whether it was an American history course taught by Father Thomas Blantz, CSC, or one of Jim McKenna's anthropology courses, I always knew I had some of the best professors in higher education and that they would help set me up to be successful when I left Notre Dame.

The end of my time at Notre Dame has caused me to reflect on the five years spent on this campus as part of this community. What I found was something I learned when I first visited campus back on that October Saturday -- this is truly a unique place.

This university and this community have become such an integral part of my life. Even though I'll never wear our famed gold helmet again, I'll also never stop bleeding blue and gold for Our Lady.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Should I stay or should I go | by Pat

A recent press release confirmed what has been rumored for the past few weeks. Notre Dame is only bringing back three 5th year seniors -- Maurice Crum, Jr., Justin Brown, and Terrail Lambert -- and is losing another member of the current sophomore class to transfer in Munir Prince.

First up, the release on the 5th year candidates.

Head coach Charlie Weis announced Tuesday that three seniors will apply to Notre Dame's Faculty Board on Athletics for a fifth year. Inside linebacker and 2007 team captain Maurice Crum Jr., defensive end Justin Bown and cornerback Terrail Lambert will seek enrollment in the graduate studies program at Notre Dame.
No big surprises there as ND will welcome back three starters and say goodbye and thanks to Anthony Vernaglia, Leo Ferrine, Darrin Bragg, and Junior Jabbie. Notice that all three coming back are on the defensive side of the ball, leaving no 5th year players on offense in 2008. In fact, only three players on offense -- David Grimes, Paul Duncan, and Mike Turkovich -- will be in their final year of eligibility in 2008.

Over on the attrition side of things, the Munir Prince-to-transfer rumor finally was made official.
"After talking with Munir, he decided he'd like to leave our football team and the university," ND coach Charlie Weis Tuesday said in a statement. "I appreciate all that Munir has done for our football program and Notre Dame, and wish him well in the future."
Good luck to Munir, who handled his transfer in a refreshingly drama-free manner. According to Munir's old high school coach, he will transfer to Missouri.
DeSmet coach Pat Mahoney confirmed that Prince is transferring to Missouri after two seasons at Notre Dame, where he played running back and then cornerback. Prince is expected to play defensive back for the Tigers and, after sitting out next year, will have two years of eligibility remaining.
The news wasn't surprising as his departure was rumored for quite some time. Still, it's never good to see players leave the University, especially a guy like Munir Prince who was Charlie's first recruit in his first full recruiting class. After hearing the infamous "Wooosh" comment from Charlie about Munir's speed before the 2006 season, we were all eager to see the Missouri product in action. The wait wasn't long as he saw action in the first game of the season against Georgia Tech, albeit largely as a decoy. Prince only wound up with 21 yards on 15 carries that year and soon after was switched to cornerback. He didn't play much this year either and only tallied three tackles. Next year might have been more of the same with Darrin Walls and Terrail Lambert back as starters and Raeshon McNeil, Gary Gray, Leonard Gordon, Robert Blanton, and Jamoris Slaughter all fighting for playing time. Then again, the practice reports on him were normally very positive this past season and he's certainly a quick player, so who knows.

Apparently, transferring has been on Munir's mind for awhile as he considered leaving after his freshman year.
"At the end of his freshman year, he had contacted me about possibly transferring," said Patrick Mahoney, Prince's high school coach at St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit. "Then when he went in to ask for his release, whatever problems he was having he expressed and I assumed they satisfied them.

"Then during the (2007) season, as he explained it to me, he said, 'Coach, I'm just not happy here.' I don't know whether it was football or socially or academically or being away from home. His basic thing was that it just wasn't a good fit for him."
With Prince leaving, that will mark 5 of the original 28 members of the sophomore class who have left ND. Much was made of this issue during the season when most of the other sophomores were leaving, but I think that was more due to the abrupt, in-season manner in which many of them left rather than an absolute numbers issue. After all, the initial 28 member sophomore class used up 33% of the available 85 scholarships. Attrition was more or less inevitable as Charlie Weis worked build up the numbers in a program that was effectively operating at NCAA probation levels scholarship-wise. Hopefully though, the rash of player transfers is over for at least a little while, especially in the sophomore class.

With National Signing Day just under a month away and ND sitting with 22 publicly committed recruits, the final clarification on the 5th year players and Munir means it's likely ND will try to pick up another two or three players. With Sean Cwynar and Trevor Robinson starting class next Tuesday, it is true that ND can take technically take more than 25 players in this class. However, ND is just about hitting up against the 85 scholarship limit so two or three more players is about all that should be expected, barring any more attrition.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Next in Line | by Pat

It would be interesting to see the web traffic numbers for the varying recruiting sites this past weekend, because Saturday definitely rivaled National Signing Day as one of the major recruitnik holidays of the year. In addition to the ever popular US Army All-American bowl, this year marked the start of the ESPN Under Armor Bowl on ABC. And just to keep everyone busy, the games were scheduled for just about the same time. Actually, the game on ESPN started an hour later than the one on NBC, but they finished within 5 minutes of each other. (Now that's the NBC we know and trust.) With both games on at the same time, message boards were flying as folks updated each other on the play-by-play from each game, noting how the recruit committed to their school was kicking ass and was so totally better than that slower-than-expected overrated schlep going to their rival.

Of course, the US Army game was once again the main attraction for Irish fans, what with 14 committed recruits playing in the game. (Insert hackneyed Tom Lemming joke here) As a sure sign that the Army bowl is maturing, the NFL players in the now cliched high school player/NFL player comparisons actually played in the very same US Army bowl themselves. For a quick trip down memory lane, check out young Brady Quinn running the option for the East team in 2003.

I'll leave the detailed breakdown of how each ND recruit looked to others because it is just a fun all-star game after all. Rakes of Mallow does a nice job and The Quad on New York Times also has a quality run-down, including some quotes from the recruits in the game and one ND fan who is so optimistic he makes me look like King of the Pessimists.

For a quick overview, most of the ND guys looked pretty good with Michael Floyd standing out with 118 yards receiving and two touchdowns on four receptions. The first one came courtesy of his future teammate in Dayne Crist as Floyd caught the ball over Michigan bound cornerback Boubacar Cissoko and raced into the endzone for a 56 yard score. Floyd pulled in another TD catch after muscling past future classmate Robert Blanton in the end zone. He wasn't the only ND receiver to pull in a TD grab as John Goodman caught one from game MVP Terrelle Pryor.

If you missed the game, there are a few places online you can go to check out highlights. has some excellent offerings including comprehensive game highlights and video of every in-game commitment. Getting more ND-specific, ndnation poster slats has you covered with youtube clips of Crist's long TD pass to Floyd, a few other Crist throws, Floyd's TD reception over Robert Blanton, another clip of Robert Blanton, John Goodman's TD grab, Brandon Newman, Steven Filer, Mike Golic, Jr. and his dad, Anthony McDonald, and Sean Cwynar's recovery of a Crist fumble.

Breaking a streak of the past few years, Notre Dame did not receive a commitment during the game itself. Arizona QB/WR/S Gerrell Robinson was down to Arizona State and Notre Dame and was even rumored to be spending plenty of time with the ND recruits at the game. In the end though he picked up the Arizona State hat and is now on track to play receiver for the Sun Devils.

Luckily for the Irish, receiver help was still on the way over on ABC at the Under Armor Bowl game. At the start of the 4th quarter, wide receiver recruit Deion Walker picked up the (gray and blue?) Irish hat and became the third WR in the recruiting class of 2008. Before we get to Walker's info, I must say, I really enjoyed how ESPN whipped up a faux living room, complete with leather couch and glass coffee table, just off the field for the hat selection process.

Walker, a 6'4" 185 pound North Carolina native, is the topper on what is one of the best wide receiver classes in the nation. He boasts one of the most impressive offer lists in the current class with ND coming out on top over offers from finalist Penn State as well as Southern Cal, Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, LSU, Cal, and many others. He cited ND's academics and the presence of Coach Weis as reasons he picked the Irish.

"The value of Notre Dame's academics is excellent, and I have developed a strong relationship with Charlie Weis," said Walker. "He is just a cool guy and really put in a lot of effort calling and recruiting me personally."
As you might expect from someone with that kind of offer list, Walker is highly rated on all of the recruiting sites. On he is a 4-star player and the 35th player overall in the nation. has Walker as a 5-star recruit and the 40th overall player in the nation. ESPN slots Walker as the 34th best player in the nation on their Top 150 list. As a junior, Walker was named 1st Team All-State as both a wide receiver and defensive back. He was also named 2nd Team All-State as a kick returner. Over on the track and field side of things, Walker won a state championship in the triple jump as a freshman and sophomore.

In other words, Walker is one of the highest rated players in the current class and the Irish receiving corp has a very bright future with the highly regarded haul of prospects over the past few years. It's also a tall haul with Parris, Kamara, Floyd, Goodman, and Walker all checking in around or over 6'3". Throw in a speedster like Golden Tate and Clausen and Crist will have plenty of choices in the passing game.

Walker wasn't the only recruit in the Under Armor game by the way. OL recruit Braxston Cave lined up against ex-Irish commit and future Gator Omar Hunter and had a very solid game. Helping to keep Omar in check all game long, Cave showed that at least physically he will be able to help out ND's OL depth as soon as next season. Safety recruit Jamoris Slaughter was also at the game, but injured his knee during the week of practice and sat out the game.

All in all, it was a fun day for Irish recruiting fans. There were enough highlights to fuel optimistic thoughts of future Irish successes and other than a few minor bumps and bruises, no major injuries that will affect any of the recruits as they enter the stretch run towards National Signing Day.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Man Overboard | by Jay

Noseguard recruit Omar Hunter finally, officially decommited. Here's the money quote:

"Just watching Notre Dame, their style and how they played," Hunter said as reasons for making the switch. "It doesn't really fit with the way I play. I am not really sure about the coaching staff there, I know they are good guys and I love them, but I am not comfortable with the decision I made. I am officially decommitting from Notre Dame."
This rumor's been a shark in the water for some time now. We heard from a source (in Gainesville, no less) who said he committed to the Gators about a month ago, but has been trying (unsuccessfully) to keep it on the down-low, even going so far as to-- I won't say lie, but maybe dissemble-- to Notre Dame coaches about the solidity of his commitment.

(A troubling line sticks in the craw: I am not really sure about the coaching staff there. Does he mean the coaching strategies, like say, the 3-4 defense, or something else, like the poor season these coaches just turned in?)

His coach said one thing about the reasons for switching:
"His decommitment has been a real tough thing on him. He was sold on Notre Dame and they did an awesome job of recruiting him. The thing that he told me was that he wanted to be closer to home and a place where his parents can watch him. In the end he just thought in the South was going to be a better fit for him."
But then Omar said this:
"I am definitely looking at USC, Florida, and Auburn, those schools that have kept in touch with me," Hunter said. "Those are the schools I am looking at. This dead time I have been looking around and see what I like."
Okay, you want to play close to Southern Cal is in your top three? Frankly, the listing of three finalists looks like a bit of a charade, given all we've heard about him being solidly in the Gators' camp.

Not so fast my friend
A couple of thoughts on all this. First off, any way you slice it, losing Omar definitely stinks. He was a perfect fit as a 3-4 noseguard, and by all accounts was one of the best defensive line recruits in the country this year. Among recruitnik Irish fans he was a real favorite, representing the kind of exceptional interior defensive line prospect that we seem to rarely land. If you recall, when he first committed back in June, it was a real surprise (as we remarked at the time); he was supposed to go to Michigan, but visited ND on a whim and committed almost immediately. However, the fact that Hunter was somewhat of a "bonus" recruit doesn't take the sting out of losing him. With a better season for Notre Dame, who knows what might have been. I think it's safe to say we would have had a better chance of retaining his commitment with a better season on the field, especially in the game that he attended in person, the record-breaking loss to Navy.

All is not lost. This is the second year in a row Urban took a commit from ND, and as with Justin Trattou, there are rumors afloat that Hunter was encouraged to-- I won't say lie, again, but misrepresent-- his commitment to Notre Dame. Unlike last year, however, we've still got some time to firm up the DL. We've also got two other solid noseguard commitments in the fold: Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman.

Here's what Dayne Crist said when asked about Omar down at the camp for the recruit game this Saturday:
"All 20-some-odd of us have all our numbers stored in our phones," Irish quarterback recruit Dayne Crist said. "We're always picking up the phone. Truthfully, it's a daily thing. We've got great chemistry, and I'm not surprised on how we're reacting on the field or in this event at all. I mean, I saw that coming for months.

"Everyone was saying, 'Are you surprised this class stayed together?' We're more surprised that we lost one. This is an extremely tight-knit class. You could ask any one of these guys the same question, and they'll give you the exact same answer verbatim. We don't want any loose ends in the family. That's how we feel. We are a family and we feel very strongly about that. We're now brothers. That's what we are."

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year | by Pat

Without a doubt, 2008 is going to be a very interesting year for ND football. There are plenty of questions to be answered about the direction of the program. Will the coaches fix the mistakes from 2007? Will the young freshmen and sophomores have breakthough years on the field in '08? Will the seniors rise to the occasion and provide needed veteran leadership? What will the Irish do against a schedule that features only two teams that have coaches who have been at their school longer than Charlie Weis has been at ND?

But before we get to all that, we still have the final batch of bowl games for the 2007 season to finish off. So get comfortable on the couch, drink plenty of liquids to fight off the effects of last night, and settle in for what is, even in its somewhat neutered state, still one of the better days of college football.