Sunday, January 06, 2008

"We're Ready"

Yesterday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl showcased the best and brightest of America's high school football seniors, most of whom came to the game already committed. No team was better represented than the Irish with 15 players picked for the game, one of whom (defensive end Ethan Johnson) sat out with an injury. This collection of prospects either a) validates your previously held opinion that Tom Lemming automatically bumps a recruit up two stars whenever he commits to Notre Dame or b) suggests that while Notre Dame has had previous impressive recruiting hauls, this one could be the best in 20 years.

Whatever your opinion of their individual talents is, however you view the 3-9 program which they'll enter into this summer, two things stand out when assessing not just the 14 who spent the week in San Antonio, but the overall 22-man class: they do not lack confidence, and they do not lack that all-important intangible known as team chemistry. Witness Chicago (Mt. Carmel) linebacker Steve Filer, who picked the Irish over Ohio State even after being (in his own words) "an inch away" from choosing the Buckeyes during a summer trip to Columbus:
The 3-9 record did not turn me off...Actually, I talked to a lot of players and (3-9) turned them on. We knew who we had coming, and nobody wanted to change their mind because we saw who we had.
And of the New Year's gathering in San Antonio:
It's nice to get to know them before we get to school and things like that. I've heard a lot about them. It's nice to see who I'll be working with, see who I'll be playing with, see who I'll win a national championship with.
So, no, they're not lacking confidence. One of the interesting unknowns in recruiting is how quick a class comes together - are they buying in to the idea of school and program above all, or are they merely picking a football team that happens to be attached to a school which is merely a stop-gap until they're eligible to play on Sundays? This Notre Dame class happily falls into the former category, which is important when you consider how the previous season just went - it wasn't just a question of talent but also attitude and psyche.

Amid the deteriorating conditions, as Filer suggested, certain things about Notre Dame earned an even bigger appeal, particularly for one of the linchpin recruits, WR Michael Floyd. Speaking of his decision to commit the day after the most embarrassing loss for Notre Dame in the history of their rivalry with USC:
Sitting there and looking at stuff, I just got the feeling that this is the place for me. I didn't get a feeling like that from anywhere else as much as Notre Dame. 'This is the spot for me. This is a place I can have a career and keep going.' It was just a good school for me to go to.
Not surprisingly, Floyd had at least one discussion with Matt Carufel, his former high school teammate at Cretin-Derham Hall who'd departed the Irish just a week before the USC game. And, also not surprisingly, Carufel didn't paint a rosy picture. Floyd didn't care:
He told me I should change my options and stuff like that, but I mean, I told him, 'Notre Dame is the spot for me and I know it's a spot for me.' I also know not everybody has a good experience everywhere. I don't think I'm going to have a bad experience, like he did. It's just some people have bad experiences where they are and some people don't, so that's how it is.
The Irish gained another valuable talent on Saturday as they finished off a meteoric rise up the list of Deion Walker, wide receiver from Christchurch, VA. He picked Notre Dame over Penn State, USC, NC State, & Texas Tech. Furthering the spirit of candor among this class, Walker admitted South Bend wasn't the greatest campus environment of his five finalists - and that when recruiting began, he never saw Notre Dame as his ultimate destination. What tipped the scales?
The value of Notre Dame's academics is excellent, and I have developed a strong relationship with Charlie Weis...He is just a cool guy and really put in a lot of effort, calling and recruiting me personally.
And that 3-9 record, Deion?
They have a great tradition of winning, that's all that matters. I did not think too much about their disappointing season. We will turn it around.
This is surprising, since anybody who picked up a sports page, listened to a sports talk program, or logged on to a major sports website read or heard at least one editorial ran this fall about how detached Charlie Weis is from the modern college athlete, how his pro background leaves him poorly equipped to teach and motivate young men, how he's the most heartless, ignorant bastard to ever roam a collegiate sideline, etc, etc. Those things could all be true for all I know, but most of the players and recruits who've dealt with him paint a different picture.

The overarching theme of how this class came together, in reality, shows a lot of evolution on Weis' behalf too. Earlier in his career, particularly with his first full recruiting class in the spring of 2006, there were a handful of great prospects who also struck as the type of player Notre Dame had not been pursuing, much less getting. Nearly twenty-four months later, four members of that class have transferred while another (Chris Stewart) left the team for a weekend to think about his future. Rumors continue to circle that others might be on their way out as well.

Pausing for a moment of pure speculation, I would think the four high-profile defections from that touted 28-man class (QBs Zach Frazer & Demetrius Jones, plus TE Konrad Reuland and Carufel) involved partly playing time and partly a desire to reverse a decision out of high school that was based more on 'taking a flyer' on the "new" Notre Dame. How many times did you hear that Weis was luring in "the type of players Notre Dame normally can't get." Maybe there was a reason certain players hadn't been coming, and it also plays into how Weis has gotten more discerning, telling recruits 'This is not just about picking a place to play football.' Some of what you heard in the wake of the transfer rush - particularly in Reuland's case - was how Notre Dame just wasn't what so-and-so had pictured coming out of high school; that they weren't happy. There could be 1,001 reasons for that - Weis, the eye-candy (or lack thereof), the weather, the food in South Dining Hall, the playbook, who sits where in the locker room, parietals, not getting along with teammates, missing your hometown girlfriend, take your pick. There are reasons why Notre Dame doesn't work for every player - but every player in this class seems pretty clear that Notre Dame will work for them, on and off the field.

Of course, in the spirit of beating a dead horse, no update on Irish recruiting would be considered complete without the obligatory analysis of what went down in Georgia. Notre Dame's idea of "a commitment is commitment, no exceptions", got its first real test with relation to Buford, GA defensive tackle Omar Hunter. Hunter, who had pledged to Notre Dame in June, flirted with the idea of taking a visit to Florida, and finally made his intention to seek a new school public knowledge on January 1st, which must prove that just because ND went 3-9 doesn't mean they can't still lose on New Year's Day. Losing Hunter stings, partly because he seemed like the natural specimen for Corwin Brown's 3-4 defensive scheme and partly because he genuinely seemed to be on the same page with players like Floyd, Filer, QB Dayne Crist, and WR John Goodman - he was part of that group that really 'got it' with relation to Notre Dame.

That's what makes some of his statements explaining his reversal so troubling:
Just watching Notre Dame, their style and how they played, it doesn't really fit with the way I play. I am not really sure about the coaching staff there.
Hunter went on to say he thought Notre Dame's coaches were "great guys, and I love them." Then two days later he told the Chicago Tribune that Brown and Bill Lewis were "the best recruiters I met this year."

OK, so the coaches were outstanding and he really liked them, but somehow he 'wasn't sure about them.' Given how much he loves Brown & Lewis, and how he told the Tribune that the 3-9 record factored "not at all", and how at 6-1, 300 pounds Hunter has the perfect frame to develop into another brilliant run-stuffing tackle within the 3-4 scheme (think Vince Wilfork, Sam Adams, Casey Hampton, Jamal Williams), it leaves you wondering what exactly he's not sure about. It evidently all came down to a self-evaluation:
Apparently the 6-foot-1, 295-pounder has scouted himself as more of a 4-3 tackle than a 3-4 nose guard.

"Playing in a 3-4, I'd be a nose guard, I'd get doubled a lot," Hunter said. "In a 4-3, I'd be playing on a guard, getting a couple free rushes. I can move a little bit more."
Don't be surprised if this is starting to sound familiar, because it's almost exactly what happened a year ago. Last January, when Notre Dame made the switch into a '3-4 personnel' defensive grouping under Brown, the University of Florida and Urban "Just Because You're A Senior Doesn't Mean You Have Value" Meyer, went hard after New Jersey defensive end Justin Trattou (who'd been committed to Notre Dame since June) on the premise that the 3-4 defense would handcuff Justin's natural ability. Trattou switched his commitment less than a week before Signing Day, explaining himself as follows: "To see what those defensive ends can do and how they play at Florida is more of my style of play." One year later, Trattou wound up exactly where Meyer had told him he wouldn't want to be - as an interior lineman.

Not that Trattou had a bad year for Florida - he had 20 tackles and interception while ranking third on the Gators with 3.5 sacks. And not that he'll wind up having a bad career - he'll be an excellent player regardless of position. The question basically is "What does it say about Meyer when he convinces a kid to go back on his word under the pretense of 'that other school is going to put you at the wrong position' and then puts the player at that same position less than 12 months later?"

Given that precedent as well as the fact that Hunter, despite being completely sold on Notre Dame's coaches (at least in the 'people' sense), facilities, campus, and fans, turned his back because it suddenly dawned on him that he wants to play in the 4-3 and not the 3-4, it's tough not to pivot back to Meyer's mudslinging against the 3-4 (and by extension Notre Dame, one would suspect) as the primary reason behind the switch.

While losing Hunter takes a small bit of luster off the Irish recruiting class, it is past time to worry about who's not coming and stay focused and appreciative of who is. Crist, who's emerged as the ringleader and emotional center of the class, was the go-to quote during this week in San Antonio. He didn't disappoint:
Coach Weis wanted forward-thinking, smart guys who want to win a title sooner rather than later. This week has been about getting to know each other. We're ready.
As if to make that point clear the following day:

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